By Baisali Mohanty

The role of the aboriginal tribes as distinct elements within the population of India has been recognized by successive governments from the days of British rule to the present day. Extensive legislation relating to the ‘Scheduled Tribes’, the establishment of Tribal Research Institutes in many of the Indian States, the work of Tribal Welfare Departments and a growing literature on tribal societies ranging from articles in popular magazines to the scholarly works of Indian anthropologists all indicate the importance attached to the problems of tribal populations in India. In the post-independence era, the literature on tribal populations multiplied to a great extent which can be traced in the establishment of the Anthropology and tribal research institutes, University departments of Sociology and the Anthropological survey of India, these organizations were set up in most states with an aim of developing  these communities. However, the assimilation or integration of these communities into the mainstream has failed to a large extent. The recent upsurges in Assam by the Bodos and in Darjeeling by the Gorkhas are some testimony of the above laden fact.

According to the latest available census figures of 2011,the population described as Scheduled Tribes number over 10 crore out of a total population of over  100 crore.Thus,6.94% of all Indians belong to one or other tribal community, of which no less than 427 have been recorded in census reports.

Tribe as a social construct

The category of tribe was basically a colonial construction, part of a modern consciousness which was brought to place through the process of classification and enumeration. Unlike caste, no notion of tribe was prevalent among common mass perception until the advent of the British as Beteille points out. British used the term tribe to refer to a group of people or communities living in primitive and barbarous conditions. Further, the definition of the category of the tribe was consolidated with consecutive census in 1891 census, Risley puts forward the term ‘forest tribe’, which was thus considered to be a phase of socio-economic and political evolution. Later on in 1901,tribes were seen as groups which practiced animism, other features such as ‘hill and forest’ were also added up to the definition of tribe. Various features were supposed to be attributed to the category of tribe in different provincial governments. For ex, physical characteristics, linguistic affiliation, cultural contact, occupation and ecological consideration.

Several scholars as like Ghurye criticize this, as according to them religion, occupation and racial features were not adequate factors for distinguishing tribal from non-tribal groups. Thus, the definition of tribe is not easy to resolve, there remains no finite method of defining tribe.

To a large extent, tribes were defined as aborigins which figures out in the work of Risley, Elwin, Delton and several other scholars. Other terms also include ‘so called aborigins’, backward Hindus, ethnic minorities, fourth world, tribes in transition and other. There remains a constant flux regarding the use of ‘adivasis’ for tribes. Ambedkar who was one of the frontrunner in vouching up for the rights of the tribal preferred the use of Scheduled Tribe in order to secure more effective implementation of and compliance with the legal and administrative concession and benefits meant for them which further got legitimatized with the adoption of this word in the constitution.

However, still the debate regarding the use of indigenous to refer to tribes finds substantial grounds in India. Unlike in America and in other parts of the globe the interaction between the tribes and non-tribes in India is very different, therefore it becomes difficult to differentiate between tribes as a group from the whole population. The other most important point which creeps into the category of tribe is that of caste. Many scholars argue in favour of tribe being a part of the caste hierarchy in the Hindu religion thus encompassing into hindu religion the category of tribe. However, as argued by Ghurye and others, tribe remains as a separate independent entity not enclosed under any particular religion.

Further on tribes can be classified into two broad categories on the basis of their traits,

i) Acquired traits,

ii) Permanent traits.

Under permanent trait, religion, ecological traits such as residing in hills, plains, forests and language or linguistic categories such as Indo Aryan, Dravidian and also Physical traits and size of the tribe find a place. While in acquired traits certain subcategories are, mode of livelihood, degree of incorporation into the Hindu society and most importantly Elwin’s categorization of tribes taking into account both the level of incorporation and also development.

Evolving concept of tribe

However, the development agenda propagated by the Indian state has ruined the tribal development at various points in history starting from the British period. With the invasion of Britishers into the Indian land, private land acquisition gained legitimacy, alienating the tribal population from their forest and land, which brought along a huge transformation in their lives.

With rapid industrialization creeping in, the fertile land of the tribes turned into deserts. Development was never of the people who paid for it, but indeed was of the most powerful and wealthy of the society. However, the fifth plan was a phenomenal project, which aimed giving them access to better rights and spreading awareness among the masses at large. However as like all other earlier programs it paid more stress to the building of infrastructure, thus not bringing about any substantial change in the live of the tribal population. Only 20% of the entire budget on an annual basis has been moved towards beneficiary-oriented schemes. Tribals are being considered as the ‘other’, thus not bringing their issues to the forefront. In 1980s,off late the role of NGOs and voluntary agencies increased multifold, thus leading to the emergence of the phenomenon of tribal uprising at a large scale.

In the economic sphere, the formation of the state changed the economic structure of the tribal population. Peasants were encouraged to migrate into tribal territory as they produced low surplus as compared to the peasants who were equipped with better technology of agricultural production.

Further on, the advent of colonial administration paved the way for a new class of intermediaries such as ‘zamindars’, ‘jagirdaris’, ‘muttadars’ and ‘ghatwals’ between the state and the local economy.Post-independence brought on another dimension into the tribal population, allowing the economy of the tribes to assimilate into the national economy.

Development of the middle class among the tribes gave in another interesting shape to the tribal population in India and thus allowed some section of the population to be exposed to the national forefront. This middle class was well-educated which was thus facilitated by the activities of the Christian missionaries. Wide scale differentiation was the natural outcome of the evolution of this middle class and thus arose the politics of the tribes.

In terms of Socio-cultural transformation, tribes were rapidly converted into backward caste of the Hindu community, giving space for the ever-deepening debate about whether or not tribes belong to the Hindu community?

Absorption into the Hindu society is said to occur through certain processes, which are far from being uniform. The problem of sanskritization, Kshatrization, Hinduization creeps in.

With state formation, call was made for separate states for various tribal communities. The Naga and other mongoloid adivasi groups who had been demanding for a separate state between Burma and India created the separate state of Assam after the relentless demand. Similarly, in 1960,Nehru announced his decision in to the parliament to make ’Nagaland’, the 16th state of the Indian Union, after large-scale uprise by the Nagas residing in that area. However, the struggle has not halted, representation is still lying behind with tribal population being driven to the fringes.

Recently, in a speech in Nagaland, Rahul Gandhi promised that if voted to power they would build better roads for the tribal villages. It is saddening how in a country where multiplexes are blossoming, some section of the society are still leading struggle for food, water and other basic amenities. Thus the question looms large as to whose development is this country aspiring for, how will the country achieve such a form of development without its people moving on that path of development?

 The writer is associated with the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. She owns to herself various articles published in several International and National Magazines, including the prestigious bilingual magazine,Jasodhara. She is also associated with various social organizations such as the World Women Organization,OYSS Women etc.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind