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John B. Mundu
There are two streams in the understanding of the tribal
and indigenous peoples in India: 1) the tribal self-understanding;
2) the ruling elite’s understanding. The latter is headed and guided
by the country’s leaders and the anthropologists/sociologists who
belong to the high castes and upper classes and espouse the
sanskritising and modernising models. In reality both streams of
understanding deeply contradict each other.
The Ruling Elite’s Understanding of Tribals
When the time came for writing the Indian Constitution after
Independence, there were only a handful of persons to represent the
interests of the tribal and indigenous peoples. The ruling class was
faced with the existence of these peoples spread out in all parts of the
country. Three main theories (isolation, assimilation and integration)
were proposed to face the question of the tribals. The Constituent
Assembly chose the third theory (Areeparampil 2002: 242).
Accordingly, two constitutional arrangements were made. First, a
state-wise list of tribes was drawn and it was left to the Parliament to
officially determine the list of the Scheduled Tribes (STs) from time
to time. Second, the provisions for the administration and control of
Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes were made and were
incorporated in the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution.
The Fifth Schedule notifies and denotifies who is a ‘tribal’ by a
sheer majoritarian act of the Parliament and the Sixth Schedule
professedly protects the tribals. In practice, these betray a clear leaning
towards the assimilationist approach of the high-caste and upperclass
combine of the majority community, and policies and laws are
thrust down on the tribal and indigenous peoples. An irony is that
one remains a member of a tribe only within the state he/she is enlisted
and not in other states. This denies the identity of a person and his
community as tribal. Moreover, one has to produce a certificate from
the government to prove that he/she is a tribal, which is contrary to
the reality. The understanding of the tribal and indigenous peoples is
‘once-for-all’ fixed in the Constitution (Art. 342). Thereafter, it is
left to the Government to do whatever it wants with this group of
The perception of the Constitution is basically juridical and
protective in nature, but from the perspective of the rulers and
not the people. The history of the indigenous peoples and their
struggles against all types of groups testifies to their determination
to assert their distinct peoplehood.1 The monumental work of K.S.
Singh, The Scheduled Tribes: People of India, represents the
Government’s point of view. He writes: “Any discussion of tribes in
India has to proceed from the assumption that a tribe is an
administrative and political concept in India” (Singh 1997: xiii). This
work provides a comprehensive introduction to 461 tribal
communities found in different parts of India.
The common English terms in India for the members of the tribal
communities are tribals, tribes. In Hindi a section of the majority
community uses girijan (hill people) or banvasi (forest dwellers).
The Constitution of India uses the term Scheduled Tribes in its English
version and anusuchit janjati in its Hindi version. We have already
shown how these terms have derogatory and discriminatory
The Tribal/Indigenous Self-Understanding
What do the tribal and indigenous peoples say about
themselves? In order to answer this question, we need to differentiate
a-historical (mythical) and historical consciousness. These two levels
are not mutually exclusive, rather at one point of time one is
overstressed and the other underplayed. One is not to be preferred
over the other either, because each of them is on a different plane.
Ahistorical consciousness highlights that there is reality beyond
history, while historical consciousness stresses the historical
conditioning of reality and tends to limit itself to history. The tribal
and indigenous peoples overstress ahistorical consciousness in their
understanding of reality. Therefore, they understand themselves
primarily in terms of their being in contrast to other beings among
whom they find themselves. They use terms which basically mean
“man” (including both male and female). For example, the Mikirs
use Arleng, the Garos Mande, Boros Kacharias and Koayens Singpho
(Chattopadhyay 1978: 2). In Jharkhand, the Mundas use Horo (sing.)
and Horoko (pl.), the Santals Hor, and Hos Ho. In all these instances
the term used points to the meaning of human being in contrast to
non-human beings. But in relation to non-tribal fellow human beings,
they call themselves Adivasis, a term replete with the historical
consciousness of the people.
The self-identification of the historically conscious tribal
communities indeed uses the Sanskrit term Adivasi (adi = first,
original, vasi = dweller, inhabitant; thus literally meaning the first
or aboriginal dwellers) in relation to the other communities who
made inroads into their homelands. This term has found widespread
acceptance among the members of the tribal communities all over
India. (Among the Mundas and the Hos, this meaning is even reflected
in the customary laws of succession and inheritance.) It points to
their distinct identity, history and culture in the Indian socio-political
context. This self-identification as Adivasi corresponds to the modern
concept of indigenous peoples. The International Working Group for
Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) thus states: As Adivasis, “we are people
with distinct historical, political and cultural identities. We are
united by our histories as distinct societies, by our languages,
laws, traditions and unique spiritual and economic relationships
with our lands and territories” (IWGIA 2000: 395).
In spite of such powerful assertions by the indigenous peoples,
the government of India refuses to acknowledge the presence of
indigenous peoples in the country, by saying that all the tribals have
been absorbed in various degrees into the wider society. The silence
of the Indian Government delegation at the Commission on Human
Rights (Working Group of 1999) unfortunately reflects the ambiguous
position of the Indian Government in the international forums (IWGIA
2000: 402). In fact, “the Indian state and the Indian ruling class
have followed a policy that has tried to assimilate the tribal societies
into the ‘mainstream’ under the name of ‘integration’” (Lourduswamy
1997: 4). Integration is indeed understood as assimilation into
the majority community which rules the country.
The Adivasis or “the Scheduled Tribes are the earliest inhabitants
or indigenous people of the country, who were unable to defend
themselves and were gradually forced to recede before the invading
hoards of such people as the Dravidians, Indo-Aryans and Mongolians
coming from the West, North West and North East respectively, who
were not only superior in numerical strength but also in mechanical
equipment” (Das 2000: 1-2). Their traditional stories tell us that it is
they who cleared the inhospitable dense forest tract and made it
Regarding the Munda tribe, which would be equally true for other
tribes, Hoffman writes: “As far as we can look back into the remotest
past, we find the Mundas waging war against the wild beasts of the
forests and daring their deadly fevers, to ‘snatch’, as they put it, field
after field and village after village from the jaw of the tiger and the
fang of the snake. When they had thus (prepared) large tracts, hordes
of invaders, one after the other, always came putting them in the
alternative either to abandon their property, to serve on it as slaves,
or to risk their lives for its defense. And they are despised as a weak
and backward race, unfit to survive, because they generally preferred
to abandon to their aggressors the fruits of their labours, and to go
and snatch more new fields from more wild beasts in forests farther
away from the ‘civilisation’ of the strong invading races, until at the
beginning of this (20th) century, the few remaining forests of inner
India were closed against them” (Hoffman 1930: 461). It is clear
from this citation that, due to their original relationship with the
land, the term “Adivasi” appropriately fits as the tribal selfidentification.
Geographical Distribution of Indigenous Peoples
The IWGIA has highlighted the presence of tribal and indigenous
peoples throughout the continents of the world: Inuit 100,00, North
America 1.5 mn, Mexico and Central America 13 mn, Highland
Indigenes 17.5 mn, Lowland Indigenes 1 mn, West African Nomads
8 mn, East African Nomads 6 mn, Pygmies 250,000, San and Basarwa
100,000, Pacific 1.5 mn, Australian Aborigines 250,000, Maori
350,000, Sami 80,000, Russia 1 mn, West Asia 7 mn, South Asia 51
mn, East Asia 67 mn, South East Asia 30 mn (IWGIA 2000: 4-5).
Other estimates speak of more than 300 mn indigenous people living
in more than 70 countries. In India alone, there were 67,758,380
Adivasis in 1991 – 7.95% of the total population (1991 Census).
Only 9.95% of the ST population was then residing in urban areas,
compared to 25.7% of the total population. The STs are spread in all
the states of India except Punjab and Haryana, and over all the Union
Territories except Chandigarh, Delhi and Pondicherry, because no
ST has been listed in them as per the Presidential Order (Nanda 1993:
The tribal population of India mainly inhabits in the forest and
hilly areas of the country. There are 635 official communities (Singh
1992: 210) and many more unlisted groups of tribals located in
different geographical areas, speaking a variety of languages. In spite
of their diversity, the tribals are united at the level of myths. What
unites them all over the country is their cosmotheandric vision of
reality. In other words, they look at reality as a whole: the nature,
divine and human are understood as constituents of every reality.
This cosmotheandric vision is enshrined in their myths (stories of
the origins of human beings, other beings and the earth) and enfleshed
in their rites of passage and social institutions (family, clan, village
and tribe). It is also lived out in the socio-economic and political
activities of day-to-day life.2
The areas inhabited by the tribal and indigenous peoples are “the
entire eastern part of the Satpura mountain, eastern Gujarat, sub-
Himalayan regions, Central Plateau, Vindhyan mountain, Western
Ghat in the south of the Krishna river and the isolated region of
Andaman and Nicobar Islands” (Tiwari: 3). The tribal population
may therefore be broadly divided into four distinct geographical
zones in India: 1) North and North Eastern Zone; 2) Central Zone;
3) Southern Zone; and 4) Andaman and Nicobar Islands.3
1. The North and North Eastern Tribal Zone comprises the entire
sub-Himalayan regions, the mountain ranges of North Eastern India,
the Tista Valley and the Yamun-Padma doab of the Brahmaputra river.
The states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya,
Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura are situated within this area. These
seven states of the Northeast are the home of 182 tribal communities.
Arunachal Pradesh alone has as many as 62 tribal communities (Singh
2002: 293-4). The North Eastern hilly tracts are the home of the Naga
tribes. In Arunachal, the main tribes are the Akas, Abors, Miris and
Daflas. In Manipur and Meghalaya, the Kuki Chins, Lushais, Lakhers,
Garos and Khasis are the main tribes. About 13% of the tribal
population of the country lives in this zone.
2. The Central Zone is separated from the North Eastern zone by
the Garo and Rajmahal hills. This zone comprises the hills and plateau
area which extend to the river Ganges in the north and the Krishna
river in the south. Within this zone are the states of Madhya Pradesh,
Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Southern Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar,
Jharkhand and Orissa. This zone has the highest ST concentration.
The Central Zone has about 244 tribal communities. In Orissa,
the Savar, Gadaba, Khond, Korwa, Juang and Bhuian tribes are found
in the hilly tracts of the state. The Korku, Agaria, Pradhan and Baiga
tribes inhabit the Satpura and Maikal hills. In the Bastar district of
Madhya Pradesh, the Muria, Abujhmar, Hill Muriya, Koya and other
tribes are found. Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are full of the
Gond tribe. Therefore, peninsular India is known as the Gondwana
land. Rajasthan has the Bhil, Garasia, Sohria, Rawat and Mina tribes.
In Gujarat, the Dhodias, Bhils, Daffars, Patelias, Dublas and Kolis
are the main tribes. About 81% of the total tribal population lives in
this zone. Some scholars however classify the Western zone separately,
with the tribals residing in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa,
Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
3. The Southern Tribal Zone consists of the states of Karnataka,
south Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and South Maharashtra
districts. In this region the most significant tribes are the Chenchus,
Kotas, Paniyas, Todas, Kadars, Uralis, Badgas, Irullas, Muthuwan
and Kurumba Malapandarams, Reddis and Koyas. This zone extends
from Wayanad to Kanyakumari. 4. The Islands of Andaman and
Nicobar are the home of the Onga, Jarawa, Sentili, Andamani and
Nicobari tribes.
The Origins of Present-Day Tribal Locations
“How did the tribes settle down in their respective present
locations?” is a perplexing question. Our aim here is not to offer a
convincing theory but to point to the validity of the traditions of each
community’s wanderings in the past centuries (till they could wander
no more) to acquire for themselves a land and preserve their identity
as a people. Since the 18th century the history of the tribals is preserved
in their oral traditions. These traditions is their story in their own
language. There are works which have made an attempt to trace the
history of the tribes from the Hindu Scriptures and the kingly dynastic
histories.4 These attempts are from the point of view of the ruling
and invading groups or classes. We know how the tribes kept a separate
identity from these groups till today, which is seen in their religious
and social institutions, beliefs, practices and relationships, economic
and political structures, till the modern nation state subsumed them
within itself. The past of the tribals is kept alive in their oral traditions.
The oral tradition is found in the form of myths and the history
preserved in their family tree (kursinama), sayings, songs and burial
grounds. These oral traditions disclose two things: one, how the
tribes have been driven out of their homelands by the latecomers
who were superior in human cunningness and technology; and second,
how the tribes loved to struggle in order to preserve their identity
and homeland. The following translation of a Santal song thus speaks
of this story:
“For just one span of stomach
(just to get a little food),
Just to stay alive,
I have wandered from country to country,
I have travelled twelve (i.e. a great number) countries.”
(Quoted by Areeparampil 2002: 24).
Traditional History of Migrations
By traditional history of migrations, I mean the historical details
which the tribes still hand on today, now in the written form. Peoples
remain peoples in their memory of the history of their ancestors, in
which the factual details are not so important as the meaning of the
history. In the following paragraphs I will present, as illustrations, a
sketchy traditional history of a few tribes of the central zone.
There are many traditions of the Mundas which represent them
as a people wandering from one homeland to another. After the Aryan
invasion, the Mundas appear to have come and settled in Azimgarh.
From there, they migrated (rather were pushed out) to Kalangjar,
Garh Chitra, Garh Nagarwar, Garh Dharwar, Garh Pali, Garh Pipra,
Mandar Pahar, Bijnagarh, Hardinagarh, Laknougarh, Nandangarh,
Rijgarh and Ruidasgarh. From Ruidasgarh they moved southward
and after crossing Burumaghat, they arrived at Omedanda in
The traditional history of the Santals wandering for a homeland
is summarised in the following four lines:
“In Hihiri Pipiri we were born,
In Khoj Kaman we were called for,
In Harata we grew up,
In Sasan Beda we became septs.”
(Troisi 1978: 32)
After the division of the tribe into septs, the Santals came to Jarpi
country, a mountainous region. From there through the Sin Pass and
Baih Pass they entered Aere. They then went to Kaende, Chae and
finally Champa. There, the Santals lived in prosperity, having their
own kings for a long time. (Each sept had its own fort.) They were
under no one. The kings were persons of the Kisku sept, the priests
were from the Murmus, the Sorens were the fighters, the Hembroms
the nobility, Marandis the wealthy class, Tudus the drummers and
dancers, and Baskes the merchants. We see here a replica of an
urbanised Hindu society. (At Champa, several groups like the Mundas,
Birhors and Kurmis were all known by the common name Kharwar.)
The numerous Santal migrations continued till they were dispersed
to Sir, Sikhar and Nagpur. From that time they were mostly under the
dekos (non-tribals). Later on, the tribe came to Tundi and then to
Santal Pargana.
Another major tribe of the central zone is the Oraons.6 According
to their traditions, they once lived in Ajabgarh. From there they came
to Rohtasgarh. It was their golden period... It is noteworthy that the
traditions of the Mundas, Kharias, Oraons, Kharwars, Cheros and
Santals speak of them as having once lived in the Rohtasgarh area
before settling down in Jharkhand. Rohtasgarh was a dense forest
area. Therefore, different tribes as well as Hindus and Muslims wanted
to get hold of the Chotanagpur plateau, where several tribes settled
in different areas.
Racial and Linguistic Groups
The tribes in India are basically derived from four racial
stocks, the Negrito (the Great Andamanese, Onges and Jarawas), the
Proto-Austroloid (the Mundas, Oraons and Gonds), the Mongoloid
(the tribes of the Northeast) and the Caucasoid (the Todas, Rabaris
and Gijjars) (Singh 1994: 4; Tiwari: 6-7; and Fuchs 1974: 23-37).
B.S. Guha has also identified four types of tribes on the basis of
morphological characters.7
Linguistically, the Indian tribes are grouped under four
families. (1) The Austro-Asiatic family has two branches and 30
languages: the Mon-Khemer branch with the Khasi and Nicobari
languages and the Munda branch to which the Santali, Kherwari,
Mundari, Ho, Gondi, Kharia, Savara, Gond, Gadaba and other
languages belong. (2) The Tibeto-Chinese family has 143 languages.
Most of the languages spoken by the North eastern tribes belong to
this family, such as Khampti, Bhutia, Lahauli, Swangli, Lepcha, Miri,
Angami, Manipuri, Thado, Naga, etc.
(3) The Dravidian family. There are 107 languages in this family.
To name a few of them: Korawa, Yerukula, Todo, Oraon, Maler, Kui,
Khond, Gondi, etc. (4) The Indo-Aryan family has 163 languages
like Hajong and Bhili. According to K.S. Singh however, the tribal
communities should be grouped under five major linguistic families:
Indo-Aryan (191 languages), Dravidian (123), Tibeto-Burman (146),
Austro-Asiatic (30), and Andamanese (4) (Singh 1992: 223). In
practice, due to cultural contacts and the spread of modern education,
bilingualism and even trilingualism is common among the tribal
communities. In many states, a large number of the STs are bilingual.
Growth of Tribal Population in India
The ST total population grew from 22.51 mn in 1951 to 38.06 mn
in 1971 and 67.76 mn in 1991. (We were not able to get the figures of
the 2001 Census.) State-wise, the 1991 ST population was as follows
(in million): AP 4.2, Arunachal Pradesh 0.55, Assam 2.87, Bihar 6.6,
Gujarat 6.2, Himachal Pradesh 0.22, Karnataka 1.9, Kerala 0.3, MP
15.4, MS 7.3, Manipur 0.63, Meghalaya 1.5, Mizoram 0.65, Nagaland
1.06, Orissa 7, Rajasthan 5.5, Sikkim 0.09, TN 0.57, Tripura 0.85,
UP 0.29 and WB 3.8. In the Union Territories (UTs), it was:
Andaman & Nicobar 0.03, Dadra & Nagar Haveli 0.1, Daman & Diu
0.01, Lakshadweep 0.05. In the other states and UTs, nobody was
scheduled as ST (Nanda 1993: 190-6; and Tiwari: 7-8). The percentage
of the STs to the population of the state/UT was highest in Mizoram
(94.7), followed by Lakshadweep (93.8), Meghalaya (85.5) and Dadra
and Nagar Haveli (79). The lowest percentages were in UP (0.2),
followed by Kerala (1.1) and TN (1.0). Among the 15 major states,
MP has the largest percentage of ST population (23.3), followed by
Orissa (22.2), Gujarat (14.9), Assam (12.8), and Rajasthan (12.4).
The Need for Change
We have looked at the tribal and indigenous peoples in India from
their perspective in the present socio-political context. The tribal and
indigenous peoples are part and parcel of India and its Constitution
is valid in relation to their relationships with the rest of the community.
Nevertheless, due to the unscrupulous attitudes of the majority
community, the tribals’ neighbours and the Government officials, the
tribal and indigenous peoples’ situation is getting worse in
comparison to that of the general population. They are facing the
loss of their identity and basic human dignity as well as of their
ancestral homelands and means of livelihood through the
government policies and programmes in the name of ‘national
integration’ and development.
No amount of expenditure in the name of the development of the
tribal and indigenous peoples will help them – unless there is a
radical transformation of the repressive and unethical
assimilationist policies of social engineering, economic
development and political governance which are made by the
caste-minded high-class ruling elite of the country. All the
‘civilisations’ of the world which have come and gone were built on
the homeland of the tribal and indigenous peoples. Will the people
of the world and India realise that they can no longer feed
themselves on the tribal and indigenous peoples and remain
prosperous for long?
. The tribal struggles to maintain their identity were ruthlessly crushed
both before and after Independence in India. See Jagadish Chandra Jha,
The Tribal Revolt of Chotanagpur 1831-1832, Kaship Jayaswal Research
Institute, Patna, 1987; and A.C. Mittal and J.B. Sharma (eds.), Tribal
Movement, Politics and Religion in India, 3 Vols., Radha Publications, New
Delhi, 1998. . John B. Mundu, The Ho Christian Community..., Media
House, Delhi, 2003 especially chapters 2-4. . K.S. Singh (1994: 1212-28)
gives a list of the 635 tribes of India with an ethnographic description. . One
such work is that of Mamata Choudhary, Tribes of Ancient India, Indian
Museum, Calcutta, 1977. This book looks at the tribes from the perspective
of caste-based Hindu society. . For details, see for example S.C. Roy, The
Mundas and Their Country, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1970; J.B.
Hoffman, Encyclopedia Mundarica, Vols. 1-16, Gyan Publishing House,
1990 reprint; and E.T. Dalton, Tribal History of Eastern India, New Delhi,
1973, reprint, which considers many main tribes of the central zone. On the
Kharias, see S.C. Roy and R.C. Roy, The Kharias, Man in India Office,
Ranchi, 1937, and Antony Doongdoong, The Kharias of Chotanagpur,
Ranchi, 1981. . For details, see S.C. Roy, Oraon Religion and Customs,
Man in India Office, Ranchi, 1928, reprint 1972. . B.S. Guha, in Census of
India 1931, Vol. I, Part III-A & B, Manager of Publications, Delhi, 1935.
. Areeparampil Mathew, 2002, Struggle for Swaraj: A History of Adivasi
Movements in Jharkhand, Tribal Training and Research Centre, Chaibasa.
. Bodding P.O., 2001, Traditions and Institutions of the Santals, Gyan
Publishing House, New Delhi, reprint. . Chattopadhyay Kamladevi, 1978,
Tribalism in India, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. . Das S.T., 2000,
Life Style: Indian Tribes: Locational Practice, Vol. 1, Gyan Publishing House,
New Delhi. . Fuchs Stephen, 1974, The Aboriginal Tribes of India,
Macmillan, Delhi. . Hutton J.H., 1986, Census of India 1931: With Complete
Survey of Tribal Life and Systems, Gyan Publishing House, Delhi, Vols. 1-3.
. IWGIA (International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs), 2000, The
Indigenous World, Copenhagen. . Lourdusamy Stan, 1997, Jharkhand’s
Claim for Self-Rule, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. . Nanda Amulya
Ratna, Census of India 1991, Paper 1 of 1993, Abstract for SCs and STs,
The Controller of Publications, Delhi, especially 190-6.
. Sachchidananda
& R.R. Prasad (eds.), 1998, Encyclopedic Profile of Indian Tribes, Vols. 1-
4, Discovery Publishing House, New Delhi. . Singh K.S., 1997, The
Scheduled Tribes, People of India, National Series Vol. 3, Oxford University
Press. . -- --, 2002, People of India: An Introduction, National Series Vol.
1, ibid. . Tiwari R.K., in Anand Bhusan et al., The Tribal Scene in
Jharkhand, Novelty and Company, Patna. . Troisi Joseph, 1978, Tribal
Religion, Manohar Publication, New Delhi. . -- --, 1979, The Santals:
Readings in Tribal Life, Vols. 1-10 (mimeograph), Indian Social Institute,
New Delhi.
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