B3 Tribal Communities in India

Topics of interest for CSE:

  1. Definitional problems.
  2. Geographical spread.
  3. Colonial policies and tribes.
  4. Issues of integration and autonomy.


It is difficult to exactly define a tribe. There have been various categorisations put forward over the decades but due to the ever changing nature of the tribal people as well as differing levels of integration and assimilation among different tribes, these definitions fail to apply generically.

The criteria given by some anthropologists is that a tribe is a group which a competent anthropologist considers a tribe. The government of India follows in this vein and only those groups mentioned in the schedule list are considered as tribes for the purpose of affirmative action. A competent anthropologist may still consider a group, not mentioned in the schedule, as a tribe for the purposes of a study.

DN Majumdar defines a tribe as a social group with:

  • Territorial affiliation,
  • United in language or dialect,
  • Endogamous,
  • With no specialisation of functions,
  • Ruled by tribal officers, hereditary or otherwise,
  • Recognising social distance with other tribes or castes without any social stigma,
  • Following tribal traditions, beliefs and customs,
  • Illiberal to naturalisation of ideas from alien sources,
  • Conscious of ethnic homogeneity and territorial integration.

The definitional problems arise because exceptions (in large numbers) can be found to almost all of these criteria of defining a tribe.

Tribal societies are often marked by social differentiation rather than stratification. However, increasing cultural contact with caste society has introduced elements of stratification as well. These societies are differentiated on the basis of:

  1. By kin group and descent.
  2. By sex
  3. By age
  4. By rank
  5. By occupation
  6. By education
  7. By religion
  8. By language

George Ritzer says differentiation as a social process that is a precursor to stratification. Differentiation is a hierarchical system in which inherited or personal differences come to be the basis for fulfilling social roles and positions.

Tribes undergoing changes in stratification caused by:

  1. Political reservations. Leaders are more concerned with tribal elites than the adivasi. G. Shah
  2. Modernisation and government schemes for upliftment are being taken up differently.
  3. Sanskritisation of tribes.
  4. Ethnic differences.


Tribals constitute about 8.65% of India’s population. Tribals are found in all parts of the country except HR, PB, DL and CH. PU recently got its first tribal group in the Irular people.

MP has by far the largest ST localisation in India. Given below is a table listing percentages.

As % of Total ST Population
08.20% of Indian Population


  • Around 10% of the total ST population lives in the NE states.
  • Only 10% of STs live in urban areas as compared to the urbanisation rate of 31%.
  • Average literacy rate among tribals is 49% well below the national average of 76%.
  • Almost 50% of STs are cultivators and 35-40% are agricultural labourers.
  • Land alienation is a common and widespread trend for the ST populace.
  • STs have come to bear an inordinate share of the national disease burden. Representing 8% of the population, they account for about 18% of the disease burden in the country. Going as high as 65% in Gujarat in a 15% population share.

Another geographical classification policy was adopted by BS Guha. He classified Indian tribes into three zones:

  1. North and North-Eastern zone. Consists of the sub-Himalayan region and the river valleys of the north-east. Ex. Kuki, Lushai (in Tripura), Garo, Khasi (in Meghalaya), Naga, Lepcha (in Sikkim) etc.
  2. Central or Middle zone. The Chotanagpur plateau consists of the largest geographic agglomeration of tribes in India. Ex. Munda, Bhil, Santhal, Gond etc.
  3. Southern zone. Some of the most primitive Indian tribes inhabit this area. Ex. Irular, Kadar, Kanikkar, Malvadan etc. Another important tribe here is the Toda tribe (matrilineal society) of the Nilgiri hills.Guha skipped describing the tribes of the Indian Island chains. These can constitute a fourth zone. Major tribes there are the Jarawa, Onge, North Sentinelese, Andamanese, Nicobari etc.


B Janardan Rao divided tribal history into 3 phases.

  1. Pre-colonial. Incorporation and encirclement.
  2. Colonial. Invasion and appropriation.
  3. Post-colonial. Development and displacement.

Pre-Colonial Phase

Before the British conquest, tribals lived a separated existence and the only contact with plains people was through limited exchange of forest goods for agricultural produce. Due to increasing pressure on land, the tribals increasingly came into direct contact with plains people which led to their sanskritisation over time and incorporation into the caste fold.

Even the rulers of the Mahajanapadas had no direct control over the tribals and the only expression of their sovereignty over the tribals was in the form of tribute of elephants captured by the tribals for the king’s armies.

The tribals acquired caste identities over time and it is even conjectured that all jatis had been tribes initially (adi-dharma/hindu/dravida movements). In this phase of tribal history, their autonomy and independence were largely retained. It has been claimed by Indian sociologists like SC Roy that jatis and janas have co-existed since historic times. LP Vidyarthi has pointed out that in various Sanskrit texts there is a mention of tribe-caste inter linkages.

Colonial Phase

Summing up:

  • Revenue settlements make land private property and thus, sell able and alienable.
  • British encroached on traditionally tribal areas to bring forests under revenue jurisdiction and tribals under tax regimes.
  • Connectivity to even the remotest villages destroyed the autonomy of the tribals.
  • Monetization of the economy and new excise policy made for a cycle of indebtedness and land alienation for the tribals.
  • Increasing encroachments on tribal autonomy led to almost continuous tribal uprising in colonial times.

With the advent of the revenue settlements, the land which had previously been under community ownership rather than of the individual (same case as Indian Village) came to be privately held. Thus, land was made sellable, mortgage-able, and alienable. This led to massive alienation and migration of the tribals to the plantations of Bengal and Assam.

British administration was ruthlessly efficient in extraction of revenue from the tribals. They put tribal areas under the ambit of the government and taxed them too. In order to protect (and properly exploit) forests, new forest policies and acts (Policy: 1894; Acts: 1865, 1878, 1927) were brought out. Through these policies, forests were declared government property and as tribal ownership was not based on written records, this too led to land alienation on a massive scale. The forest laws were so comprehensive and extensive that each day a tribal unwittingly broke enough laws to end up in jail for a term of more than one year.

Where the tribals had earlier enjoyed their autonomy due to inaccessibility of their abodes, the coming of the British changed all that. The British developed connectivity to even the remotest villages so as to develop new mines, and increase revenue extraction from them. In doing so, they destroyed the autonomy that the tribals had enjoyed for so long.

With the monetization of the economy (due to cash payment of revenue) and the institution of a new excise policy, whereby private brewing of liquor was banned in order to monetize this head, tribals saw ever increasing levels of indebtedness and since land was now alienable, this led to progressive impoverishment. With the increase in the meddling of the British, non-tribals with an entrepreneurial spirit also entered the tribal areas with a view to exploit the simple folks. Overnight, the tribals had been reduced from owners to tenets.
This phase of history saw ever increasing encroachment on tribal autonomy and independence and thus also witnessed almost continuous tribal rebellions in one part of the country or another.


Post-Colonial PhaseWith the end of British colonialism, the new Indian state had to choose between three options available to them for regulating future contact with the tribals. The options were:

  • Isolationism. Widely known as the National Park Theory credited to Verrier Elwin. The Idea was to create large national parks where the tribal commissioners had full authority and leave the tribals to their own devices.

This approach was severely criticised on the grounds that:

  • Kept away from civilisation in the name of saving their culture & autonomy.
  • Reduced these citizens of India to the status of cattle/zoo exhibits.
  • Assimilation. Championed by GS Ghurye, the idea was that tribes should be assimilated with their neighbouring non-tribal culture.
  • Idea abandoned as it was cultural authoritarianism.
  • Integration. Approach favored by Jawaharlal Nehru, it aimed at the integration of tribals with the rest of the population on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
  • Forest Policy of 1952 failed to live up to its promise.

Verrier Elwin has classified tribes into 4 categories:

  • Purest of pure - Jarawas from AN.
  • In contact with plains people but still retain their tribal identity.
  • Assimilated as lower caste Hindus.
  • Have adopted full Hindu faith and modern living - Meenas from RJ.


  • Forest Act, 1865. Socially regulated practices were restricted by law.
  • Forest Act, 1878. Prohibited trespass & pasturing of cattle. Declared forest offences.
  • Forest Policy, 1894. Rights and privileges of individuals (usually tribals and residents) should be limited in larger public interest.
  • Indian Forest Act, 1927. Created the IFoS, SFoS, Rangers, Foresters, and Forest Guards. These officers enjoyed legal powers and were empowered to make rules for the regulation of forests and forest produce.
  • National Forest Policy, 1952. Continued British policy of concessions/privileges.
  • DHEBAR Commission. Stated that the alienation of tribals has continued under a nationalist government: “In 1894 they became rights and privileges and in 1952 they became rights and concessions. Now they are being considered as concessions only.”
  • Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Created to stem the trend towards dwindling megafauna in the country. Adversely affected tribals as certain provisions of the act allowed for relocation of people living in the forests.
  • Forest Conservation Act, 1980.
  • New National Forest Policy, 1988. It shifted the focus back to integration of tribals and forest residents in forest management, conservation and regeneration. It also aimed to provide gainful employment to people living in and around forests.


The nodal agency is the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Covers 22% of India’s land which is under forest cover of one kind or another, all owned by the government. The provisions of the act are:

  • Land rights. Grants land titles (patta) to people who have been cultivating it before 13.12.2005. Those who have patta but whose lands have been taken by the forest department or whose land is subject to a dispute between the forest and revenue department can claim title to those lands. Land cannot be sold or transferred to anyone except by inheritance.
  • Usage rights only, not ownership (usufruct) for minor produce which doesn’t include timber.
  • Right to protect and conserve.
  • Right against arbitrary relocation. No one can be relocated unless:
  • Must be scientifically necessary with no possible alternatives.
  • Local community must consent. Gram sabha must rule in favour of relocation.
  • Resettlement must provide compensation and secure livelihood.
  • Procedure for rights recognition.


The Tribal Sub-Plan, introduced from the 5th FYP onwards. Autonomous Councils, special funds for tribal development programs, employment, reservation in education, etc. are measures taken by the government to improve integration. The allocation under the TSP is supposed to be in proportion to the tribal population in the state. However, that is rarely the case. TSP suffers from problems of implementation due to lack of penetration of state machinery and the funds so allocated are often put to other uses.

The powerful timber lobby, sometimes with the collusion of forest officials, is able to circumvent the provisions of the FRA in practice. While for most forest dwellers evictions have become a rarity, they still take place.

Permanent patta grants to tribals, a responsibility of the state government, is progressing slowly. According to reports 45% of the claims for title have been rejected due to:

  1. Non occupation on 13.12.2005.
  2. Claims being made on land other than forest/revenue land.
  3. Multiple claims.
  4. Lack of evidence of residing in the forest for the required time.

Planning Commission Report, 2008 indicates that from 1951 to 2001, 22 million people have been subjected to development induced displacement out of which 42% have been tribals. It also says that from 1961 to 2001 the number tribal agriculturists has dropped from 69% to 48% and during the same period their share in the agricultural labour pool has gone up from 20% to 63%, clearly indicating to land alienation among the tribals. Poverty rate among tribals is 50% as compared to the national average of 27% and IMR is 86/1000 as compared to the national average of 50/1000.

Verginius Xaxa Report says that tribal integration still remains a constitutional prescription rather than empirical reality.

While classical sociologists considered tribal integration with larger society a voluntaristic process, and termed tribal search for identity as cultural myopia, contemporary studies on tribes indicate that tribal integration with larger economy and political order is mostly dis-harmonic. It gives birth to tribal movements and protests. The promises of equality, justice, and basic human rights given to tribal people have very little empirical standing.



Invasion of the outside money lenders into tribal areas who exploit the simple and unassuming tribal people. The following are some of the reasons for indebtedness:

  • Loss of tribal rights over land and forest.
  • Poor mode of agriculture resulting in deficit supply of food grains.
  • Ignorance.
  • Expenditure beyond means on marriages, deaths, fairs etc.
  • Fatalistic attitude and locally oriented world view.
  • Consequences of indebtedness are:
  • Loss of freedom and forced labour by creditor.
  • Alienation of land and its acquisition by creditor.
  • Prostitution and sale of girls.
  • Chronic venereal diseases.

Land alienation

Bhuria Committee Report says land alienation results from:

  • Ignorance of tribal people.
  • Commercial and usurious capital.
  • Utilizing the machinery of the courts. Ex. tribals lack legal know how and give wrong statements and are reduced to the status of tenants on their own lands.
  • Temptation of financial inducement. Ex. monetary inducements used by the moneylender sometimes make the tribal as a witness against himself.
  • Bazdawa. The tribal is induced to suffer a decree being passed against himself.
  • Complicated legislation.

Shifting cultivation

Colonial forest policy and the forest policy of the new Indian state theoretically outlawed shifting cultivation which caused alienation of the tribals who are dearly attached to the land and this form of cultivation.


A study in 22 districts of AP found that while SCs and OBCs were highly responsive to anti-poverty measures, the response among STs was not so strong.Poverty rate is 50% as compared to 27% for the rest of India.


More than 80% of the tribal population is involved in agriculture, overburdening the limited land. Thus, poverty and impoverishment is their lot.


Suffer from many chronic diseases, most prevalent are water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera, tapeworms etc. In the Himalayan ranges goitre is widespread among tribals alongside high incidence of VDs.


Part of tribal culture, but became a problem once the British abolished local brewing and established distilleries so as to maximise revenue. This leads to a cycle of debt and alienation as tribals take loans for drinking all the time.


Viewed from shelter, sanitation, aesthetic tastes and cost perspectives. Not all tribals on similar footing.


Formal education has never been necessary for a tribal to discharge his social duties, thus they are slow in taking it up (50% literacy rate). Also a problem as it takes away hands from the production cycle. Plains education not suited to tribal needs as well as culture. There is a problem of teachers being unwilling to travel to these remote locations to teach the students. Another major issue is attendance, which falls drastically as the sessions progress.


Average road density in tribal areas is very low. Development of roads must be seen from strategic as well as developmental perspectives. Road development for trade purposes takes the last priority in case of tribal areas.

Industrialization and urbanisation

Due to an accident of nature, Indian tribals are mostly found in areas of high mineral resources. Marx said that in the process of industrialisation the Indian tribal loses his original world and is unable to take advantage of the new world which only adds an element of agony and melancholy to the whole episode. Displacement and rehabilitation due to these processes also adds to the woes of the tribals.


Ashish Bose says these factors responsible for migration:

  • socio-economic exploitation,
  • starvation,
  • disease, and
  • natural calamities.Pull factors include:
  • attraction of employment,
  • better income, and
  • better living conditions.

Large scale migrations of a permanent nature are being undertaken by tribals of JH, MP, OD etc. to farms in more prosperous regions.


While some tribes are flourishing and growing at the average national growth rate, the others are on the brink of extinction. Ex. Chero, Mal Pahariya, Birhor etc from Bihar. Onge tribe from A&N Islands.

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