TODAY -

"Tribe" in India: A term shrouded in uncertainty
- Part 2 -

Sanjoy Akoijam *



In many parts of the Old World (Asia, Europe, Africa, etc.) tribe and civilization had co-existed for centuries and were closely related to each other from ancient to modem times. In India, the effort to disentangle tribe from caste began in a systematic way by the British administration and it led to unforeseen results. Ethnographic material from India did not figure prominently in the general discussion regarding the definition of tribe.

According to Andre Beteille, the problem in India was that attempts were made to identify rather than define tribes, and scientific or theo-retical considerations were never allowed to displace administrative or political ones. Lists of Indian tribes were in fact drawn up, with or without benefit of clear and con-sistent definitions.

These lists are not only in current use, but provide Constitutional guarantee of tribal identity to those included in them. The communities in the lists are given some rights and perks that are not accorded to other communities. The number of communities in the official list of tribes in India also keeps on increasing now and then.

It has been observed that the test of language has always been an important one in the identification of tribes in India. There are currently 22 officially recognised languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Besides them, there is an assortment of several hundred languages, usually not counted as literary languages, and spoken by 'small' populations.

By and large, many of the 'small' communities associated with these languages are recognised as tribes in India. However, there is no hard and fast rule that languages spoken by tribes cannot be in the Eighth Schedule, for the list includes Bodo and Santhali, which are tribal languages. Andre Beteille made two brief comments about the relationship between civilization, language and tribe in India.

The Dravidian languages of India include not only Tamil, which is one of the oldest literary languages of the world, but also languages spoken by a number of tribes such as the Baiga and the Kond who were shifting cultivators until the other day.

The Tamils are proud of their ancient and medieval civilization which created elaborate irrigation works on the one hand, magnificent temples on the other, but their cultural affinity with some of the simplest tribes of peninsular India would appear to be beyond dispute.

Another comment is that some of the tribes, including a few very large ones, have no separate language of their own but use the language prevalent in the region they inhabit. This is particularly common in the western part of India, in States like Rajasthan and Gujarat. There obviously has been a loss of language in some cases but it is impossible to date this loss in most cases.

When the loss of language is accompanied by a loss of other cultural traits, a sort of invisible threshold is crossed, and the tribe ceases to func-tion as a tribe although it does not thereby lose its identity as a community. Both historians and anthropologists have noted that in many parts of India, tribes were not only recognised to exist but were given a definite designation: 'jam' as against 'jati'.

However, it is not easy to determine the exact meaning of the term 'Tina'. The historian Niharranjan Ray had noted that "in Indian historical tradition there were two sets of janas, one who are still recognised by anthropologists and sociologists as tribes and another set who were at a relatively higher level of socio-economic and political or-ganization and of aesthetic and religious culture".

It would be hasty to seek to identify these two sets of jati with segmentary tribes on the one hand and tribal chiefdoms on the other, but it is clear that some of them founded States and joined the mainstream while others either remained isolated or were pushed into marginal areas. Historians of both ancient and medieval India have spoken repeatedly of the rise to power of tribal dynasties in various places and at various times.

Some of these, like the Ahom in Assam in the thirteenth century, came from outside the current borders of India. Others like the Chandela (allegedly of Gond origin) rose to power from within. It is obvious that the term 'tribe' has been used in a loose sense, meaning different things to different people, but it is possible to reconstruct with a degree of accuracy the tribal origin of some at least of the ruling dynasties of the pre-British period in India.

The rise to eminence of a tribal dynasty did not lead necessarily or even generally to a radical change in the mode of life of the tribe as a whole. Only some sections of it would become Ilinduized' while others might survive more or less in their previous condi-tion. A characteristic of the relationship between tribe and civilization in India is that there was virtually no way in which a tribal dynasty could legitimize its rule without becoming Hinduized.

This meant, among other things, bringing in Brahmin priests and replicating in due course of time the hierarchical Hindu structure of caste. When we compare tribal society with mainstream Hindu society as a whole with its elaborate arrangement of castes, the sharpest possible contrasts are observed.

Tribal society is homogeneous, undifferentiated and un-stratified; Hindu society meanwhile is heterogeneous, differentiated and stratified. But when individual castes and sub-castes, which are the constituent units of Hindu society, are compared with individual tribes, a certain similarity is observed. Caste and tribe emphasize and perpetuate collective identities in strikingly similar way a caste or tribe may change its name and, within limits, also its mode of livelihood and yet retain its collective identity.

Traditional Hindu society was at one and the same time both hierarchical and segmental. So, it is no accident that observers down the ages have so persistently mistaken some castes for tribes, and tribes for castes in many parts of India. Sir Herbert Risley in 1891 was the earliest ethnographer to point out that it was a challenging task to draw a demarcating line between tribe and caste because many tribes had caste features.

J11 Hutton (who is well known for his ethnographies of Naga tribes) also expressed a similar opinion when he was dealing with the data on caste and tribe in India. The relationship be-tween tribe and caste has been a prominent subject of study in India. FG Bailey (1960) and Surjit Sinha (1965) pro-posed the concept of the 'tribe-caste continuum' in the Indian context.

According to Bailey, "tribe-caste continuum is a polar ideal type of construction, which implies that no known society precisely corresponds to the description of the extreme ends, but all fall near one end or the other of the poles or in between." The Hindu method of tribal absorption has had varying effects.

There is, at one extreme the indigenous tribes of the Andaman Islands - the Onge, Jarawa and others - who until the nineteenth century remained almost completely isolated from the mainland and therefore unaffected by it.

Then there are the tribes in the North Eastern hill areas- like the various Naga tribes, Zo tribes, Adi, Khamti and many others - who, because of their location on the frontier of more than one civilization, were better able to withstand the pressure to become castes, although the Ahom of Assam, now regarded as a caste, were once clearly a tribe, and the Khasi of Meghalaya, still regarded as a tribe, were developing a State with unmistakably Hindu features.

The tribes that have been affected the most by the Hindu method of tribal absorption are the ones in the interior hill and forest areas where influences from other civilizations, whether Islamic or Chinese, have been feeble or absent. These tribes comprise a large array - Bhil, Munda, Santhal, Oraon, Saora, Ju.g and numerous others- and account for the bulk of the tribal/ST population of the country.


(More to follow)


* Sanjoy Akoijam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on August 02 2022.



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