TODAY -

"Tribe" in India: A term shrouded in uncertainty
- Part 3 -

Sanjoy Akoijam *



Many anthropologists and sociologists have also preferred the historical to the evolutionary approach in the definition and identification of tribes. Where tribe and civilization co-exist like in India, being a tribe has been more a matter of remaining outside of state and civilization, whether by choice or necessity, than of attaining a definite stage in the evolutionary advance from the simple to the complex.

The Indian practice of regarding as tribes a large assortment of communities, differing widely in size, mode of livelihood and social organization cannot be dismissed. They are all tribes because they all stood more or less outside of Hindu civilization at one point of time and not because they were all at exactly the same stage of evolution.

Anthropological and sociological literature on tribes even in the post-independence period saw tribes largely as a homogeneous category. The new Republic of India conformed to this notion of tribe, and government agencies still largely employ tribe as a blanket and undifferentiated category. However, over the years, the literature has shown growing differentiation among the tribes and challenged the notion of homogeneity.

In the wake of serious contestations as well as increasing literature that shows differentiation, it has become a matter of importance and we should definitely have a deeper look at the term. The process of designating or 'scheduling' tribes in India beg. during British rule and acquired a systematic character from the time of the 1931 census. It became involved in political controversy from almost the very beginning.

On the one side were the official anthropologists, mostly British members of the Indian Civil Service, who argued that the aboriginal tribes had a distinct identity that marked them out from the rest of Indian society. It was colonial anthropology which set the category of tribes as being "frozen" on account of being distinct from other social groups and having permanent traits.

On the other were the nationalist anthropologists who argued that a majority of tribes in India were part and parcel of Hindu society. In the colonial ethnography, the concern shown by the British administrators and scholars was to mark off tribe from caste. Hence tribes were shown to be living in complete isolation from the rest of the population and therefore without any interaction or interrelation with them.

In contrast, the main concern in the native ethnography has been to show close interaction of the tribes with the larger society or the civilisation. Both G.S. Ghurye (1963) and N.K. Bose (1975), for example, stressed the nature of interaction between tribes and the larger Hindu society and the ways in which tribes have been drawn into the Hindu society.

A prominent example of this clash between colonial and native anthropologists regarding the nature of tribes in India is the debate between Vernier Elwin and G.S. Ghurye in the years leading up to and aft. Indian independence. The debate between the two sometimes turned outright personal!

All these points of view, though apparently contradictory, have both been accommodated in the present Constitution of India which recognises that tribes are different from castes, but treat a majority of tribals, with individual exceptions, as Hindus all the same. This has been challenged recently by many central and eastern Indian tribes.

Notably, the Chief Minister of Jharkhand state, Hemant Soren (who is himself a member of the Santhal tribe) has said that their religion is not Hinduism, but `Sams Dharma'. Virginias Xaxa has observed that the constitutional provisions have in certain respects sealed the boundaries between tribe and non-tribe in present day India, and it has given to the tribal identity a kind of definiteness it lacked in the past.

Until recently a tribe was part of a regional system, and tribes from different regions had little to do with each other. Earlier, Ao Naga, Munda, Jaunsari, Baiga, Toda lived their separate lives without a sense of their common identity. The new legal and political order has changed this to some extent. There is now not only a definite tribal identity enjoying a legal sanction but a 'political interest' in maintaining and strengthening that identity.

The identity that was forced upon them from outside precisely to mark out differences from the dominant community has now been internalised by the people themselves. Not only has it become an important mark of social differentiation and identity assertion but also an important tool of articulation for empowerment. It has been noted by several scholars that tribal identity in India is closely linked with administrative and political considerations.

Hence, there has been increasing demand by groups and communities for their inclusion in the list of scheduled tribes of the Indian Constitution. There has been more concern with the identification of tribes than with their definition. This does not mean that lists have been drawn without any conception of tribe whatsoever. The problem however lies in the fact that they were neither clearly formulated nor systematically applied.

One set of criteria was used in one context and quite .other in another context. The result is that the list includes groups and communities strikingly different from each other in respect of not only size of the population but also the level of technology and other characteristics. Indian anthropologists have been acutely aware of a certain lack of fit between what their discipline defines as tribe and what they are obliged to describe as tribes.

The question about which groups should be accorded ST status has been contentious and controversial. Securing ST status means that members of a group would have access to highly desired benefits such as political representation, reserved seats in schools and government jobs. Over the years, social and political mobilization has led to the number of STs ballooning from 225 in 1960 to 705 today (with overlapping communities in more than one state).

As the number of communities clamouring to be recognized as ST expands, so do the number of people who question the legitimacy of awarding ST status, bringing the criteria of this recognition under increasing scrutiny. Noted local journalist Pradip Phanjoubam has stated that being 'tribal' and being a 'scheduled tribe' no longer mean the same thing in today's India.

Many communities in Northeast India are aspiring for ST status, including the Meiteis. In a region like NE India where tribal identity is quite strong, non-ST communities have developed a growing sense that they have been put at a disadvantage. The urge to maintain political power and landholdings, and the urge to avail constitutional benefits of being in the ST list are some of the factors at the forefront of ST status demands in the region.

Many of them maintain that all they are asking for is to be classified as STs and not a reversion to a 'tribal' status in the true anthropological sense of the term. And where there is a demand for ST status, opposition to it also follows- from those already in the ST list of the respective states.

Although they may give several measured reasons for their opposition, it is no secret that the main reason for their opposition is plain and simple- reluctance to give others a share of the ST benefits pie.


* Sanjoy Akoijam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on August 07 2022.



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