Scheduled Tribes: Definition and Problems of Tribal People!
Tribes of India are varied in terms of their socio-economic and political development. Some of them have changed through Hinduisation, and some through conversion to Christianity or other routes. Some tribal people are in the transitional phase, while others are adhering to their old lifestyles. This shows an uneven process of change and development among the tribal people in India. Only a small number of tribal people have been benefited by the policies and programmes meant for their development.
According to the 1991 census, the tribal population was 6.78 crore, that is, about 8.08 per cent of the total population of India. Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Bihar have highest ST population in descending order, respectively. Gujarat and Rajasthan have over 3 million each. Maharashtra has nearly 8 per cent, followed by Assam, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh. Lakshadweep islands, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli have a little less than 100 per cent tribal population.
Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have a negligible number of tribal people. According to 1981 census, the percentage of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population was 7.7 per cent.
Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Bihar have the ST population ranging from 22.97 per cent (in Madhya Pradesh) to 8.31 per cent (in Bihar). In the smaller states like Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya more than 80 per cent of their population is tribal. According to 1991 census, STs are 8.08 per cent and as per the 2001 census this increase is just by 0.1 per cent as it is 8.2 per cent.
Noted anthropologist L.P. Vidyarthi (1974) classifies the tribal people into four regions:
(2) Middle India,
(3) Western India, and
(4) Southern India.
The tribes, numbering about 450, belong to various racial, linguistic, economic, social and religious categories. There are differences between these tribes because they are at different levels of development and participation in national life.
However, in general, the tribals are economically, educationally and politically backward, compared to the non-tribal people. Despite the tribals’ proximity to caste groups tribes have their distinct identities. According to the 2001 census, the Scheduled Tribes form 8.20 per cent of the total population, whereas they were 8.08 per cent as per the 1991 census.
There are very small tribes as well as very large ones. Variations are also quite prominent among tribes in regard to their economic pursuits. There are nomadic tribes as well as the settled tribes engaged in agriculture and other occupations like the caste Hindus.
G.S. Ghurye, in his book The Scheduled Tribes (1963), writes: “The Scheduled Tribes are neither called the ‘Aborigines’, nor the ‘Adivasis’, nor are they treated as a category by themselves. By and large, they are treated together with the Scheduled Castes and further envisaged as one group of the Backward Classes.”
This is the quintessence of the constitutional provision about the STs. Obviously, Ghurye would like the tribes of India not to be treated as distinct social and cultural entities. However, to club them with the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or other backward classes (OBCs) or to change them would mean that they become part of the wider Hindu or Indian society, and this would do a lot of harm as this precludes their point of view or their need for assimilation.
The Constitution of India, under Article 342, states that the President of India may “by public notification specify the tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Tribes”.
The tribes of India, prior to independence, were considered animistic by the census authorities. Distinction was made between those who were Hinduised and those who followed their own religion. However, some scholars have opined that no sharp line of demarcation can be drawn between Hinduism and Animism. There is no uniform pattern of religion among the tribal people of India. The word ‘Animism’ was wrongly given a communal connotation while distinguishing it from Hinduism. One view is that Hinduism itself is an amalgam of the pre-Aryan beliefs and the religion of the RgVeda.
Variations among the tribes can be seen in terms of the areas they live in, such as the Aravali hills, the Vindhyas, the Satpuras, the Mahadev hills, the Chhotanagpur plateau and several other areas. Numerically, the most preponderant tribes are: Gond, Santhal, Bhil, Oraon, Kond, Munda, Bhuiya, Ho, Savara, Kol, Korku, Maler, Baiga and Meena. Some of these tribal people share Hinduism along with Hindus, and speak the languages spoken by them. They are not exclusive groups in spatial terms.
Some scholars consider the tribal s as autochthons, the earliest and the aboriginal inhabitants of the country, who were pushed to forests and hills by the invaders. Whatever may be the fact regarding tribal exclusivity, it is accepted that the tribes such as Baiga, Bhil, Gond, Kol, Korku, Meena, Santhal, Bhumia, Binjhwar, Mahato, Korwa, Maria, Kamar, Bharia and Maler have not only adopted Hindu pantheon and rituals, but have also taken up various versions of Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and other languages. Some of these tribes do not accept meals from lower and ‘untouchable’ Hindu castes.
Thus, a large number of tribes have a Hinduised section, which is evidence of their contact with the Hindus, at least in regard to religion, language and occupation. These Hinduised tribal people look upon themselves as Hindus. V. Elwin (1943) is of the view that with the exception of the North-East, all the aboriginal tribes should be classed as Hindus by religion, but be separated in terms of race. Several ethnographers have distinguished tribes from castes in terms of physical traits. These include Sir Herbert Risley, G.S.
Ghurye, J.H. Hutton and B.S. Guha. Ghurye is, however, of the view that the proper description of tribal people must refer to their place in or near Hindu society and not to their supposed autochthonism. Some are properly integrated into the Hindu society; some are loosely integrated; while some tribes are living isolated in hills and forests. Ghurye prefers to call the Scheduled Tribes as ‘Backward Hindus’. Those who refer to a ‘tribe-caste continuum’ hold the view that a sharp line between tribes and castes cannot be drawn. To call a group a tribe is, therefore, only a legal status granted under the law.
The tribes were alienated from their own lands. The landlords and moneylenders of the plains gradually replaced the tribal landowners. There were a number of movements against the British Raj and the Hindu moneylenders and landlords. The tribes were given protection in view of such an oppressive situation.
Ghurye lists a number of socio-cultural and economic problems of the tribes of India in view of their distinctions. Some tribes represent aristocracy, landlords and noblemen; others consist of the Hinduised sections of tribesmen; and thirdly, there are tribes and some sections from amongst them who are still largely isolated from the non-tribal population.
Ghurye mentions three ways for solution for the problems of the tribal people:
(1) No change and revivalism,
(2) Isolationism and preservation, and
No change and revivalism has been supported by Elwin, whereas isolationism has been advocated by Hutton. The famous anthropologist S.C. Roy (1970) was an assimilationist. However, today, a paradoxical situation exists.
Protective discrimination isolates the tribal people from the non-tribesmen, but in course of time this very policy would bring the tribals at par with the non-tribals. The dominant thinking today is in favour of assimilation of the tribal people into the national mainstream without any disruption. It is not easy to have both dissolution and assimilation at the same time.
Since tribal people are at different social, political, economic and ecological levels, their problems also differ in degree from each other. These differences can be seen in terms of hill tribes and plainsmen; between those who are engaged in forest-based economic pursuits and the ones who are employed as settled agriculturists; or between those who are Hinduised or converted to Christianity; and those who are adhering to an unadulterated tribal way of life.
Despite these distinctions, some common problems of the tribal people are:
(1) Poverty and exploitation
(2) Economic and technological backwardness
(3) Socio-cultural handicaps
(4) Problems of their assimilation with the non-tribal population
S.C. Dube’s five-fold classification of the Indian tribes provides a clear picture of the problem of tribes in India.
Dube (1982) mentions:
(1) Aboriginals living in seclusion;
(2) Tribal groups having an association with the neighbouring non-tribal society and also maintaining their distinctiveness;
(3) Tribals living in villages along with caste groups, sects and religious groups and maintaining their identity;
(4) Tribals who have been degraded to the status of untouchables; and
(5) Tribals who enjoy high social, economic and political status. Such a classification is based on the nature of cultural contacts of tribals with non-tribals.
The U.N. Dhebar Commission recommended that an area be declared ‘tribal’ where more than 50 per cent of the people were tribals. Economic criteria have also been suggested, such as dependence upon forests for food, primitive agriculture, agriculture and forests both as sources of livelihood, and modern occupations, particularly employment in industries. Thus, no uniform solutions of the tribal people can be provided as they do not share common existential conditions and cultural ethos.
The tribal people had a strong sense of community life before the British rulers and Hindu zamindars and moneylenders intruded into their lives. Exchange of goods and transactions at weekly markets and fairs was the basic mode of economic relations.
However, the British took over the forests on which they depended for their livelihood. The moneylenders brought them under their control by extending loans at exhorbitant interest rates and then by mortgaging their lands, alienating them from land they cultivated.
Indebtedness led to exploitation and pauperisation of the tribal people. Hinduisation has also contributed to indebtedness and exploitation, as the tribals adopted Hindu ways of life and rituals which forced them to spend as the Hindus did. Tribals occupied a very low rank in Hindu society after they copied Hinduism.
At some places, the tribals have been made to serve as bonded labourers. The Doms and Koltas in Uttar Pradesh serve the upper caste families even today. In Rajasthan, the Sagri system, in Andhra the Vetti system, in Orissa the Gothi system, in Karnataka the Jetha system and in Chhattisgarh (earlier part of Madhya Pradesh) the Naukrinama system are the examples of the bondedness of the tribals. They have borrowed money from the moneylenders, but have not been able to pay back and are therefore bound to work till they return the loan. A situation of emancipation does not arise as the tribal is not able to repay the loan completely and quickly.
K.S. Singh (1992) points out that agrarian issues are basic to tribal development in India. The tribal agrarian problem cannot be treated in isolation. Tribal people have to be treated along with other weaker sections of Indian society. Keeping the situation of Jharkhand (earlier part of Bihar) in view, Singh observes that the concept of aliens is crucial to the understanding of an agrarian situation where non-tribals outnumber tribals.
The class of moneylenders has arisen due to several factors, including the agrarian legislation. Alienation of land has resulted from tribal backwardness and indebtedness. Integrated Tribal Development Blocks (ITDBs) have not produced the desired results in the tribal areas.
Famine and drought have become a recurrent feature. The tribal sub-plan has been introduced to combat problems of famine, drought, illiteracy, indebtedness, exploitation, etc., by taking up special schemes for the development of tribal areas.
A study of the impact of the decentralisation of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) trade on the tribals of Jharkhand shows that the dominant causality is economic rather than political and ideological. The study refers to the control of forest produce like bamboo, Kendu leaves, Mahua, Kusum, Karanj and Sal seeds by the government of Jharkhand. The MFP contributes about 35 per cent of the state’s revenue from forests.
The takeover has adversely affected the institution of hat (weekly market), where the tribals carried out economic transactions, and also performed several social and cultural activities. Forests provided a collective life to the tribals, and this was being denied to them as a result of the MFP trade takeover. The tribals have been agitated over this step taken by the government of Jharkhand.
Per capita landholding has decreased among the tribals due to three reasons:
(1) Alienation of land due to indebtedness and socio-economic backwardness;
(2) Increase in tribal population; and
(3) Takeover of tribal lands by the government for establishing industries.
Land was alienated much before legislations were passed by the state governments. Today, even after passing such legislations, the tribal elite are alienating the tribals from their lands. The tribals have been displaced in parts of Jharkhand, Orissa and some other states by the taking over of their lands for establishing industries.
However, the tribals have not been provided with alternative avenues of employment. The compensation paid to them for their land was quickly spent by them without making any investment in productive and remunerative enterprises.
Some tribals even today are engaged in jhum (shifting) cultivation, which is not only uneconomical but also causes deforestation and soil erosion. Since the tribals have no alternative source of livelihood, they continue to use shifting cultivation and cutting of forests for their livelihood.
In protest against the government’s policy of MFP takeover in Jharkhand, the tribals cut forests on a large scale in the Singhbhum and other districts. Forest cooperatives can do a lot to ameliorate the pitiable plight of the tribals, but unfortunately the benefits from these societies have reached largely to the well off sections of the Bhils, Meenas, Oraons, etc.
However, significant achievements have been made by the SCs and STs in the field of literacy. In 1991 of the total population of the SCs and STs 52.2 per cent were literate, of which 64.1 per cent were males and 39.3 per cent females. As per the Census of 2001, the literacy increased to 64.8 per cent, of which 75.3 per cent were males and 53.1 per cent females.
The dilemma for the tribal people in India is the choice between isolation and contact. Isolation keeps the tribals away from forces of change and development and contact with the wider society creates problems of adjustment, cultural shock and disintegration of tribal social organisation and community living. The intrusion of outsiders into tribal life, for example, has adversely affected the institution of weekly market, dormitory and reciprocal relationships.
The institutions of untouchability, pollution-purity and high and low status have also made inroads into tribal life. The tribals have become to a large extent a ‘caste’ or ‘pseudo-caste’ by this process of cultural contact. Ignorance, illiteracy, superstition and poverty are the major problems of the tribal people in the Indian sub-continent.