Drafting the National Tribal Policy is half the work done

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Prof. Vinay Kumar Srivastava discusses at length the definition of the word ‘Tribe’ and the 2006 Draft National Policy on Tribals which covers all relevant topics related to tribal welfare. All that remains he says, is for the Draft to be discussed, improved and adopted with the active involvement of the tribal community.

The Draft of the National Policy on Tribals was released in February 2004, during the tenure of the NDA government. In the past, on many occasions, the need for a tribal policy was felt, but a properly formed policy document could never emerge. In fact, it was thought that Jawaharlal Nehru’s five-point foreword to Verrier Elwin’s A Philosophy for NEFA (1959) was nothing short of a policy document. It is well known that Nehru’s foreword has been the sheet-anchor of the programmes of tribal development and welfare in India. Then, in July 2006, under the direction of the UPA government, another Draft was circulated. The two versions of the Draft were scarcely discussed, which is an indication that tribes and their problems have always remained ‘decentred’, at the mercy of the State.

The second Draft, impressively written, is at least five times longer than the first. The Draft is divided into twentythree sections, each further broken down into points. It takes care not to leave out any matter of importance to tribes. If the first Draft meted out perfunctory treatment to tribal problems, sometimes displaying its insensitivity, the second is far more sensitive and responsible. It is pivoted on the theme of inclusive and holistic development.

What is a tribe?

One of the major problems in tribal studies today pertains to the ‘definition’ of ‘tribe’. The criteria the B.N. Lokur Committee laid down for listing Scheduled Tribes are: an ensemble of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the outside world, and backwardness. After recapitulating these, the Draft notices that ‘even all these broad criteria are not applicable to Scheduled Tribes today.’ It notes that tribal communities “…are known to dwell in compact areas, follow a community way of life, in harmony with nature, and have a uniqueness of culture, distinctive customs, traditions and beliefs which are simple, direct and non-acquisitive by nature.”

The above quotation from the Draft presents a frozen picture of tribes. Contrarily, empirical studies point out that no more are tribes in ‘compact areas’. The ‘community way of living’ has also broken down. Tribal families are moving out of their areas in search of jobs. Sometimes they have to travel thousands of miles to reach a suitable location where their never-ending struggle for survival begins. Tribal territories now have residents from various shades of life and strata, who not only demean tribal practices, but also take advantage of their powerlessness and gullibility. It is pertinent to note that when developmental projects are implemented, almost 40 percent of the persons permanently displaced from their native habitats are tribal.

The Draft notices that tribes are scattered ‘over all the States/Union Territories, except Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and the Union Territories of Pondicherry and Chandigarh. While these areas do not have tribes, a large number of tribals have moved to these areas, where they work as domestic and shop servants, rickshaw-pullers, loaders and coolies, vendors of newspapers and magazines at traffic junctions. Many of them have also ended up as beggars, destitutes, sex-workers and even petty criminals. The harrowing experiences of these people – of being underpaid and ridiculed and the constant beatings and abuses from their employers and law-enforcing agencies, sexual exploitation of their women and children – are documented in newspapers and research publications.

The de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities

However, certain tribes are victims of problems emerging out of their historical existence, leading to their stigmatisation. We have here in mind the examples of de-notified communities, and nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. Writers on tribal issues (and so does the Draft) forget de-notified communities. Their sufferings and episodes of de-humanisation are heart-rending. Being victims of the ‘stigma of criminality’, their community suffers as a whole for crimes committed by a few stray members or even when a crime was not committed by any one of them. The ‘nomadic’ and ‘semi-nomadic’ communities suffer from the same stigmas. The erstwhile relations of synergism the nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists had with peasant and farming communities have now become one of hostility and antagonism. No more are they considered useful depositors of animal manure, but a nuisance to the germinating or standing fields. The result is that each year conflicts, often bloodied, take place between peregrinating pastoralists and peasants.

Who are the Primitive Tribal Groups?

Section 12 of the Draft deals with Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs), a list of 75 Scheduled Tribes, created in 1973, who are supposed to be more ‘backward’ than the others. The following criteria have been used for their classification, viz. pre-agricultural level, dwelling in isolated and remote habitations, small numbers, near-constant or declining population, low levels of literacy, and economic and social backwardness. Recent data on their population seems to be unavailable, which is why the figures of 1991 Census are used, when their population was 1.32 million.

Regarding the criteria for their identification, the Draft submits that there is no need to undertake such a project, since currently there is no proposal to add any more communities to the list of Primitive Tribes. Further, the Draft suggests that since the word ‘primitive’ is ‘derogatory’, it must be changed. Retaining the same acronym, PTGs, it suggests that these communities may be called ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups’; but it also observes that this change in name ‘may be merely cosmetic’. The main idea behind Primitive Tribes is that these communities demand special attention because they lag far behind the other Scheduled Tribes in indexes of development. They are ‘more vulnerable to hunger, starvation, malnutrition, and ill health.’

It has been seen that the words that replace those which have ‘derogatory overtones’, in course of time acquire their own sets of stereotypes and disparaging notions. For instance, when the word ‘tribe’ replaced the earlier words such as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’, it was thought that the former was value-neutral, free from prejudices; but today, it has acquired its own images, like the ones that were associated with earlier terms. Ask a layperson about the images that come in mind when the word ‘tribe’ is used, and the answer could vary from ‘people living in hills, mountains, forests and deserts, far away from the “maddening crowds” to “people who wear feather hoods and bead and shell jewellery”.

The word ‘primitive’ should certainly be dropped, but not replaced by any other term, because of its likelihood of acquiring the same pejorative images over time. Rather, the existing list of Primitive Tribes may simply be called as those of ‘Tribes Requiring Urgent Attention from the State’. This in fact is the basic idea behind the concept of Primitive Tribes.

The Draft divides the Primitive Tribes into two categories, depending upon their respective degrees of isolation. This attempt is made to draw attention to their specific needs so that culturally-rooted and holistic programmes may be devised for them. In the first category are included those who are ‘insulated from the surrounding populations and are placed in isolated ecological environments’. Its examples are the Jarawa, Sentinelese, Shompen, Cholanaicken, etc. The second category includes those tribes (such as the Birhor, Chenchu, JenuKuruba) which are “located on the fringes of ‘mainstream’ population and have some contact with them.”

The first category of the PTGs is termed the ‘heritage group’. No such succinct term has been improvised for the second category. Although captivating, the term ‘heritage group’ should be avoided, for it points towards their evolutionary status, as if they are remnants of the first kind of humans who inhabited the earth. In biological terms it also implies that they are carriers of the primordial (and uncontaminated) genetic stock.

Moreover, it is utopian to imagine that the ‘heritage groups’ are insulated from the outside world; they certainly are not an ‘island unto themselves’. Studies show that communities of the Jarawa and Cholanaicken have come in contact with their neighbouring population, and gradually these contacts are increasing. Often, the Jarawa come out of their forests to the Andaman Trunk Road, demanding tobacco and items of food from the travelers. With respect to the Sentinelese and Shompen, though contacts of this type have yet not been established, they definitely know about the external world and have been periodically receiving gifts from visitors to their islands, who happen to be from administrative and research services.

Now the hope is that the Draft policy is widely-discussed and implemented. The ‘targeted beneficiaries’ wait ceaselessly for their lot to ameliorate. Such a state of disenchantment contributes to separatist tendencies and ethno-political movements. It is imperative, against this backdrop, that the Draft is discussed nation-wide, improved, and adopted, with the close and active involvement of the tribal people. The Draft covers a broad arena of economic, social, and political issues that confront the tribes. And the questions of what is a tribe and what is meant by this term, are central to any discourse on tribes in India.


Prof.-Vinay-Kumar-Srivastava

Prof. Vinay Kumar Srivastava

The writer is Professor of Anthropology, University of Delhi. His areas of interest and specialisation include work on comparative religion, caste system, family dynamics, medical systems, and anthropological theory and methods. He has also authored a number of books, monographs and research articles on anthropology and has taught sociology at Hindu College, University of Delhi.

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