Defining a tribe


The number of scheduled tribes in India has grown from 212 in the 1950s to about 650 today. While more groups are clamouring to be classified as tribals to take advantage of the special status accorded to them, no group wants to be declassified. Many tribes today have successfully assimilated with the general population while preserving their unique identity. Then, should they still be accorded special status? asks Prof. Yogesh Atal.

Gone are the days when India was neatly classified into three geographical zones: Tribal, Rural, and Urban. Such classification is no longer tenable. While rural and urban are designations signifying the geographical habitat and the mode of economy, the word tribal is basically an ethnic category. The so-called ‘tribals’ live today both in rural and in urban areas. Of course, some of them still continue to live in remote areas that are distant both in terms of accessibility and connectivity. But, they too are no longer total isolates. Such people live both in their past and in the ever-changing present.

Social welfare agencies – both government and non-government – continue to lump all the tribes together. Tribes in India differ in terms of racial characteristics, ways of living, standards of life, literacy, and level of economic and political development. Even within the same tribe, one may find noticeable differences. North-East India which is known for its tribal heterogeneity is also the one that has more signs of modernity. People in the state of Arunachal Pradesh speak fluent Hindi and are most familiar with Indian cinema. On festive occasions they may wear their traditional attire but in their daily lives, people belonging to different tribal communities wear clothes similar to the rest of India.

The growing tribes

The list of tribes that are included in the Schedule, as per the Indian Constitution, was compiled way back in the 1950s on the basis of their listing in the 1931 Census. But there too, one finds a significant departure. The censuses of 1921 and 1931, conducted during the British regime, classified each named tribal community by the religion into which the members had converted and termed the rest as ‘Tribals’. They were also generally referred to as ‘animists’.In their enthusiasm to compile the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST), however, the Indian officialdom ignored that vital distinction of conversion and merged the entire populace bearing the common name into one tribe.

It seems paradoxical that while the treatment of tribes as “anthropological zoos” was rejected way back in the 1950s, anthropologists still continue to highlight their ‘exotic’ character and museumise their cultural products. We become advocates of “preservation”, almost as if we have vested interest in their alleged ‘backwardness’.

That original list carried 212 names of tribes constituting 6.8 percent of India’s population. Today, that number has burgeoned; the official list now numbers around 650 tribes. The new additions are the result of: (i) state wise recognition of tribes – the same tribal group spread over three adjacent states is classified as three tribes; (ii) granting of tribal status to groups who successfully agitated their cause and got reclassified as tribes. Even today, there are several groups clamouring for a tribal status and are willing to go down the ‘hierarchy’ from where their ancestors rose to an upper caste status in the Hindu caste system. This is an “unintended” consequence of the policy of special privileges and reservation. While no group wishes to be struck out from the ST list, more and more communities are craving for a ‘low’ status. With tongue firmly in cheek, the agitationists publicly claim that they are fighting the cause of their down-trodden brethren.

The government has so far failed to provide a good definition of Tribe and has come up with the following criteria to judge the candidature of a group seeking the tribal status: primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact, and backwardness.

It may be noted that these criteria are not employed for those who are already listed as ST. If applied, many of them, to be sure, will have to be de-scheduled. Similarly, the new groups seeking ST status are stretching the intent of these criteria in claiming a ST status for themselves. In doing so, they refer to their similarities to the existing ST groups to prove that their situation is the same. Some even go to the extent of seeking the ouster of the current groups from the ST category: they maintain, “if we do not qualify with similar characteristics, then they should also be ousted.” The Gujjars of Rajasthan in their 2007 agitation made such an argument against the Meena community.

The point is: these official criteria are too vague to judge the candidature of any group as a tribe. Anthropologists, however, unquestioningly accepted the official definition. This is rather unfortunate. The implication is clear: academic research is carried out along political lines without raising crucial issues of theoretical significance.

In this regard, it is important to mention the recommendation of the Lokur Committee which pointed out that “in 1931 and 1935, as well as in 1950 and 1956, it was acknowledged that every tribe need not be regarded as requiring special treatment; the list of 1931 was of “primitive tribes” while the list of 1935 was of “backward tribes”. The Committee was firmly of the view that “… tribes whose members have by and large mixed up with the general population are not eligible to be in the list of Scheduled Tribes”.

Tradition vs Modernity debate should end

We need to remind ourselves that while early anthropologists studied tribes as non-changing phenomena, there was an underlying assumption that these are already a part of the evolutionary ladder and are likely to move away to a different destination up in the ladder. A tribal status is, thus, a transitional status in the same manner as, for example, youth is. In due course of time, a group has to give up the tribal status and assume the status waiting for it on the next rung. In other words, we need to ask the pertinent question: When does a Tribe cease to be a Tribe?

If we took recourse to history, each one of us can claim to have belonged to one tribe or the other even after enjoying the status of a Hindu or a Muslim caste for several generations. We need to insist that there cannot be a path-reversal, of moving backward. It is wrong to assume that once a tribal, always a tribal.

It is in this sense, that the clubbing together of all statistics for the now eight percent of the population designated as “tribal” serves little purpose. How can we, as students of culture, accept such merger into an administratively convenient category? Are we not still thinking in terms of preserving anthropological zoos?

Whenever we talk of issues related to tribal development in academic seminars we adopt the tone of preservation and highlight the so-called evil effects of modernisation, and now of globalisation. I am of the view that there is a need to differentiate between the two concerns, namely that of recording for our posterity the prevailing patterns of behaviour and elements of material culture as part of human history, and that of documenting the process of change and transformation that various communities are undergoing. As cultural relativists, we must abstain from giving judgment about what is good and what is bad. Our study of the indigenous knowledge – be it about the stars and the clouds, or about herbs and medicines, or the skills of cultivating land – should not be done with the intent of its glorification and claiming it to be superior to scientific knowledge of the modern times. Where it is indeed superior, it must be widely adopted and universalised, but where it is mundane, it needs to be replaced. If a tribal patient is suffering from a malady that can be successfully cured by an outside intervention, it will be fruitless to propagate an ineffective indigenous treatment. As researchers, we should neither be the protagonists of tradition, nor adversaries of modernity.

Historians of knowledge generally fall into two categories: the adumbrationists who attribute everything to the past, to tradition, and do not acknowledge any novelty of innovation; and the palimpsests who refuse to acknowledge the shoulders of the past on which the present is mounted. Time has come when the fruitless debate on tradition versus modernity needs to be closed. Let us accept that we cannot recreate our past and live in it; and also that the present and the future require the foundations of the past. It is the amalgam of the old and the new that defines our present and would fashion our future.

A politically desirable continuity of the confusion should, in my view, not become the basis for objective portrayal of the existing reality. It is time that we, as social scientists, propose the definition of tribe as a transitional structural unit and focus our attention on the study of the processes of its transformation into a larger society as well as its assimilation as a subset in a larger social system.

It seems paradoxical that while the treatment of tribes as “anthropological zoos” was rejected way back in the 1950s, anthropologists still continue to highlight their ‘exotic’ character and museumise their cultural products. We become advocates of “preservation”, almost as if we have vested interest in their alleged ‘backwardness’.

Recent researches have also indicated that while cultural considerations are important we must not become advocates of non-change. The key concerns regarding the future of cultures are generally expressed in questions such as these: Will economic and technological progress destroy the cultural diversity and bastardize our cultures? Will we witness a return of intolerant chauvinism that would make cultures retreat to their shells? Will there be a judicious fit between the old and the new? Where are we going? Can we change the course?


Prof. Yogesh Atal

The writer is an internationally acclaimed sociologist who has authored a number of books and edited nearly 40 books and monographs for UNESCO including a trilogy on Poverty. He worked with UNESCO for nearly 23 years and retired as its Dy. Assistant Director General in 1997. He is among the pioneers in the social sciences to write and publish in Hindi, and popularise social sciences through the medium of Hindi. He is also a poet and litterateur. The writer was Member of the High-Powered Committee appointed by the Government of Rajasthan to examine the demand of the Gujjars for inclusion in the ST category. He now serves as a Member of the Administrative Reform Group of the Planning Board of Rajasthan. He is also a Professor Emeritus at the Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research, Ujjain and a Member of the Indian National Commission for Cooperation with UNESCO, Ministry of Human Resource Development, GOI.