Practice Question – Write Short Note on Verrier Elwin`s views on freedom for tribals. (UPSC 2015) 

Approach – Introduction, Elwin`s view on tribals and isolation, The influence of his views, Criticism, Conclusion.



Verrier Elwin dedicated his life first to live with Maria and Muria tribals of Bastar (both groups belong to the Gond family) and then the tribals of the North East in what is now Arunachal Pradesh. Pt. Nehru had a liking for and faith in Elwin and many of our policies relating to the tribes were based on the thoughts of Verrier Elwin. Elwin felt that the tribals are a very special people who must be kept separate from the rest of Indian society in order to conserve and preserve their ethnic identity, their tribal social structures, their culture and their way of life. He strongly believed that contact with the rest of India would place the tribals in an unequal contest with the nontribal people and would expose them to virtually unlimited exploitation.



Elwin’s effort of documenting tribal communities is based on a conceptual  category used by the colonial government to classify what they considered “the primitive faction of the Indian society”. Most of these communities lived in forests for thousands of years, having occasional or sometimes no contact with societies extant then. Hindu societies and these communities existed peacefully, Hindus unenthusiastic to proselytize these communities which were outside their civilizational trajectory (except for the odd exception here or there) and the
communities disinclined to participate in the Hindu way of life. There was no pressure of population or development to disturb this arrangement. However, the physical isolation of most of these communities was compromised when “developmental” initiatives like roads and railways made inroads into their habitat in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leading to the enforcement of law and order in these areas which had previously been almost unadministered; growth in population also led to people moving towards the sparsely populated tribal areas. The inroad of law and order and people into these areas led to changes in the narratives of these people. Simultaneously, in the 1860s, the British encroachment into the forests where many of these communities lived led to clashes between the forest-dwelling communities and the colonial administration.



Acceptance or denial of the necessity for assimilation with Hindu society is ultimately a question of values. In the past, Hindu society had been tolerant of groups that would not conform to the standards set by the higher castes. True, such groups were denied equal ritual status; but no efforts were made to deflect them from their chosen style of living. In recent years this attitude has changed. Perhaps it is the influence of the Western belief in universal values which has encouraged a spirit of intolerance vis-a-vis cultural and social divergences. Yet India is not only a multilingual and multiracial country, but is also multi-cultural. And as long as Muslims, Christians, and Parsis are free to follow their traditional way of life, it would seem only fair that the culture and the social order of tribes however distinct from that of the majority community should also be respected. Assimilation, of course, will occur automatically and inevitably where small tribal groups are enclosed within numerically stronger Hindu populations. In other areas, however, and particularly all along India’s northern and north-eastern frontier live vigorous tribal populations which resist assimilation as well as inclusion within Hindu caste system.



The Government of India has adopted a policy of integration of tribals with the mainstream aiming at developing a creative adjustment between the tribes and non tribes leading to a responsible partnership. By adopting the policy of integration or progressive acculturation the Government has laid the foundation for the uninhibited march of the tribals towards equality, upward mobility, and economic viability and assured proximity to the national mainstream. The constitution has committed the nation to two courses of action in respect of scheduled tribes,viz

  • Giving protection to their distinctive way of life
  • Protecting them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation and discrimination and bringing them at par with the rest of the nation so that they may be integrated with the national life.

Thus by the Constitution Order 1950 issued by the President of India in exercise of powers conferred by Clause9 (i) of Article 342 of the Constitution of India 255 tribes in 17 states were declared to be scheduled tribes. Besides enjoying the rights that all citizens and minorities have the member of the Scheduled Tribes have been provided with special safeguards as follows:

Protective Safeguards

  • Educational safeguards-Article 15(4) and 29
  • Safeguards for employment -Articles 16(4), 320(4) and 333
  • Economic safeguards -Article 19
  • Abolition of bonded labour -Article 23
  • Protection from social injustice and all forms of exploitation -Article 46

Political Safeguards

  • Reservation of seats for ST in LokSabha and Assemblies-Article 330,332,164
  • Appointment of Minister in charge of Tribal welfare
  • Special provisions in respect of Nagaland,Assam and Manipur -Articles-371(A),371(B) and 371

Developmental Safeguards

  • Promoting the educational and economic interests of the Scheduled Tribes-Articles 46
  • Grants from Central Government to the states for welfare of Scheduled Tribes and raising the level of administration of Scheduled Areas-Article 75.



The legacy of Elwin is Scheduled Areas and Inner Line Areas which were kept isolated from the rest of India. Even today an Indian citizen requires a permit to visit a designated Inner Line Area. This would work where the means of transport and communications were limited to such an extent that this restricted the mobility of people. The Second World War, which brought a foreign enemy into our tribal areas, especially Nagaland and Manipur, saw the massive induction of the Indian Army in order to fight the Japanese and this certainly ended the isolation of the North East. As the war ended and the armies receded they left behind the merchants, tradesmen and other camp followers from all over India and they settled in the tribal areas. As a people they were different from the North Eastern Tribals and whereas a degree of interdependence developed between tradesmen and locals, a large number of exploitative businessmen also came in and certainly there was resentment as they began to exploit the tribals. Verrier Elwin would no longer be relevant in a situation in which tribal society was forcefully projected into what passed for mainstream India, in which the tribals were untrained, uneducated and not oriented to deal with these externalities which now impinged on their daily lives. The genesis of a great deal of unrest in North East can be traced to this unplanned intermingling of, say, the Marwaris of Rajasthan, Bihari labour and the locals in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, etc. Verrier Elwin’s theory of keeping the tribals isolated left them unprepared for all external influences and this has had a very unhealthy effect on the economy, social structure and behavioural patterns of the tribals of the North East. This is one of the major causes of insurgency.

The people of Bailadila were very backward as their exposure to nontribal society was negligible. Suddenly into this region was unleashed the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC), with its huge machines such as excavators, front end loaders, dumpers, large drilling rigs and explosives for blasting. The tribals had never seen such equipment, they were not trained to operate it and certainly they were quite unprepared for the influx of a whole army of workers from outside the region. Virtually in the twinkling of an eye their forests were destroyed, their land pitted and cratered, their rivers polluted, their homesteads gone and their farms rendered useless. They received some cash compensation but they were totally untrained to handle cash and soon the money was gone. In what can only be called an act of barbarism the tribals were rendered homeless, without work, their tribal society substantially destroyed because their social structures broke down as the people were scattered and their women virtually sold into prostitution. This is the inevitable fate of any group of people which finds that the cocoon around it has been shattered and the people rendered helpless by the relentless blows of external factors. Had India educated, trained and helped the tribals in acquiring new skills neither Baildila nor Pakhanjor need have occurred. India could not adopt a policy of keeping the tribals in designated reserves, nor does its Constitution allow it to deny any Indian the opportunity for progress and, therefore, Verrier Elwin’s thoughts ultimately proved fatal to tribal society.



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