Practice Question –  Comment on the growing assertion of tribal community for autonomy in India. [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Give factors for rising tribal assertiveness, Give examples for their assertions, Give the measures taken so far by government to ensure tribal autonomy, Suggest measures, Conclusion 



In the post-independence period not only does one find greater concern but also more systematic efforts towards distinguishing tribe from caste. And yet, till today scholars have not been able to arrive at a systematically worked out criterion. In general they have tried to distinguish one from the other on the basis of a number of criteria. It has generally been assumed that the two represent two different forms of social organizations. Castes have been treated as one regulated by the hereditary division of labour, hierarchy, principle of purity and pollution, civic and religious disabilities, etc. Tribes on the other hand have been seen as one characterized by the absence of features attributed to the caste.

Derived from the Latin term tribus, the term tribe means an inhabited place. It denotes a group of persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor. The term ‘tribe’ was used by the colonial government in India to categorize a large number of groups different from the term caste. The term tribe subsumes communities very different from one another in terms of demographic size, linguistic and cultural traits, ecological conditions and material conditions of living. The tribes are essentially ‘primitive’, and
‘backward’ in character. After independence, the term, ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST)came to be used to denote tribes who are scheduled as such under the Constitution of India. The tribal communities are distinguished from other communities by relative isolation, cultural distinctiveness and low level of production and subsistence. They are the native inhabitants. There are several terms used for them like ‘adivasi’ (first settler), ‘vanvasi’ (inhabitants of forests), ‘vanyajati’ (primitive people), ‘Janjati’ (folk people), and ‘anusuchit jati’ (ST).



The approaches to tackling tribal problems in India are torn between policies of autonomy, assimilation and integration. The tribal population has generally remained aloof from the mainstream society in the past. They have their own social, political and economic setup that is not integrated with that of the larger society. After independence, the constitution framers sought to maintain this autonomy through the fifth and sixth schedules of the constitution.

Ghurye, the father of Indian sociology has criticized the constitution makers for the provisions of autonomy that were included in the constitution. According to him, it works against national integration and would fuel secessionism. He also criticized Nehru for speaking about tribal integration (through the “tribal panchsheel”) while in reality he supported tribal autonomy as expounded in Schedule V and VI. Ghurye considered tribals as backward Hindus as, though they internalized the rites and rituals of Hindu society they were yet to internalize the Hindu epistemology like Karma, Samsara and Moksha. According to him, tribal and Hindu cultures have undergone cultural fusion.

Perhaps the most controversial of all approaches was suggested by Verrier Elwyn, who favoured isolation of tribes from the mainstream society. For this he proposed the setting up of tribal national parks where people from outside such as missionaries, merchants and money lenders are not allowed entry. The idea was that by barring the entry of outsiders, the exploitation of tribals and the death of their culture by interaction with the larger society can be prevented. Though Elwyn himself retracted from this suggestion later, the Inner Lie Permit policy that effectively barred outsiders from Arunachal Pradesh has created a rather desirable situation. Tribes like Apa Tani of this region, have progressed materially by embracing modern education and technology, but have still preserved their culture.

Though tribal areas are given relative autonomy and protection, they have not been without external interference. The Central Indian tribes are historically well assimilated to the wider society compared to those in other parts of the country. The mineral rich area attracted a number of mining companies who were able to circumvent rules along with state patronage in certain cases that has led to the alienation of tribal land. Now, in the absence of education and skills they find themselves struggling to cope up with the world. It is not just a matter of livelihood alone. The tribal population has a deep relationship with their land and the elements. By displacement, they lose their culture and the social fabric gets disrupted. They take up jobs in the informal sector such as in construction and mining. Assimilation with the wider society becomes a survival strategy. By doing so, they put at stake their tribal identity. When the exploitation and alienation of tribals go beyond a limit, they decide to assert their identity and even demand separate statehood or nationhood. This is perhaps borne by the belief that political empowerment can come only with territorial identity. Schedule VI with its greater provisions for autonomy can be used as an effective tool for meeting tribal aspirations even in central India (which are now covered under Schedule V).



Tribes have not moved into processes like Hinduisation or Sanskritisation as a whole group. The general pattern among them is that only a section of them move to a new pattern of life provided either by Christianity or Hinduism or Islam etc. If this is the case more often than not, can we describe some people of the same group as caste and others as tribe? Can one and the same group become caste and tribes at the same time? The empirical reality of a village where tribes form a minority and are absorbed into the Hindu society is extended
to villages and regions where they may not be minority and where even if there is process of Hinduisation, they may not abandon their old affinities and identity. Where, however, tribes have taken to Hinduisation as a whole, they have to a great extent molded themselves along caste lines. They have even identified themselves as caste and others too have addressed them as castes rather than as tribes. The Koch-Rajbongshis of Assam and West Bengal referred to above may be taken as a case in point. But the phenomenon of the group as a whole moving to a different value system is rather rare. But even where such thing has happened, it has not given rise to a hierarchical caste structure. The group as a whole tends in general to belong to the same strata.



Central Themes or Initiatives

  • Nehruvian Tribal Panchsheel
  • Tribal Sub-plan
  • Forest Rights Act 2006

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.



Complexity of Indian tribal population made the task of integration and autonomy even more difficult. Ethno-tribal sub-nationalism was another issue. Autonomy is desired so that developmental policies are organically evolved to suit the tribal culture and lifestyle. On the other hand, proactive measures should be taken to integrate them so that they can come out of the state of backwardness and isolation. Too much focus of autonomy might lead to isolationary tendencies. But, integration may pose a threat to cultural identities of the tribals. 




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