The Concept of Tribe

  1. The Constitution of India gives recognition to a category of people designated as the Scheduled Tribes and makes special provisions for their political representation and their economic and social welfare. Anthropologists have since the time of Lewis Morgan argued about the definition of tribe but very little account has been taken of the tribal communities of India. 19th century scholars viewed tribal societies in the light of evolutionary theory. This was true for the anthropologists like Lewis Morgan but also of historians like Fustel de Coulanges. Morgan sought to demonstrate the stages of social evolution by the comparison of contemporary primitive societies. Fustel reconstructed the transformation of Greek and Roman society from a primitive to an advanced type. IN all of this the tribe represented a type of social organization as well as a stage in social evolution.
  2. The evolutionary perspective has been revived in the writings of Marshall Sahlins and in Godelier’s critique of Sahlins. Godelier goes back to the writings of Morgan to argue that we can understand the tribe as a type of social organization only if we view it as a stage in social evolution. The trouble with 19th evolutionists was that they too readily believed that the development of a more complex or a more advanced type of society led automatically to the effacement of the tribal type. It is a truism that tribe has preceded state and civilization on the broad scale of social evolution.
  3. In his first essay Sahlins had considered a segmentary structure to be the defining feature of the tribe as a type of society. The significance of segmentary political system was brought to light by British social anthropologists who had worked in Africa. The initial effect of the publication of African Social Systems was to highlight the differences between centralized and segmentary societies characterized by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard as societies of Group A and Group B. However it soon became apparent that the distinction between the tribe as segmentary system and the tribe as chiefdom is relative than absolute. Gluckman published his authoritative work in which he had argued that the difference between tribes organized under chiefs and those which lack chiefs is not as great as it appears to be.
  4. Morgan anthropologists have learnt to distinguish analytically between the band the segmentary system and the chiefdom. But they have continued by and large to apply the same term tribe to all the three. The several hundred units that comprise the Scheduled Tribes of India cover all the modes of tribal organization from the band to the chiefdom. This goes back to 19th century when the tribal areas began to be systematically opened up by the colonial administration. At the beginning of 19th century the mix of the different modes of tribal organization among those who comprise the STs of today was different. Bands of hunters and gatherers still exist among the Andaman Islanders or on the mainland among the Birhors were more common then now. The segmentary mode of tribal organization was also more common in Orissa, MR Bihar and other areas. But there were chiefdorns as well in addition to these. Geographical spread / Issues of integration and autonomy.
  5. Tribal society faces problem in the context of Indian society. There is first of all the problem of discriminating among related and overlapping modes of tribal organization. There is also problem of drawing clear lines of demarcation between tribal and non-tribal society. In India the encounters between tribe and civilization have taken place under historical conditions of a radically different sort. The co-existence of tribe and civilization and their mutual interaction go back to the beginnings of recorded history and earlier. Tribes have existed at the margins of Hindu civilization from time immemorial and these margins have always been vague, uncertain and fluctuating. Hindu civilization acknowledged the distinction between tribe and caste in the distinction between tribe and caste in the distinction between two kinds of communities,Jana and jati, one confined to the isolation of hills and forests and the other settled in villages and towns with a more elaborate division of labour. The transformation of tribes into castes has been documented by a large number of anthropologists and historians.
  6. The tribe as a mode of organization has always differed from the caste-based mode of organization. But tribes are not always easy to distinguish from castes particularly at the margins where the two modes of organization meet. The distinctive condition of the tribe in India has been its isolation mainly in the interior hills and forests but also in the frontier areas. By and large the tribal communities are those which were either left behind in these ecological niches or pushed back into them in course of the expansion of state and civilization. The isolation of the tribal communities is and always has been a matter of degree. Some tribes have been more isolated than others but at least in the interior areas where the bulk of the tribal population is to found none has been completely free from the influence of civilization. Their isolation whether self imposed or imposed by others blocked the growth of their material culture but it also enabled them to retain their distinctive modes of speech. Today the most single indicator of the distinction between tribe and caste is the language. The castes speak one or another of the major literary languages; each tribe has its own distinctive dialect which might differ fundamentally from the prevalent regional language. But sometimes this distinction does not work as there are many tribes in western India including the Bhills who do not have any language of their own and adopted the language of the region.


  1. In India, Tribe is name given to 8% population, internally segmented and externally different from each other and carries different racial linguistic and cultural identity. The people of India report has recognized 636 tribal groups in India.
  2. D.N Majumdar defines tribe as a social group with territorial affiliation, endogamous with no specialization of functions ruled by tribal officers hereditary or otherwise, united in language or dialect recognizing social distance with other tribes or castes. According to Ralph Linton tribe is a group of bands occupying a contiguous territory or territories and having a feeling of unity deriving from numerous similarities in a culture, frequent contacts and a certain community of interests.
  3. LM Lewis believes that tribal societies are small in scale are restricted in the spatial and temporal range of their social legal and political relations and possess a morality, a religion and world view of corresponding dimensions. Characteristically too tribal languages are unwritten and hence the extent of communication both in time and space is inevitably narrow. At the same time tribal societies exhibit a remarkable economy of design and have a compactness and self-sufficiency lacking in modern society.

T.B Naik has given the following features of tribes in Indian context :

  1. A tribe should have least functional interdependence within the community.
  2. It should be economically backward (i.e. primitive means of exploiting natural resources, tribal economy should be at an underdeveloped stage and it should have multifarious economic pursuits).
  3. There should be a comparative geographical isolation of its people.
  4. They should have a common dialect.
  5. Tribes should be politically organized and community panchayat should be influential.
  6. A tribe should have customary laws.

Naik argues that for a community to be a tribe it should possess all the above mentioned characteristics and a very high level of acculturation with outside society debars it from being a tribe. Thus term usually denotes a social group bound together by kin and duty and associated with a particular territory.

  1. In colonial period the concept of tribe was introduced by the administration to understand the numerical strength of different cultural communities. Study of Gonds, Oraons, Nagas, Andaman Islanders, Todas, Baigas by different colonial and Indian scholars indicated that tribes practiced distinctive culture, religion, way of life, mode of production which is quite primitive. Hutton calls them as Aborigines while Verrier Elwin calls them Aboriginals. According to L.P. Vidyarthi, this period was “formative stage of Indian anthropology. During this period Indian anthropologists like S.C. Roy, N.K. bose D.N. Majumdar evolved the concept of “Trbie-caste continuous”. S.C. Dube indicates that “Great tradition” of tribalism always develops of harmonic relationship. Anthropological studies in 1940 to 70 indicates that the tribes should be studied in civilization scale, in terms of proximity to caste communities. G.S. Ghurye called them “Backward Hindus”. A.R. Desai classifies tribe into purest of pure tribes, partially assimilated fully assimilated and aristocratic tribes. S.C. dube accepting this scale indicates that “accoutered tribes” are numerous as against “encultured tribes”.
  2. Further, Surjeet Sinha argues about Tribe-Caste and Tribe-Peasant continuum. In his opinion, transformation of tribal economy into peasant economy is more important So Tribe-Caste difference is both cultural and economic.
  3. Supporting this view F.G. Bailey in study of khond tribe says, Tribal economy is technological and caste economy is institutional Hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation are major traits of tribal economy. Therefore, it is technological economy. While in caste economy, caste defines occupation, Jajmani system and hereditary bias. So it is institutional economy. Haffman also supported this argument He says tribal economy is driven by Mechanical solidarity and caste economy is driven by organic solidarity. Therefore tribal progressive movement towards caste should not be studied only in terms of acculturation, but in terms of technological adaptation and Changing mode of production. All these explanation to tribes with respect to caste culture and caste economy is being considered as caste specific understanding of tribes.
  4. Apart from this, Andre Beteille in his view on, definition problem of tribes says. In case of America and Australia it is easy to distinguish between tribes and non tribes with respect to face, occupation, language habitat, teaching and way of life. There is distinction in terms of use of identities such as Aboriginals and immigrants/colonizers. But in India, people belonging to tribes are differently influenced by different cultures. Munda of Bihar is different from munda of Bengal though they belong to same tribes, hence defining tribe is academic problem in Indian sociology, therefore in India, she/he is who identifies himself/herself a tribe.
  5. Jaganath pathy in his analysis, rejects classical understand standing of tribes from view point of caste. He indicates that tribes need to be understand as an ethinic group Rejecting Beteille’s view the indicates that common consciousness can bring different tribes with different languages, occupation together, for example, 18 groups of Nagas have come together to search of common political identity.
  6. Founding fathers of constitution were aware of definitional problem but they more emphasized on developmental issuse of tribes. Jawaharlal Nehru pointed out that there are tribes in India who need to be related with larger economy and political life. So his approach was that of tribal development Who are the tribes is matter of academic interest and what can be done is matter of state, therefore he suggested tribal panchashed. Where
    • Tribal development should take place on the basis of exploration of their own genius.
    • Tribes should be trained to participate in mainstream economic and political activities.
    • No development project should be installed which is alien to local communities.
    • Every tribal policy should be receiving inputs from need of local Communities.
    • Success of tribal development programme should not be assessed on the basis of quantum of money spent.

Rather it should be assessed on the basis of number of national characters developed.

Therefore commission to identify tribes were instituted and constitution guaranteed for these protection, livedihood equality and compensation.

Characteristics of Tribal Society

  1. The tribe inhabits and remains within definite and common topography. The members of a tribe possess a consciousness of mutual unity. The members of a tribe speak a common language. The members generally marry into their own group but now due to increased contact with outsiders there are instances of tribal marring outside as well. The tribes believe in ties of blood relationship between its members. They have faith in their having descended from a common, real or mythical ancestor and hence believe in blood relationships with other members.
  2. Tribes follow their own political organization which maintains harmony. Religion is of great importance in the tribe. The tribal political and social organization is based on religion because they are granted religious sanctity and recognition.
  3. Mandelbaum writes “In tribal life the principle links for the whole society are based on kinship.” Kinship is not simply a principle of social organization; it is also a principle of inheritance, division of labour and distribution of power and privileges. Tribal societies are small in size. They possess a morality, religion and worldview of their own, corresponding to their social relations. However some tribes such as Santhals, Gonds and Bhills are quite large.

Mandelbaum mentions the following characteristics of Indian tribes :

  1. Kinship as an instrument of social bonds.
  2. A lack of hierarchy among men and groups.
  3. Absence of strong, complex, formal organization.
  4. Communitarian basis of land holding.
  5. Segmentary character.
  6. Little value on surplus accumulation on the use of capital and on market trading
  7. Lack of distinction between form and substance of religion
  8. A distinct psychological bent for enjoying life.
  • Nadel has defined tribes as a society with a linguistic, cultural and political boundary”. But there are problems in such definitions. There are many tribal societies which lack government and the centralized authority in the ordinary sense of the term. Likewise cultural homogeneity in a tribe is also elusive in this age.
  • Sahlins writes that the term “tribal society” should be restricted to “segmentary systems”. The segmentary system has relations on a small scale. They enjoy autonomy, and are independent of each other in a given region. We may observe this about the Santhals, Oraons and Mundas of Jharkhand or about the Bhils, Meenas and Garasias of Rajasthan.

Distinctions between folk’, ‘peasant’ and ‘urban’ or between ‘tribal’, folk’ and ‘elite’ are not very useful for the understanding of tribes in India. For example, the tribes of Jharkhand have been interacting and cooperating with each other, despite geographical barriers, problems of communication, relative cultural autonomy and economic self-reliance; as they faced a common external threat to their traditional system of land relations, economy and cultural autonomy. The Hindu zamindars, Bengali moneylenders and the British administration exploited them, pushing them to the point of extinction and utter dehumanization. There was never inter-tribal isolation and cultural exclusiveness. The tribals of Bihar mobilized their members against their exploiters. They interacted with the administration, town elite and outsiders. The Jharkhand area, which contains numerous tribes of Bihar, West Bengal Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, is a tribal cultural zone comprising several tribal subcultures. The Mundas, Oraons, Hos and Santhals, the major tribes of this region, depend upon forest produce, settled agriculture, employment in industries, coal mines and government jobs. Some have settled in towns, others are in villages, and some of the latter are economically very well off. Thus, tribal culture is in part a “peasant culture” and in part an “urban culture”.

Tribal exclusiveness, intact tribal solidarity and tribal consciousness on the one hand, and dependence upon towns and cities, administration and mobilization against their exploiters and on the other, have existed simultaneously among the tribal people. Even the revival of tribal aboriginality has been expressed in the form of an instrument for protesting against the external intrusions and impositions of rules and regulations.

The tribals of Jharkhand are peasants to a large extent and therefore their ‘peasant qualities should become the basis to understand their economic problems. The characteristics of peasant societies, outlined by Theodore Shanin, aptly apply to the tribals of Jharkhand. These are:

  1. The peasant family farm is the basic unit of a multi-dimensional social organization;
  2. Land husbandry is the main means of livelihood directly providing the major part of the consumption needs;
  3. Specific traditional culture is related to the way of life of small communities; and
  4. The peasants have the underdog position -domination of peasants by others.

The tribes of Bihar have been called peasants by S.C. Roy. They have fought against feudalism for 300
years. Today they are facing problems emerging out of industrial urbanization in the Jharkhand region.

Tribes are relatively isolated from larger cultural influences, have a relative cultural homogeneity and a simple technology. They believe in spirits, magic and witchcraft. They have their own taboos which prohibit certain actions that are punishable by the community, by the supernatural or by magical consequences. Large number of the tribes believes in animism, according to which all objects. counselled – both animate and inanimate-are permanently or temporarily inhabited by spirits or souls. Often, an activity is believed to be caused by these spirits. Some spirits are worshipped and treated with fear and respect. Some scholars have maintained that animism was the earliest form of religion of the tribes. Many tribes believe in ancestor worship too.

Some general defining features of tribes in India are :

  1. Common name : Each tribe has a distinct name of its own through which it is distinguished from others.
  2. Common territory : Tribes generally occupy common geographical areas.
  3. Common language : Members of one tribe speak the same language. Each tribe has its own dialect if not the script.
  4. Common culture : Each tribe has prescribed patterns of behaviour and festivals and deities to worship.
  5. Endogamy : Each tribe has the practice of marrying members within their own tribe.
  6. Political organization : All tribes have their own political organization. They have councils of elders to control members.
  7. As against the national average of 43 per cent, 57 per cent of the tribals are economically active.
  8. As regards the nature of work, against 73 per cent national average, 91 per cent tribal workers are engaged in agriculture. About 3 per cent tribals are engaged in manufacturing (against 11% of general population] and 5 per cent in servicing (tertiary sectors) against16% average of general population. About 1 per cent tribals are engaged in forestry and food-gathering.

Tribes have been separated from other social categories on the basis of these features. The British conducted a detailed enumeration of the tribals in the 1930s. Tribes were distinguished from castes on the basis of their religious and ecological conditions. However, tribals are also peasants, as a good number of them today live in villages and have been engaged in agriculture and allied occupation, just like peasants belonging to various castes and communities. Today there are more than thirty million tribals divided into 427 tribes. They form about 8 per cent of the total population. There is vast diversity among the tribes in terms of habitation, ecology economic pursuits, language, religion and contacts with the outside world Each tribe is internally stratified. It may be said that members of a given tribe do not have a clear perception about their existential conditions or that they have a distorted or false consciousness.

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