For a proper understanding of ethnic movement it is necessary to understand what we mean by ethnicity as such movements are associated with it. Ethnicity denotes towards identification of a group of people on the basis of certain criteria or markers which they are supposed to share with each other. These markers include culture, race, language, religion, customs, history, economic experiences, etc. For a group of people to share such attributes another requirement is that they get mobilized into some collective action for attainment of certain demands. The number of markers or attributes which form the basis of an ethnic group depends on the choice of these factors by the ethnic group or its leadership. But there are differences among the scholars regarding the number of attributes which constitute an ethnic group.

  1. Scholars in India generally consider that mobilization as ethnic which is based on the multiple attributes – language, religion, culture, history, economy, etc. For example, the language based mobilization is considered as linguistic mobilization and the groups as such are considered the linguistic groups. Similarly caste based mobilization is considered as dalit, backward or any other caste mobilization. In India there is religion-based mobilization. But the scholars who follow American and European traditions categories even the mobilization based on the single attribute – language, religion, caste, etc., as ethnic mobilization. They also do not distinguish between the movement and ethnic mobilization. For example, Paul R. Brass uses ethnic and communal mobilization interchangeably.
  2. On the other hand, Dipankar Gupta in his book The Context of Ethnicity: The Sikh Identity in a Comparative Perspective differentiates between communalism and ethnicity. He argues that the ethnic mobilization is related to the nation-state – the territory and the sovereignty. And the communal mobilization does not involve the nation-state. It is confined to the government and two or more communities in the conflict, one of which alleges that the government discriminates against it in preference to the other. The point in dispute could be job, specific rights of the communities, etc. According to him in the ethnic mobilization the loyalty of one ethnic group to the reference of nation-state is questioned. It is not so in the case of communal mobilization. Also, the group identities are not permanent. In the changing context of time and space an ethnic identity can become communal and vice versa. However, the general tendency among the scholars is to consider the multi-attributes mobilization of the communities as ethnic.
  3. Ethnicity is also a relative term. An ethnic group differentiates itself from another groups which also share certain attributes which are different from it. It feels that it has to preserve its identity and interests from the perceived or real threats of other ethnic groups and institutions, and processes associated of the cultural identities of the ethnic groups and their other interests. Another concept which is related to the ethnicity, nationalities or even nations they are used interchangeably. If one section of scholars considers a multiple-marker based mobilization as ethnic, there are others which call these as the mobilization of the nations or the nationalities. Therefore, in the light of the literature terms ethnicity and nationalities/nations are used interchangeably.

Ethnic Movements During Post Independence Period in India

  1. Almost all the major regions of the country have witnessed ethnic movements. They take the forms of movements for regional autonomy, for creation of separate states, demand for secession or insurgency. These manifestations of ethnic movements are also called self-determination movements. In several cases ethnic movements give rise to conflicts or riots on the lines of ethnic divide based on all or some the markers – tribe, caste, language, religion, etc., the self-determination movements actually question the nation-state building model which was introduced by the Independent India.
  2. Known as Nehruvian or the Mahalanobis model this model presumed that in the course of development or modernization the identities formed on the basis of ascriptive factors – language, caste, tribe and religion will disappear and the development will take place on the secular lines. But much before the effect of this model could be felt, it was questioned on the all major consideration – language, region and nationality. Although the movements started with the demand based on single marker like language or culture, they drew support of people who shared more than one attribute in a particular region. Movements Started with :
  3. The rejection of the Indian Constitution by the Nagas in the North-East, it spread in the form of secessioist movement.
  4. Dravidian ethnic movement and demand for the formation of linguistic states,
  5. Movement of for creation of separate state of Andhra Pradesh in South,
  6. Movements in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab,
  7. Shiv Sena against South Indians in Mumbai.

In Tamil Nadu following the legacy of E.V. Ramaswami Naicker three issues formed the basis of ethnic
movement in the first two decades following independence –

  1. Language,
  2. Dravidian culture,and
  3. Religion.
  1. The leadership of the movement argued that imposition of the North Indian Hindi language; Brahminical Hindu religion and Aryan culture were detrimental to the development of the Dravidian identity. Therefore, the Tamil ethnic movement had demanded, stopping of the imposition of Hindu language secession from India. However, towards the end of the1960s the demand for secession was given up by the Tamil nationality ethnic group. It then shifts its demand to get autonomy to the states. Though the Dravidian assertion in India has become milder since the late 1960s, sentiments against the imposition of Hindi language still are important factors of mobilization there. In the light of the movements and violence generated by them prompted S. Harrison to describe the decades of the 1950s-1960s as the “most dangerous decades”?
  2. The state of Andhra was initially reluctant to reconsider the demand for the linguistic reorganization of the state. But it had to consider this demand following the death of a Gandhian P. Srinivasulu who died of hunger strike demanding a linguistic state of Andhra Pradesh. Government’s acceptance of demand to create Andhra Pradesh led to the reorganization of the states on the linguistic basisin1953. But reorganization of the state did not halt the demand for the separate states.

The ethnic movement in Punjab was based on three types of issues regional religious and economic. Spearheaded by the Akali Dal the leadership in Punjab argued that since Sikhs follow a separate religion and speak different language, they should get a separate state. On some occasions, it got reflected in the communal divide between the Hindus and Sikhs in the state, resulting in the ethnic conflict. They launched a Punjabi Suba movement during the 1950s and 1960s demanding a separate state of Punjab for them. Bakiev Raj Nayar observes that Akali Dal’s strategy during the Punjabi Suba movement included constitutional means like memoranda, rallies and marches, penetration into the Congress organization in order to influence the party in favour of a separate state, and, agitational means which included marches to shrines, intimidation and force. As a result of the Punjabi Suba movement, Punjab was created as separate state on November 1, 1966.

  1. According to Paul R. Brass, the attitude of the central government towards the ethnic conflicts or mobilization in the 1950s and 1960s was marked by an unwritten code – aversion to the demands for creation of the states on the religious grounds, no concession to the demands of the linguistic, regional or other culturally defined groups, no concession to groups involved in ethnic dispute unless there was support to the demand from both groups involved in the conflict. In his opinion, demand for creation of a separate state of Punjab was accepted only when there was also a demand for creation of the separate state of Haryana for Hindi-speaking population of the same state.
  2. The ethnic movement in Punjab again arose in the 1980s. It challenged the sovereignty of the Indian state the notion of India as a nation-state. It sought to establish a sovereign state of Khalistan, to be based on the tenets of Sikhism. The Khalistan movement and the issues related to were generally referred to as “Punjab Crisis”. The movement became violent and came to be identified with terrorism in the popular, academic and political discourse. The advocates of the Khalistan movement argued that Sikhs, as followers of the minority religion have been discriminated in India despite their contribution to Indian economy and army. The rise of Khalistan movement, terrorism or the rioting in the 1980s has been a sequence to the political developments in the country which preceded it.
  3. The 1970s were marked by the challenge of the Akali Dal to the dominance of the Congress in Punjab. In order to meet this challenge the Congress took the help of Sikh religious leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale in the 1980 Legislative assembly elections in Punjab. The use of services of Bhinderanwale had its cultural and political implication for the country and the state. It encouraged Bhinderanwale to assert his authority independently and assume the leadership of the Khalistan movement. Not only a large number of Sikh youths were attracted to the movement, the movement also received support of the foreign forces. The state responded with the Operation Blue Star sending of the armed forces to nab terrorists who were hiding in the Golden Temple at Amritsar including Sant Bhinderanwale. This ultimately led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The Khalistan movement also resulted in the ethnic divide between the Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab.

The scholars have explained the ethnic movement of the 1970s and 1980s in Punjab in terms of
socio-economic and political factors.

  1. Those who explain it in terms of the socio-economic factors follow the Marxian perspective. They argue that the ‘Punjab Crisis” occurred in the wake of green revolution; inability of the Sikh farmers to meet the rising cost of investment in agriculture, rising unemployment among the youth and growth of the consumerist culture which gave rise to the feeling of losing Sikh identity, etc., contributed to the rise of militancy in Punjab.
  2. The scholars who give the political explanation find the socio-economic explanation inadequate. They argue that the Punjab crisis was the result of a manipulation of the religion and problems of the people by the politicians. The basis of ethnic movement in Jammu and Kashmir is language, religion and geographical location.
  3. A section of people of the state have argued since the ethnic composition of state in terms of language, religion and geography is different from the dominant ethnic groups in the country, region should be treated differently. Some of them have not considered themselves as members of the Union of India. As a result, they have demanded secession from India, some have advocated merger with Pakistan, some have demanded a separate state for the region and some have advocated merger of two Kashmirs – one occupied by Pakistan and other of India, to become a single state. Supporters of this perspective have launched insurgency involving violence and loss human beings and material. They are supported by the foreign forces, especially Pakistan. The popular leadership in the state has also been divided on the issue of relationship of the state with the nation-state. Hari Singh, the ruler of the Jammu and Kashmir initially opposed the accession of the state into the union of India. But he had to agree to it in the face of attack of the Pakistan forces Sheikh Abdullah had supported the merger of the state with Union of India. But in the course of time he wavered on the issue. He formed Plebiscite Front, which led to his incarceration by the central government from 1953 till 1964.

According to Balraj Puri the reasons for the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir include: attitude of the central government, the lack of opposition, unemployment and other problems of people, cold war and Pakistan. Even within Jammu and Kashmir there are ethnic movements by the smaller groups in Laddakh and Jammu and Kashmir, demanding autonomy within the state of Jammu and Kashmir. These regions alleged that they are discriminated against by the dominant religious communities and prosperous regions- Muslims of Kashmir.


The tribals provide the most appropriate examples of the ethnic movements in the country. In their case, almost all factors, both real and imagined, which the tribal communities share among themselves – culture, customs, language, race, religion (indigenous or otherwise), economic issues, contribute to their mobilization. Even if the their mobilization starts with a single marker, it is the multiple markers which come to play their roles in the due course. Tribal ethnic movements find their expression in all forms, – insurgency, protection of the culture and economy of the “sons of the soil” from the outside exploiters, secession from the Union of India, autonomy movements / demand for the separate state, and, ethnic conflicts and riots.

The most common issues which account for the tribals ethnic mobilization are perceived or real threat to their indigenous culture and economy including the natural resources like mineral, forest and modern market opportunities by the outsiders. Numerous uprising of tribals have taken place beginning with one in Bihar, followed by many revolts in Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland The important tribes involved in revolt in the nineteenth century were Mizos, Kols, Mundas, Daflas, Khasi and Garo, Kacharis and Kondhas.

Some scholars like Desai, Gough and Guha have treated tribal movements after independence as peasant movements, but K.S. Singh has criticized such approach because of the nature of tribals’ social and political organization, their relative social isolation from the mainstream, their leadership pattern and the modus operandi of their political mobilization. Tribals’ community consciousness is strong. Tribal movements were not only agrarian but also forest-based Some revolts were ethnic in nature as
these were directed against zamindars, money lenders petty government officials. When tribals were unable to pay their loan or the interest thereon, money-lenders and landlords usurped their lands. The tribals thus became tenants on their own land and sometimes even bonded labourers. The police and the revenue officers never helped them. On the contrary, they also used the tribals for personal and government work without any payment The courts were not only ignorant of the tribal agrarian system and customs but also were unaware of the plight of the tribals. All these factors of land alienation, usurpation, forced labour, minimum wages and land grabbing compelled many tribes like Munda, Santhals, kol, Bhils, Warli, etc., in many regions like Assam, Orissa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra to revolt.

The management of forests also led some tribes to revolt, as forests in some regions are the main sources of their livelihood. The British government had introduced certain legislations permitting merchants and contractors to cut the forests. These rules not only deprived the tribals of several forest officials. This led tribes in Andhra Pradesh and some other areas to launch movements.

Raghavaiah in his analysis in 1971of revolts from 1778 to 1970 listed 70 revolts and gave their chronology. The Anthropological Survey of India in their survey in 1976 of tribal movements identified 36 on-going tribal movements in India. It was said that through these revolts were neither numerous nor gravely frequent, yet there was scarcely any major tribe in middle or eastern India which at some time in the last 150 years had not resorted to launching movements to register their protest and despair. Some studies on tribal movements have been conducted and reported in North-East and Central India. However, there were a significant number of movements or none at all among the tribals of the southern states. This is so because the tribes down south are too primitive, too small in number, and too isolated in their habitat to organize movements, in spite of their exploitation and the resultant discontent L.K. Mahapatra also has observed that we do not find any significant social religious, status-mobility, or political movement among the numerically small and migratory tribes.

After independence, the tribal movements may be classified into :
  1. Movements due to exploitation by outsiders (like those of the Santhals and Mundas),
  2. Movements due to economic deprivation (like those of the Gonds in Madhya Pradesh and the Mahars in Andhra Pradesh), and
  3. Movements due to separatist tendencies (like those of the Nagas and Mizos). The tribal movements may also be classified on the basis of their orientation into four types:
  4. Movements seeking political autonomy and formation of a state (Nagas, Mizos, Jharkhand),
  5. Agrarian movements,
  6. Forest- based movements, and
  7. Socio-religious or socio-cultural movements (the Bhagat movement among Bhils of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, movements among tribals of south Gujarat or Raghunath Murmu’s movement among the Santhals).

Mahapatra has classified tribal movements in three groups: reactionary, conservative and revolutionary.

  1. The reactionary movements tries to bring back ‘the good old days’,
  2. The conservative movement tries to maintain the status quo.
  3. The revolutionary or the revisionary movements are those which are organized for ‘improvement’ or ‘purification’ of the cultural or social by eliminating evil customs, beliefs or institutions.
Surajit Sinha has classified movements into five groups :
  1. Ethnic rebellion,
  2. Reform movements,
  3. Political autonomy movements within the Indian Union,
  4. Secessionist movements, and
  5. Agrarian unrest
S.M. Dube has classified them in four categories :
  1. Religious and social reform movements,
  2. Movements for separate statehood,
  3. Insurgent movements, and
  4. Cultural rights movements.

Ghanshyam Shah has classified them in three groups: ethnic, agrarian and political. If we take into consideration all the tribal movements, including the Naga revolution (which started in 1948 and continued up to 1972), the Mizo movement (guerrilla warfare which ended with the formation of Meghalaya state in April 1970, created out of Assam and Mizoram in 1972), the Gond Raj movement (of Gonds of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, started in 1941for a separate state and reaching its peak in 1962-63), the Naxalite movements (of the tribals in Bihar, West Bengal Andhra Pradesh and Assam),the agrarian movements (of the Gonds and the Bhils in Madhya Pradesh), and the forest-based movements (of the Gonds for getting customary rights in forests), it could be said that the tribal unrest and resultant movements were mainly movements launched for liberation from

  1. Oppression and discrimination,
  2. Neglect and backwardness, and
  3. A government which was callous to the tribals’ plight of poverty, hunger, unemployment and exploitation.

Tribal movements after independence have been classified by K.S. Singh in four categories: agrarian, sanskritisation, cultural and political In the first phases before independence, K.S.Singh holds that in their effort to introduce British Administration in the tribal areas, the British came in conflict with the tribal chiefs. The rebellious tribal leaders revolted against the British and exhorted their followers to drive out the outsiders. Such movements were launched by Oraon, Mundas, etc., in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and North-East India. After independence, tribal movements were launched either for maintaining cultural identity or for demanding a separate state or for asserting their statues as caste Hindus through sanskritisation process or on economic issues.

Stephen Fuchs has dealt with a large number of first types of tribal movements. He has called them messianic movements led by rebellious persons gifted with abilities for assuming the role of a Messiah, or these gifted people (Messiahs) are this messianic role by the community when it faces economic distress, social or political oppression. Fuchs has suggested that success of such a movement would depend upon the individual ability of charismatic leaders, thereby ignoring the relevance of system characteristics. Fuchs’ analysis of movements is mostly descriptive which lists host of factors for the success or failure of these movements. None of them propose a theoretical framework.

Not many studies have been conducted on the political-separatist dimension in Nagaland, Mizoram, Chhotanagpur and Madhya Pradesh. The Jharkhand movement in Bihar is a movement of tribal communities consisting of settled agriculturalists which are sensitized to vaishnavism. Further, Chhotanagpur was the most advanced of the tribal regions in terms of literacy, political consciousness and industrial progress. Christian Missions influenced the lives of tribals here substantially. These Missions promoted education, planted the notion of private rights in land, and emphasized a sence of separateness from the rest The Jharkhand movement after 1950 developed in phases-from ethnicity to regionalism (Singh). Of these, the phase (1963-1975) after the fourth general elations is characterized by fragmentation of the Jharkhand party and fictionalization of tribal political The BJP-led government at the Centre announced in 1998 the creation of two tribal states-one in Bihar and another in Madhya Pradesh.

B. K. Roy Burman has distinguished between prevocational and substantial movements among tribes. Proto-national movements emerges when tribes experience a transformation from tribal level of interaction. In contrast, sub-national movements area product of social disorganization pioneered by acculturated elite engaged in contraction of relationship and not exclusion of it with the outside world While proto-nationalism results from exclusion expansion of the orbit of development, sub-nationalism is the result of disparities of developments. Sub-nationalism is based on the coercive power of the community.

L.K.Mahapatra in his study of tribal movements based on a time-sequence and the nature of stimulus in their existence noted certain general tendencies.

  1. Most reformist tribal movements, although initiated by charismatic leaders, gradually led to rationalization and institutionalization, affecting structure but not always affecting basic changes.
  2. Tribal movements, irrespective of their goal orientation, invariably appeared among the numerically strong, usually settled agriculturalists and economically well-off tribals.
  3. Primitive and small tribals directly took to large-scale conversion and separatist tendencies are marked amongst them.
  4. Given the geographical distribution, a pan- Indian tribes movement is unlikely to emerge.
  5. Democratic politics among tribes is fragmentary which in turn blocks the emergence of civil collectivism.

Concludingly it can be said that when the law does not help tribals, when the government remains callous, and the police fails to protect them even harasses them, they take to arms against their exploiters. These movements indicate that tribals adopted two paths: non-violent path of bargaining and negotiating with the government and using a variety of pressure tactics without resorting to violence/revolts, and militant path of revolts or mass struggles based on developing the fighting power of the exploited/oppressed tribal strata. The consequences of both these paths are different One indicates struggle oriented to reforms, while the other indicates structural transformation of the community. The fact that tribals continue to be faced with problems and also continue to feel discontented and deprived brings to the fore the conclusion that both paths have not helped them to achieve their goals.

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