Primitive Tribes in India

Dr. P. DashSharma

   The word "tribe" was used by English speakers to refer to people with distinct social, cultural and perhaps physical characteristics, and it occurs interchangeably with other words denoting some sort of collection of people, such as race, bond, breed, nation, people or an aggregate of families of common descent. Fried argued that tribes were produced in course of the evolution of the state in different parts of the world and under varying periods of times, and in some regions the process dated only from the last two centuries. The distinct meaning of "tribe" separated from "nation" emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century, when early anthropologists and sociologists associated it with the concept of "primitive society’ (Fried, 1966, 1975).

   ‘Tribe’ commonly called 'scheduled tribe' in the Indian context is an administrative and legal term to label some ethnic groups—based on their socio-economic status, religious and cultural customs—in order to give special attention to them as mandated by the Constitution.

   The term ‘tribe’ is nowhere defined in the Constitution, and in fact, there is no satisfactory definition, which is agreed upon and is acceptable to all. No standard term has been accepted to denominate the people who are classified as of tribal origin. The term ‘Schedule’ was proposed and applied just to signify or categorize the weaker sections of our population as ‘scheduled’ to have a constitutional benefits. These communities have distinctive life styles of their own which are symbolized through their language and culture. According to the Article 342 of the Constitution, the ‘Scheduled Tribes’ are the tribes who are the tribals or tribal communities, which may be notified by the President. Article 342 of the Constitution further declares that the tribes are entitled to have development benefit provided they are ‘Scheduled’. The Constitution of India placed the responsibility for the welfare of the weaker sections of the population on the popular Governments through the President of India or the Governors of the States. In this context Article 46 of the Constitution can be quoted (Mohanty, 2002: 28):

   "The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation."

   The Census enumerates only such tribal communities as are ‘scheduled’ under the relevant constitutional order in force at the time of the census enumeration.

   On the basis of their anthropological characteristics tribal people of India are considered to be aboriginal. Risley (1891) defined the word 'tribe' as, "it is a collection of families or a group of families, bearing a common name which as a rule does not denote any specific occupation, generally claiming common descent from a mythical or historical ancestry, occasionally the name is derived from an animal but in some parts of the country, the tribe is held together only by the obligation of kinship, member speaking the same language and occupy a tract of the country." I consider the term "adivasis", the 'original settlers', as more appropriate, though much have changed in their social, cultural and in economic spheres due to the interplay of forces of tradition and modernity among the tribals of India. Can we not discard the British appellation, ‘tribe’, and replace it with Scheduled ‘Adivasis’, giving the people or the communities who are ‘scheduled’, a sense of pride, a sense of belonging and attachment with the soil of their origin. The concerned authorities may think over it, and may find out if there is any such possibility to change over to such a nomenclature (Scheduled Adivasis), thereby giving the scheduled communities a sense of pride among them.

   The 'adivasis' are now conscious of their historical and collective identity through language, folk songs, territory and culture. Hinduism and Christianity have had played diametrical roles in the identity of the 'adivasis'. The ‘adivasis’ are struggling hard to adjust themselves with the rapid changing situations which have led to social disruption, conflict, tension and frustration among them particularly in those areas where large scale urbanization and or industrialization have taken place after India's independence (Dash Sharma, 1980:6).

   The tribal population according to the 1961 Census of India was 6.87 per cent of the total population of India of 439.2 million. In 1971 census the percentage of scheduled tribes to total population of the State/Union territory of India (548,159,652) was 6.94 per cent. The tribal population of India in 1981 was 7.76 per cent of the total population of India. According to the Census of India 1991 the percentage of scheduled tribes to the total population of India is 8.08 per cent, excluding the population of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Number of Scheduled Tribes in India

   There are 461 tribal groups (Singh, 1994) in our country, distributed in all States except Punjab and Haryana. More than half of the Scheduled Tribes population is concentrated in the States of Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and in Gujarat. Some States like Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Lakshadweep are predominantly of tribal population. Mohanty (2002:29) writes "the total number of such Scheduled Tribes is 635, and cites the reference of Singh, 1992. But Mohanty (2002) does not give this particular reference under ‘Bibliography’. Danda (1991) stated that total number of tribal communities estimated to be 642, [and further adds] several among them have now either become extinct or been merged with other communities. Thus this indicates that there is some confusion regarding the total number of scheduled tribes in India. The confusion has been compounded due to several reasons. Mostly the scholars get the information about the list of Scheduled Tribes in India from the Census Reports, more particularly from Special Tables for Scheduled Tribes (or Castes), for example, let us take the case of 1971 Census [Part V-A(ii)] under Series I-India. When we glean through the list (Appendix) we find, that same tribe as indicated by the same spelling, occur in more than one State, for example Oraon is found in Bihar (Jharkhand) and West Bengal. Further, take the example of Gond of Madhya Pradesh [number 12 in the list] or Khasi and Jaintia [number 6 in the list under Assam]. Under Gond, 32 communities have been listed as representing Gond, and in some cases with their synonyms. ‘Asur’ is also a Gond community under the list in Madhya Pradesh, (see Census of India, 1971, p.18; Chandra Sekhar, 1971) while in Bihar State (now Jharkhand) ‘Asur’ is an independent tribe. Now the problem arises, should we count Asur as two distinct communities found in two different regions (with the same name spelling), or should we consider Asur as a single tribal community in India (though scattered in different regions), while listing the number of Scheduled Tribes in India. Similarly, regarding Khasi and Jaintia of Assam, should we consider these two community titles as one single community, or two communities, and further it is listed (including Khasi, Synteng or Pnar, War, Bhoi or Lyngngam), see page 22, Chandra Sekhar,1971. Thus we can consider in this case under serial number 6, one community, two communities (Khasi and Jaintia), or six communities (Khasi, Jaintia, Synteng or Pnar,War, Bhoi or Lyngngam). So the listing can vary from one, two, or can extend up to six communities, under serial number 6 in Assam. Thus the listing of the number of Scheduled Tribe communities in India (also in the case of Scheduled Castes) varies as there is no specific guidelines (in the census volumes) for the methodology to be followed while counting the number of Scheduled Tribe communities in India. Thus if one asks how many Scheduled Tribe communities have been enumerated in Census of India 1971, or 1991 or say 2001, there will be no one single answer from academicians, census organisation, or the concerned ministry, and from the ruling and the opposition parties who are found to be always so much concerned with the scheduled communities for their welfare. Under ‘general note’ (page 2) the only guide line given is as follows: "In the 1971 census, however, in view of a Supreme Court judgement on the subject, the notified list of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes applicable to each state and union territory had to be strictly followed and the synonyms or generic names of such communities could not be recognised for purpose of enumeration as scheduled castes or scheduled tribes." (Chandra Sekhar, 1971).

Primitive Tribes

   Though many efforts have been made for the over all development of Scheduled Tribes it was realised that some tribal groups are still in very backward stage in respect to their socio-economic condition. And these tribal groups were identified by Shri U. N. Dhebar, in his capacity as Chairman of the Commission, popularly known as Dhebar Commission Report of 1961.The Commission Report stated "…We feel that at the base of these four layers is the class of tribals which is in an extremely underdeveloped stage ….this lowest layer needs the utmost consideration at the hands of the Government…" (cf. Mohanty, 2002: 10).

   For their development the Government of India initiated various commissions to assess the reality of their socio-economic condition and thus various reports are available on the tribal situation in India. The Report of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes (1961) is the most important report on the status of the tribals in India. This was formed under the Chairmanship of Shri U.N.Dhebar (28th April,1960), and the report is popularly known as Dhebar Commission Report (1961). The report identified that there are some groups of tribals who are in extreme underdeveloped stage. Subsequently another committee was constituted (on 26th October ) under the chairmanship of Shri Shilo Ao who also identified that there are certain groups of tribal people who belong to the lowest strata of socio-economic development The Report of the Study Team on Tribal Development Programme (1969) popularly known as Shilo Ao team constituted by Planning Commission, New Delhi, stated that large number of tribal communities continue to be extremely backward and some of them are still in the primitive stage of food gathering economy. The Shilo Ao report reiterated the views of the Dhebar Commission (1961) and stressed that the people of this lowest layer should be of special concern and should receive the utmost consideration.

   The Fifth Five-Year Plan (1974-79) marks the beginning of a new phase in the tribal development programmes by the Planning Commission of India in1974. The Government of India developed a clear policy of tribal development during the eve of the Fifth Five-Year Plan and framed guidelines for the Tribal Sub-Plan (TPS) in 1974 (Ministry of Home Affairs,1974). It was observed that the tribal communities are at different stages of development even after the implementation of various development schemes meant for the Scheduled Tribes. It was also realised that their ecological conditions in which they are living in have a profound impact on their life-styles. Considering all these the Tribal Sub-Plan envisages a total picture of development of the tribal areas. It was essentially an attempt to appreciate the problem of tribal development in its totality and the first exercise in this regard was to demarcate the tribal areas based on the concentration of tribal population. The Tribal Sub-Plan mechanism was designed to channelise the flow of benefits to the tribal people arising out of the outlays from the general sectors and thus two pronged strategy was developed, that is, (i) socio-economic development of Scheduled Tribes, and (ii) protection of tribal people against exploitation.

   At one extreme there are tribal groups who are settled agriculturists living in very backward areas, while on the other extreme there are some tribals who are in the food gathering and hunting stage of economy. It is these hunting and food gathering communities who have been identified as more backward communities among the tribal population groups which need special programme for their development. And these communities have been identified as Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs) by the ‘Working Group on Development of Scheduled Tribes in 1975 (Ministry of Home Affairs,1975. Preparation of Sub-Plan for Tribal Regions.)

   Mohanty (2002: 30) mentioned that the first attempt to list "Primitive Tribes" in the country was made during the Census of 1931. These tribal people are in a state of extreme poverty, and are subjected to exploitation and are in the lowest level of literacy. During the Fifth Five-Year Plan period the Ministry of Home Affairs identified 52 tribal communities as "Primitive Tribal Groups", and during the Sixth Plan period 20 tribal groups were further added as the Primitive Tribal Groups. Later another 2 groups have been added recently (Mohanty, 2002:31).

   The criteria generally followed in the identification of the Primitive Tribal Groups are:

    1. A stagnant and diminishing population
    2. Pre-agricultural level of technology
    3. Very low level of literacy

   As per the circular of the Government of India there are 74 Primitive Tribes in India. However, during the Fifth Five-Year Plan (1974-79) to the Eight Five-Year Plan (1992-97), 75 Primitive Tribal Groups have been identified in 14 States and 1 Union Territory. But in reality the number of PTGs are less as some of the Primitive tribes are found to appear in more than one State. For example, Birhor has been identified in Jharkhand (formerly Bihar), Orissa, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh; the Dongaria Khonds live in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa; similarly Kattunayakans are found in Kerela and Tamil Nadu.

   The total population of Primitive Tribes in India is 24,12,666 as per 1991 census. It is observed that the Primitive Tribes are most concentrated in the State of Madhya Pradesh, followed by Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra States. Thus the central India tribal belt is the refuge of the Primitive Tribal population of India. It possibly reflects that in the course of the long history of migration of the people of India, the Primitive Tribes found a secured place in the central India. However, it must be noted that as many as 14 Primitive Tribes (Konda Savara, Cholanaikayan, Abujh Maria, Bharia, Hill Korwa, Maria Gond, Choukutia Bhunjia, Dongaria Khond, Kharia, Kutia Khond, Lanjia Saura, Paudi Bhuiyan, Saura, Toto) were not enumerated in 1991 census , which otherwise could have pushed the census figures for the Primitive Tribes to a higher level (Dash Sharma, 2005).

   The position of the Primitive Tribes in comparison to the general population as well as tribal population is as follows as per the data base of 1991census.

Population of India 1991 Census

Total population

Scheduled tribes

Primitive tribes

Percentage of PTGs to

total scheduled tribes= 3.56%

Thus it is evident that 3.56% of the Scheduled Tribes constitute the Primitive Tribal Groups in India.

Primitive Tribes and the Reservation Policy

   The enactment of laws of positive discrimination in favour of tribes and low castes in order to counteract the effects of centuries of discrimination and exploitation by reserving seats for election in specific constituencies, jobs in government departments and by providing special educational facilities to the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes is certainly worthy of India’s pride as no other country in the world has enacted such a policy for uplifting the downtrodden in their country (Dash Sharma,1997:62). There are vice-chancellors, medical practitioners, engineers, administrators, teachers, scientists and government officers among the tribals of Chotanagpur, which covers largely the tribal belt of central India, similar situation certainly is also prevailing in other tribal concentrated States of India. The annual reports of the government’s education and welfare departments role out statistics as to the number of beneficiaries under the tribal quota system of each State, suggesting the concern of the administration for the tribal people and the achievement of the State in its welfare programmes. The major Scheduled Tribes in India are getting all the benefits of the Government’s reservation policy. I wonder how many of the Primitive Tribal Groups in India are actually getting the benefits of the reservation policy of the State governments in their respective States, vis-a-vis preference for jobs against the economically better off tribal communities like Mundas, Oraons, Bhils, Gonds, Santals, whose educational attainments are much higher than the primitive tribal groups of India. This is a generalization, but it is true that most of the government jobs under the reservation policy for the tribals are filled up by the tribals who are in the upper strata of the tribal community in India. There is hierarchy among the tribals, socially and economically. At least it is visible among the tribals of Chotanagpur. Does the government of any State have community-wise records of the benefits given to the tribals, particularly for jobs and other economic benefits, that is the community as listed in the President’s order. There seems to be none. The State governments have adopted a very simple and short-cut method for the reports— all have been clubbed together as "Scheduled Tribe" without any community distinction. Perhaps it is politically wise. But this system of management of tribal development, that is providing opportunities only for the major tribal groups, thus ultimately suggesting denial of equal opportunity for all the tribal groups of India including the Primitive Tribes.

   Of the 75 Primitive Tribal Groups of the 14 States and 1 Union Territory, how many individuals among the Primitive Tribes have got the government jobs since 1975, that is the year when the PTGs have been identified, up to the year 2000, that is for a stretch of 25 years. There is no ready report, year-wise. The government must introspect on this point, and start earnestly to identify the beneficiaries among the Primitive Tribal Groups community-wise. The government must develop a PTG care cell specially for the protection of the Primitive Tribal Groups, particularly for job reservation and education and for sustainable economic development. However, it must be noted that there can not be an unified programme applicable for all the Primitive Tribal Groups. Each Primitive Tribe has to be assessed independently for their needs and aspirations, and here the anthropologists can play a vital role for the assessment of the needs and aspirations of the PTGs. To my mind a great step forward by the government would be to make a special reservation quota only for the Primitive Tribal Groups, out of the reservation quota fixed for the tribal groups in general. It must be applicable for only those States where there is high concentration of Primitive Tribal Groups, like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Andhara Pradesh, etc. For the Primitive Tribal groups a quota of about 5 per cent may be kept reserved out of the job quota fixed for the tribals in general for each State. The jobs for the PTGs may be reserved for the local government offices at the district or block office level, and they should be encouraged and motivated to work in the office, coming out of their shell — the distant forest habitat. If one is encouraged, then others will follow, and gradually a confidence will develop among them to take up jobs and other economic benefits from the government.

   That the Primitive Tribes are awakening and demanding their rights for special reservation quota for them can be gauged from a news item which appeared in a national daily on September 8, 2003 (Hindustan Times, Ranchi Live, p.2). The news item runs as follows: "A Dumka-based social organization, Adim Janjati Jagriti Avam Vikas Samiti, has demanded reservation for tribal groups in the State Assembly and Lok Sabha elections with a view to save the identity of eight primitive tribes of the State …....The President of the Adim Janjati Jagriti Avam Vikas Samiti, alleged that despite several memoranda to Dumka district administration, positive steps for these primitive tribes were yet to be taken." When such is the case in one State (Jharkhand) regarding the Primitive Tribes, we can well imagine that similar situation must also be prevailing in other States like Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where there is substantial number of Primitive Tribes.

   However, it all depends on how the government at the centre and at the state level plans and develop the management policies for the Primitive Tribal Groups in India. Let us hope that the Government of India will take a great step forward in this direction for the development of the Primitive Tribal Groups in India.