Tribal Culture Language and Self-Rule

Birendra Nayak

Tribal Culture

    Tribal culture needs to be saved is the common invocation in every forum assembled to discuss on the conditions of tribes.

    The tribal culture as commonly perceived centers around its external aspects viz., language, dance, song, art, customs and rituals. It is therefore not unusual to find the governments of the states having considerable tribal presence to be sponsoring various academies devoted predominantly to the study of these aspects of tribal culture. Annual fairs, exhibitions of these aspects are regularly held ostensibly to create an appreciation of tribal culture amongst non-tribals.

    In the cacophony and glitter of exhibiting such externals of tribal culture, are suppressed its internal aspects which manifests in intra and intergenerational equity, community feeling, according women high status, resistance to any form of subjugation, democratic style of functioning in decision making, solidarity and sharing, contentedness and joy in simple living, love of nature and attachment to land and forest; ordinary eyes miss these aspects.

    The acknowledged characteristics on which the tribal culture has evolved are the following:

        1. Land and forest as main means of livelihood.
        2. Clan and lineage as important structural units.
        3. Communitarian living and decision-making.
        4. Homogeneous and unstratified village community.
        5. Independent mother tongue.

    Obviously, these characteristics unless maintained, the tribal culture can not be protected. And the reality vis-a vis land and forest as main means of livelihood for tribals is, as various studies have unequivocally reveal, steady erosion of land, water and forest rights of local communities due to 'successful invasions in the pre-colonial and colonial periods on the one hand and the state sponsored and private sector national and multinational companies on the other'. Consequently, once a relatively independent, self reliant and self determining local community gets transformed to one dependent on the vagaries of ' money market, labour contractors and government agents'. In the name of national development, the displacement caused has been found to affect tribals severely depriving them of their means of livelihood. It is stated that till 1980s, 40% (8.52 million) of 21.3 million persons thus displaced were tribals. That their dependency on land and forest would be in irretrievable jeopardy is suggested from the Government of India policy which states that 'with the advent of New Economic Policy, it is expected that there will be a large scale investment, creating an enhanced demand for land to be provided within a shorter time span in an increasingly competitive market ruled economic structure...much in the tribal areas' (1994 draft rehabilitation policy). In an economic regime where to attract large scale investment is held in priority and to provide land within a shorter time span is imperative in an increasingly competitive market ruled economic structure, nothing but the land in the tribal area could serve the purpose causing easy displacement of tribals from the land and at a dirt cheap compensation package, if necessary. Against such intention, can be foreseen the prospect of further shrinkage of resources at the disposal of tribals as looming large on their future.

    The current field experiences (be it in Kucheipadar, Lanjigarh and Kalingnagar in Orissa) provide corroborative evidences. In the face of such irresistible attraction towards large-scale investment, embodied in the current economic policy, which proposes to swamp the tribal areas, one wonders if not to it the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 stands in contra-distinction. It is another matter that this Bill has already received resistance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest of course on the biased premise that if the forestland is settled in favour of Adivasi, the destruction of Forest is imminent, and is imminent the extinction of the wild life population. But this Bill can not escape the question as to why at this juncture when the tribals' life and livelihood are seriously threatened due to government's overzealous pursuance of policies of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG), such Bill is initiated though demand for such right and the demand for settling the lands in the name of the tribals are as old as the independent India; in the State of Orissa such demands were raised in 50s by none other than veteran freedom fighter and member of the Constituent Assembly Smt. Malati Chaudhuri. Does this Bill exhibit the 'human face' of the LPG policies? Yet the apprehension about this Bill that if it is given effect to will legally exclude the community right over the land and forest which traditionally the tribals have been enjoying can not be dismissed but requires to be critically examined. Simultaneously some rethinking must be made on the demand for settling the forestland in an individual's name in a tribal society. It should be examined if not this Bill by legalising individual ownership shall not cause and aggravate the creation of an inequitable tribal community. It should also be examined if this Bill shall not give way to individual ownership over community ownership, cause growth of individualism and thereby shall subvert the communitarian living a fundamental characteristic on which the tribal culture has evolved. If at all the traditional ownership is felt necessary to be given a legal status, giving legal status to community ownership of forest land appears more desirable. All those who are concerned about the protection of the tribal culture must seriously view the development that the Bill is likely to entail.

    The message of all that are said above is that the forest and land traditionally available to the tribals are shrinking, are likely to shrink faster in the present economic regime and the apparent attempt to make the forest land available to them within a legal framework will cause individual ownership which is alien to tribal culture of community ownership and communitarian living.

    The shrinking resource at the disposal of the tribal community, it may be stated, is adversarial to the high status that women enjoy in the tribal society, which they owe to their participation in the family economy and production. The shrinkage limits such participation with obvious consequence of loss in the high status of women. The loss of land and forest within their traditional control is also adversarial to the tribal culture of contentedness and joy of simple living.

    So it is paramount that land and forest within their traditional sphere of activities needs to be protected to save the tribal culture vanishing from tribal communities and from reducing to mere museum pieces and text book materials. In other words tribal culture should necessarily be found in the tribal communities, not merely in the text/reference books or museums.

    It is a fact that the tribal culture as delineated above, in its different manifestations, has not retained its pristine purity. With steady loss of their land and forest to the non-tribals (including the government, companies) and consequent interactions, the tribal culture has over the years undergone considerable change. Be it Hinduisation or conversion to Christianity or the coming of different government projects ostensibly for the tribal welfare, the tribal people have been exposed to alien cultures for quite long and thus many traits have infiltrated into the tribal culture which are not consistent with their original way of living. So much so that Prof. A. Aiyappan, a renowned Anthropologist, did not hesitate to conclude, way back in 1971,that ‘with the increased tempo of Hinduisation and conversion, tribal cultures have little chance of survival’. It is no more a matter of deeper investigation to ascertain that the younger generations in tribal communities love the ‘modernising adventure’ i.e. getting education, having money and buying power as they find so many things to buy. Many youths no more worship tribal gods instead they worship Hindu Gods or become Christian. Individualism, selfishness and consumerism, which are attributes of modern living, have already seeped into the tribal culture. In the present economic regime of globalization, which projects consumerism as the main value and entices more and more people to accept it, one is afraid if not such seepage of consumerism into the tribal society is going to be irreversible. Because to ensure the growth of consumerism, it is feared that ‘globalization has to depoliticise the minority which gets its benefits, destroy their social conscience and desensitize them to the impoverishment of the majority’.

    Such cultural changes in tribal society are conducive for profit hungry market economy. Thus under the present dispensation, unless such intrusions are resisted it is difficult to save the tribal culture which celebrates community living in all its ramifications.

    Resistance to alien is natural to a tribal community as it is in their culture to resist every attempt towards their subjugation, which they suspect, aliens have intention to make. The history is replete with such instances. Even currently one finds tribals resisting their eviction from their land and forest caused due to various government and private projects. It is another matter that a small minority of them being fallen prey to the enticement of globalization has become insensitive to their struggle.

    In the background of such scenario the formation of a tribal state like Jharkhand may make one optimist towards preservation of tribal culture particularly when the Santali Language has been recognized as a language within the Constitution of India. But could the internal aspects of the tribal cultures be retained by the tribes or restored to them in this tribal state in the face of imperatives of globalization? The field experiences of many scholars suggest the opposite. The way the Jharkhand government is opening up its State to the national and multinational investors in mining, the apprehension is raised if the human rights of the indigenous communities will not be compromised.


    There is no doubt that the language is man’s oldest culture. The history of a people can be known from analysing the language these people speak. And it is held that no language is inferior. The tribal languages are as complex in grammar, syntax etc. as any other language in the world. The only difference lies in the size of the vocabulary and vocabulary develops with the words necessary for use as it is not necessary to burden the language with the words for which there can be no possible use. Santali has emerged as one of the most cultivated tribal languages because Santals never hesitated to borrow from other languages. Even way back in the year 1932, one-estimate reveals that as many as 3 million people were speaking Santali, now almost six million people speak. As against this it is also observed that many tribes have lost their original languages or have become multilingual. Why the tribes lost their languages or became multilingual needs critical examination. But it could be that the languages of politically and economically weak minorities have been under constant threat of marginalisation if not extinction. Such tribes becoming more and more dependent on the economy outside of their own, are likely to depend on the language of the community controlling that economy. When in the present regime of globalisation the prospect of dilectisation (process by which a language reduces to a mere dialect) of developed vernacular languages is looming large (clamour for learning English being on rise), the survival of tribal languages appears to be doubly threatened.


    The language of a self-reliant community has a better chance of survival. Self-reliance presupposes control over resources by the members of the community governing itself or under self-rule. That the tribals as self reliant and self-determining people have lost their preeminence needs no further elaboration. The State instead sets its objective to promote their educational and economic interest and protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitations. (Article 46 of the Constitution of India). Their area was divided between 5th and 6th Schedules under Article 244 of the Constitution. In the 6th Schedule areas (of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram), an elective body of Autonomous District Council (ADC) with executive, and legislative and judicial powers is provided. It is empowered to make laws on land, forest, water, village or town administration, marriage and divorce, inheritance of property, social customs etc. It is also empowered to decide whether an Act made by the Parliament or State Legislatures can be applied to the Council area or not. It is also empowered to set up Courts to administer justice within its jurisdiction. An institutional provision of Self-rule by tribals! For the 5th Schedule areas(of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Gujrat, Rajsthan and Himachal Pradesh), the Governor is vested with special powers to exclude any Act of Parliament or of the State Legislature to the Scheduled areas by notification or extend them with such exceptions or modifications which he thinks necessary for peace or good governance. The Governor can issue notification repealing or amending any Act of Parliament or of the State Legislature or any existing law if he thinks that these Acts/laws are detrimental to the interest of the tribals. It is also provided that there would Council named Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) consisting of elected leaders to advise the Governor on matters pertaining to the welfare and advancement of Scheduled tribes. It is of course another matter that scarcely any Governor has used this power. No doubt constitutionally the 6th Schedule areas are better placed than 5th Schedule areas vis-a-vis self-rule. Such deficiency, it is claimed, was sought to be removed with the enactment of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act 1996 as it recognised the traditional community right of the tribals over local natural resources, accepted the validity of ‘customary law, social and religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources’, directed the State governments not to make any law which is inconsistent with these and gave wide ranging powers to Gram Sabhas. But even in this ‘progressive’ law is implicit the reluctance to give Gram Sabha the decisive power on the matters of land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation. PESA Act, 1996, which came into being on the basis of recommendation by the Bhuria Committee, however, does not include Committee’s recommendation for consent of the Gram Sabha before land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation; the Act merely provided for consultation with the Gram Sabha. Further the State Acts like Orissa Gram Panchayat (Amendment) Act 1997, Orissa Panchayat Samiti (Amendment) Act 1997, Orissa Zilla Parishad (Amendment) Act 1997, claimed to have been enacted following PESA Act, 1996 have considerably diluted the original provision for protection of traditional rights and customs of tribal people, their cultural identity and community control over resources, when such State Acts require such protection to be consistent with the relevant laws in force and in harmony with the basic tenets of the Constitution and human rights, which suggest that the CrPC, IPC, Forest Acts etc. shall prevail over the customary laws of the community. Unlike the requirement of consultation with the Gram Sabha or the Panchayat before land acquisition etc. or mandatory requirement of its recommendation prior to grant of prospecting license or mining lease etc. emphasised in PESA Act 1996, Orissa Zilla Parishad (Amendment) Act 1997, confers this right to Zilla Parishad in exclusion to the Gram Sabha or Panchayat. Similarly Jharkhand Panchayati Raj Act 2001 (with amendment in 2003), has come under criticism as it lacks ‘ many empowering features of PESA Act 1996, like ownership of minor forest produce, the power to recommend licenses/ leases or regulation of liquor sales’ and worse still ‘ the State government can take away or change the powers of Gram sabha’. Though the Jharkhand Panchayati Raj Act 2001 is claimed to be based on PESA Act 1996, which recognises ‘customary law, social and religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources’, it fails, it is alleged, to deal with the laws relating to the Customs and practices codified in Chhotnagpur Tenancy Act 1908 (CNTA) and Santhal Praganas Tenancy Act 1949 (SPTA). Such State Acts reveal the ruling elite’s reluctance to allow the tribal grass root people any opportunity of self-rule. Even whatever is provided in the Acts as apology of self-rule is either ignored or violated brazenly in the field. There are instances when the Gram Sabhas constituted by the villagers following PESA Act 1996 have been refused government registration. There are also instances when Gram sabhas are not consulted before land acquisition on the contrary when Gram Sabhas intervened their leaders were imprisoned on false charges. The allegations of stage-managed Gram Sabhas are also heard. In nutshell, it can be said that the attempts by the government made through the laws are hardly effective in empowering the tribals for genuine self-rule. It appears as if within the present Constitutional framework it is possible to provide the opportunity of self-rule but for the ruling elite.

    But when the preying eyes of rich, cutting across the national boundaries, is on the natural resources where live the indigenous communities, natural tendency of the rich would be to alienate them from their habitat. Various strategies are devised in this direction. Since in the present predatory economic regime, alienation would be more severe, every proposal relating to tribals needs careful scrutiny. The appearance of progressive could be deceptive. Until and unless the indigenous communities have final say on their means of livelihood, their language, their culture are bound to remain under threat.

    It remains to be seen when these communities would achieve this stage.

*Key note speech in the Session on Tribal Culture, Language and Self-Rule in All India Tribal Convention held at Bhubaneswar, October 24-25, 2005.