Tribes , Tribalism and Challenges to Administration

Snehalata Panda

Abstract Tribalism
Tribe Extremism 
  Developmental discrepancies and government action


Tribe is defined from various perspectives in social sciences thereby broadening its meaning while tribalism distinguishes it from primeval leadership to a broader leadership organized with a purpose. Developmental processes having failed in mainstreaming the marginalized groups result in dissatisfaction which are brought to fore by the leadership and modern means of fast communication . Imbued with tribalism they make organized effort to resist state power quite often resorting to extremism. The paper focuses on these issues at the backdrop of southern Odisha highlighting challenges to administration and government response.

Key words: Tribalism, functional specialization, extremism. conciliation , compromise


Literature on tribe reveal that the term is derived from Tribus(Latin) which means “a group of persons forming a community, claiming descent from a common ancestor” .It might have originated in the City states of ancient Greece and Roman empire1. Redcliff Brown defines it as having a distinct name which does not blur with the boundary of its neighbours , a language and defined territory2. But developmental, anthological ,economic and political studies on tribes have added quite a few characteristics which groups them into different categories whereby the term has become more complex. From the development perspective it refers to a group in a primitive or barbarous stage of development acknowledging the authority of a chief and usually regarding themselves as having a common ancestor3. Functional specialization perspective adds to another dimension to its territory ,linguistic or dialect distinctiveness , hereditary control by the chieftain , separate identity, but without functional specilaisation4. Conceptualised as a band, that is a group of people who share the same interests or beliefs, or who have joined together for a special purpose opens up a plethora of arguments about its primitiveness , primordial loyalty, aloofness from the mainstream of population and development .People inhabiting a contiguous territory with a feeling of unity derived from similarities in culture have “bridged” and “bonded” for specific purpose which synchronised with state sponsored development .In this perspective it is defined as 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 interests5. Economic and social and technological development demarcate the boundary between the developed and underdeveloped people in modern states. In a comparative perspective tribes have been categorized as underdeveloped because it is a “society with a high degree of self sufficiency at a near subsistence level based on a relatively simple technology ,without writing or literature, politically autonomous and with its distinct language ,culture and sense of identity”6. Distinct religion is also attributed as an important element of a tribe though adaptation to other religions is not restricted and their dual religious status is legitimized by the state. Of course this is limited to few tribes in India .Linguistic specificity and dialect of conversation has remained unchanged for tribes of remote locations with a self sufficient economy which makes communication in other languages difficult7. This has secluded from interaction with tribes speaking a different language as well as non tribals. These definitions and perspectives ,by and large, focus on certain common features of tribes like socio-economic underdevelopment, attachment to land with agriculture as the primary occupation ,primitive technology, functional independence within the community, , geographical isolation, separate dialect , rudimentary political institution, and adherence to customary laws8


Over the years the concept has undergone change. According to Morris it is “any of the various systems of social organization ,comprising several local villages ,bands, districts, lineages or other groups and sharing a common ancestry, language ,culture and name.”9. Fried argued that “ emergence of nation states has precipitated tribes”. History strengthens his contention as some of the people preexisting in a definite territory with linguistic and cultural commonalities defied the colonial administration and resisted merger with a bigger entity or the nation state .Scared of marginalization in a bigger state with multiple entities they averred to be recognized as distinctive groups. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such groups in India were kept aloof from the administrative control of the alien ruler. It may therefore, be contended that tribes are “ the product of specific political and economic pressure emanating from already existing state –organised societies10. Therefore a distinction can be made between tribe based on conventional notions and tribalism as an upshot of state expansion. The former has special attachment to the land, religion, custom with obligation to a traditional administration where as the latter originated under the command of ambitious leaders and elites, who bring into play the traditions, beliefs, land entitlement ,habitat etc. to subserve their leadership ambitions. The tribal identity is used as a bargaining plank to extract socio – economic benefits and political privileges inherent in the protectionist policies of a state . Many such groups have continued to use both conciliatory as well as extremist tactics to bolster their demand for tribal status. The state wants to homogenize and creates mechanisms to control while the tribes have asserted against pervasive state control which limits their opportunities. Initially the core overpowers the periphery .Subsequently its power enhances which is seldom challenged. But with changes in the political system and economic policies they organize , put up consistent resistance direct as well as indirect through extremist activities .The state uses both coercive as well conciliatory methods to tame them though not without a price.
When the colonizers began settlement in India most of the geography of the country included , hills .plains and coastal area. While the latter two regions gave in to foreign power the people residing in hills resisted. Their isolationist existence, separate culture, common ancestry, beliefs and ways of life remain unchanged .They were scattered about in less preferred locations which was advantageous for keeping intact their identity as separate groups. A strong link to the land of their abode was a key determinant to keep their tribal status undamaged. They have coexisted with various forms of government as well as resisted interference in their conventional structures of administration and culture in the pre colonial, colonial and postcolonial periods. 

With economic reform following integration of Indian economy to the global market many tribes have asserted their rights for land and livelihood in areas where large scale mining, special economic zones and big industries came up or proposed to be set up.Thus the land rights enshrined in the sixth schedule of the constitution and some other provisions of the constitution became the basis to assert against land acquisition by the state . Since 2009 it has become next to impossible to override land rights and environment laws for setting up industry or extracting ore from mines. Local groups have reaffirmed kinship ,rallied round symbols with leaders from among themselves or outside to resist mining and industrialization.They have shown strong feeling of loyalty to tribe in order to redress the injustice meted out to them by divesting of their land and livelihood. Environmental issues are tagged to these to bolster their demand . Thus there is clash between two axial principles that is tribalism and globalism ,one micro localism and the other pervasive global capitalism. Access to internet has made easier the process to organize , interact and communicate .These groups have been enabled ,empowered and focused creating undulating hills in social homogeneity. While tribals have preexisted state with their organization ,culture and beliefs , a strong feeling of identity and loyalty to a tribe has surfaced with forceful assertion in different phases of development in India challenging state power .


At this backdrop the Maoist resistance to state policies in Odisha presents a spectrum of characteristics . Tribals of a particular geographical location have raised their demands through leaders who are a combination of tribals and non tribals. In Malkangiri district of Odisha their resistance is an offshoot of several causes both remote and immediate. One of the remote causes is the nature of tribes to resist penetration of outsiders into their territory .Historical evidence proves that Koya tribes resisted the hegemony of Nandapur kings . Bangaru Devi and her brother had fought guerilla war for a prolonged period against the British. The shifting of capital from Nandapur to Jeypore by the King of Jeypore was partly due to the resistance of local people. Their inclusion in the Madras presidency and creation of agency areas with a separate administrator by the British was as much to keep the administration away from resistance of the tribes as it was for inaccessibility of their territory. Post independence development strategy and rehabilitation of the Bangladesh refugees in their territory further escalated their resentment .The local indigenous people have not reconciled to these settlements .Much of their discontentment is due the socio economic cleavages created after the settlements , access to politics by the newly settled people and their gradual dominance in society ,economy and politics. Their simmering discontentment was further fuelled by the damage done to their habitat by the construction of a hydel power project at Balimela without proper rehabilitation of the displaced people . Geography is favourable for cross border movement and linguistic affinity with Telugus has been a pull factor to draw them to their organization .These reasons remaining constant the split within the communist party, formation of CPI Maoist ,intrusion of the extremists from the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and leadership provided by non tribals facilitated extremism .Lack of awareness and educational deficiency of the people, poor governance ,political apathy, inadequate intelligence and capacity to meet the challenges have added to the problem.
The coming up of Chasimuliasangha(CMS) in Narayanpatna is culmination of efforts made by non tribal leaders to ensure social justice following the Maoist concept. This area borders Andhra Pradesh and tribes having allegiance to different primordial loyalties have resided in the area with non tribal people. The extremist agitation is against the class(rich) which includes tribals as well as non tribals. Awareness created by the outside leaders has stimulated the poor landless people to rally round the tribal characteristics .Spooked by extremist action people both ,tribals and non tribals left the village .District administration arranged for their temporary residence but many of them have a miserable experience . The movement for justice assumed a political tinge when in the last election to the local government institutions the representative of the CMS was elected uncontested. Political bargaining in the formation of the Zilla Parishad might have solved the issue but a tribal member of the Odisha Legislative Assembly has been abducted .Demands following his abduction is a challenge for the government .It has to develop capabilities to meet the challenges thrown up by several dissenting groups disfavouring the conciliatory approach of the government.

Extremism is understood as a political act which is associated with radical individuals and groups opposed to the existing system and its norms who are uncompromising and intolerant of dissent even within their group. (11)The political system is kept in constant threat by using violent means to achieve their ends. Tribal groups resorting to extremism in Odisha have been indoctrinated in the unjust political system which rides roughshod over their land rights and livelihood for the benefit of the capitalists .The plank that market economy has promoted interests of big business is easier to rest the camouflaged interests of the elites of their group.

Developmental discrepancies and government action

It is true that government apathy to the needs of people of remote areas is pervasive. The development of Odisha is concentrated in the centre and the periphery is neglected since independence. Over a period of time the younger generation has become aware of this unjust process. Increased level of education and access to modern media of communication cannot keep the non utilized peripheral human resource in a Metternich type closed society. Rallying round tribalism and resorting to extremism is fuelled by remote as well as immediate causes which by and large are political . 
The state has developed mechanisms to counter the problem through the traditional methods of compromise, conciliation and coercion. Compromise and conciliation might indicate the capabilities of the state for accommodation, resilience and adaptability. Moderates argue for status quo to be maintained by mainstreaming the extremists , socio economic progress of the people, people friendly police and development of communication. State responds in both ways but in Odisha the extremists have not allowed improved infrastructure for communication in Malkngiri. This is a paradox which raises doubts about their concern for development. Insecurity has compelled the contractors to move their goods through the Deoghat road in Koraput which remains constantly jammed hampering normal traffic. Coercive methods have been retaliated by the extremists through violence, killing innocent people , damaging state property and demoralizing administration. Therefore , a better alternative is continued combined action with hard and soft power and balanced development of all the regions . State and government are created to provide security to the people .For achieving this end a comprehensive effort is needed with indigenous resources as well as resources from neighbouring states and the centre.

Notes and References:

  1. Tribe might refer to a phyle of ancient Greece which is a clan or tribe ruled by basileus or king .Some of them were classified as Gelontes Argadeis, Hopletes, and the Agikoreis in lonia region and Hylleans,Pamphyles,the Dymanesin the Dorian region.The lonia tribe settled mainly on the shores of Aegean Sea during 800-400 B.C. The Dorians were one of the four major Greek “ethane” (ethnic group) who inhabited in the island of Crete. Tribe in ancient Rome refers to any one of the three divisions of the people representing the Latin, Sabine and Etruscans. The Latins were an Italian tribe inhabiting central and south-central Italy,“Sabini tribes inhabited in an area north of Rome. Etruscans were settlers of north of Rome between Arno and Tiber rivers and Apennine mountains ,a branch of Pelasgians aboriginal inhabitants of the Aegean region who were conquered by the Romans .Etruscan civilization is an ancient Italian civilization in the area roughly corresponding to Tuscany. 
  2. Cited in Brendt,Ronald.M.,1959,The Concept of Tribe in the western Desert of Australia,Ocenia,30 pp 81-107
  3. Oxford dictionary IX 1933 p339 ,
  4. Majumdar,D.N.,1944The Fortunes of Primitive Tribes,The Universal publishers Ltd,Lucknow
  5. Ralph Linton,1936,The Study of Man ;An Introduction, cited in Robert,H.Winthrop, Dictonary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology , Routledge 
  6. Southhall,Adian W.,1970,The Illusion of Tribe ,Journal of Asian and African Studies ,5 pp28-507.Lewis,L.M,www.sociologygiude .com
  7. Naik,T.B,(ed) 1965,The Changing Tribes,Tribal Research Institute of Chindawara,M.P
  8. Morris William,1980, It is a group of persons with a “common occupation, interest or habit and a large family .The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston,Hughton,Mifflin Company 
  9. Fried, contended contemporary tribes do not have their origin in pre state tribes .They were pre state bands which are “small ,mobile and fluid social formations” .Such secondary tribes are products of state expansion. Secondary tribes develop when the state uses them as means to extend administrative and economic influence in the hinterland to avoid heavy spending as the British had identified scheduled tribes in India .They may also from viable groups to defend themselves against state expansion. This process has continued in India since independence .With globalization tribalism has surfaced primarily in tribal areas rich with natural resources .Fried Morton,1975, Th notion of Tribe,Mento Park CA,Cummings Publishing Company