The Social and Cultural Problems of Tribes

Sunaram Soren

    Today when a lot of concerns are being raised on the wholesome development of tribes, I as a tribal would articulate a few points, which I hope would be extremely useful in the present times.

    While speaking about the tribal society and its culture, it is commonly held that their social life is bad and their culture is not of high standard. They need to be raised from the bottom and be brought to be at par with modern society. Such attitude had begun from the whites in the western countries. They used to smuggle the African and Australian residents out of their respective regions and keep them as slaves. But when good sense took over them, these simple and innocent tribes appeared to them as extremely poor and impoverished, and they took pity on them. It raises suspicion as to whether there was any conspiracy of imperialism in demonstration of such pity. The customs of the tribes of Africa and Australia were much different from those of whites. Normally, one loves his/her own traditional customs. Therefore it was not unnatural that the whites considered these tribes as uncivilized and savage. They (whites) believed that closer these tribes were raised to their (whites’) level by educating and civilizing them (tribals), more they would be raised to the state of development. We all know what has happened to the condition of the tribes as a consequence of working with such belief or purpose. The American tribes are losing fast their identity. The tribes of Australia are almost on the verge of extinction. In Africa also decimation of Negroes had started but now that in them patriotism has risen, may be there could be a (visible) growth. In the epics of our country, we learn that in our country too, the Aryans had held tribal people as demons (Asura) and non-Aryans etc. and looked at them with hatred and caused them all kinds of hardship. Today we know the consequence of our native caste population trying to become civilized in the yardstick of whites. The early culture of our land has been forgotten. The natural development has become impossible while the social culture is disappearing. Though our scholars have begun to realize this, yet some reformers are trying to initiate the process of development that would raise the tribes to the state achieved by the Brahmins, Khatriyas and Khandayats (caste hindus) under British. The tribal people, who have become conscious, have begun looking at such process of development and attempts to raise tribal people this way with suspicion. The so-called high caste communities who have been for the last two hundred years following the manners of (western) civilization, and for that regretting their decision, to develop the tribal people in the same manner, I consider, would amount to the unnecessary wastage of time, money and life.

    Before any attempt is made to develop the tribal society and its culture, the tribes should be understood in depth, and their society and culture be observed with thoroughness. The tribal people are the original inhabitants of India. Many scholars also opine that many among undeveloped castes and ‘harijans’ (Scheduled Castes) originally belonged to the tribal communities. Under the influence of external factors or under the influence of inducements, they might have severed their link with their origin. In the last five or seven years amongst tribal people the emergence of some new ideas is visible, which has brought about changes in their thought process. Previously (tribal) Bhuyans took pride in declaring themselves as (caste hindu) khandayats. Many Konds, Gond-landlords and kings have become (caste hindu) khatriyas. Today in the agency areas of Ganjam, Savaras declare themselves as Sudha Savara and finally feel proud calling themselves only Suddha.

    The religion, society and culture of tribal people is unique. Tribal people worship ‘Nature’ and realize in such worship the existence of God. With the association of non-tribal people, some of them are found to have accepted Hindu religion, and some others have accepted other religions. Yet it is a miracle that despite repression and torture for eon, the tribal has maintained the distinctness of its social and cultural existence unspoiled. In tribal society there neither exists caste division nor the custom of women donning veil (purdah). In tribal community one does not find, as in Hindu society, the Barber, Washerman , Brahmin as belonging to exclusive groups and performing the pre assigned jobs to the groups; a tribal can perform the job of a washerman, an oil man, a confectioner etc. The culture of tribal people has also influenced the Hindu culture. For example, the tribal God of Sabar, Lord Jagannath, has become the God of Hindus and is being worshipped in the main temple (at Puri), where there is no caste differentiation. It should therefore be appreciated that the tribal culture is India’s original/ indigenous culture. The differences that are visible between tribal and non-tribal cultures are due to the foreign influence. Therefore, one wonder, if, in India, the people begin to think originally, then will they ever be inclined to accept the culture of others? This is indeed a matter of deep deliberation.

    It is not that there has been external influence on the non-tribals alone; society and culture of the tribals belonging to different regions have severely been damaged as they remained under the control of different regional administrations. For example, the customs and practices of the tribals belonging to erstwhile princely states (garhjats) are different from the customs and practices of the tribal people belonging to the British ruled regions, though both belong to the same tribe. Therefore, those who are presently in charge of the all round development of the tribal people, need to determine what is their (of the tribal people) original culture.

    The matter does not end here. The changes in social and professional practices and customs cannot be brought about be issuing orders or directions. Those anthropologists, who without causing any distortion to the tribal culture wish to leave the tribal people as they were, probably forget that this is the age of individual freedom. Today you cannot force one to move in a direction opposite to his or her intentions. Therefore the only way by which the development of the tribal society and its culture can be brought about is by influencing them (triba people) through education and publicity undertaken by the leaders or the knowledgeable people in the society. But before initiating such influence on them, it should be determined as to what is good and bad in the prevailing society and culture. Unless it is done, the situation would only worsen.

    I myself have remained in contact with both tribal and non-tribal people .The tribal people have certain specialties, which are same in every region. Even when one finds regional differences amongst the tribal people, the culture of togetherness is found common to the tribal people everywhere. Such culture of togetherness, to some extent, is also found amongst non-tribal people but only during some social festivals. In tribal societies, such togetherness is found during the observance of every social customs. An entire village or entire community lives as if it is one family. In social functions, construction of houses, in cultivation, the residents of the village or the members of the community help each other. Not only that they consider others responsibilities as their own. It would really be bad if this outlook of tribal people is spoiled, while subjecting them to the process of development. Another quality of the tribal people is their belief in God and respect for truth. Today we call this simplicity or stupidity. Still another quality of the tribal people is their adoration of beauty, and love for song and dance. In many cases, this aspect, due to misery and poverty, remains un-manifested. But once there occurs change in their condition, this aspect blooms. How their fondness towards entertainment would proceed in the right direction, their sense of beauty would not cause harm to the body and society is a matter to be thought about. Besides the tribal people are a great host and self-respecting. I only placed here a few issues before them who are making endeavor to bring about development in (tribal) society and culture. In my considered view, the deficiencies that are found in the custom and practices of the tribal society have their root in the economic misery (of the tribal people). Reformers, while emphasizing on this aspect, and with that objective educating the tribal people, should allow the task of bringing about the development of the society and culture (of tribal people) to follow its natural path. The tribal culture would move in the right direction in response to the call of the age and circumstantial conditions. The manner in which the tribal people, despite so much external influence, have preserved the tradition of their society and culture, I do not apprehend its sudden extinction.

    Two schools of thought have now appeared that articulate solutions to the problems of tribal society. According to one school, a solution could be to get the tribal society fully assimilated into developed society by demolishing their social specificities and uniqueness. The other school proposes that the tribals should be left to themselves to develop, as they are the offspring of Nature. The anthropologists largely hold this view. In my opinion both the views are not appropriate. I subscribe to the fundamental principle of Unity in Diversity.

Translated by Birendra Nayak

Source: Adivasi, Part 1, Nos 2-3, 1956
Published by Odisha Adivasi Research Council