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Identity & Integration

Blending tribal people into India’s mainstream

Efforts to meet the aspirations of India’s tribal population would essentially mean their greater integration with the national mainstream, which would also reduce their drive for sub-cultural identity

India is still grappling with issues of preserving tribal identities and integrating them with the mainstream at the same time (Photo by Rajesh Pamnani)

A tribe is an endogamous human social group living in a specified terrain, following its own set of rituals, possessing many unique features such as its own dialect, folklore and cultural facets of apparel, instruments, habitat, artifact and music. Tribes are often isolated from other people. Their close historical ties with a specific territory and their cultural and historical distinctiveness form other politically powerful and numerically larger populations set them apart.

A significant degree of isolation over long periods — caused both by their ability to meet their life needs from their own territory and their diffidence in engaging with the dominant population — has led to a situation in which their education levels, life and livelihood pattern and skill sets lag behind those of the dominant populations. This then attracts a tag of them being primitive and backward.

Principal categories

There are two principal categories of tribal people in India. The hill and forest tribes live in undulating, hilly, mountainous terrains in the country, which were for long covered with forests and were poorly connected with the rest of the country. The plains tribals live mostly in the western parts of the country and tend to be nomadic.

Bhil, Gond, Santhal are the three principal ethnos of the Western and Central hilly regions. Boro, Naga, Mising and numerous other tribals live in the hills surrounding Brahmputra and Barak valleys and the small portion of the upper reaches of Irrawaddy basin in the country. States in North India as well as South have much smaller proportion of tribal people compared with the Central states of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. The total population classified as tribal numbers 104 million, or 8.6% of the country’s population, as per Census 2011.

Preservation aspect

Two aspects have tended to dominate the discourse as well as policies regarding the tribal people. The first facet pertains to their identity and the second to their integration in the mainstream. The discussions on these matters tends to be emotive and ideology laden.

The issues of identity have been looked at in the following diverse perspectives — Preservation of tribal languages; preservation of other cultural facets of the tribal people; preservation of the way of life of the tribal people; preservation of their own local governance system; and ensuring continued and unfettered access to the resources in the territory identified as the tribal regions.

Tribal people and activists like to describe them as indigenous people, highlighting the iconic aspect of their identity. This is a term that is never used officially. The official Indian position arises because the UN Convention on Indigenous People speaks of territorial rights of the indigenous people, an explosive and emotive issue in many Indian regions habited by tribal people, and the government would like to contain it.

Issues of integration

The issues of integration, on the other hand, relate to bringing the fruit of modern development to the tribal populations, or at least containing the effects of such components of their traditions as are considered archaic and harmful. It is also important to ensure that nutrition, health and education standards of tribal people show consistent and continuous improvement.

Integration also means encouraging men and women from tribal communities to learn the requisite skills and acquire qualifications and participate in the modern economy on a footing of equality with the rest of the people and ensuring that the natural resources available in the tribal land are put to productive use for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

Sources of conflict

A conflict is often posited between the goals of conservation of identity of tribal people and those of their integration in the mainstream. A common argument, at times borne by historical experience, runs thus: politically dominant, economically powerful and shrewd members of the national population find diverse ways to gain control over the natural resources in tribal land for the purpose of creating wealth for themselves and in the process act irresponsibly by destroying the habitat of the tribal people, by uprooting them from their territories causing untold miseries.

The economic activities connected with mineral resources also bring in droves people from the mainland, reducing the tribal people to marginal position in their own land. This for instance has happened in Jharkhand. These events render it impossible for tribals to live harmoniously with their resources in their habitat. Having been rendered homeless and rootless and unable to practice their livelihoods to which they are used, they become commodities as bonded labor. Thus the policies promoting integration are virtually always dysfunctional to the tribal identity and way of life.

Counterpoint

A counterpoint to the above is voiced less stridently but often persuasively thus: virtually all persons of the country, certainly including the large proportion of the dominant population have evolved over a period of time. They no longer live in the habitat of their forefathers, practice livelihoods of their forefathers or practice the same patterns of traditional life, which were led by their ancestors.

This argument says there is virtually nothing special about tribal people. The natural resources of the regions in which tribal live are national resources and hence should be used for the development of the nation. This should be done while causing as little damage to the populations currently living in those regions.

Right to modern life

I believe that just as traditional occupations of a large number of people have given way to those in the modern economy for a large number of people, similarly the tribal people need to and have a right to learn and practice modern skills and livelihoods.

It is essentially fascist thinking to state that while the non-tribal people will learn and practice the skills of the 21st Century, tribal people must continue to live close to the hunting and gathering stage, wearing traditional and limited apparel, eating local cereals and meats, suffering and falling victims to curable diseases and trying to eke out an existence out of resources under threat from both climatic and anthropogenic factors.

The third dimension to be actively concerned with is the aspirations of the tribal people themselves. Thousands of Naga, Oraon and other tribal people have received education and learnt skills and now live in a manner that is quite akin to the lifestyle of the non-tribal people. Their brethren as well as those others who watch them also want to live in the modern way and enjoy the amenities and facilities available to the dominant people. They aspire to contribute as equals to the nation. It would be counterproductive to forcibly constrain them to live in an isolated habitat in the same manner as their ancestors.

An interesting point to explore is if the very efforts to meet aspirations will necessitate greater integration of the tribal people and reduce the stridency of their drive for sub-cultural identity. Reaching one’s aspirations in the modern day requires interacting with outsiders, exchanging with the market and asserting one’s citizenship. While doing so, shedding one’s parochial identity and accepting greater integration is inevitable. Do aspirations therefore militate against parochial identity?

Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

 

Sanjiv Phansalkar
Sanjiv Phansalkar
Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

4 Comments

  1. Malcolm Harper says:

    Thank you, Sanjiv, as usual very wise and balanced. But what about international comparisons ? The native American ‘Indians’ occupy a slightly similar position, but the colonisation of America is rather recent. Here in the UK, many other countries, we have ‘indigenous’ people such as Scots and Welsh who are doing fine, very much integrated, economically slightly worse off than the ‘mainland’, but lots of inter-marriage, (I have four half-Scottish grand-daughters for instance, and my mother was half-Scottish) and the Anglo-Saxon invasions were more recent than when the Aryans came to India. Why is it that similar integration has not taken place in India ?

    • Sanjiv Phansalkar says:

      Dear Prof Harper

      Many thanks for your response and the kind words.

      The thought of doing any international comparisons did not even occur to me simply because I have noexposure to the situations outside. I suspect the situation of scottish or Welsh people in UK is perhaps more comparable with the integration of Ahoms or much more recently of the Sindhis and Bengalis from across earstwhile borders; than with integration of tribal people. In the main, while there may have been some in-group/outgroup sort of dynamics, there was no rooted perception of social inferiority. In India, within the mainstream Hindu society integration of the dalits poses as big a problem as that of the tribals. I mean, where do you fit a tribal in the chaturvarna system? And the society knows to recognize only those who fit in it and has set norms for integrating them and exchanging with them accordingly.
      I think the uniquely Indian stratification system in castes or other endogamous groups is the principal reason fro poor integration. But I am only waving my hands

  2. Aparna Watve says:

    I really do not agree with the way in which several terms including the word “tribals” are used in the article. The term (tribals) the classification (hills, forest, plains) or the characters described can hardly capture the diversity of groups and (sub)culture and their present day realities.

    Any view (leaving them alone or teaching them to be in modern economy) cannot be anything more than “a view”, mainly because it is of persons who are outside of the group and therefore may not ever truly understand what the individuals or the groups within the community aspires for. We need to respect the choices of an individuals as well as community in a democratic manner.

    All cultures (of communities tribal or non tribal) have always been dynamic and can and do keep changing. As fellow citizens we can only try to ensure that the change does not lead to traumatic consequences.

    “Localization” seems to be emerging everywhere as a reaction to forced globalization. Every community (including many in the “mainstream”) are reasserting their cultural identities in a specific manner, for various reasons ranging from economic to social to obviously political. So it is not only the “tribals” (in the sense of the word you have used) who would want to retain or “go back” to their earlier lifestyles.

    Many of the groups are doing so in a democratic manner, and the rights they are asserting are those given by the Indian constitution, and by subsequent laws (for example Forest Rights Act, 2006 and others) made specifically to correct the wrongs done by colonial government which took away resources that formed the very basis of life for millions of people.

    Those who sought to shed the identity given by culture (such as language, food habits, practices) have ended up taking the identity of alien cultures when not careful and are then lamenting the irretrivable loss of their cultures shaped over generations. If some decide to be more guarded and watchful about their cultures, especially after watching the events going on in the more “integrated” society, labeling it as “parochial” would be a misnomer.

  3. Aparna Watve says:

    Your earlier article “Revive traditional wisdom for healthy life in villages” discusses importance of non-codified wisdom especially related to health practices in rural India.
    But in the above essay ” It is essentially fascist thinking to state that while the non-tribal people will learn and practice the skills of the 21st Century, tribal people must continue to live close to the hunting and gathering stage, wearing traditional and limited apparel, eating local cereals and meats, suffering and falling victims to curable diseases and trying to eke out an existence out of resources under threat from both climatic and anthropogenic factors.”
    Can you please clarify if the “tribals” are part of rural India in the essay “Revive traditional…” and if they are do they have traditional wisdom or are “living close to hunting and …. falling victims to curable diseases…..” as written in essay above? Both appear to be rather generalized views to me… and need a detailing based on actual examples.