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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 13, March 30, 2024

Debating Modernity, Colonialism, and Categorisation of ‘Tribes’ in India | Chhotelal Kumar

Friday 29 March 2024



The article engages in a discourse surrounding ’Modernity, Colonialism, and the Categorisation of Tribals in India.’ Within this context, I aim to elucidate the intricate intertwining of these themes and their impact on Indigenous communities. The article delves into the trajectory and dynamics of the interaction between Indigenous populations and Colonial Masters, shedding light on the manner in which these diverse groups were systematically classified within the dichotomy of civilized and savage. But the question remains: What made them argue these tribes won’t survive this change? Why are they deemed primitive and noble savages? Why and How are they categorised as a ‘Tribe’? How were they brought under the ambit of Colonialism? What lies beneath the idea of progress and its culmination of domination? These are some of the few questions that this work will explore and try to answer.

Modernity and Colonialism had very rupturing relations with tribes, also referred to more precisely in India as Schedule Tribes. Several theories were articulated over what would happen to these (primitive) peoples. It was widely believed that their nature-dependent primordial life would not survive this modern complex world. But the question remains: What made them argue these tribes won’t survive this change? Why are they deemed primitive and noble savages? Why and How are they categorised as a ‘Tribe’? How were they brought under the ambit of Colonialism? What lies beneath the idea of progress and its culmination of domination? These are some of the few questions that this work will explore and try to answer. To do that, We must first explore and lay out the historical contours for more nuance and fruitful discussion.

The debate over historical origin and belonging to modern-day India has been very contested. At the same time, the Indian government also denies any Indigenous or original inhabitants status for any group of people in India. It is believed that, unlike today, in the premodern era people were more or less categorised by their locality or regional or occupational identity. The same could be argued for the Tribals. As Virginious Xaxa (2016), in one of his articles, argues, “Before the colonial era, the use of a generic term to describe tribal peoples was, on the whole, absent. Even if there were terms such as ‘Jana’ as opposed to ‘Jati’, they did not have the kind of generality that the term ‘tribe’ came to acquire during the colonial and post-colonial periods” (Xaxa, 2016).

Similarly, Sumit Guha, in his recent book (Beyond Caste Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present), argues colonial sociological categories like caste and tribe would seem quite inappropriate if we rewrote the history of pre-colonial India as the story of the complex interactions of diverse jatis evolving into "society."(Guha, 2013) He further says this is because these categories were fundamentally permeated with British and Iberian ideas about race, blood, birth, and backwardness—ideas that were unique to early modern and modern Europe. Guha (2013) demonstrates that in pre-colonial Indian society, a more complex range of categories made up of jati, zat, qaum, khum, and kabilah—categories that varied in their denotation of people, lineage, religious denomination, political status, country, occupational grouping, and so forth—was the operational categories of community existence instead of caste or tribe.

The Colonial idea of tribes was used as a classification of people who lived outside the majority of Hindu and Muslim communities (settled communities). They primarily dwelled within the confines of forested and mountainous terrains, embodying a societal structure defined by egalitarian principles, a rudimentary subsistence economy, autonomy, and a degree of isolation. Essentially, they represented the politically and socially marginalized "others" within the modern era. These communities, marked by sparse populations, were dispersed across vast and demanding landscapes making them more vulnerable to marginalisation. However, with the arrival of colonial modernity, Britishers felt the need to categorise them under certain common governing categories. The ability to amalgamate such diverse sets of people and rationalise them under a singular category was a central feature of modernity. The logic of rationalisation sets the ‘standard norms’ based on colonial anthropologists’ knowledge construction, which could be used in categorising any group of people as Tribal or non-Tribal. This imposed identity stripped them of their true plurality and reduced them to just singular given the fixed identity of Schedule Tribe. Here it could be highlighted as a true representation of the domination and coercive nature of modern rationality.

With the conquering of Bengal from the dying Mughals, the East India Company had its first encounters with the Tribals. Early encounters were more or less very limited and the Company’s understanding was mostly directed by Brahmin interpretation of them as forest inhabiting Hindus. But with time and the desire to consolidate its grip over conquered territory, it started to regulate the movement of Tribals. The imperative for exerting control stemmed chiefly from the facilitation of revenue collection and a desire to assimilate the subjected population into the envisioned societal paradigm modelled on British ideals. The pursuit of control, however, instigated recurrent insurgencies and confrontations against the colonial powers. The resultant violent encounters prompted the British authorities to label these indigenous groups as ’Savage,’ characterizing them as ’Noble Savages’ due to their perceived primitive lifestyles. The Company’s expanding intrusion into the hinterlands gave rise to political turmoil, cleverly construed by the colonizers as a matter of maintaining law and order. That will further give them legitimacy to jeopardise the Indigenous life world.

The framework of law and order, in its imposition, obscured a nuanced comprehension of the intricate tribal lifeworld, compelling a rigid classification of tribal communities into the enlightened dichotomy of ’civilized’ and ’savage.’ This categorization was influenced by the Enlightenment notion of progress, wherein the prevailing Eurocentric modernist worldview posited that the entire world would inevitably adhere to a trajectory akin to that of Europe, signifying the apex of human progress attainable. This conceptualization of tribal communities was thus constructed through the lens of a Eurocentric paradigm, predicated on the belief that European societal development represented the zenith of human advancement. Such a knowledge system led the colonisers to believe that the Tribal community and their life world are based upon the absence of reason and are in disorder. Christian missionaries were infatuatedly concerned with bringing the Tribals from darkness and savagery to a light and Humane Christian world. Such belief motivated the colonisers to embark on a journey of rational ordering of tribal life worlds. This ordering resulted in the classifying, regulation and control of different social engagements and experiences which Foucault (1966) would understand as a systematic construction of discourse on knowledge. Tribals like other colonised people became the intense subject of scrutiny and study and their life world was reordered within rationalist and scientific models. Several policies and laws (e.g. criminal Tribes Act, 1871, Indian Forest Act, 1878 & 1927 ) were made following this rationalist and scientific framework which was meant to regulate and govern the tribal communities.

The colonial administration was the one to propose the use of the term "tribe" to characterise a group of people so diverse from one another in terms of physical and linguistic characteristics, population size, regions inhabited, or stages of social formation. Such a category was required for administrative as well as classificatory reasons since it was necessary to organise the vast diversity that existed into orderly and singular categories. Therefore, while the tribe as a category and a point of reference may be considered a product of colonialism, but that rarely reflected the diverse realities in the existing designated tribal life world.

The British colonial administration in India utilized a tribal classification system, a practice that persisted into post-colonial India. The limited conceptual development of the term "tribe" in India, distinct from its administrative application, can be ascribed to the pragmatic orientation of both colonial and post-colonial anthropological approaches in the region. Interestingly, It is the responsibility of government officials to define "the tribes". The defining technique was put forth while keeping in mind creating a normalised category of ‘Tribe’.

The Colonial modernist rationale of reform, cure, and progress, which believed in bringing the scientificity to social and religious engagements of people living a primitive and savage life further relegated these communities to marginalisation. Interestingly people were introduced to new sets of rules and laws which were based on so-called scientific reasons and promoted in the name of efficient and just rule. But in reality, such rules and laws were disapproved of any alternatives in the name of logic of reason and science. This obsession with scientific rationale reduced ‘the others’ to the population which needs to be normalised. In the name of reform and progress, it only becomes a vehicle of effective control and forceful inclusion in a capitalist economy.

A wide range of scholars has hotly debated the issue of governance in the tribal area. The institutions and practices of government are always justified and defined by a specific set of scientific rationality that helps meet its aimed ends. The governance of Tribal areas was driven by the logic and necessity of modernist Ideology. The new government’s policies came to be associated with improvement, protectionism, and isolationism. The foundational idea of an "imperial ideology of rule," according to Uday Chandra (2013), was the imperial goal of primitivism, or a "type of liberal imperial ideology of rule that justified the subjugation of populations and places described as wild, savage or, simply, primitive."(Chandra, 2013)

It is equally pertinent here to remember that knowledge construction during colonial domination acted as the bedrock Ideology of all these laws and governing Institutions. Knowledge construction of ‘the other’ (tribals) was heavily prejudiced by the Eurocentric view that was based on the enlightenment formulation of the binary of human civilization. Colonial knowledge, under this scheme of things, defined the subject’s(tribals’) primitiveness, culture, and tradition, as well as government and reform. As a result, the colonised subject was the object of both colonial knowledge and authority. Over the course of the 19th century, racial differences were given more and more weight in the concept of "tribal" particularism. This demonstrates the increasing impact of the relatively new field of ethnology in Europe, which focused on studying "dark-skinned savages" and helped to explain why racial evolution in the continent differed from that in Europe.

In the mid-19th century, scholars and administrators such as E.G. Man, W.W. Hunter, and E.T. Dalton (1872) attempted to provide credibility to their accounts of tribal history by claiming that the former was stuck in an archaic stage of development that Europe had already passed through a long time ago. They further characterised tribes as the original autochthones of India.

H.H. Risley (1891), who conducted the initial extensive ethnographic study in Bengal. The project’s dual goals were to alert European ethnologists to the "barbarous or semi-barbarous customs" that persisted in India and to compile information on indigenous societies to aid in governance and law.
The Tribes and Castes of Bengal (1891) project was published in two volumes. With the introduction of the Census and the goal of "knowing," "classifying," and "counting" the Indian people, the strict compartmentalisation of identities gradually took place. The national borders between various social groups were strengthened, and the official classifications of "tribes" and "castes" were validated by the Census activities. The 1872 Census included classifications such as "Aboriginal Tribes" and "Semi-Hinduised Aboriginals" to differentiate between tribes that were considered "pure" and those that showed no traces of Hindu influence. The British government also claimed the authority to identify and specify the "true" Aboriginal "classes" using the Census data. Innovation in administration mirrored these views. In order to manage "tribal" areas, a number of rules were created with the justification that "tribals" were a segmented political system that could not be integrated into Indian society as a whole. For example, the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874 was founded on the idea that "tribal" territories should not be subject to general laws. The Government of India statute of 1919 introduced the concept of "Backward Areas," which added complexity to the previous idea of "non-regulatory areas."

In Post Colonial India categorising Adivasi has been seen as more as continuity than separation from its colonial past. Tribal groups have been categorised under the broader administrative category of Schedule Tribes which remains continued in post-colonial India. As we have discussed above how such a category formulated and does it truly reflect reality? The category of Schedule Tribes was an administrative category created for the sake of ease in governance and it was completely stripped of reality. Similar prejudice attributes were assigned to Tribal people during the oppressive colonial rule. These understandings were based on the prejudicial vantage point of the “Enlightenment’s” ‘Civilized And ‘Savage’ binary. This Eurocentric modernist view about Tribals deprived them of their agency and religion. During constitution-making in Post Colonial India Jaipal Singh Munda put forth the Tribal world view and demanded the rightful representation of Tribals in newly formed India. The Constitution of post-colonial India incorporated and continued the special laws for the Tribals. Fifth and Sixth Schedules were made part of the constitution where special provisions were made. The Fifth Schedule was for the mainland while the Sixth Schedule was for four North Eastern states. Even a few years later special provisions for the governance of Tribal areas were introduced namely PESA. Under this provision, Tribal bodies constituting Gram Sabha were given rights to govern themselves in issues of forest, land, and other similar local concerns.

Despite all these provisions, the condition of tribal people didn’t improve even after 75 years of Independence. This liberal Parliamentary majoritarian democracy failed to make any substantive change in their life. Scholars like Virginious Xaxa (2016) argued for alternatives to this model and favoured proportional representation for better reach of tribal issues to national politics and meaningful change in their lives. This problem could be further framed through the framework of modernism and its existing possible alternatives. The life world of Tribal people could be read outside the homogenising modernist world and this possible alternative could be more meaningful in establishing equal space for them. The possibility of plurality and absence of any singular norms for any possible life world.

(Author: Chhotelal Kumar is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. His area of interest lies in Biopolitics, Adivasi Studies, South Asia, and Indian politics)


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