Tribal communities in India comprise an important dimension of the great Indian society. The precious heritage of the great Indian tradition is an amalgam and harmonious blending of a wide variety of cultures. Archaic and most modern cultural elements as well as urban, peasant and folk societal components have all been orchestrated into the indigenous civilisation of India. Varied ethnicities, diverse languages and different religions have been harmonized in the traditions of Indian civilization. Thus, Indian society is a plural one and Indian civilisation is a conglomeration of traditions, textual and folk, great and local, regional and national.
Nihar Ranjan Ray, an eminent historian and indologist, in his quest for the meaning of the term “tribe” in Indian context suggests that the term Jana used to be referred to these primitive or techno economically backward communities in ancient times. He says that the terms Jana and Jati are both derived from the root Jan which means “to be born” or “to give birth to” and has a biological meaning. By this Ray implies that the term Jana in ancient times referred to the autochthonous. People, like the Shabaras, the Kolutas, the Kollas, the Villas, the Khasas, the Kinnars and the Asoor. There are countless others who have been termed as tribes. The British colonial government used the term tribe to categories these people.
Although these people lived somewhat a life of isolation, the colonial policy was to segregate them from the rest of Indian population. As these tribes mostly occupied forest and hilly tracts, they laid a life of simplicity and a life of cultural isolation. Ray suggests that in ancient times, the territories occupied by these people came to be known as janapada, human settlement, atavika rajya (forest territory), mahakantara (great forest regions) and pratyanta desh (frontier regions).
International labour organisation in its covenant, 1989 resolved that the tribal communities constitute the indigenous communities in their respective countries who need be integrated with their national mainstream and should retain their cultural identity. In India, these communities are commonly designated as ‘Adivasis’ (original settlers), ‘Girijan’ (hill dwellers), ‘Vanyajati’ (forest castes), ‘Adimjati’ (primitive castes), ‘Janajati’ (folk communities) and constitutionally ‘Anusuchita Janajati’ (Scheduled Tribe).