Essay on the Social changes among the Tribes of India


The tribal communities did not evince significant social change till the commencement of British rule in India because due to the inaccessibility and remoteness of the areas generally inhabited by the tribals, it was not possible for them on the part of others to establish contacts. Due to lack of contact and interaction, tribal communities remained within the bounce of their social contours and cultural boundaries of long long years. In socio-cultural change, contact with ‘reference groups’ is a major factor, in other words tribal communities did not have contact with significant others whom they could have accepted as reference groups in situations of culture contact.

Due to this and other inherent limitations it is not easy to study the progress of education among them, prior to independence. There is no doubt that a few anthropologists, welfare workers, missionaries and government officers posted in these areas, who established contacts with the tribals, have left valuable information about the conditions in which the tribals were living, but the information is rather scanty and does not give complete account of the deplorable conditions prevailing at that time.

It appears that the colonial government in India also never thought seriously of taking any constructive steps for the educational and for that matter even social and economic development of the tribal people. For this reason, the tribals- remained educationally extremely backward. Educational backwardness accounted for their socio­economic backwardness. Lack of education is a retarding factor.


Credit must be given to the Christian missionaries for their laudable efforts in spreading education among the tribal people in certain selected pockets. Their work in this respect carried out in North-eastern India is particularly commendable. Of course, they have succeeded in converting significant proportion of tribals in this area to Christianity.

In the ex-Bombay Presidency appart from the work done by the private institutions among which the Servants of India Society was prominent, practically no work was done prior to 1931.

In 1938, the government of Orissa appointed a commission under the chairmanship of Shri A.B. Thakkar to report on the partially excluded areas. Unfortunately due to the outbreak of Second World War, the recommendations of that Committee, which contained very useful suggestions for the spread of education among the tribals could not be implemented. The State Government, however, opened a large number of primary Schools in the partially excluded areas, gave more scholarships and made arrangements of increasing the free supply of books and slates to the students of tribal communities.

A number of States initiated certain steps to introduce school education among the tribal communities living in different provinces. An idea of poor educational development amongst the tribal’s can be had from what Shri A. B. Thakkar observed in 1931, as indicated in the following extracts reproduced from the report of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission, “Educational grants to aboriginal areas have been meagre and inadequate hitherto. Middle School, Higher School and college education among the Adivasis is, of course, negligible, if not altogether zero. We can find a few aborigines who have received or are now receiving university education among the Khasis of Assam and the Mundas and Oraons of Chhotanagpur. At present, many Christian missionary organization and a few non-Christian Indian Bodies are conducting schools for aborigines with government aid in most cases. Their work is commendable as it, appears to be a drop in the ocean.”


Thus, the tribal’s living in remote hills and forests remained influenced by the main currents of development attitude and did not get a fair deal, all along, either at the hands of the government or at those of their civilized neighbours.

In real effect, it was only after independence that the government focussed its attention on the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The makers of the constitution took special note of the condition in which these weaker sections lived and provided a number of safeguards for the promotion of their interests, including educational, in the constitution. Special mention, in this connection, must be made of the Article – 46 of the constitution in which it has been made one of the Directive Principles of State Policy to promote with special care, inter alia, the educational interests of weaker sections of the people, particularly the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

However, the usual social change was taking place in all tribal societies; but the pace of social change was faster among the settled agricultural tribes who were in frequent interaction with their neighbouring peasant communities and in some cases with the urban population. Such tribal communities were certainly ahead of others in respect of culture contact and social change. Conversely, the pace of social change is tardy among the primitive tribal communities who are more vulnerable, have less opportunity of interaction with advanced tribal communities and/or peasant communities. Therefore, when one looks at the total tribal scenario one notices that tribal communities are in different levels of acculturation. It is interesting to note the process of peasant village communities, by and large, their acculturation has been somewhat towards the Hindu pole. Anthropological literature is replete with copious examples of peasantisation of certain tribes/Hinduisation of tribal communities, and thereby emulating certain caste features.

Hinduisation or caste formation among certain tribal communities, like the Kandha, Shabara, Bathudi, Bhuiyan, Gond, Juang, Jhadia Paraja in Orissa have imbibed a lot of characteristics of caste society. Within the context of tribal social milieu these tribal communities in their day to day life exhibit both structural and cultural features of caste system. More or less this was the general trend of acculturation among the Orissan tribes but also among the advanced tribal communities of other parts of the country, starting from Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan to Assam and Manipur through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as well as in Central and South-Central India.


Peculiary enough, for inexplicable reasons, Dravidian tribal communities of peninsular India exhibit very negligible characteristics of Hindu society (Brahmanical culture). It may be due to the fact that caste in South India functions with much rigidity and another characteristic feature of South India is that there are high caste people and low caste people who are numerically preponderant, and on the other hand caste-groups of middle range are comparatively few. The low castes, mostly Dalits do not probably attract members of tribal communities as a reference group in the culture change process; because their style of life is not attractive although they practise purity and pollution in their social life.

The deities, the low caste people worship, particularly the village goddesses, are also worshipped by members of tribal societies and hence they did not realise the importance of imitating and emulating the lifestyle of low caste people. In some cases, the tribal people also despised the profane occupations which some of the Dalit castes pursued, such as scavenging.

It is evident from the above discussion, the major trend of social change among the tribal communities was various processes of Hinduisation. With the advent of British in India tribal habitats opened up for non-tribal artisans, traders and even peasants, money lenders and distillers. These people settled down in tribal villages whose way of living provided scope for the tribal communities for peasantisation. Once the roads were open, communication network established swarms of people from the neighboring plain areas penetrated into the homeland of tribal people and established themselves permanently as their immediate neighbours. Some of them, through their small trade, money lending and liquor trade established clientele among the tribal’s. The qualitative contact which the non-tribal’s established with the tribal’s was of durable nature.

It was purely economic on the part of outsiders but it was totally cultural on the part of tribal natives. What happened in Ranchi district in Bihar which is the homeland of the Munda, the Oraon and the Santal tribes, is noteworthy. Once these outsiders made themselves friendly and acceptable to the local tribal’s, more and more peasants from the plains areas penetrated into the deep regions of the tribal’s for eking out a livelihood. In the beginning there seems to be enough land for all. Land was originally under the control of local tribal communities, but slowly some lands got transferred through occupancy rights to non-tribal’s. Professor F. G. Bailey who carried intensive and extensive studies in the Kandhamal of Orissa has highlighted the factors of tribal land transfer. The non- tribal’s who settled down in tribal areas gradually became richer and acquired more and more tribal assets. Hindu service castes who also settled down in tribal areas and could not be absorbed in the tribal system acquired more and more land and became affluent.


Hinduisation is an upward process of acculturation. Along with Hinduisation, the process of tribalisation also took place. Non-tribal’s who settled down in tribal areas under some socio-cultural constraints imbibed certain tribal characteristics. Some of them inter-married, particularly, non-tribal males married tribal women. They gradually learnt and spoke tribal language and practised tribal economy and participated in tribal rituals and ceremonies. Though for name sake the non-tribal’s retained their caste identity, slowly they lost their caste endogamy, caste-based occupation and the distinguishing features of purity and pollution. In some cases the non-tribal’s have adapted the tribal totems which is a symbol of clan exogamy.

Having lived in tribal areas for generations they had so intrinsically mingled with tribal culture that they became oblivious of their features of original Jati and Varna positions. Hierarchy based on the practice of purity and pollution which is central to caste system had been more or less given up by non-tribal’s. They are only conscious of their fraternal group (consanguine) as opposed to the affinal group. The point which is being emphasized here is the tribal social structure is dichotomous and which is not a feature of caste society. In caste society the affinal group is vast, dispersed and also beyond the knowledge of a person. In other words, consanguines and affines are not face-to-face groups.

The non-tribal’s have also taken to undifferentiated tribal economic activities, such as food-gathering, collection of food materials, hunting, fishing, shifting cultivation and settled agriculture wherever plain land was available. In caste society, labour is alienable and its division is complex, sometimes caste specific and gender and age-specific. In tribal society labour is inalienable; division is simple, based on age and sex. The non- tribal’s practised low level competition in production which was not a tribal feature and they also exchanged goods and services which was beyond the range of their respective castes. Their economy was competitive and rural market oriented unlike the tribal economy. The tribal’s continued to lack competition in agricultural production, but under the influence of non-tribal they became market-oriented and developed attraction and liking for several consumer goods.

The non-tribal settlers were part of the total tribal system, yet they remained outside functionally beyond the limits of tribal polity. What is meant by this is, they were amenable to the social control exercised by the tribal polity that they could not become any functionary within the political structural set up. They were abided by tribal social sanctions and were subjected from tribal customs and traditions. The authority of enforcing social sanctions rested with the tribal chiefs and tribal councils. Tribal councils, the strong corporate bodies which did not accommodate non-tribal’s as its functionaries, for the fear of loosing their tribal identity.


Both the processes of tribalisation and detribalisation or acculturation continued in the tribal areas where castes and tribes lived as face to face groups with close economic interaction. It can be said that areas where members of a single tribe lived are of one type. Such areas did not provide hand any scope for acculturations on the other hand areas where tribes and castes lived as interacting groups, provided scope for acculturation for both. It may not be out of place to suggest that while the tribal’s got into some sort of detribalization, castes were attracted towards tribal cultures out of socio-economic necessity. Such cultural ecologies evolved in pluri-ethnic situations.

The acculturation scenario underwent deliberate and selective change when tribal’s realised that those who were scheduled were eligible for certain privileges, such as their representation in parliament and legislature, reservation in government services and posts, admissions into schools, colleges and technical institutions and above all socio-economic assistance for their development, which ensued from constitutional provisions.

Interaction between tribal communities and castes increased after independence manifolds with the expansion of communication facilities. The relationship between tribal communities and castes have been always cordial, reciprocal and homeostatic, although castes always maintained a big-brotherly attitude towards tribal communities because of their better education and economic well-being. This relationship has undergone change after the enactment of 73rd amendment of the constitution. Tribes are integral parts of Indian society and their culture comprises and important dimension of Indian civilization. However, the trend of horizontal and vertical mobility in Indian society is from folk -> peasant -> urban. These three segments can be analytically segregated in Indian civilization but in reality they constitute a complex of unity in diversity.

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