Integration of the Tribals


The task of integrating the tribal people into the mainstream was extremely challenging task due to various reasons such as varied conditions under which they live in different parts of the country , their different languages and distinct cultures. The 1971 Census recorded over 400 tribal communities numbering nearly 38 million people and constituting nearly 6.9 per cent of the Indian population. Residing mostly in the hills and forest areas, in colonial India they lived in relative isolation, and their traditions, habits, cultures and way s of life were markedly different from those of their non-tribal neighbours.

In most parts of the country , British rule brought radical transformation of the tribals as their relative isolation was literally ended due to their contact with outside people, and market forces entered tribal areas and they were integrated with the British and princely administrations. A large number of money lenders, traders, revenue farmers and other middlemen and petty officials invaded the tribal areas and disrupted the tribals’ traditional way of life. They were increasingly trapped in the cycle of debt and lost their lands to outsiders, often being reduced to the position of agricultural labourers, sharecroppers and rack-rented tenants. Many were forced to retreat further into the hills.

Verrier Elwin, an eminient scholar on tribal studies, who spent all his life among the tribal people in central and north-eastern India and who was one of the formative influences in the evolution of the new government’s policies towards the tribals, was to refer to the fate of the tribal people under British rule as follows: ‘But now they suffered oppression and exploitation, for there soon came merchants and liquor-venders, cajoling, tricking, swindling them in their ignorance and simplicity until bit by bit their broad acres dwindled and they they sank into the poverty in which many of them still live today.

Colonialism also transformed the tribals’ relationship with the forest. They depended on the forest for food, fuel and cattle feed and for raw materials for their handicrafts. In many parts of India the hunger for land by the immigrant peasants from the plains led to the destruction of forests, depriving the tribals of their traditional means of livelihood. To conserve forests and to facilitate their commercial exploitation, the colonial authorities brought large tracts of forest lands under forest laws which forbade shifting cultivation and put severe restrictions on the tribals’ use of the forest and their access to forest products.

Several Tribal Uprisings occurred from 1757 onwards such as Chuar Uprising Famine, enhanced land revenue demands and economic  distress goaded the Chuar aboriginal tribesmen of Midnapore district to  take up arms, Ho Rising The Ho and Munda tribesmen of Chhotanagpur challenged the Company’s forces in 1820-22. Khasi Uprising After having occupied the hilly region between Garo and Jaintia Hills, the East India Company wanted to build a road linking the Brahmaputra Valley with Sylhet. For this, a large number of outsiders including Englishmen, Bengalis and the labourers from the plains were brought to these regions. The Khasis, Garos, Khamptis and the Singhpos organised themselves under to drive away the strangers from the plains . The uprising developed into a popular revolt against British rule in the area. By 1833, the superior English military force had suppressed the revolt .

India’s Tribal Policy

The preservation of the tribal people’s unique social, cultural, heritage lay at the heart of the government’s policy of tribal integration. Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the main influence in shaping the government’s attitude towards the tribals, He said that ‘The first problem we have to face there is to inspire them [the tribal people] with confidence and to make them feel at one with India, and to realise that they are part of India and have an honoured place in it.’ At the same time, ‘India to them should signify not only a protecting force but a liberating one’. Nehru thought that, Indian nationalism was capable of accommodating the uniqueness of the tribal people.

There were two major approaches regarding the place to be accorded to tribals in Indian society . First approach, often called as “museum approach” was to leave the tribal people alone, untouched by modern and outside influences of the world and to let them stay more or less as they were. The second approach was that of assimilating them completely and as quickly as possible into the Indian society all around them. The disappearance of the tribal way of life was not to be regretted ,but  it was very much needed for their ‘upliftment’.

Jawaharlal Nehru rejected both these approaches. The first approach, of treating the tribal people ‘as museum specimens to be observed and written about’, would result in improper integration of tribes into mainstream.  Isolation was in any case impossible at this stage, for the process of penetration by the outside world had already gone too far and ‘it was not possible or desirable to isolate them’. The second approach of allowing them ‘to be engulfed by the masses of Indian humanity ’, or of their assimilation through the operation of normal outside forces was also wrong, according to Nehru. This would lead to the loss of the tribals’ social and cultural identity and of the many virtues they possessed. In fact, he pointed out, ‘if normal factors were allowed to operate, unscrupulous people from outside would take possession of tribal lands and forests and interfere with the life of the tribal people’. This would also ‘upset their whole life and culture, which had so much of good in them’.

Instead of these two approaches, Nehru favoured the policy of integrating the tribal people in Indian society , of making them an integral part of the Indian nation, even while maintaining their distinct identity and culture. There were two basic parameters of the Nehruvian approach: ‘the tribal areas have to progress’ and ‘they have to progress in their own way ’. Progress did not mean ‘an attempt merely to duplicate what we have got in other parts of India’. Whatever was good in the rest of India would ‘be adopted by them gradually ’ Moreover, whatever changes were needed would be ‘worked out by the tribals themselves’.

The problem was how to combine these two seemingly contradictory approaches. Nehru stood for economic and social development of the tribal people in multifarious way s, especially in thefields of communication, modern medical facilities, agriculture and education. In this regard, he laid down certain broad guidelines for government policy .

First, the tribals should develop along the lines of their own genius; there should be no imposition or compulsion from outside. The non-tribals should not approach them with a superiority complex. Rather, the understanding should be that they had an equal contribution to make to the evolution of the common culture and social and political life of the country .

Second, tribal rights in land and forests should be respected and no outsider should be able to take possession of tribal lands. The incursion of the market economy into tribal areas had to be strictly controlled and regulated.

Third, it was necessary to encourage the tribal languages which ‘must be given all possible support and the conditions in which they can flourish must be safeguarded’.

Fourth, for administration, reliance should be placed on the tribal people themselves, and administrators should be recruited from amongst them and trained. As few as possible outsiders should be introduced as administrators in tribal areas and they should be carefully chosen. They should have a sy mpathetic and understanding approach, and should not consider themselves superior to or apart from the tribal people. They should be prepared to share their life with the tribal people among whom they work.

Fifth, there should be no over-administration of tribal areas. The effort should be to administer and develop the tribals’ through them own social and cultural institutions. Nehru’s approach was in turn based on the nationalist policy towards tribals since the 1920s when Gandhiji set up ashrams in the tribal areas and promoted constructive work. After independence this policy was supported by Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, and other major political leaders.

To give shape to the government’s policy , a beginning was made in the constitution itself which directed under Article 46 that the state should promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the tribal people and should protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation, through special legislation. The governors of the states in which tribal areas were situated were given special responsibility to protect tribal interests, including the power to modify central and state laws in their application to tribal areas, and to frame regulations for the protection of tribals’ right to land and also their protection from money lenders. The application of the Fundamental Rights was amended for this purpose. The constitution also extended full political rights to the tribal people. In addition, it provided for reservation of seats in the legislatures and positions in the administrative services for the Scheduled Tribes as in the case of the Scheduled Castes. The constitution also provided for the setting up of Tribal Advisory Councils in all states containing tribal areas to advise on matters concerning the welfare of tribals. A Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was appointed by the President to investigate whether the safeguards provided for them were being observed.