The concept of tribe or tribal social formation was referred by most social anthropologist as a stage destined to move toward a better or more developed stage towards the 'Mainstream' society by means of history within their own political space, promising to change whatever existed for long.
There is no doubt that there has been a significant change in the lives of the tribals especially in the North east region in the past 60 years of independence. But the question is, has the majority of the tribals in India benefitted from this model of development? Tribals continues to occupy the lowest economic strata, its areas of habitation is the least developed in infrastructure and all aspects of development.
Keeping this state of affairs of tribals in mind; we need to question the very definition of the tribes as given by the colonial anthropologists which is still continued to describe tribes as a certain categorization of pre-literate cultures, covering a wide range of forms of social organization and levels of techno- economic development. Many Sociologists specializing on the subject have pointed out, that what is missing in the process of conceptualization is the acknowledgement of history and of a complex political economy.
The current understanding of tribes as a concept in independent India continues to be adopted from the original term as used by the European Colonialism and racist ideology. The term tribes reflects the vocabulary of the colonial power which overloaded with the so called "White Men Burden", describes it in several disparaging and contemptuous ways. Even after independence, India has not been able to wholly expose the completely political nature of the term. Thus, the limited definition continues to be used in order to manage the current unequal national/international system.
Not only has tribes been identified as a type of non state society organized on the guise of a multi- functional kinship network but also as a stage in economic development and history (Godelier 1977). That necessarily means moving along the path travelled by the European colonial powers as the ultimate and true path. Hence, tribal ways of life, its rich cultures, its political economy and social structures were treated as inferior as compared to the so called advanced or westernized societies. Tribal ways of life were to be replaced and it was a white man's burden to do so. Religion, especially, Christianity, was to come in handy in this. Meanwhile there is little historical record to convey how many peoples and their cultures were decimated or destroyed through the acceptance of this simple logic.
There also exists a problem with the concept of "region" as it is defined. Region signifies for political administrator, only a province/administrative block in the eyes of the state in terms of certain demographic and linguistic/cultural traits. Nowhere do the term incorporate a region's other traits like its history, culture and social formation. It is simply a political- administrative unit and seen as representing a near-homogeneity of the people living there with some degree of autonomy under the centralized nation state system. Post-colonial compulsion and a lack of consideration of history and culture determines the term "Region", thereby implying that such term are unchangeable or immune to change.
For instance, North East region is problematic because it is based on the inherent geographical/territorial inertia, hence it could not accommodate or adapt to the rising cultural and political demands of the various ethnic groupings. The talk of decentralization as a more efficient form of democratic organization needs to be examined in more details and may need a newer form of localization.
The scenario in the North east tribal belt is very distinct from the rest of India; the former with about 200 tribal communities is largely occupied by the so called Mongoloid groups having cultural and historical affiliations with neighboring countries. In spite of the inner line regulation and the provision of the 6th schedule of the Constitution, the tribal in some region has become a minority in their lands and other resources have been alienated. However, compared to the Central Indian belts, North East tribals controlled the survival resources. They are in fact a majority in Arunachal, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. The tribals of North east India struggles have little to do with land alienations or exploitation of survival resources by the state. The movements here are political autonomy including secession and independent state formation. The formation of mini states has not curtailed the urge for freedom with dignity.
The initial formation of states in the North East Region led to the denial of diversity of cultures and value system and the modernization process disregarded the heterogeneity of communities and threatened their ecological base and their cultural visibility as groups. This was because the colonialist expediency alone determined the State boundaries without any concern for history, tradition, culture, languages, economy and geography.
The tragedy of North east was that the pre-colonial leadership has unequivocally adopted and legitimized the imperatives of the colonial power which was replaced then by an independent India which emphasized the inviolability and security of territory. This empirical predicament is often used as an excuse to repress and persecute the marginalized communities especially the tribes of the border regions. Their value structure are rejected as obscurantist, whereas of the dominant communities are imposed upon them by cajoling or coercing. The colonial policy of westernization and the post-colonial global capitalism has devastated tribal cultures, languages and their collectivities. They are made to think they are inferior in matters of their own lifestyles, customs and folklore. Myths have been nurtured that tribal social formation are archaic hangovers, remnant of a bygone era, unchanging entities paralyzed by customs and thus their ways of life should be raised to the advanced culture of life enjoyed by the western societies or by the so-called advanced society.
The threats to tribal collectivities face a formidable challenge from the dominant religion, culture and language. And sadly they have received little protection from the State system. Faced with continuous pauperization and endangering of linguistic and cultural identity, several tribal peoples across the country have independently launch strategies of various types directed towards recuperating their traditional rights over their resources and in order to maintain and develop their legitimate social, linguistic and political rights and as well as to demand a cessation of abuse and discrimination. This is not to be treated as a parachiolization of social consciousness but the outcome of years of neglect, discrimination and misunderstanding. These movements are brutally suppressed in the name of secession or diabolical international conspiracy. Yet many movements do survive and are recurrent. The strategies of divide and rule, distribution of patronage, mediations structures, intimidation, illegal and arbitrary detention, torture and 'encounters' have yielded small dividends.
The resolution of the crisis demands simultaneous struggles against economic and cultural domination. The tribals of the country should be given a chance to have their own internal determination which should be the guide in setting up the standards for control over their own economic, social and cultural development. This should not be treated as some romantic idea but rather it should provide for a chance for reform of traditional customs and practices after proper evaluation. But the overall choice of adjusting with the larger society should be left to the tribal themselves. This internal self determination of the direction in which the process of development will lead, be taken by the tribals should not be seen as secession but should be seen as redefining the composite multi- cultural tribal society which will contribute to the nation building process.
The tribals should be allowed as much control as possible over their own economic organization and social economic development which could lead to conflict resolution in multi- cultural societies. Many sociologists called this strategy ethno-development/self development, wherein the ethnic groups/tribal's retains control over its own land, resources, social organization and culture and is free to negotiate with the state the kind of relation it wishes to have. Considering the enormous problems created by the technocratic model of development, globalization and the nation state, this appears promising although the details need to be worked out.
The tribals of India especially the tribals of north east India have been traumatized by deculturation cooption and negative identity. However, North East tribals have largely managed to preserve their positive identity and their values of kinship, institution of reciprocity, shared history and territorial occupancy.
The indigenous groups are discovering their own philosophy and cultural uniqueness and potentialities. We can see these in the rise of inter-tribal unity and consciousness, undermining the internal divisions and thus legitimately may allow for autonomy within the nation state system. The principle of internal self determination including legal recognition of all tribal organizations, respect of customary rights, survival resources and their own socio cultural practice which do not clash with the accepted standard of human rights should be studied and incorporated in the new development model. It is proposed that all development strategies must be fixed by informed consent, self sufficiency, social justice and ecological equilibrium.
It is a time to acknowledge that traditional tribal cultures and knowledge system has much to offer the imperial planet and hence it cannot be separated from the collective rights of the peoples. This process could be the beginning of emancipation of the tribal people and the others as well.By: Som Kamei