Historical Perspective -Isolation
The coexistence of fundamentally different culture patterns and styles of living has always been a characteristic feature of the Indian stage. Unlike most parts of the world, in India, the arrival of new immigrants and the spread of their way of life did not necessarily cause the disappearance of earlier and materially less advanced ethnic groups.
The old and the new co-existed. Such a consequence was partly due to the great size of the sub-continent and dearth of communications. More important than this was an attitude basic to Indian ideology, which accepted variety of cultural forms as natural and immutable, and did not consider their assimilation to one dominant pattern in any way desirable. This does not mean, however, that none of the tribes ever became incorporated in the systems of hierarchically ranked castes. Wherever economic necessity or encroachment of their habitant by advanced communities led to continued inter-action between tribes and Hindus, cultural distinctions were blurred, and what had once been self-contained and more or less independent tribes gradually acquired the status of castes.
In many cases they entered caste systems at the lowest rung of the ladder. Some untouchable castes of Southern India, such as the Cherumans and the Panyers of Kerala, were undoubtedly at one time independent tribes, and in their physical characteristics they still resemble neighboring tribal groups, which have remained outside the Hindu society. There are some exceptions, such as the Meitheis of Assam who achieved a position comparable to that of Kshatriyas. Tribes who retained their tribal identity and resisted inclusion within the Hindu fold fared on the whole better than the assimilated groups and were not treated as untouchables, even if they indulged in such low-caste practices as eating beef. Thus the Raj Gond princes sacrificed and ate cows without thereby debasing their status in the eyes of their Hindu neighbors, who recognized their social and cultural separateness and did not insist on conformity to Hindu patterns of behavior.
This respect for the tribal way of life prevailed as long as contacts between tribes and Hindu populations of open plains were of a casual nature. The tribal people, though considered strange and dangerous, were taken for granted as part of the world of hills and forests, and a more or less frictionless co-existence was possible, because there was no population pressure and the advanced communities did not feel any urge to impose their own values on people placed clearly outside the spheres of Hindu civilization.
This position remained unchanged during the Muslim period. Now and then a military campaign extending for a short spell into the wilds of tribal country would bring the inhabitants temporarily to the notice of princes and chroniclers, but for long period the hill men and forest-dwellers were left to themselves. Under British rule, however, a new situation arose. The extension of a centralized administration over areas, which previously were outside the effective control of princely rulers, deprived many aboriginal tribes of their autonomy. Though British administrators had no intention of interfering with tribesmen's rights and traditional manner of living, the very process of establishment of law and order in outlying areas exposed the tribes to the pressure of more advanced populations.
Thus in areas which had previously been virtually un-administered and hence unsafe for outsiders who did not enjoy the confidence and goodwill of the tribal inhabitants, traders and money-lenders could now establish themselves under the protection of the British administration and in many cases they were followed by settlers who succeeded in acquiring large stretches of tribes' land. Administrative officers who did not understand tribal system of land tenure introduced uniform methods of revenue collection. But these had the un-intended effect of facilitating the alienation of tribal land to members of advanced populations. Though it is unlikely that British officials actively favored the latter at the expense of primitive tribesmen, little was done to stem the rapid erosion of tribal rights to land.
In many areas tribals unable to resist the gradual alienation of their ancestral land, either withdrew further into hills and tracts of marginal land, or accepted the economic status of tenants or agricultural labourers on the land their forefathers had owned. There were some tribes, however, who rebelled against an administration, which allowed outsiders to deprive them of their land. In the Chhota Nagpur and the Santhal pargansas such rebellions of desperate tribesmen recurred throughout the nineteenth century, and there were minor risings in the Agency tracts of Madras and in some of the districts of Bombay inhabited by Bhils. Thus the Santhals are believed to have lost about 10,000 men in their rebellion of 1855. None of these insurrections were aimed primarily at the British administration, but they were a reaction to their exploitation and oppression by Hindu landlords and money-lenders who had established themselves in tribal areas and were sheltered by a Government which had instituted a system of land settlement and administration of justice favoring the advanced communities at the expense of simple and illiterate tribes. In some cases these rebellions led to official inquiries and to legislative enactments aimed at protecting tribes' right to their land. Seen in historical perspective it appears that land alienation laws had, on the whole, only a palliative effect. In most areas encroachment on land held by tribes continued even in the face of protective legislation.
Assimilation of Tribals
Acceptance or denial of the necessity for assimilation with Hindu society is ultimately a question of values. In the past, Hindu society had been tolerant of groups that would not conform to the standards set by the higher castes. True, such groups were denied equal ritual status; but no efforts were made to deflect them from their chosen style of living. In recent years this attitude has changed. Perhaps it is the influence of the Western belief in universal values which has encouraged a spirit of intolerance vis-a-vis cultural and social divergences. Yet India is not only a multilingual and multiracial country, but is also multi-cultural. And as long as Muslims, Christians, and Parsis are free to follow their traditional way of life, it would seem only fair that the culture and the social order of tribes however distinct from that of the majority community should also be respected. Assimilation, of course, will occur automatically and inevitably where small tribal groups are enclosed within numerically stronger Hindu populations. In other areas, however, and particularly all along India's northern and north-eastern frontier live vigorous tribal populations which resist assimilation as well as inclusion within Hindu caste system.
Democratic Decentralization and Tribals
With the introduction of a system of democratic decentralization to take the place of paternalism characteristic of traditional form of Indian government, a new element has entered the relations between tribes and the more advanced majority communities. The ability to vote in general elections for the Parliament in Delhi and the Legislative Assembly of their respective States did not make much difference to tribals, because they did not understand the implication of the franchise, but the local elections aroused their interest to a much greater extent. The very fact, that some of the most powerful people of the district approached the poorest villagers for their votes and tried to gain their confidence, convinced them of a fundamental change. The very idea that they could choose their representatives was novel. At first, tribals only voted, for non-tribals, for very few were sufficiently educated to stand for election. Even in areas with a preponderance of tribals, the elected representatives were often non-tribes and abused their powers by exploiting those who had voted for them. But as time passed and the tribes gained experience, they have become shrewder in the choice of their representatives.
The Government of India has adopted a policy of integration of tribals with the mainstream aiming at developing a creative adjustment between the tribes and non tribes leading to a responsible partnership. By adopting the policy of integration or progressive acculturation the Government has laid the foundation for the uninhibited march of the tribals towards equality, upward mobility, and economic viability and assured proximity to the national mainstream. The constitution has committed the nation to two courses of action in respect of scheduled tribes,viz
Following the reorganization of states, the list of STs was modified by the Scheduled Castes and Tribes List (Modification) order, 1956 on the recommendations of the Backward Classes Commission. In the revised list 414 tribes were declared STs.Since the revision of the list in 1956 there have been several proposals for fresh inclusions and deletion from the lists of the SC and STs