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Tribal Solidarity Movements in India

A Review by Surajit Sinha

There have been a series of tribal rebellions during the early days of the British rule in the 18th and 19th centuries: Sardar Larai (1885) and Birsa movement (1895-1900) among the Munda: Ganganarain Hangama among the Bhumij;Kol rebellion (1832);Santhal rebellion(1857-58);Rebellion of the Kacha Nagas (1880s).

Following these tribal rebellions there have been a series of reform movements emulating the cultural pattern of the higher Hindu castes: Bhagat movement among the Oraon, Vaishnavite reform movement among the Bhumij for Rajput recognition, Kerwar movement among the Santhal etc.

Emergence of inter-tribal political associations and movements for recognition as tribal states within Indian Union in the post Independence period: Jharkhand movement among the tribes of Chotanagpur and Orissa, Hill states movement in the Assam hills and Adisthan movement among the Bhil and so on.

Violent secessionist movements among the tribes located near the international frontier: Nagaland movement, Mizo National Front movement etc.

Pockets of violent political movements in the tribal belt linked with the general problem of agrarian unrest and communist movement: Naxalbari movement (1967), Girijan rebellion at Srikakulam (1968-69) and Birsa Dal movement in Ranchi (1968-69).

The political solidarity situations and movements among the tribes of India may be arranged in a series of space from the least integrated to those who have merged with the general level of the regional Hindu peasantry.

The isolated tribes who accept their social, cultural and political independence as a matter of course and are therefore not involved in any self-conscious movements to assert solidarity, the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands belong to this category. Many of the tribes of pre-independence North East Frontier Agency or of relatively remote regions of the Nagaland also belonged to this category.

Tribal blocks located near the international frontier self-consciously seeking political cessation from the Indian Union: Naga National Front movement, Mizo National Front movement etc.The self-conscious movements are led by an educated elite who are fully aware of the political entity of Indian Union.

Tribal blocks occurring as sizable encysted zones going in for demands for tribal state within the Indian Union: Jharkhand movement among Chotanagpur tribes, APHLC movement among the tribes of the Garo and Khasi hills.

Scattered isolated tribal pockets asserting rights as political interest groups as scheduled tribes: the Santhal and the Kora of West Bengal.

Tribes who are too far Hinduized to be effectively involved in solidarity movements in the company of non-Hinduized tribes: the Bhumij of Purulia and Singhbhum.

Bose characterizes the tribal political movements and emerging political associations as falling in the general category of sub nationalism along with political associations based on religion, language and caste. According to Bose sub nationalism is typically generated in economically backward communities of an emerging nation. The general assumption is that these movements are essentially based on the economic and political interest of the rising elite who wish to monopolize their dominance over a region and mobilize the relatively passive tribal and peasant masses to fulfill their limited class aspirations.

Roy Burman makes a distinction between two kinds of elite based movements among the tribes. In one kind infra nationalism the tribes are involved in a progressive movement in a phase of expansion from a primitive stage of tribalism towards nationalism. At this phase of infra-national agglomerates of tribes in search for identity at a higher level of integration than tribalism. In contrast to this sub nationalism is essentially a product of social disorganization where already acculturated elites of a tribe become involved in contra acculturative contraction of relationship. According to Roy Burman one can mark the interplay of these two analytically distinct series of phases in the actual solidarity situations of the different tribes.

According to Orans tribal groups concede rank to the dominant Hindus but resent their low position and desire to attain high position. The pattern of socio-cultural activities for attaining higher rank is guided essentially by the broad nature of rank path. If the rank path is economic then the tribes particularly their upper strata move in the direction of emulation of the pattern of culture of the dominant Hindus. The more acculturated a tribal is the more severely he will feel the thrust of emulation-solidarity conflict.

Wallace in his concept of revitalization movement is concerned with the total reorganization of the cultural system of a group in an acculturative situation of extreme stress that threatens the entire cultural system.

A revitalization movement is defined as a deliberate organized conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture. The beginning of those movements may be traced to a threat to the sustenance of a cultural system by a group of people in a situation of cultural contact with a dominating group. After an initial period of increasing individual stress and cultural distortion it is followed by an active phase of revitalization. Wallace locates the origin of such movements in a threat to the total cultural system and not just to economic well-being; power and rank. He would also expect the primary goal of such a movement as a reformulation of the total cultural system to be initiated by a charismatic leader.

One of the major roots of tribal solidarity movements may be traced to their ecological –cultural isolation, economical backwardness and feeling of frustration about a lowly status vis a vis the advanced sections. Although it is true that a minority of emerging elite guides these movements it would be wrong to view the phenomenon exclusively from the perspective of sub-nationalism engineered by a few elites. There is progressive enlargement of socio-political and cultural phenomenon beyond the primitive tribal units and also a process of drawing solidarity boundaries around the expanded horizon vis a vis the Indian core.