Identity, Development and Marginalization: A Journey Through Tribal Life

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Kakali Chakrobarty

In this brief discourse I would like to touch upon some well defined issues in relation to the identity, development and threatened existence of the Indigenous populations, commonly called ‘Tribe’, a misleading identity that thrust upon them by the western colonialist centuries’ back. Unfortunately that colonial legacy is still continuing. These ethnic communities with their individual identity, traditional belief systems, livelihood and cultural practices contributed to and shared the cultural plurality of India being a part of our history.  Echoing   K.S. Singh’s thought (1989) I would say that it is these Indigenous peoples who have made Indian pluralism a living and vibrant experience for us. But unfortunately they often remained the worst victim of the social and political power in the name of ‘development’ only because they are unable to tackle the adverse forces. It is now necessary to realize that these ethnic communities should be freed of our over romanticism and compassion and live a life with their own tradition in the pluralistic society such as ours.

To begin with, I wish to share my observation on the very term ‘tribe’ that denotes certain ethnic communities who are different from one another in physical features, ethnic identities, language spoken, economic activities, belief system, cultural traditions and so on. Anthropologists, Sociologists and other social scientists are engaged since colonial period till date to formulate a suitable definition of “Tribe’ without questioning the validity of the very term introduced by the colonial rulers. In Oxford dictionary a Tribe is defined as ‘a group of people in a primitive or barbarious stage of development acknowledging the authority of a chief and usually regarding themselves as having a common ancestor’. The definition clearly speaks out how the colonialists looked into our countrymen. K.S. Singh, being historian turned anthropologists could bring out himself from the stigma and saw the historical contribution of so called ‘Tribes’ towards the Indian cultural mosaic.

Gouranga Chattopadhyay preferred to call these ethnic communities as ‘Fringe Communities’ with the argument that ‘Certain communities in India have tended to stay on the fringes of the Indian society, in terms of participation in the economic, political and ritual structures, for as long as history takes us back… Also, some of these communities have been spatially driven to the fringes of the developed areas’ (Singh, 1972, 488). Whatever the explanation is, it is no doubt unfortunate that these ethnic groups were separated from the majority Indian population successfully by the colonialists through their ‘Divide and Rule policy’ and that had been embedded in the psyche of the majority Indians for whom these communities are ‘other’ people. We often forget that for the colonialists ‘we’, the Indians including ‘Tribe’ and ‘Castes’ were (are) nothing but ‘other’ people. Thus, though unfortunate, but the term still is in vogue. It is now an umbrella term that includes diverse groups of people who have distinct historical, ethnic, cultural and linguistic attributes that have been survived into the present through a long historical/ proto-historical/ pre-historical journey.

In this regard I remember the simple question raised by Dr. Amareswar Galla, ‘you anthropologists still carrying the legacy of colonialism in using the word ‘Tribe’. Don’t you feel it is now necessary to change your perception in this regard?’  A fresh thinking over the issue is, of course, the need of the day.


G.N. Devy, wrote, (Hindu, 2000) ‘Ever since the Portuguese travel writers and missionaries decided to describe the vast variety of ethnic and occupational groups and sects of Indian subcontinent in terms of “caste” and “tribe”, the terms have stuck to the society as long-worn masks that start becoming one’s real personality. The result is that today no Indian describes society without taking recourse to the categories “caste” and “tribe”. He (ibid) observed that, ‘The synonymy was finally shattered through a legal intervention by the colonial rulers when an official list of communities was prepared by them (in 1872) as the list of tribes. A similar list was prepared in the previous year for communities that were mistakenly thought of as ‘criminal tribes’ and were covered by the provisions of an inhuman “Criminal Tribes Act of India, 1871.” Since then the tribe are perceived as a distinct segment of society’.

Meena Radhakrishna (Hindu, 2000) who worked among the so called criminal tribes enlightens us with her findings. She writes, the people mentioned above are a staggering 60 million in number, and fall in the category of today’s Denotified Tribes. The term “criminal tribes” was concocted by the British rulers, and entered the public vocabulary for the first time when a piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act was passed in 1871. With the repeal of this Act (which was condemned by Pandit Nehru as a blot on the legal books of free India and a shame to all civilised societies) these communities were officially “denotified” in 1952.’ These people used to be nomadic, and were considered to be useful and honourable people by the settled societies as they would bring items like spices, honey, grain of different varieties, medicinal herbs, and varieties of fruits or vegetables which the region did not grow. These communities came in direct conflict with the British who wanted to occupy the markets of these areas. British government tactfully marginalized these people by throwing them out of their livelihood practices. Further, a number of tribal chiefs participated in 1857 Sepoy Mutiny and earned the title of traitors and renegades with the British government. Elsewhere, hill tribes determinedly resisted the attempts by the British to annex their land for plantations and to use them as plantation labour. The Criminal Tribes Act was born in these historical circumstances.

This process of marginalization was accelerated during the British colonial period in Indian history. The political and economic interests of the British resulted into large-scale exploitation of forests and land for resources like timber and mineral, and the tribal communities were robbed of their traditional habitats and means of livelihood. Many tribes retaliated with a series of revolts and movements, like famous Ho movement in 1820, Kol insurrection of 1831-32, the Hul revolt of the Santhals in 1855, the Ulgulan of the Mundas led by Birsa Munda in 1894-1900, and so on, which were brutally suppressed by the Rulers.

Devy (Hindu, 2000) noticed that ‘those communities marked as ‘tribal’ have not been viewed with any degree of respect by the alienated middle classes and intellectuals. None of the brave fights of the tribal against the British has ever been treated as part of the “national” struggle for freedom.’ We often come across such kind of experiences.  Once in Havelock Island I met a group of people from Kolkata. They were taken to the Jarawa territory by their travelling agent were given an idea that Jarawas would kill them if they get a chance. They were scared of the whole journey and in their discussion it was coming out that the Jarawas were fearsome animals. Their attitude was that they faced man eater tiger and escaped somehow. All their words were carrying a strong expression of disrespect towards this forest dwelling community. It is also a matter of regret that till date tourists go to see Jarawas as if they are specimens of zoo. It is nothing but a Jungle safari for them. The same kind of feeling was expressed about the Jarawas in a write up by a school girl who visited Andaman Island on a pleasure trip describing them as fearsome man eating beast like creature and that had been published in a reputed Bengali daily News paper. The elite editor did not give a serious thought over this absolutely wrong notion of a student and published. This is unfortunate indeed.




In fact there is so much in the tribal way of life that the country needs to emulate. Devy (ibid) viewed that, ‘Colonization has left many undesirable legacies for us to negotiate. But its impact on our self perception has been among the most disastrous of those legacies. The categories of “caste” and “tribe” have coloured our vision of society so much that no time in the near future will we be able to recognize the people we call tribals by any other token but “tribal”.

In his (ibid) words, ‘all that we have so far doled out in the name of tribal policy is an attempt at extermination of tribal identity so that they remain without a voice and make space for our progress, become our low-grade clones and provide us with cheap labour.’

Since the colonial period these indigenous peoples, especially from the Chhotanagpur plateau remained the preferred labour force for industries, coal mines, tea gardens, and for reclamation of forest land. We find them in Andaman Islands under the umbrella term of Ranchi, in Sundarbans under the blanket identity of Adivasi, though they comprise a number of ethnic groups under defined identity of Santals or Munda or Oraon. I doubt whether these people ever accepted such identity from their soul. Here, I would like to cite my experience in Sardarpara, a village settlement in the Satjelia Island under Gosaba Block of South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. In an interactive discussion they came out with their feeling of deprivation through ages. The very settlement was inhabited by the Bedia people who claim themselves as an offshoot of Santal community. They felt sorry that they never saw their homeland, and gradually losing their language; also losing their cultural tradition as well as identity. This loss of identity is a serious concern of the indigenous communities nowadays. They are trying to revive their traditional cultural heritage.

Fig – 1: Oraon Dance, Ranchi, Jharkhand

K.S. Singh (Singh, 1989:1) observed that, ‘unlike in many countries, tribals even though relatively isolated have been part of the universe of Indian civilization, of our history, and of our consciousness.’ In his words (ibid) ‘It is necessary to realize at the same time that each community, each culture, has a place in the pluralistic society such as ours… tribals have made the Indian pluralism a living and vibrant experience for us. However, in the long way of history they became marginalized economically and socially from the other part of Indian population.

According to Niharranjan Ray (Singh,1972:11), ‘there is linguistic and archaeological evidence to suggest that the pre-Aryan indigenous janas were settled originally on the plains and river valleys of the land… these indigenous so-called ‘tribes’ were just slowly but surely obliged to move bit by bit, to further areas until they came to find their refuge in relatively more inaccessible regions of forests and hills and large mountain slopes, … and …frontier regions, on the fringes of agriculturally settled, organized and more developed areas.’ The same observation was made by the Lepcha people of Darjeeling hills. Historically they were the inhabitants of this hilly tract. But with the influx of the alien population during the colonial period they had to move to remote corners of the hills to make room for the dominant groups.


Fig -2: The Lepchas

Godavari Parulekar’s (1975) observation in Maharashtra, particularly in Thana district also narrates the same story. ‘Approximately one hundred years ago, the Adivasis were owners of all the lands in this region… With the advent of British reign, however, many outsiders, Hindus, Muslims and Parsis infiltrated the region with the connivance of the British rulers… Gradually most of the lands of Adivasis passed into the hands of the newcomers who established themselves there as powerful landlords.’

Tribal life has been romanticized to a great extent in anthropological and sociological writings. But there was hardly any effective effort to establish their dignity in the society. Development planning in post colonial era never considered them inclusive of Indian society. Singh (Singh, 1989:2) observed, ‘Paradoxical though it may seem, the post colonial phase witnessed on the one hand the incorporation of the provisions for the safeguard of the tribes in the Indian Constitution and building up of an elaborate development and administrative apparatus; it also saw on the other hand the dismantling of the system of protection for tribes in many areas. Influx of non-tribals in search of land and employment in tribal areas has assumed the proportions of an avalanche. The process of tribals’ loss of control over their environment and resources has gathered momentum.’

A study among the Toto community by the Anthropological Survey of India in recent past reveals loss of community land by the Toto people under the forest policy of the government. This has a great impact on their social and economic life. Besides, the influx of dominant Nepali people in the area made the Totos further marginalized in the area.


Fig -3: A Toto Family of Toto Para, West Bengal


B.D. Sharma (Singh, 1989:49) explained that ‘An important factor which has destabilized the tribal economy in areas with plentiful resources is the state policy in relation to forest, land and excise. … Initially this did not make much difference. But, as administration of forests tightened up, it affected economy of the tribals significantly.’

I have observed a somewhat similar situation in Sikkim. The Lepcha people, historically recognized as the oldest inhabitants of the region, find themselves in a secondary position under the cultural dominance of Nepalese. The Lepcha language is also on a back foot in Sikkim. Nepali is the Lingua franca. Now the Nepalese communities are demanding for Scheduled Tribe status supported by the State Power and in this process the Lepchas find themselves insecure and further marginalized. They are raising voice for their inclusion in PVTG list.

In a study among the Santals of Birbhum district I found another picture of deprivation. The village lands were swallowed up by the world renowned academic institute in the name of development of the institute (development here means the construction of buildings) leaving the once settled agriculturist village in a shape of a service village for the residents of the institute in all practicability. The village was studied by a noted anthropologist in 1950s when it was an agrarian based village settlement of the Santal people; even their sacred grove called Jaher than has been occupied and concrete building came up already. Their play ground has also been encroached. During olden days they used to pay khajna (tax) to the proprietor of the Institute and some of them still having the receipt signed by Rathindranath Thakur, the son of Rabindranath Thakur. They appealed to the University authority but all in vein. The unfortunate part is that these people accepted such dominance on their traditional survival strategies by the other part of the population as their fate.


Fig -4 : Santals of Birbhum district, West Bengal



These indigenous people are often found the worst victims of development which has always been perceived from the alien point of view. K. K. Chakravarthy (Hindu, 2000) observed that ‘the tribals of India have been seen by some developmental planners as agents for the destruction of biodiversity though they are its curators and victims of its destruction due to thoughtless developmental intervention.’ He viewed that, ‘internal colonial elites aligned themselves with external colonial elites, to carry homogenizing developmental processes, geared to mega-irrigation, power, forestry, building and mining projects, into the furthest hills and forests. Rural or tribal India continued to be a stage affixed to urban India, and was subjected to the self assumed, redemptive, civilizing mission of the latter.’

A few empirical observations may be cited here. Once a young Gond girl taught me, ‘spend your money after good food and good standard of living. You should not deposit in banks. Do you know why I am suggesting you so? Listen; when you will die the god will take you to his place. As soon as you will reach there as a good gesture he will enquire whether you want food and rest immediately. Then you should place yourself in a dignified manner and should inform him that you ate good food and maintained a good living. We should not look undignified.’

A Santal youth’s expression: ‘from the cities people come to show sympathy to us. They want to do good for us. We feel so sorry to see their sad face. Thinking us poor and unhappy they become unhappy. Why do they think us unhappy? We need very little to live a happy life. Whatever we earn we spend after food and hadia. In the evening we enjoy songs and dance with our music. We are happy. We feel pity on them who come all the way with a sad face to make us happy.’ In Santali language it is reska, the happiness.

A Rabha lady pointed out a genuine problem: ‘in our primary schools the medium of instruction is Bengali. Our kids speak in our own language in their home. So, in school students face difficulty to follow the lessons in Bengali. So, they cannot come out with good marks. Teachers scold them. Gradually they lose interest towards schools and prefer to be dropped out. But when a few of our children cope up with the situation and go out for higher studies in towns and cities they often face humiliation because of their broken Bengali.’


Fig 5: A Rabha Woman, West Bengal

Development does not mean to destroy one’s own tradition and imposition of other’s; rather to develop the wisdom of individual cultural traditions which in turn can contribute meaningfully to mosaic of culture in larger sphere of the country. The reservation policy of the government shows much concern about the immediate materialistic gain for the people ignoring the development of the society with their identity, dignity and traditions. And we observe that instead of orienting the so called civilized intruders in the Jarawa areas we prefer to put the Jarawas on with a maxi or shorts.

Fig – 6 Jarawa Community of Andaman & Nicobar Islands (Source – Anthropological Survey of India)

I quote from the Foreword written by Jawaharlal Nehru (1958) in the second edition of Verrier Elwin’s ‘A Philosophy for NEFA’ (Singh, 1989) ‘People should develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them. We should try to encourage in every way their traditional art and culture.’

Long back S.C. Dube (Singh, 1972: pp 28-29) observed, ‘the emergent dominant ethos bore unmistakable evidence of having absorbed elements from the country’s tribal heritage. In the reverse direction, the tribal ethos also did not remain completely uninfluenced by the pan-Indian pattern of life that was gradually consolidating itself. But the fusion of the two ways of life was never complete; some tribal groups were assimilated and lost their tribal identities; others determinedly sought to retain their diacritical marks and worked for the preservation of their cultural self-image.’

The situation has not been changed. In empirical situation we often observed growing consciousness for identity and recognition among the indigenous population, though localized in nature, under the leadership of community elites.  The ethnic communities of India cannot be viewed in isolation but in relation to the Indian society as a whole. Development should not contradict with one’s dignity and identity.

B.D. Sharma (Singh, 1989:50) wrote ‘the tragic reality is that wherever development programmes succeed in opening up these areas (Tribal areas) and building up new infrastructure, the tribal community tend to lose, simply because it is unable to tackle the adverse forces.’ According to him, ‘The development programmes themselves should be designed in such a way that they answer the needs of people, and are in harmony with other facets of their social and economic life.’

It is time to think over the issue afresh. It needs a serious thinking over the issue of ‘Development’ also. In the word of Joseph Stiglizt, ‘Development is not about helping a few people to get rich or creating a handful of pointless protected industries that only benefit the country’s elite. … Development is about transforming societies, improving the lives of the poor, enabling everyone to have a chance at success and access to healthcare and education’.  In the light of this definition we may have a fresh look on what Verrier Elwin said on the issue of development of these ethnic communities, “We do not want to preserve the tribesmen as museum specimen, but equally we do not want to turn them in a circus. We do not want to stop the clock of progress, but we do want to see that it keeps the right time. We do not accept the myth of Noble Savage; but we do not want to create a class of Ignoble Serfs.”




  1. Singh, K.Suresh. (ed), The Tribal Situation in India, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi and Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1972.
  2. Hindu, 2000 (Internet)
  3. Singh, K.S. (ed), Our Tribal Heritage, The National Tribal Festival, October 1989. Ranchi.
  4. Parulekar Godavari, Adivasis Revolt, The Story of Worli Peasants in Struggle, National Book Agency Private Ltd. Calcutta, 1975.

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Post Author: Dr. Kakali Chakrabarty

Dr. Kakali Chakrabarty
Kakali Chakrabarty is an anthropologist by profession. She is Former Deputy Director of Anthropological Survey of India and presently attached with Museology Department, University of Calcutta as a Guest Faculty. She has been exposed to varied fields to different parts of India. She has published his research findings in a number of books and articles in reputed journal. She also contributed effectively in the field of Visual Anthropology and directed a number of ethnographic documentary films under the auspices of this Survey.

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