Tribe: A concept in a state of crisis

RK Rajeebsana
Evolutionist drawing from the Darwinian tradition argued that human societies evolve in a gradual process with selection and adaptation occurring slowly and quantitative change exhibiting a linear pattern-Gradualism. On the other hand, there are theorists who assert that, evolution while often gradual, is at times marked by rapid and revolutionary transformations, and characterized by qualitative change-punctuated equilibrium. The continuous advancement in the successive stage of history with increasing size of the social components or in response to the selection pressure from social forces as punctuated equilibrium theorist contend, may have cause the transition  from one historical stage to another. This transition was an evolutionary and natural process that goes through as a historical phenomenon with increasing needs to adapt and response to the social forces that stem in course of time but not a deliberate act of human. Jonathan turner maintained five ubiquitous forces- population, production, distribution, power and reproduction – historically forces societies to make adaptive choices. Either evolutionary leap or gradualist perspective, both has a common contention that evolution was a force for the betterment of individuals and humankind in general.
Every human society in the world at one point of historical stage had undoubtedly evolved as a tribe. Elman Service, an American anthropologist proposed that societies evolved from bands to tribes to chiefdoms and, finally, to states. If we look at Karl Marx historical stage model, tribe belongs to the first stage of the social, political and economic formulation of which, is primitive communism succeeded in order by ancient society- feudalism-modern capitalism and communist society.
In the Aryan invasion theory, Aryan was refer to as ‘Aryan tribe’, conquered and then destroyed or assimilated the dasas, or indigenous non-Aryan dark races. In understanding tribe, we should note that it is a stage in the evolutionary process attained by a particular group of people. More specifically in the Indian context, they have to be reckoned as a group of people passing through a stage of socio-economic evolution. The groups of people which inhabited the plains went higher in the evolutionary scale. They develop a culture, a particular way of life and above all, a literature. On the other hand, those who lived in the interior parts, lagged behind in the evolutionary ladder. Physical hurdles and an unfriendly environment kept them backward. As such, tribes constitute a type of society characterized by a sort of socio-economic evolution. To set Manipur as an example with some historical facts, Manipur as we conceive today was not an overnight creation. It is reported that more than 200 ethnic groups had migrated during the ancient era, in search of land, resource, fame and glory. Manipur in pre-historical ages was said to be the centre of convergence of various migrating groups such as Austrics, Mongoloids, Tais, Tibeto-Burman, Indo-Aryans etc. assimilated and amalgamated into different sageis or later into clan groups. The present state formation was evolved out of long drawn process of ethnic conflicts throughout the historical phases establishing its unique political position in later period through periodical process of cultural and political absorption of different ethnic group. Hence, Meitei as identity cannot be confined to one particular group but it is an admixture of different ethnic group. The full-fledged feudal society was established during the reign of Khagemba (1597-1652 AD) culminating the entire nation building process during the time of Garibniwaz. The third stage in the Marx stage model is marked by monarchical regime both in the European and Indian history. The Meiteis lived in the valley while the hill tribes, Nagas and kuki-chins dwell in the surrounding hills. The kingdoms of Meitei develop in the valley while the tribes did not build up polity formation beyond village polity. The ancient Meitei’s are said to have develop the art of writing or historiography very early, in the evolutionary ladder.
To delve into the concept of tribe, the term was originated from a Latin root, the middle east term tribuz, meaning the three division into which the early Romans were grouped which ultimately evolve into the modern English tribe. To the Romans it was a political division while the Greeks equated somewhat with their ‘fraternities’ at time and geographical division at others. In some part of the western world and in particular historical phases, it stood for a division of territory allotted to a family or community. Among the anthropologist and sociologist, today, the term means according to the latest edition of the oxford dictionary: “A race of people; now applied especially to a primary aggregate of people in a primitive or barbarous condition, under a headman or chief”.
It should be noted that, tribe is a fully vague and contested concept, universally, among different social anthropologist and the sociologists, even for some of them, completely ignoring the use of the term and admits ‘the word is none existent’.
There are two approach in conceptualizing tribe per se, Universal and Particularistic approach. Maurice Godlier, a Marxist anthropologist highlighted the meaning of tribe on a universal plane. Godlier states that; it is a type of society which is different from other societies and secondly, it is a stage of evolution attained by a particular group of people. As a Marxist, he opined that, the mode of production determines the social organization of a particular group of people and the production system of tribes is different from that of non- tribal societies. This is how, Godlier differentiated tribal society with non- tribal societies, which is characterized by special mode of production.
Social anthropologists have tried many attempts to define the concept of tribe. One such instance was the American evolutionary thinker, Morgan. According to him, tribal have a specific form of social organization. He characterized the tribe with a social organization having the following traits: (a) It is not civilised (b) It is not a political society (c) It is not a state (d) It is a collection of clans (e) It has a name (f) It has a separate dialect and (g) It has a government.
Another American social anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins defines tribes as “A tribe is a type of society within the framework of comparative anthropology as well as a stage of social evolution within a theory of history”. According to him, there are four stages of development in conceptualizing tribe: (1) The band (2) The tribe (3) The chiefdom and (4) the state
Sahlin makes a distinction between state and non- state society. Non-state society are divided into band, tribe and chiefdom. He differs from Morgan and his crux of the definition being on the collection of band with some form of government coordinating the activities of tribe.
Moving towards the particularistic approach, we can look into the concept of tribe in the Indian context with the work of few anthropologists who have extensive fieldwork among the tribals in India. Among these can be included Verrier Elwin, G.S.Ghurye, D.N. Mujumdar, N.K. Bose and F.G. Bailey. However the concepts of tribe given byGhurye taking assimilationist approach, or Elwin –isolationist approach are not homogeneous and differ from one anthropologist to another and therefore, there is no conclusive definition or characterization of tribe as such.
But to give a general picture,tribal in India are known by several names: vanvasi (forest dweller), girijan (hill dweller), adivasi (original settler), janjati etc. However ,there is considerable contention about the ‘idea of indigenous’ in India, admitting that it is incorrect to use the term ‘tribe’ for indigenous which applies to Latin America or elsewhere,and some are cautious  and careful in using the terminology. They are of the opinion that, the use of the term such as Adivasi or original settlers are too misnomer, instead they preferably use vanvasi, girijan, kaliparaj, vanyajati for identifying tribes who still lived in the hilly or forest areas, which are accessible. In many cases these tribes may not be the original inhabitants of the region where they reside now. They may well turn out to be migrant inhabitant. These proposition was equally held by sociologist S.C Dube too, admitting that there is considerable evidence to suggest that several groups were pushed out of the areas where they were first settled and they had to seek shelters elsewhere, and tribal tradition itself repeatedly mention of migration of their ancestors.
Ghurye, T.B. Naik , Bailey and Elwin used different criteria like religion, geographical isolation, language, economic backwardness and political organization for distinguishing tribe from non- tribe but there is  still vagueness and artificial endeavour in the indices which put forth, if not taken for granted. But for purpose of our analysis we can look into both claims and counter claims.
Tribals are said to be animist. The belief that all animate or inanimate objects are inhabited by spirits, temporarily or permanently, causing all the activities and they have the power over the life and to posses by the spirits that can be influenced by magic. Elwin, Rishley, Ghurye, T.B.Naik and Bailey have maintained that, animism as an indices for distinction of tribe is artificial and meaningless. They opined that Hinduism too, believe in spirits and ghost or in magic and possession.
On geographical isolation, tribal are said to have lived in geographically isolated region. But this should not be confused with geo-political situation of the north-east. We are defining geographical isolation in the context of tribe in relation with the specific region under study. The largest concentration of tribe is in Madhya Pradesh (23.22%), Bihar (11.26%), and Maharashtra (11.18%), which are in the mainstream Indian societies. Tribes are said to live in isolated regions like hills, mountains and jungles but non-tribes lived in the plain. This claim is also refuted by many social anthropologist asserting that many caste Hindus also lived in isolated region, while many tribal lived in plains. In this age, no groups lived in isolation.
On the basis of language, each tribe is said to have their own dialect but there are tribes which do have their own dialect but speak the language of one of the main Indian language, as in south India. Therefore, language as criteria is also rejected by many scholars. Economic backwardness is also a criteria rejected by many anthropologist. If tribal are backward, non-tribe are also poor too. On the other hand, we have economically advance tribes too.
But F.G. Bailey clarifies by saying that, sociologically economic backwardness refers not to a standard of living but to a type of economic relationship. T.B. Naik pointed out the meaning of economic backwardness in the context of tribe by giving four indices: (1) the full import of monetary economics should not be understood by its members,(2) primitive means of exploiting natural resources should be used (3) the tribe economy should be at underdeveloped stage (4) it should have multifarious economic pursuits.
In such a confusing heterogeneity, the constitution of India take up a liberal and democratic approach in identifying tribe. In defining tribe, the constitution of India took into consideration, the historical experience, backwardness, remoteness as well as tribe and non- tribe relation in its view. However, the constitution does not give any specific definition or criteria to define tribe as such. It was under the government of India act of 1955 and the constitution of India that the term scheduled tribe fully emerged. Primitiveness and backwardness are the two main indices applied in preparing the list of scheduled tribe in 1950 and 1956. It was then revised again in 1965 considering with some other criteriasuch as indication of primitive trait, distinctive culture, language and religion,geographical isolation: living in secluded, exclusive, remote and inhospitable areas such as hills and forests,shyness of contact or having marginal degree of contact with other culture and people and backwardness or livelihood based on primitive agriculture, low-value closed economy with low level of literacy and health. It should be noted that, the committee that set up in 1965 that look into the definition of tribe remark that tribe, whose member have by and large mixed with the general population were not eligible to be in the schedule list. In India, there are many who argue that the safety and securities given to tribal have created an ideological war between tribe and non-tribe. The reservation has to be discontinued after ten years from coming into effect of the constitution. By extending the term every decades we are going against the wishes of the constitution maker. And, even those groups who claims continuity with their past, have lost so many of their traditional characteristics and in fact, they must be viewed as a new entities. As such, the concept of tribe is in a state of crisis both theoretically and ideologically.
(The writer is a student pursuing sociology, in the department of sociology, Manipur University. He can be reached at [email protected])

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