(Sample Material) IAS Mains Sociology (Optional) Study Kit "Tribal Communities In India"

Sample Material of Our IAS Mains Sociology Study Kit

Subject: Sociology (Optional)

Topic: Tribal Communities In India


Due to multiplicity of factors and complexity of problems involved, it is not very easy to classify the Indian tribes into different groups. However, the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes took up the task and investigated the possibility of adopting classification criteria. Keeping this aim in view the state governments were asked to suggest the characteristics which seemed to them most suitable in distinguishing the so-called “aboriginal” groups from the rest of the population.

The Assam government suggested descent from Mongoloid stock, affiliation with Tibeto­Burman linguistic groups and the existence of social organization of the village clan type as the major characteristics. The erstwhile Bombay government considered residence in forest areas as the basic criterion while for the Madhya Pradesh Government, tribal origin, speaking tribal languages and residence in forests areas, were important criteria. Similarly, the governments of Madras, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Mysore, Travancore, etc., suggested various linguistic, geographical, economic and social factors as indicators.

Taking the above-mentioned characteristics

Into consideration the tribes of India may be classified on the basis of their (a) territorial distribution, (b) linguistic affiliation, (c) physical and racial characteristics, (d) occupation or economy, (e) cultural contact and (f) religious beliefs.


(a) GEOGRAPHICAL SPREAD: Looking at the physical map of India, and the distribution of tribal population we find that both geography as well as tribal demography permit a regional grouping and a zonal classification. B.S. Guha has classified Indian tribes into three zones:
(i) The north and north-eastern zone
(ii) The central or the middle zone
(iii) The southern zone

(i) The North and the North-Eastern Zones: The northern and north-eastern zones consist of the sub-Himalayan region and the mountain valleys of the eastern frontiers of India. The tribal people of Assam, Manipur and Tripura may be included in the eastern part of this geographical zone while in the northern part are included the tribals of eastern Kashmir, eastern Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and northern Uttar Pradesh.

Some of the important tribes living between Assam and Tibet are Aka, Dafls, Miri, Gurung and the Apanani on the west of the Subansiri river. The Mishmi tribes live in the high ranges between the Debong and Lohit rivers. Further east are found the Khamti and the Singpho and beyond them are the different Naga tribes. South of the Naga hills running through the states of Manipur, Tripura and the Chittagong hill tracts live the Kuki, the Lushai, the Khasi and the Garo (now the inhabitants of the newly carved Meghalaya state). In the sub-Himalayan region of Sikkim and the northern parts of Darjeeling, there are a number of primitive tribes, Lepcha being the best known of them. The Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh also contains some important tribes like Tharu, Bhoksa, Jounsari (Khasa), Bhotia, Raji, etc.

The entire geographical zone, though quite large in area, does not contain dense population. As a result of geographical similarities most of the tribes of this zone are engaged in either terrace cultivation or jh um (shifting) cultivation and are steeped in poverty and economic backwardness.

(ii) The Central or the Middle Zone: This zone consists of plateaus and mountainous belt between the Indo-Gangetic plain to the north and roughly the Krishna river to the south and this is separated from the north-eastern zone by the gap between the Garo hills and the Rajmahal hill. In this zone we have another massing of tribal peoples in Madhya Pradesh with extensions in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Bharat, southern Rajasthan, northern Maharashtra, Bihar and Orissa. Northern Rajashan, southern Maharashtra and Bastar from the peripheral areas of the zone. The important tribes inhabiting this zone are the Savara, Gadaba and Borido of the Ganjam district, the Juang, Kharia, Khond Bhumji and the Bhiya of the Orissa hills. In the plateau of Chhotanagpur live the Munda, the Santhal, the Oraon, the Ho and the Birhor. Further west along the Vindhya ranges live the Katkari, Kol and the Bhil. The Good forms the largest groups and occupy what is known as the ‘Gondwana land. On both sides of the Satpuras and around the Maikal hills are found similar tribes like the Koraku, the Agaria, the Pardhan and the Baiga. In the hills of Bastar live some of the most colourful of these tribes like the Muria, the Hill Muriya of the Abhujmar hills and the Bison-horn Maria of the Indravati valley. Most of the tribes of this zone practise shifting cultivation as means of their livelihood but the Oraon, Santhal, Munda and Gond have learnt plough cultivation as a result of their cultural companies with the neighbouring rural populations.

(iii) The Southern Zone: This zone consists of that part of the southern India which falls south of the river Krishna stretching from Wynaad to Cape Camorin. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Coorg, Travancore, Cochin, Tamil Nadu, etc., are included in this zone. Beginning from the north east of this zone, the Chenchu occupy the area of the Nallaimallais hills across the Krishna and into the erstwhile Hyderabad state. Along the Western Chats from the Loraga of South Kanara, the Yeruva and the Toda live on the lower slopes of Coorg hills while the Irula, Paniyan and the Kurumaba inhabit Wynaad area. The most primitive of Indian aboriginals such as Kadar, Kanikkar, Malvadan, Malakuravan, etc., inhabit the dense forests along the ranges of Cochin and Travancore. They are also included among some of the most economically backward communities of the world. Except Toda, Badaga and Kota who live in Nilgiri hills most of the tribal groups of this zone depend upon hunting and fishing for food gathering.

Although Guha has not included the inhabitants of Andaman Nicobar Islands in any of these zones and has skipped their description, yet these tribal people may be said to constitute a fourth zone. The main tribes living in this zone are the Jarwa, Onge, North Sentinelese, Andamanese and Nicobari. Thus separated from the main body of India’s primitive tribes, they are ethnically close to the south Indian tribes.

(b) LINGUISTIC CLASSIFICATION: At present people of India may be divided into four speech families viz., the Indo­European (Aryan), the Dravidian, the Austric (Kolor Munda) and the Tibeto-Chinese (Sino­Tibetan). D.N. Majumdar (1955) opines that “so far as the tribal people are concerned the Aryan speech comes into the picture only as a consequence of cultural contract since almost all of our tribal people have pre-Aryan or non­Aryan racial affinities and origins”.

Most of the scholars, therefore, are of the view that the tribal people of India may be classified chiefly into three speech families:
(1) Dravidian, (2) Austric, and (3) Tibeto-Chinese.

The tribal people speaking the languages falling under Dravidian speech family inhabit the middle and southern India. The most developed languages of Dravidian family are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Gonds occupy the chief place among the tribal speeches derived from Dravidian family and it is spoken widely by the Gond tribals who are scattered from Madhya Pradesh to Andhra Pradesh. It has no literature but considering the numerical strength of its speakers, it has been assigned a very important place in the realm of tribal languages. Another important language of this group is Koi which is spoken by the Kandh of Orissa, Oraon of Chhotanagpur and Malto of Rajmahal hills. The speeches of Toda, Paliya, Chenchu, Irula and Kadar are also included in the Dravidian family.

The Austric family of speeches is also known as Munda speech family. Max Muller was the first scholar who distinguished it from Dravidian speech family and it is he who assigned the term Munda speech family to this group. Speeches of this family are spoken mainly by the tribals of Chhotanagpur area but these are also in vogue, to a lesser extent, in some parts of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madras and Terai region of Himalayas stretching from Bihar to Shimla hills. The Santhali speech of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Mundari, Ho, Kharia, Bhumij and some other speeches of Bihar are also included in this family.

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