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Scheduled Tribes Bill: For Whom and For What?

Scheduled Tribes Bill: For Whom and For What? RANJIT SAU In an interesting article,


Scheduled Tribes Bill: For Whom and For What?


n an interesting article, ‘Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill’ (September 30, 2006), Arnab Sen and Esther Lalhrietpui (henceforth, in short, AS-EL) have raised two valid points. “First, the category of scheduled tribes is contested in social science discourse. Second, forest and tribal policy in India is not adequately sensitive to value systems of local communities and this creates considerable contestation between administration and the local people.” This note scrutinises the article’s thesis on these two counts, and provides an appropriate setting in which to place such concern.

The bill under reference, by its very title, deals with the recognition of forest rights of “scheduled tribes” alone, as distinct from “non-scheduled tribes”. This context begets the following query: How many non-scheduled tribes, if any, are there in India; and how is their socio-economic situation? Evidently, the government of India – in particular, its agency, the Anthropological Survey of India – is innocent of any information on, even about the existence of, non-scheduled tribes.1

Now, an unofficial estimate has claimed that in India the two groups – scheduled tribes, and non-scheduled tribes – are equal in population, some 84 million each [Sahu 2006]. If there is at least one meaningful message in this estimate, here it is: a substantial number of tribal people of India is being deprived of the privileges that the bill is extending to scheduled tribes.

For Whom the Bell Tolls?

The Anthropological Survey of India, in its report, The Scheduled Tribes (TST), indicates that India has 636 tribes in all.2 Now the number of scheduled tribes on government list is precisely 461. It follows that the number of “non-scheduled” tribes, the remainder, is exactly 175. By this count, these 175 leftover tribes would have no “forest rights”. The ground for discrimination has not been explained.

AS-EL have recognised, by implication, a similar anomaly by writing that: “60 per cent of tribal people lived in forests, and another (sic) 30 per cent close to forests. The people dependent on forests, particularly in central India and the western Himalayas, would actually be rather more in number than admitted by administrative lists of tribes.”

As for the population size of “nonscheduled” tribes, we have demonstrated elsewhere, using the information contained in the very TST, it comes to as many as 84 million, precisely equal to that of the scheduled tribes [Sau ibid]. In a word, the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill directly shortchanges one half of the tribes people of India.

For What?

People are the real wealth of nations. The basic goal of development is to create an environment that enables people to enjoy a long, healthy, creative life.

Human development can be simply defined as a process of enlarging choices. Every day human beings make a series of choices – some economic, some social, some political, some cultural. If people are the proper focus of development efforts, then these efforts should be geared to enhancing the range of choices in all areas of human endeavour for every human being. Human development is both a process and an outcome. It is concerned with the process through which choices are enlarged, but it also focuses on the outcomes of enhanced choices.

Human development thus defined represents a simple notion, but with farreaching implications. Human choices are enlarged, when people acquire more capabilities and enjoy more opportunities to use those capabilities. It thus entails an equation: the left-hand side reflects human capabilities; and the right-hand side includes economic, political and social opportunities to use those capabilities.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)3 had launched this concept of human development with the inaugural number of its annual publication, Human Development Report, 1990. Since then the idea has received universal acclaim. In India, national as well as statewise annual human development report has become a salient feature.

Tribes people are no less of human beings than anyone else; like everybody else, they deserve the complete range of human development. They must not be caged in the confinement of what pundits or officials determine as the tribal way of life, to be conserved for ever. After all, we all have been tribes some time or other. A person, tribal or otherwise, must have full freedom of choice: it is for him or her to make choices whether to be a doctor, engineer, peasant, or architect – nobody else by proxy. To begin with, the person must be given all opportunities to acquire capabilities; he or she must have free access to the sum of human heritage of knowledge.

The stand taken by AS-EL appears to be inconsistent with the tenets of human development, defined above. They plead: “as far as targeting the new policy [for the development of today’s tribals] is concerned, it would make sense to actually identify at local levels, the stakeholders in forest-based lifeways, and legislate beneficial measures for them and the forest ecosystems to which they belong…The bill is silent on the issue of proving occupancy of forestland before 1980, the cut-off date for vesting land and recognising rights…Maharashtra has set a benchmark of best practice in recognising “tribal” land, based on more practical and credible criteria than “documentary evidence”, but the bill should evolve a standard practice mandatory for all states. ...Mechanisms of land transfer should ideally target collectives rather than individuals as beneficiaries, given especially the communal nature of customary landholding in many of forest areas.”

AS-EL continue: “Distribution of forestlands also raises another pertinent issue: to what extent the administration can ensure that the lands distributed would not be put to uses incompatible with conservation of

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006 biological diversity.” They advise: “We suggest that the only solution is to ensure that culturally validated institutional mechanisms like the ‘sacred grove’ be consciously revived”. AS-EL insist: “Given that forest is closely linked to belief systems, innovative use can be made of belief systems and ritual specialists”.

The central ideology of AS-EL, it appears, is to make the tribes people even “more” tribal, and keep them in that “forest-based lifeway” for ever. That viewpoint is at odds with the demands of human development, which calls for enlargement of individual’s horizon of capability and opportunities. The formation of the category of “tribal lands” would hang on tribal necks like a millstone, separating the tribes people from the general society, for ever. They will remain exiled permanently within their own country.

Tribe is a stage on the course of transition. From tribes arises society; from society comes the conception of universal human civilisation. No policy ought to stand in the way of evolution. “The entire course of Indian history shows tribal elements being fused into a general society. This phenomenon, which lies at the very foundation of the most striking Indian social feature, namely caste, is also the great basic fact of Indian history. The different methods whereby the tribal elements were formed into a society or absorbed into preexisting society are prime ethnic material for any real historian” [Kosambi 1975]. This theme will recur below in a moment.

Formally, human society bears comparison with the structure of the universe. In the limitless space of universe, celestial bodies – planets, stars, galaxies – orbit on paths that can be comprehended with Newton’s law of gravitation. In a sense, so do humans too in the social space. An application of Newton’s law on human society has brought meaningful insights which have been empirically tested with success [Akerlof 1997].

One theorem of the gravity model of society runs essentially as follows: for example, selecting a few individuals from a community of tribes to give them special privileges of land, education, training and job would tend to disconnect them from the rest of their community, hence producing little or no filtering effect down the tribal population as a whole. It would create a “creamy layer”, an elite class, floating on a sea of simpleton others. The outcome of India’s policy for special reservation in favour of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in educational institutions and government jobs is a testimony to this proposition.

Distributing forestlands to a handful of persons belonging to the so-called “scheduled” tribes, while denying that privilege to 84 million “non-scheduled” tribespeople, would be fraught with debilitating consequences.

Another forceful theorem from the law of gravitation in society implies the following: the tribes which are particularly close to one another but far away from the heartland of general society in a one-dimensional social space would continue to maintain that initial distance; that is to say, a low-level equilibrium would prevail, unless a sufficiently powerful phenomenon such as economic trade or social reconciliation comes by so as to attract them towards the centre of the general society. Which would mean that the advice of AS-EL to mobilise “sacred grove”, “forest-based belief systems”, or tribal “ritual specialists” – witch doctors, ozhas, gunins – would hinder possible fusion of tribes into the general society.

Dynamics of Tribes

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of tribes. Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Timur Lenk were all tribal chieftains who built empires trampling down myriad resistance on their pathway.

Westward along the high Eurasian Steppe, from the borders of China across Turkestan and beyond it, there flowed through continuous centuries waves of nomad peoples. Widespread among them were a vigorous people who became known as Turks. Identified at an earlier stage with the Huns, the Turks were akin to the Mongols and to the people who were later to be known as Finns and Hungarians. The founder of the Ottoman dynasty was a small tribal chieftain, Ertoghrul by name, who had migrated from Mongolia across Asia Minor. The Ottoman empire would carry the name of his son Osman whose valour had paved the way for its coming into existence.

Some 3,500 years ago, a group of tribal peoples of central Asia began trekking into south Asia. The ancient Indian history reckoned them as Aryans who came in the formation of mere five tribes eventually to establish a unique civilisation. By the middle of the first millennium BCE, the vedic pastoral era faded into an agrarian life of settled agriculture and

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Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

self-sufficient village as the basic unit of production. Hinduism took shape.

The diffusion process of Hinduism was twofold, viz, extensive, and intensive [Weber 1958]. The extensive propagation occurs in approximately the following way. The ruling stratum of an “animistic” tribal territory begins to imitate specific Hindu rituals in something like the following order: abstention from meat, particularly beef; absolute refusal to butcher cows; abstinence from intoxicating drinks; and the like. The assumption of additional Hindu customs follows rapidly: restrictions are placed upon contact and table community; widows are forced into celibacy; the dead are cremated rather than buried; etc.

The intensive propaganda covered a different segment of the populace – (a) peoples who as a result of invasion and conquest are expropriated from their lands by immigrant caste groups and reduced to economic dependence on the conqueror;

(b) peoples who have lost their home lands completely and turned into itinerant artisans and live a dispersed migratory dependent existence. These so-called pariah peoples sought and received admission into Hinduism albeit at the lowest rank of social hierarchy, because the caste organisations, much like quasi-trade unions, protected their jobs.

The motivation behind the voluntary submission to the extensive propaganda was of a different genre [Kosambi op cit: 318]. Certain tribal chieftains had enlarged tribal property by trade or as mercenaries in more advanced armies. Some of them were tempted to find a means of converting that bounty into their private property. To that end, a chief had to rise above his tribesmen in some way. Here brahman priests offered help. For him, they could discover or invent ancestors in the epic, or write them in some ancient texts. To accommodate that crop of imagination a new breed of mythology literature, the Puranas, sprang up. They claim immemorial antiquity but were written or rewritten by order, generally between the sixth and the twelfth centuries. Specialising in fabrication of myths, the Puranas made aboriginal rites respectable.

Described in Puranas, ceremonies like the ‘hiranyagarbha’ (golden womb) were performed by the tribal chief. Here the priest would insert the aspirant candidate into a golden pot, the “womb”. Mantras for a pregnant woman were recited, followed by birth-mantras, after which the freshly minted high class Hindu stepped out from his contracted position to thank the priests for his rebirth. Thereby he acquired a high caste, while the obliging brahmans acquired the precious vessel as part of their fee. The new caste entitled him and his well-born descendants to instruction in brahmanic lore from which the sudra and the pre-caste tribesmen were equally barred. Many a king in the annals of India had passed through the golden womb.

In order to avoid the risk of possible claim to a share of the tribal treasure by erstwhile fellow tribesmen, the newly anointed high caste Hindu would leave no stone unturned to block the path of their conversion. With extra fees, the learned priests could even fix that problem by the force of a few more mantras. In any case, the poor fellows could not afford golden pots as transaction cost. Thus certain tribes were left out of the pale of Hinduism.4 A high wall, as it were, rose in society irrevocably partitioning the residual tribesmen from the general society of Hindus.

The wall still stands there. Considered a soft target, the tribes of India are facing a barrage of competing proselytisation campaigns. Contrary to AS-ELs’ presupposition, these tribes can no longer be lulled back into “forest-based” belief systems. Better, they be given an introductory exposure to the content of, say, three major religions, viz, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam; and leave it to them to make a reasoned choice.

Concluding Remarks

The Anthropological Survey of India had toiled for its report, TST, under the shadow of the official dictum: “a tribe is an administrative and political concept in India” (TST, p xiii). By contrast, AS-EL insist that tribes have to be approached from an anthropological perspective. In the context of forest land distribution, however, we submit, the social and economic aspects cannot be overlooked. The origin and evolution of tribes in India has been an unique episode in world history [Kosambi op cit]. What is even more compelling is that no one knows how many tribesmen – scheduled and non-scheduled – are there in the country, and what their socio-economic condition is.

Under the circumstances, it would be prudent to (a) establish an independent non-government agency, funded by the government, sustained by intellectual resources and technical expertise from such distinguished academic institutions as IIMs, IITs, and the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), to make a comprehensive study on the tribal question in India; and

(b) meanwhile, keep in hold the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, pending reports from the aforesaid agency.




1 This finding follows from this author’s experience of asking several responsible professionals in the Anthropological Survey of India on July 25 and 26, 2006, the following question, among others: “How many nonscheduled tribes are there in India?”

2 Cf, “Tribes are the Best studied communities of India…As many as 449 tribal communities (i e, 70.6 per cent) have an ethnographic account…Four hundred and nine tribes (64.3 per cent) claim to be migrants to their present habitat”. The Anthropological Survey of India, The Scheduled Tribes (People of India, National Series, Vol III), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1994, p 7. Now here is the arithmetic: 449/0.706 = 636; also 409/0.643 = 636. Either way, the total number of tribes turns out to be


3 UNDP has acknowledged the contributions of Mahbub-ul-Haq and Amartya Sen as the prime source of intellectual inspiration for the theory of human development, and the human development report. Partha Dasgupta also has provided certain key elements for the project.

4 Surprisingly, TST, p 12, writes: “The scheduled tribes are mainly the followers of Hinduism,

87.05 of their total population being returned as Hindus (1981 Census).” If this figure is correct, it may mean that mostly those tribes which profess a particular religion have been included in the government list of “scheduled tribes”. Or, it is possible that the scheduled tribes have converted after getting scheduled, conceivably under pressure. Either way, the data merits independent verification. What is even more intriguing is that the TST, p 7, contradicts its own earlier statement: “The tribes have generally remained outside the varna system. Therefore, only 11.8 per cent of them recognise their place in it [varna system].”


Akerlof, George A (1997): ‘Social Distance and Decisions’, Econometrica, 65(5), 1005-27.

Kosambi, D D (1975): An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, revised second edition (first edition published in 1956), Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, p 27.

Sau, Ranjit (2006): ‘Non-Scheduled Tribes’, EPW, 41(33), p 3550.

Weber, Max (1958): The Religion of India, The Free Press, New York, pp 9-18.

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

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