Tribes, castes,...their evolution, culture and problems...

Introduction - This relates to the chapters on tribes in the NCERT history textbooks. Often for young and old the word tribe has strong symbolic associations and much of it is as adjectives like ‘uncivilized’, 'uncultured', ‘primitive’ and more severely ‘barbaric’, ‘savage’.  Though many of these attributes do have a historical significance, in the discourse of commonsense these features carry strong negative connotations.

These chapters in NCERT books - 'What books and burials tell us' ( Class VI TB), 'Tribes, Nomads and Settled Communities' (Class VII TB) and Tribals, Dikus and the Vision of Golden Age (Class VIII TB) seek to present a much needed corrective. But rather than dealing with these chapters separately in classes VI, VII and VIII,  it can be done as one long unit for a more comprehensive and contemporary understanding of tribal issues.

The word tribe is a very loaded term and therefore I have tried to qualify the word often, though not always, by putting it in quotes. For that reason some people prefer using the word indigenous people and in the Indian context as adivasis. Today tribal insurgency is a major problem that our country faces. On the one hand some people seek to mainstream them, but this process of mainstreaming has only resulted in uprooting them from their unique social and environmental interface and their rabid exploitation. On the other hand there is also the view that 'tribals' be left alone in their social and natural environment and minimize 'outside' intervention. The point is that one needs to take a historical view of 'tribes' and 'tribal development.' As indeed these three chapters also suggest, though implicitly, many of the communities today who are seen to be part of the mainstream or dominant society characterized  by advanced division of labour in agriculture, industry and an increasing shift towards urbanized economy were part of the 'tribal' society, in certain historical epochs and geographies. As a matter of fact it won't be too much to say that much of civilization as we know it - past and present -  are indeed tribal in origin.

I present a view of these three chapters in a fashion which may help a teacher to gain some kind of insight into these social, ethnic and cultural groups whom most often we tend to stereotype, romanticize at best or condemn them as inferior - at worst. I don't go into a summation of these chapters, but treated as one unit, and I just hope some of the points I have raised as perspectives can be appropriately utilized by teachers in dealing with this unit.

Points to be considered - Tribes as these chapters seek to emphasize were evolving categories. What and whom we refer to as castes - jatis based on occupational groups was basically 'tribal' in origin.

Sociologist Max Weber was of the view that one important distinction between tribe and caste was territoriality - the tribe was territory specific whereas caste groups were found across the country. Andre Betielle suggested that a tribe can be defined as a society with political, linguistic and a nebulous cultural boundary based on kinship with no social stratification. In the context of early Indian history, where Aryans too were often referred to as tribes, historian Upinder Singh comments that the word tribal refers to pre-chiefdom and pre-state societies.

One notable feature of tribes then would be the fact that the kind of social stratification that one associates with caste society is not very distinct. The division of labour, a characteristic feature of caste system, was not a distinctive feature of the Indo-Aryan tribes. Rig Veda, their oral composition for the God of fire (Agni), rain (Indira) and an intoxicant drink derived from Soma indicates that by and large the early Indo-Aryan society was mostly pastoral but little agriculture was also practised. Wars and battles were waged between the few distinct groups each led by chiefs (Rajans) where priests (Brahmmans) prayed for their success. Rituals were also conducted by the priestly class for success in wars and well being of cattle. After aportioning land and cattle for the chiefs and the priests, these which were secured in wars, were divided amongst the 'tribesmen'.  The presence of chiefs and priests in itself cannot be seen as indications of a stratified society in the way we associate caste societies as being stratified based on occupational and kinship groups. But they did have their own leaders but whose leadership was not always hereditary and members of the community also had a say in their elevation as chiefs or leaders. Contemporary 'tribal' societies have its priests (the shamans) as well.  But as such tribal societies are ( and were) more homogenous. Politically these societies did not have a strong administrative structure where certain groups were saddled with bureaucratic or martial duties to impose and collect taxes. Their subsistence economies put paid to any need or requirement for a bureaucratic mechanism, which is one of the important feature of state societies. But some of them also wielded political power (like the Khokars and Gakkhars in medeival Punjab, Cheros and Gonds in Bihar, Jharkhand and Central India respectively).

The above invariation probably happened when agriculture became dominant in certain of these communities. But agriculture in the form of shifting or jhum cultivation, along with herding cattle and hunting and gathering was never totally absent in most tribal societies. Some tribal communities can be seen to have certain dominant occupations like herding (Van Gujjars, Todas), hunting (Baigas and Khonds), farming (Mundas, Santhals, Gonds) but their economy unlike peasant (caste) societies was subsistence. Simple and less complex division of labour, (certain skills and crafts like honey gathering, ability to make baskets, weapons, medicines etc were more pronounced and well developed in many such communities for which they were sought and often incorporated, as we shall see, as caste groups) relatively homogenous with distinct religious and cultural beliefs further can be seen as characteristic features of 'tribal' groups.  Therefore in a tribal society if your family predominantly made baskets or pots or collected honey or herbs, that would not prevent you from marrying into a family making weapons or were hunters. Such exogamous traits and lateral movements, was more feasible in tribal societies where the pre-dominant culture of existence and survival involved utilizing and maximizing from one's natural and physical environment. Here labour divisions were simple and perhaps therefore did not necessitate or perpetuate exclusionary or hierarchic tendencies. On the other hand simple peasant, agricultural surplus producing societies hardened their division of labour into a caste system with its endogamous qualities, taboos on social intercourse and concerns of maintaining ritualistic purity, legitimized by Brahmins.  

As to why social mobility became so restricted under caste system, a quality indeed sui generis and definitive of caste system is rather too complex to be addressed in much detail here. It perhaps provided a schema for social order and surplus appropriation by the dominant classes but where the possibility for dominance of different social groups over some other group in changed economic and political scenario existed. The concept of dharma, duty, enjoined members of a community associated with certain social tasks and professions to adhere to their tasks. Such an caste ideology, was too powerful and enticing indeed for many social groups (except maybe the servile untouchables who did the most demeaning of work. It is not surprising then that today the most vehement of anti caste movements are spearheaded by Dalits) to follow its directives and at some levels find meaning in the caste order.

Orality can be seen as another important aspect of 'tribal' cultures. The Rig Veda, as it is well known, was transmitted orally (also categorized under smriti and sruti traditions) for a very long time before it came to be written. Even today many tribal communities do not have a written language. Their religion was animistic and nature worship. Certain animals, trees, plants and birds were worshiped and were seen as being part of their ancestry.

Some scholars also call tribals as ecosystem people because of their ability to survive with minimum intervention to their natural environment. Many of these communities certainly do and did have profound equation and relationship with their physical and natural environment and their sustenance was dependent on what their natural habitat could provide. But this aspect is again over romanticized. As these chapters suggest tribal societies are not static or totally isolated. many of these communities interfaced with well settled, surplus producing communities with whom they exchanged goods.

As pointed out above and in these chapters, many tribes (or at least considerable sections of them) like Bhils, Gonds, Santhals eventually took to agriculture. Some of the tribes also began to offer their labour to settled agricultural groups and were incorporated as jatis based on the kind of services  these groups offered. The  tribal leaders or chiefs and their family accepted the rules and regulations prescribed by Brahmins. They were often recognized as Kshatriyas by the Brahmins. These groups with their newly acquired status and identity accepted many of the social norms put in place by the former. The result of all this social process was the cleaving of a fairly homogenous and less stratified society with stark schisms. The latter has been a conspicuous facet of caste societies.

But this process was hardly a one sided affair. Transaction and exchange marked the above social phenomenon facilitating cultural synthesis where many of the 'tribal' beliefs, rituals and religious practices were accepted by the more settled peasant communities in which the Brahmins had come to dominate. Many see the worship of many anthropomorphic deities so commonly associated with Hinduism like Ganesha, Hanuman, Narasimha a result of this cultural exchange between the stratified, Varna based peasant societies and the 'tribals'. These movements in the society as in page 96-97 of the chapter on tribes in class VII points out, completed or rather set the context for the emergence of jati societies based on a more complex division of labour and further preeminence of Brahmins. We can also see in this social process the ways by which a mode of production based on settled agricultural practices and generation of surplus became dominant by incorporating different social groups whose method of production was more subsistent, largely, though not exclusively, based on hunting and gathering.

Such a development has been happening over a period of time in Indian history, though it gained major momentum from the Gupta period, which saw the decline of Buddhism but the ascendance of Brahmanized Hinduism. In fact the two epics - Ramayana and Mahabharatha itself where the forests have such a profound presence in which the chiefs protagonists of both the epics, also spend much of their time, can be read as the unfolding of the interaction (or even conflict) between the tribes and settled peasant and state communities.

It is actually tempting to see tribal societies, peasant and state societies in the Indian context evolving from a relatively homogenous society to a more complex stratified caste society where a tribe-caste-state continuum emerges. But such a teleogical and an uni-linear reading would be problematic and maybe one can say that several such communities coexisted in the past and they do now as well.

Thus at certain levels the 'tribal' qualities that we associate with many communities today was also associated with the Indo-Aryans, who somehow in the popular discourse were seen to be people very refined, a 'casteless', egalitarian society, where women were treated well and hence such a society was reflective of golden age of harmony, wisdom and equality. But taking a more sociological and historical view, they were seen to exhibit the same attributes that shape a 'tribal' identity, also used to demarcate contemporary 'tribal' societies.

Suggestions - the chapters need to be discussed in detail by the teacher. I hope the surmise provided above also would help in providing a perspective to the kids. I have also prepared an activity sheet which I can provide if requested and if, more importantly, your views sync with my reading of this issue of castes and tribes as put across in NCERT textbooks.It is the above understanding which undergirds my activity and teaching suggestion as well, that can also guide and provide cues to the teacher to interact appropriately with students on this topic. Besides these NCERT textbooks, I would also recommend Eklavya Social Studies textbook for classes VI and VII. They can be obtained at Three of the chapters here will be extremely relevant. Please note the understanding presented here is more about the transition from tribal societies to peasant and state societies. There are many aspects here related to caste societies which needs greater and in-depth elaborations.