The aboriginal ethnic groups of India are called "scheduled tribes" in the Constitution. The designation, invented by the British, covers somewhat arbitrarily 255 such communities. According to the 1971 census the total population of India was 547,949,809, of which the scheduled tribes accounted for 38,015,162, or nearly 7% of the population. Although by now the national population has increased by another 135 million, the proportion probably remains close to what it was 10 years ago. Unevenly distributed throughout the subcontinent, the tribespeople are a vast majority in the northeastern states and Union territories: 88% in Nagaland, 80% in Meghalaya, and 70% in Arunachal Pradesh. Half of the country's tribal population is found in the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa. Madhya Pradesh has over 8 million, that is, 20% of the population; Bihar has about 5 million, or 8075% of the population; Orissa has nearly 7 million.

The numerically dominant tribes are four million Gonds of Central India (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh), four million Bhils of Western India (Rajasthan and Gujarat), and three million Santals of Eastern India (Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal). The smallest tribal community is the Andamanese, with a population of 19.

Economically and socially least advanced, the scheduled tribes are the earliest inhabitants of India. The English called them aborigines, and this concept was readily accepted by the average, educated Indian who traces his own ancestry to the Aryan and Dravidian invaders of the subcontinent. Most Indians consider the tribal communities, which live in isolated and self-contained groups, as wholly distinct from them culturally and ethnically. In fact, the people of India are highly mixed racially, and the aborigines too participated in the process of miscegenation and acculturation. But when the caste system developed and rigidified, that process slowed down and eventually came to a halt. In the scheme of the caste system the aborigines are considered a distant part of the body politic - not complete outsiders, but certainly on the far fringes - to be treated, however, with sympathetic toleration.

In more recent times there have been three distinct attitudes toward the scheduled tribes. The British government tended to leave them alone, partly because administration of the wild border areas was difficult and unrewarding, and partly because, though bearing "the white man's burden," many of the administrators also held the belief that the "noble savage", was better and happier than they and best left alone.

In sharp distinction was the policy of assimilation, which became very popular particularly since independence. Both Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers tried to civilize the tribespeople by assimilating them into the Christian churches and Hindu society. Recently, Muslim leaders from the Gulf countries have also expressed interest in and given financial support for the purpose of assimilating the tribesmen into the Islamic community - a policy that is deeply resented by the Hindu leadership of North India. The Christian missionaries have had remarkable success in some tribal areas in Assam, among the Lushais, the Khasis, and the Naga groups. The Hindu reformers, voicing the opinion of the majority, condemn all conversion attempts by Christians or Moslems. Three years ago a law was enacted in Arunachal Pradesh prohibiting all religious conversions. Indeed, for most Hindus personal choice is not the core of religion; they rather hold the traditional view that the religion of the dominant group in power should be the religion of the people.

The third attitude, formulated by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, proclaimed that tribal life and culture should be approached with respect and the tribesmen treated with affection. Nehru, who was personally broadminded, secular, and compassionate, wished to bring modern life to the tribes in such a way as to enhance rather than to destroy their traditional way of life. He decried the disastrous effects of Western civilization on tribal peoples in other parts of the world, and feared the impact of modern India on the tribal population. He emphasized the importance of encouraging the preservation of tribal languages and protested against poaching and alienation of tribal lands and forests. Nehru set up four goals to follow in deciding tribal policy: 1) to preserve, strengthen, and develop all that is best in tribal society, culture, art, and language; 2) to protect tribal economic rights; 3) to unite and integrate the tribes politically and emotionally within the Indian Republic and nation; and 4) to offer equal opportunity to the tribespeople by instituting a quota system in political representation, employment opportunities, education, and welfare. This ideal was legally enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

The scheduled tribes and castes are therefore represented in the central parliament and state legislatures in proportion to their population in each state; there are reserved service posts for them, seats in professional schools and colleges, and other examples of "affirmative action." Originally slated for ten years, this kind of quota system has been extended to this day, although it is often bitterly resented in many states.

Still, integration is not proceeding smoothly. In fact, the last two years have witnessed violent confrontations between scheduled tribes and high caste Hindus that resulted in massacres, arson, and looting. In Assam the tribespeople kept demanding the expulsion of Bengalis from tribal areas and from the state of Assam in general, because the newcomers exploit the natives and have taken away jobs from them. Reports from Gujarat Indicate that there is an endemic state of caste war there. In the northeast too the political situation is still very volatile. During the Indo-Chinese War of 1962, the tribal population apparently collaborated with the Chinese, and the resulting civil war with the Naga rebels in Nagaland and Mizoram is not yet over. The rebels, who demanded total independence form India, have been put down by brute force, but the government has agreed to grant the Naga separate statehood. The tribal peoples of Bastar and Choganagpur are asking for separate tribal states too, while the Sikh Akalis are demanding separate nationhood in the Punjab region.

The problems of the large and militant tribes explode with sufficient violence to reach the attention of the world. But it is very different for the small and powerless groups, such as the Kada tribe of Kerala.


The population of Kerala is 20% Christian, 30% Moslem, and less than 50% Hindu. Most of the Hindus are Ezhavas, who were themselves once considered untouchables by orthodox Hinduism. Because none of the touchables by orthodox Hinduism. Because none of the major groups is large enough to be overwhelming, there is little open or public discrimination against minorities and no great problems of political integration among these groups. But the basic economic, social, and psychological problems of the tribal people still persist there as elsewhere in India. The Kada tribe may be taken as representative, and their future as prophetic of the fate of the other small scheduled tribes and castes.

From the all-India perspective the Kadar are the proverbial drop in the bucket. They number about 1,250 and live on the borders of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is hard to determine their racial origin or how long they have lived there, but although some individuals have Negroid features it is likely that they are of Austric origin. Their folktales take them back some 1,500 years, to a time when agriculture was their original occupation, but in a more recent past they had been forest dwellers and food gatherers. They are that still, as much as they can be, living now on the fringes of the forests near the highways and the villages of the plainspeople yet apart from them. Although some of the village men temporarily move in with the Kadar and marry the women, they leave after they have fathered a couple of children.

In the spring, the honey season, many Kadar go back to live in the forests; one group in the Nemmara region still spends all its time as nomads in the forests, moving from settlement to settlement in search of food. Some Kadar work on coffee estates and tapioca plantations, others as guards and watchmen for the Forest Department of the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, while a very few engage in agriculture.

It is obvious that the Kadar live on the frontiers symbolically and psychologically as well as physically. They are caught between two worlds. Their forest home cannot support them any longer; because of the government's continued conversion of forests into teak plantations and farm lands, the tubers and roots on which the Kada people depended for food are getting scarce. Often they go on food-gathering journeys to the interior of the forests and return home empty-handed. There are fewer and fewer animals to hunt, but no one is allowed to hunt at all. For rice and clothes they must depend on the plainspeople, who have always exploited the gullibility and helplessness of the tribespeople. The few who go to towns looking for jobs soon find it difficult to cope with the demands of civilization, so they return home to continue to live on the edge of society and the jungles.


For the Kadar, a complete return to the jungle would mean death from starvation. There is only one choice - integration into the larger society. But in order to succeed, that process must be carefully guided to avoid the numerous pitfalls that lie along the way. Undoubtedly, the Kadar themselves want to become an integral part of a larger society. They try again and again, the men going out to seek jobs for which they are unprepared, the women marrying plainsmen so that their children may have a better life. But they cannot cope. The local governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have recognized this situation and have tried to alleviate it somewhat. Small houses have been built for the Kadar in the areas where they live, but there is no economic basis for these settlements. The Kuriarkutty Colony, for example, was built right in the heart of the jungle, with jeep roads connecting it to the villages. There are no jobs, not enough farmland, and no farming instructors for the Kadar; it is difficult and demanding to change from gathering to farming.

Integration, then, is the goal. But how and by whom is it to be implemented? Although integration is the official policy of India, the government is not likely to take an active role in promoting it. To champion the interests of the Kadar and other aborigines would probably lead to antagonizing the large electorate, composed of the principal ethnic groups, and cause the ruling party to lose the next election. Among the Kadar, the ancient leaders of the tribes are not able to provide the kind of leadership necessary for a movement toward integration, nor are they trusted by the Kada people. Only the religious organizations are left as possible sources of leadership and education to the aborigines; of these, the caste-bound Hindus are least likely to take an interest, the Moslems would encounter political problems, which leaves the Christian churches, and they are, for various reasons, only a remote possibility.

But even assuming that leaders will be found, the task before them is complicated and fraught with danger. Full-scale integration would inevitably destroy the folk-ways, religion language, and mores of the aborigines, while the romantic notion of preserving prospering linguistic and racial enclaves is impractical. A balance must be found between the two, based on bilingual education for the tribespeople and intensive education of the larger population to appreciate the minority peoples among them. In any case, full-scale integration is not now an option for people who have not learned to function in the midst of the enormous technological and bureaucratic complexities of the larger society. But good organization and strong leaders can perhaps wrest through the courts enough of the land that was the Kadar tribe's de facto, secure government loans, and settle for productive agriculture. Such a pattern is the one most likely to preserve a modicum of culture and ethnic identity while allowing the tribespeople to become productive members of the larger society. Clearly, the tribal problem is far from solved and Nehru's four goals remain only ideals.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue:

5-3 Fall 1981

September 1981