Who are Tribals
India is home to the largest population of indigenous peoples of any country in the world. Roughly a quarter of the world’s indigenous population – around 80 million people – are scattered across India, their numbers a staggering diversity of ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic situations. They range from some of the last uncontacted indigenous communities in the world, like the Sentinelese of the Andamans, to some of the largest, such as the Gonds and Baigas of Central India.
“Indigenous and tribal peoples” is a common denominator for more than 370 million people, found in more than 70 countries worldwide. Indigenous and tribal peoples have their own cultures, languages, customs and institutions, which distinguish them from other parts of the societies in which they find themselves.

The essential characteristics, first laid down by the Lokur Committee, for a community to be identified as Scheduled Tribes are –

a) indications of primitive traits

b) distinctive culture

c) shyness of contact with the community at large

d) geographical isolation

e) backwardness

The Indian Tribals  include not only communities who live under conditions of extreme destitution, but also communities with social indicators well above the national average.  But across circumstances and areas, like other indigenous communities around the world, India’s indigenous peoples do share one characteristic – social, political and economic marginalization to a certain aspect. 

Of hugely varying numerical strengths ranging from Sentinelese just 15 souls to Gonds, Bhils, Santals having population running into tens of lakhs, tribal communities are at different stages of social, economic and educational development. Considering the three parameters, a few tribal groups at one end of the spectrum have almost reached levels close to the mainstream population groups. A majority of the Schedule Tribe (ST) communities occupy intermediate positions, more towards the right of centre of the spectrum. Lagging behind badly, at the other extreme end there are about 75 very backward small ST groups known as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) officially defined as those who are characterized by pre agriculture level of technology, a stagnant or declining population, extremely low literacy and subsistence level of economy.

There is no universal definition of indigenous and tribal peoples, but ILO Convention No. 169  takes a practical approach to the issue and provides objective and subjective criteria for identifying the peoples concerned . These criteria can be summarized as :

The term ‘tribe’ or ‘tribal’ is a British legacy and the use of this word has been started by the travellers, explorers, traders, missionaries and British colonists to distinguish and describe the local native people and their way of life and culture found in Africa, Asia and Australia etc.

As mentioned, India occupies the second position in the world, next to Africa, so far the tribal population is concerned and there are 8.6% of total population of India belongs to tribe (census 2011).

The use of the term ‘tribe’ or ‘tribal’ does not appear in the traditional Indian literature. In India, ‘the term tribe was used by British for those groups of human beings, who were not included in Varna Vyavastha of Indian society and whose residence were located in extremely remote forest, hills, islands, sea-coasts etc.

Anthropologists used various synonymous terms for ‘tribe’ in texts. Some of the important terms used for this term is ‘aboriginal’, ‘Adivasi’, ‘backward Hindus’, ‘barbaric’, ‘depressed class’, ‘indigenous’, ‘Janajati’, ‘naïve’, ‘native’, ‘original settlers’, ‘pre-literate society’, ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, ‘simple society’ and ‘uncivilized men’ etc. In India, the local corresponding of the term ‘tribe’ is often assumed to be ‘Jana’ or ‘communities of people’ based on the usage of the term in ancient Buddhist and puranic texts.

According this conception, the term jana was used in opposition to the term ‘jati’ to indicate that these communities were outside the ‘jati’ or hierarchical caste system of social organization (HLC 2014:51). In present time, normally the words ‘Adivasi’ and ‘Janajati’ are used in Hindi for the English term ‘tribe’. ‘Anushuchit Janjati’ or ‘Scheduled Tribe’ is the some of the tribe whose name has been included under Article 342 of the Indian Constitution.

Indigenous and tribal peoples are often known by national terms such as native peoples, aboriginal peoples, first nations, adivasi, janajati, hunter-gatherers, or hill tribes. Given the diversity of peoples it aims at protecting, the Convention uses the inclusive terminology of “indigenous and tribal peoples” and ascribes the same set of rights to both groups. In Latin America, for example, the term “tribal” has been applied to certain afro-descendent communities.

Lack of a clear anthropological definition of a ‘tribal’ in terms of ethnicity, race, language, modes of livelihood or social forms translates to the tribal communities being divided into Veddids, similar to the Australian aborigines; Paleamongoloid Austro-Asiatic from the northeast; the Greco-Indians who spread across Gujarat, Rajasthan and Pakistan from Central Asia and the Negrito group of the Andaman Islands – the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese.

In addition to the Scheduled Tribes, as the tribals are known in India there is yet another category of communities that are also referred to by the term ‘tribal’.  These are the denotified tribes (DNTs). These communities were originally listed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 18715 as Criminal Tribes and were said to be ‘addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences’. Once a tribe became ‘notified’ as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate, failing which they would be charged with a crime under the Indian Penal Code.

The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification, i.e. ‘de-notified’ the tribal communities6. This Act, however, was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts that asked police to investigate a suspect’s criminal tendencies and whether his occupation is ‘conducive to settled way of life.’ The denotified tribes were reclassified as habitual offenders in 1959.

According to the Eleventh Five Year Plan, ‘Unfortunately, these groups still continue to be marginalized and their specific needs even today are neither adequately understood nor catered to.8 A report by the  National Commission for De-notified Tribes, Nomadic Tribes and Semi-Nomadic Tribes subsequently stated that there are roughly 110 million denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes9 and that these communities are typically reduced to landlessness and face systematic violence and discrimination by mainstream society. The use of the term “tribe” for the DNTs did not however necessarily imply that these communities were Adivasis. The British may have used this term for many nonAdivasi communities merely in order to imply a ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ disposition, in keeping with the racist assumptions of the Criminal Tribes Act.

In the present day, some DNTs are categorised as STs, while others are categorised as Scheduled Castes (the former untouchables), and Other Backward Castes (OBC) while some are not included in any specific category. The communities covered under this rubric include mostly landless and itinerant nomadic communities who performed various service and entertainment functions for mainstream society.  Since there is some question as to whether all DNTs can be considered indigenous peoples in the international law sense, this report focuses on STs and does not discuss DNT issues in depth.

State List of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups

PVTGs currently including 75 tribal groups have been identified as such on the basis of following criteria:

  1. Forest-dependent livelihoods
  2. Pre-agricultural level of existence
  3. Stagnant or declining population
  4. Low literacy rates
  5. A subsistence-based economy

PVTGs Group of MP includes Abhujh, Marias, Baigas, bhanas, Birhor, Hill Korbas, Kamars, Sahariyas.

The tribes which are dispersed all over the country speak different languages and dialects. They also differ from one another in racial, socio-economic and cultural aspects. The Proto-Australia racial type is the dominant racial type among the Indian tribal communities except those living in the sub-Himalayan belt. A Negroid element is also found in some parts of the South Indian tribes. Dravidian is the most predominant language used by the tribes in South India. Tibeto-Burmese languages are spoken by tribes in Eastern India and North Eastern regions.

The Indian tribes living in different regions can be divided into six territorial groups as follows: Central Region Many tribal communities like the Gond, Santhal, Bhumji, Ho, Oraon, Munda, and Korwa live in the older hills and Chhota Nagar plateau along the dividing lines between peninsular India. The tribes found in the Indo-Gangetic basin and areas comprising the states of Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal mostly belong to the proto-Australoid racial stock. Many tribes in the western region , tribes like Bhils racially belonging to the proto-Australoid group are found in the states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Union territories like the Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Southern Region Tribes like Cherichu, Irula, Kadar, Kota, Toda and others having Negrito, Caucasoid and proto-Australoid or mixed physical features live in region covering the states of Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Central and Western Sub Himalayan Region Tribes like Lepcha, Rabhu, Tharu and other tribes mostly belonging to Mongoloid race are found in the region comprising the states of Sikkim, 41 Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir.

Eastern sub Himalayan Region Abor, Garo, Khasi, Kuku and others who mostly belong to the Mongoloid racial stock are found in the mountain valleys and other areas of NorthEastern India covering the states like Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Island Regions A number tribes, some of them endangered like Great Andamanese, Onge, Nicobarese, belonging to Negrito and Mangoloid racial origin live in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep Islands live.