The Social and Cultural Change in Tribal India – Essay

In the presidential address to the Indian Sociological Society (1994), Yogendra Singh observed:

Major occupational and techno-cultural changes have taken place in our society due to the political, social and economic developments. These changes have promoted linkages and interactions among castes, tribes, religious groups and cultural regions. We notice signifi­cant magnitude of the spread effect of these cultural changes across regions and ethnic boundaries.

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These developments have, however, also reinforced people’s self-consciousness and narrow cultural identi­ties organized on principles of ethnicity, religion, caste, language and region. The process of cultural integration on a national scale has grown but with simultaneous increase in search for cultural auton­omy.

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At-the empirical level we find that the tribals have become con­scious of the fact that their ethnic identity is invaded by Christianity and Hinduism. Fundamentalists of both these religious cults are active in the field.

We notice this not only as manifested in their political de­mands, but also in their movements, such as “return to tribal religion” despite their religion of conversion.

Whether trials or non-tribals, cul­tural pluralism is rooted in our folk culture and civil society. The cultural nationalism, as propounded by some political parties and cul­tural organizations, does not suit the ethnic structure of our country.


With these introductory observations we give below some of the social and cultural changes observed among the tribals over the years.

(i) Changing Social Stratification: From Tribe to Class:

Enough literature is present in social anthropology which indicates that tribals have attained the status of a class from that of ethnicity. S.D. Badgaiyan informs that tribal stratification has become complex in Chotanagpur. For instance, the Mundas of this area have formed themselves into classes.

Similarly, Ghanshyam Shah (1977) writes that the differences in material possessions create sharply differing patterns of consumption in food, dress, housing, etc., and also parallel differ­ences in, for instance, the level of education, religious orientation and preferences in political life.


Reporting about the tribal situation of south Gujarat, Jan Breman observes that there is today class stratification among the Chaudhri tribe.

Though the class formation among the tribals in this part of the country has developed to the level of Marxian class consciousness, there has definitely emerged an “agrarian under class, which today comprises 60 per cent of the members of tribal castes which lag behind economically, socially and politically”. Breman continues:

As we have already stated, this process of cumulative inequality has not yet crystallized into a rigid class stratification. This does not alter the fact that to an increasing degree the separate strata are beginning to distinguish themselves from each other by their lifestyles and liv­ing conditions.

(ii) Depeasantization:

The tribals took to agriculture sometime during the first quarter of the 20th century. At that time they had enough land in their posses­sion. Increasingly, the caste Hindus made their entry into the tribal hinterland and since then the tribal land slipped into the hands of these non-tribals.

On one hand, with the rise in population, the land­man ratio increased, and on the other hand, the tribals experienced land alienation. As a result, a section of the tribals in Orissa, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh have migrated from their parent villages. This has made them job workers instead of peasants. This taking up of non-ag- ricultural occupations is called depeasantization.

Breman finds a new trend among the Halpatis and Chaudhras of Bardoli taluka of Surat. He says that the tribals have not only been de- peasantized, they have also become proletarianized. The fall is serious. Breman writes:

I would interpret the foregoing as indeed signifying the operation of a process of proletarianization of the peasantry, or depeasantization: one that is complex, but as yet particle in its impact.

The new ‘tech­nology’ has produced conditions in which by a variety of means, the poor peasantry has lost an increasing share of the operated area to rich peasants. Not only is that but the poor peasantry, in different ways, being transformed more and more into a rural proletariat.

(iii) New Ethnic Dimensions:

K.S. Singh, Stephen Fuch and P.K. Bose have very elaborately estab­lished that there has appeared an ethnic stratification among all the tribals of the country. The north-east tribals have accepted Christian­ity as their major faith; it is also found among the tribals of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Bihar.

The indigenous tribal religion has split into several reform movements. Fuchs reports about the mes- sainic movements among the tribals of central India. Bhagatism is the new form of religion accepted by the tribals. This has created an eth­nic stratification among these indigenous people.

(iv) Migration:

Traditionally, social anthropologists have defined tribals as an immo­bile stock of people. They hardly move beyond their village. But the search for employment has pushed them to work in big cities and the Gulf countries.

Today, these tribals are working as migrant groups outside their parent village. Government jobs have also encouraged them to move from one posting to another in a state or outside the state. Migration thus has emerged as a powerful factor for the transfor­mation of tribals.

(v) Political Socialization:

Rajni Kothari has analyzed the political forces which work among In­dian tribes. He says that the universal right for voting, party functioning, and social activism have all initiated a strong process of politi­cal socialization among the tribals.

They have become shrewd enough to make compromises and alliances at the regional, state and central levels.

(vi) Diversified Economy:

The tribal subsistence economy now has become diversified. Their traditional occupation was related to forest and forest produce. They have been experts in wood-cutting.

Along the coastal belt, they are adept in fishing. But they do not have any hereditary occupations on the pattern of caste Hindu system. This has enabled them to take to any occupation they may find suitable at a given point in time.

(vii) From Local to Global:

Eriksen considers social anthropology as a study of small places and large issues. According to him, in the present era of globalization, the tribals cannot be kept in isolation. There are linkages. The small places, that is, the tribal homelands are linked with the region, state, nation and the world.

The world problems, for instance, environ­ment, endemics of malaria, cancer and AIDS have become the larger problems of a tribal village also. It was during the 1960s that the media theorist Marshall Mcluhan introduced the concept of ‘global village’.

This notion was intended to account for the new cultural situation in the world, following the spread of modern mass media. The world had become one place.

The tribals are no longer an encapsulated mass of people restricted to hills and forests. They have become a part of the larger process of globalization. The process is a vigorous and continuous one, and the tribals have to decide which direction they have to march in. The fu­ture of the tribals rests on their own rational and cultural decision.


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