The ‘Indigenous’ Tribe – A Socio-Legal Analysis and Rethinking India’s Indigeneity Debate

Indigenous Tribe

The strength of the global indigenous movement over the past few decades has led to the globalization of indigenous rights (Conklin & Graham 1995) and increased indigenous political activism in pursuit of expressions of indigenousness in nations other than settler colonies. India is not exempt from the valorization of tribal indigeneity (Baviskar 2006). The notion that tribal people and indigenous peoples can be interchanged in an era characterized by the “struggle for recognition” (Fraser, 1996) has sparked debate in both the academic and political worlds (Stavenhagen 2013).

If one wants to make India a candidate for dialectical and historical materialism, one cannot simply dismiss the question of whether the rising sentiments of indigenousness among the Indian tribes are natural or the result of colonial construction by academics driven by an imperialist agenda, or a hangover of a devilish perception of ancient Indian history by mainstream Marxist scholars. Leary 1989, Namboodiripad 1989, Patil 1979, Jal 2014, and Huang Tan 2000 are a few examples. Another important and connected question is whether tribal people in India in particular and the rest of the world can benefit from the indigenous rights discourse in international law beyond the terminological debate over “indigenous-tribal” constructs. This is in addition to determining tribal peoples’ status as indigenous peoples. 2015 (Barten).

This article seeks to offer an argument against designating tribes as “indigenous” based solely on their “first occupancy.” It does, however, suggest that Indian tribal people can continue to profit from indigenous discourse in international law.

Tribe – A Colonial Construct

Tribal People
Image Courtesy – UN Photo / Evan Schneider

‘Tribe’ was a colonial construct popularized by colonial administrators and Christian missionaries for targeted policy ensuring better control and administration of the people. At present, there are 705 notified Scheduled Tribes distributed over 30 States/UTs of India, constituting 8.6% of the total population of the country. Refocusing on the concept of ‘tribe’ in India, emphasis has been laid out to identify tribe than defining the concept (Xaxa 1999).

This could be vindicated by the fact that the Constitution of India does not define the term ‘scheduled tribe’; it only refers that ‘scheduled tribes’ are “such tribes or tribal communities or parts of groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 of the Constitution of India to be Scheduled Tribes for the purpose of this Constitution”. Lack of definition does not mean that tribal status is accorded without any understanding of tribes whatsoever.

A common overriding component to be seen running in the various tribal studies is to establish a contradistinction between tribe and caste. Scholarly endeavors were also carried out to establish that the distinction between ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ was recognized in ancient and medieval times. In this formulation, ‘tribe’ was analogous with ‘Jana’ resembling ‘communities of people’ outside the stratified system of ‘caste’ referred to as ‘jati’ (Thaper 2004). However, there have been contradictory opinions from scholars on the existence of a neat divide between ‘Jana’ and ‘jati’ akin to that of ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’, as it is understood in the present day.

In spite of everything, the Indian tribal discourse was largely characterized by a distinctive approach to the meaning of the word “tribe.” The term “tribes” was explained by 19th-century ethnographers as denoting both a “specific type of society based on kinship ties and stage of evolution” (Xaxa 2014). The first perspective suggests that ‘tribe’ is a “social group usually with a definite area, dialect, cultural homogeneity, and unifying social organization”(Hoebel 1949). The second perspective represents tribal societies as ‘primitive societies’ in the sense that such societies are less advanced as a species. They are generally perceived as barbaric, uncivilized, savage, and non-literate ( Xara 1999a; Skaria 1997).

The two perspectives are related in the sense that tribes were conceptualized as groups retaining primitive social organization. The conclusion that follows is that tribal peoples represent an early stage of human evolution evidenced by their sociocultural and political systems, which are frequently noted as being less complicated. People are somewhat cut off from changes in the “other world.” Therefore, the prevailing perspective on the concept of “tribe” that prevailed for future debate was that they are primitive and cut off from Hindu civilization (Bhengra et al. 1998).

In the post-Independence era, the colonial construct of ‘tribe’ continued to prevail in the legal discourse as well. According to a list of Scheduled Tribes outlined in the 1950 Constitutional Amendment order, the British government’s 1936 concept of “backwardness” (Teltumbde 2012). The First Backward Commission established the criteria for classifying a “Schedule Tribe” in 1955 and emphasized primitive characteristics as a key factor. In 1960, the President of India appointed the Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission under Article 339 of the Constitution. The Commission opined that ‘tribal’ are groups of people living a secluded life and are not integrated into mainstream society. In 1965, the government appointed the B.N. Lokur committee which provided certain criteria for inclusion as a ‘Scheduled Tribe’.

In sum, the colonial administrator’s attempts to institutionalize the difference between ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’ ended in a robust concept in the post-colonial legal framework. This, in turn, paved the way for the emergence of ‘tribal consciousness’ struggling, for ‘equality’, ‘respect’, and ‘participation’, not only on the basis of ‘marginality’ but also on the politics of ‘indigenous identity’.

Tribal People as Indigenous Peoples – The Debate

Indigenous Rights
Image Courtesy – Social Media

In the recent past, tribal people for the protection of their interests in land and natural resources, preservation of their culture and customary practices, and demand for more ‘autonomy’ has been articulated in different ways. Claims for an indigenous slot by tribal peoples are no more confined to textbooks, it has emerged as a rallying point for disgruntled tribal communities. Corollary, there are growing sentiments of ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ due to the politics of Indigeneity. In this sense, the term ‘indigenous’ or ‘Adivasi’ becomes an ideological agenda rather than a special category.

Among the torchbearers of the school of thought arguing against the Indigeneity of tribes, Andre Beteille remains a central figure as his logic shaped the stand of the government of India at the international level. The main points responsible for his position are as follows.

Andre Beteille argues that unlike Australia and North America, in India there are no sharp divisions between tribal and non-tribal peoples based on physical and racial characteristics. He is also dismissive of the idea that the concept of Indigeneity, as understood in settler colonies, should be applied in toto in the Indian context. In contemporary India, it is difficult to identify tribal languages and dialects for every tribal community.

B. K . Roy Burman, the doyen of Indian anthropology, throughout his life was critical about the geopolitical ramifications of indigenous politics, especially in the case of Scheduled Tribes in India being referred to as analogous to the ‘indigenous’ peoples of settler colonies. He argues that any such comprehension is devoid of knowledge of Indian history, which is marked by a mixture of populations, languages, habitats, and cultures that are both tribal and non-tribal (Burman 2003; Burman 1994).

Burman argued that the World Bank’s conceptualization of Scheduled Tribes as indigenous peoples is “nothing but misinformed intrusion,” dividing the Bretton Woods Institution as the hegemonic organization of the post-World War (Burman 1994). In public meetings called by the WGIP, he continued to criticize the position adopted by the representatives of the Indian Council of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ICITP). Additionally, without naming anyone, Burman made a direct assault on the ICITP founder member for how the founder member was chosen as a spokesperson.

To conclude, the key arguments of prominent scholars contesting exclusive autochthon city of ‘tribes’ are the following: First off, India has a lengthy history of internal movements that have led to the blending of tribal and non-tribal culture, language, and habitat. Any claims that one tribe is more original than another in their current habitat are therefore without historical or scientific support. Furthermore, there is a clear distinction between the internal migrations of tribal populations in settler colonies and those of tribal groups in India. The latter paints a dark picture of the dominating colonial people usurping indigenous villages.

Second, the most cursory examination of the spiritual-cultural landscape reveals a strong collegial affiliation between tribal and non-tribal peoples dating back to very ancient times, in contrast to the conventional wisdom about the distinction between tribe and caste.

The above arguments, however, are either dismissed as a passionate patriotism or a postcolonial reaction (Jefferson 2010; Guichard 2010). Many academics disagree with the idea that the concept of indigenousness is not applicable within the border with India. According to this school of thought, the native populations of settler colonies and the Adivasi or Tribal people of India are completely comparable.

In light of the above discussion and the availability of contradictory opinions and evidence, it would be safe to argue that the borrowed concept such as ‘Indigenous Peoples’ cannot have the same room when applied to the local circumstances of India.

The computation of the “important date period” to establish indigenous status in international law is regarded to be the “beginning of the colonial era,” which involves a history of about 500 years prior to the present. This is another point that is not unreasonable.

Ironically, the “important date period” is changed to approximately 5000 years before the current time when the claims for tribes as indigenous are raised in India. After 5000 years, I am unable to predict the relevance of Indigenous issues based on “first occupancy,” not even in colonial colonies. According to Jeremy Waldron’s view, another issue with India’s “first occupancy” quest is that it essentially transforms a heterogeneous society into a “bi-cultural, for some legal and political purposes” (Waldron 2002).


Taking into consideration whether the tribal people of India are native or not, the article’s moot question. This question lacks a definitive answer, and academics have differing views on the matter. The response depends on how “Indigeneity” is defined. If the “concept of indigenousness” is equated with “prior occupancy,” as in the case of settler colonies, then its application in the context of Indians will be unsuitable because it is challenging to pinpoint exactly who came before whom. Additionally, there are indications that tribal and nontribal communities have coexisted harmoniously in the past.

However, some claim that a dynamic approach is necessary to define the “concept of indigenousness,” and that in doing so, “indigeneity” should be seen as a social fact. In this sense, the tribal people of India do share similarities with indigenous peoples and can avail benefits under international law.

One Comment

  • Indian Law Firm

    Hi, Your analysis of the socio-legal issues surrounding the concept of ‘indigenousness’ in India is well-researched and thought-provoking. You have provided valuable insights into the debate surrounding the recognition of indigenous tribes in India and the challenges they face in terms of cultural and economic marginalization. Good job!

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