Read this comprehensive essay on Tribal Movements in India!
Numerous uprisings of tribals have taken place beginning with one in Bihar in 1772, followed by many revolts in Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland.
The important tribes involved in revolt in the nineteenth century were Mizos (1810), Kols (1795 and 1831), Mundas (1889), Daflas (1875), Khasi and Garo (1829), Kacharis (1839), Santhals (1853), Muria Gonds (1886), Nagas (1844 and 1879), Bhuiyas (1868) and Kondhas (1817)
Some scholars like Desai (1979), Gough (1974) and Guha (1983) have treated tribal movements after independence as peasant movements, but K.S. Singh (1985) has criticised such approach because of the nature of tribals’ social and political organisation, their relative social isolation from the mainstream, their leadership pattern and the modus operandi of their political mobilisation.
Tribals’ community consciousness is strong. Tribal movements were not only agrarian but also forest-based. Some revolts were ethnic in nature as these were directed against zamindars, moneylenders and petty government officials who were not only their exploiters but aliens too.
When tribals were unable to pay their loan or the interest thereon, money-lenders and landlords usurped their lands. The tribals thus became tenants on their own land and sometimes even bonded labourers. The police and the revenue officers never helped them. On the contrary, they also used the tribals for personal and government work without any payment.
The courts were not only ignorant of the tribal agrarian system and customs but also were unaware of the plight of the tribals. All these factors of land alienation, usurpation, forced labour, minimum wages, and land grabbing compelled many tribes like Munda, Santhals, Kol, Bhils, Warli, etc., in many regions like Assam, Orissa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Maharashtra to revolt.
The management of forests also led some tribes to revolt, as forests in some regions are the main sources of their livelihood. The British government had introduced certain legislations permitting merchants and contractors to cut the forests. These rules not only deprived the tribals of several forest products but also made them victims of harassment by the forest officials. This led tribes in Andhra Pradesh and some other areas to launch movements.
Raghavaiah in his analysis in 1971 of tribal revolts from 1778 to 1970 listed 70 revolts and gave their chronology. The Anthropological Survey of India in their survey in 1976 of tribal movements identified 36 on-going tribal movements in India.
It was said that though these revolts were neither numerous nor gravely frequent, yet there was scarcely any major tribe in middle or eastern India which at some time in the last 150 years had not resorted to launching movements to register their protest and despair.
Some studies on tribal movements have been conducted and reported in North-East and Central India. However, there were an insignificant number of movements or none at all among the tribals of the southern states. This is so because the tribes down south are too primitive, too small in numbers, and too isolated in their habitat to organise movements, in spite of their exploitation and the resultant discontent . L.K. Mahapatra also has observed that we do not find any significant social, religious, status-mobility, or political movement among the numerically small and migratory tribes.
After independence, the tribal movements may be classified into three groups:
(1) movements due to exploitation by outsiders (like those of the Santhals and Mundas),
(2) movements due to economic deprivation (like those of the Gonds in Madhya Pradesh and the Mahars in Andhra Pradesh), and
(3) movements due to separatist tendencies (like those of the Nagas and Mizos).
The tribal movements may also be classified on the basis of their orientation into four types:
(1) movements seeking political autonomy and formation of a state (Nagas, Mizos, Jharkhand),
(2) agrarian movements,
(3) forest-based movements, and
(4) socio-religious or socio-cultural movements (the Bhagat movement among Bhils of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, movement among tribals of south Gujarat or Raghunath Murmu’s movement among the Santhals).
Mahapatra (1972) has classified tribal movements in three groups: reactionary, conservative and revolutionary. The reactionary movement tries to bring back ‘the good old days’, whereas the conservative movement tries to maintain the status quo. The revolutionary or the revisionary movements are those which are organised for ‘improvement’ or ‘purification’ of the cultural or social order by eliminating evil customs, beliefs or institutions.
Surajit Sinha (1968) has classified movements into five groups:
(i) Ethnic rebellion,
(ii) Reform movements,
(iii) Political autonomy movements within the Indian Union,
(iv) Secessionist movements, and
(v) Agrarian unrest. K.S. Singh (1983) has also classified them in more or less the same way, except that he has used the word ‘sanskritisation’ instead of reform movement and ‘cultural’ instead of ‘ethnic’.
S.M. Dubey (1982) has classified them in four categories:
(a) Religious and social reform movements
(b) Movements for separate statehood
(c) Insurgent movements and
(d) Cultural rights movements.
Ghanshyam Shah has classified them in three groups:
(2) Agrarian, and
If we take into consideration all the tribal movements, including the Naga revolution (which started in 1948 and continued up to 1972 when the new elected government came to power and the Naga insurgency was controlled), the Mizo movement (gurerrilla warfare which ended with the formation of Meghalaya state in April 1970, created out of Assam and Mizoram in 1972), the Gond Raj movement (of Gonds of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, started in 1941 for a separate state and reaching its peak in 1962-63), the Naxalite movements (of the tribals in Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Assam), the agrarian movements (of the Gonds and the Bhils in Madhya Pradesh), and the forest-based movements (of the Gonds for getting customary rights in the forests), it could be said that the tribal unrest and the resultant movements were mainly movements launched for liberation from (i) oppression and discrimination, (ii) neglect and backwardness, and (iii) a government which was callous to the tribals’ plight of poverty, hunger, unemployment and exploitation. K.S. Singh (1985) analysing tribal movements before independence have divided them into three phases: the first phase between 1795 and 1860, the second between 1861 and 1920, and the third between 1921 and 1947.
The first phase coincided with the establishment of the British Empire, the second with intensive colonialism during which merchant capital penetrated into tribal economy, and the third with participation in the nationalist movement and also launching of agrarian as well as some separatist movements.
Tribal movements after independence have been classified by K.S. Singh in four categories: agrarian, sanskritisation, cultural and political. In the first two phases before independence, K.S. Singh holds that in their effort to introduce British administration in the tribal areas, the British came in conflict with the tribal chiefs.
The rebellious tribal leaders revolted against the British and exhorted their followers to drive out the outsiders. Such movements were launched by Oraon, Mundas, Maikda, etc., in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and North-East India. After independence, the tribal movements were launched either for maintaining cultural identity or for demanding a separate state or for asserting their status as caste Hindus through sanskritisation process or on economic issues.
Stephen Fuchs (1965) has dealt with a large number of first types of tribal movements. He has called them messianic movements led by rebellious persons gifted with abilities for assuming the role of a Messiah, or these gifted people (Messiahs) are given this messianic role by the community when it faces economic distress, social strain or political oppression.
Fuchs has suggested that success of such a movement would depend upon the individual ability of charismatic leaders, thereby ignoring the relevance of system characteristics. Fuchs’ analysis of movements is mostly descriptive which lists host of factors for the success or failure of these movements. None of them propose a theoretical framework.
Not many studies have been conducted on the political-separatist dimension in Nagaland, Mizoram, Chotanagpur and Madhya Pradesh. The Jharkhand movement in Bihar is a movement of tribal communities consisting of settled agriculturalists which are sensitised to Vaishnavism.
Further, Chotanagpur was the most advanced of the tribal regions in terms of literacy, political consciousness and industrial progress. Christian Missions influenced the lives of tribes here substantially. These Missions promoted education, planted the notion of private rights in land, and emphasised a sense of separateness from the rest.
The Jharkhand movement after 1950 developed in phases—from ethnicity to regionalism (Singh, 1977). Of these, the phase (1963-1975) after the fourth general elections is characterised by fragmentation of the Jharkhand party and factionalisation of tribal politics. The BJP-led government at the Centre announced in 1998 the creation of two tribal states—one in Bihar and an other in Madhya Pradesh.
B.K. Roy Burman (1971 and 1979) has distinguished between proto- national and substantial movements among tribes. Proto-national movements emerge when tribes experience a transformation from tribalism to nationalism. It is a search for identity at a higher level of integration.
In contrast, sub-national movements are a product of social disorganisation pioneered by acculturated elite engaged in the contraction of relationship and not exclusion of it with the outside world. While proto-nationalism results from expansion of the orbit of development, sub-nationalism is the result of disparities of development. Sub-nationalism is based on the coercive power of the community, while proto-nationalism is based on the moral consensus of the community.
L.K. Mahapatra (1968) in his study of tribal movements based on a time-sequence and the nature of stimulus in their existence noted certain general tendencies:
(1) Most reformists’ tribal movements, although initiated by charismatic leaders, gradually led to rationalisation and institutionalisation, affecting structure but not always affecting basic changes.
(2) Tribal movements, irrespective of their goal orientation, invariably appeared among the numerically strong, usually settled agriculturalists and economically well-off tribes.
(3) Primitive and small tribes directly took to large-scale conversion and separatist tendencies are marked amongst them.
(4) Given the geographical distribution, a pan-Indian tribal movement is unlikely to emerge.
(5) Democratic politics among tribes is fragmentary which in turn blocks the emergence of civil collectivism.
Surajit Sinha (1972) has proposed several propositions regarding tribal solidarity movements:
(1) The nature and degree of involvement of tribes in solidarity movements will depend on several factors like location, size of population, exposure to outside communities, level of economy and the historical experience.
(2) The intensity of tribal solidarity will not be strong.
(3) Isolated and scattered tribes with a primitive economic base would rarely be involved in solidarity movements.
An instance of tribal exploitation may be taken to explain the cause of origin of a movement. This incident took place in June 1999 among Bettada tribals in Nagarhole forests near Hunsur town in Kodagu district in Karanataka state. About 29,000 Bettada tribals have been evicted from the Nagarhole forest ranges since 1972.
These tribals were promised rehabilitation by the Government. In 1998 some land became available in the area and the Bettada Gram Sabha authorised 70 families to take over the land. This was legal because the Centre had empowered gram sabhas to disburse land under their control. But about 200 forest department officials and the police burnt down huts of these 70 tribal families. The local tribal organisation first organised protest dharnas and then a movement calling for severe action against the officials concerned and the rehabilitation of the tribals. All this depicts that when the law does not help tribals, when the government remains callous, and the police fails to protect them, even harasses them, they take to arms against their exploiters.
These movements indicate that tribals adopted two paths of achieving goals:
(a) Non-violent path of bargaining and negotiating with the government and using a variety of pressure tactics without resorting to violence/revolts, and
(b) Militant path of revolts or mass struggles based on developing the fighting power of the exploited/oppressed tribal strata.
The consequences of both these paths are different. One indicates struggle oriented to reforms, while the other indicates structural transformation of the community. The fact that tribals continue to be faced with problems and also continue to feel discontented and deprived, brings to the fore the conclusion that both paths have not helped them to achieve their goals.