The Tribes In The Indian Censuses History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
The idea of tribes is particularly complex in the Indian subcontinent, where indigenous/primitive inhabitants were neither eliminated, nor quite absorbed, by the rising civilization in the course of history.
It is plain enough that the demography of tribal people cannot loom large in India’s overall demographic scene (the former’s relative size being only a little more than 8%). But, as we will see, demographic features in tribal societies have often been distinct and/or rather distinguished both in historical and comparative perspectives. In particular, the chief object of the present paper is to evaluate the overall demographic features and their common sociocultural underpinnings in the aggregate tribal population, in comparison, particularly, with their closest counterparts, namely, the lower caste (officially known as scheduled caste (SC)) people and others. Apart from illuminating useful insights into the nature and strength of the well-known connection between sociocultural milieus and demographic behaviour, this paper throws fresh light on the Indian notion of the “tribe” and its comparative position vis-à-vis the mainstream since the late 19th century, especially in the contemporary context of development and globalization.
Key Terms: Tribes, Demographic Patterns, Socio-Economic, Sociocultural Characteristics
The notion/identity of “tribes” is particularly complex in the Indian subcontinent, where indigenous/primitive inhabitants were neither eliminated, nor quite absorbed, by the rising civilization in the course of history. For example, although India’s tribes have been studied intensively (and extensively) for many decades, both before and after independence, they appear as obscure as ever (Xaxa 1999). While they have often been glorified (particularly by older-generation anthropologists), their popular image has remained rather vague, indifferent, and indeed, full of misconceptions and folklore. Despite substantial accumulation of literature (official and non-official alike) on the (relative) vulnerability of tribes, despite “countless” laws enacted for protecting their rights, and despite about half the country’s mineral and forest resources belonging to “tribal areas”, they remain the “most underdeveloped community” (Jones 1978). All this clearly reflects a resolute ambivalence on the part of the Indian state towards tribes (who fetch a numerically insignificant fraction of electoral support).
It is plain enough that the demography of tribal people cannot loom large in India’s overall demographic scene (the former’s relative size being only a little more than 8%). But, as we will see, demographic features in tribal societies have often been distinct and/or rather distinguished both in historical and comparative perspectives. In particular, the chief object of the present paper is to evaluate the overall demographic features and their common sociocultural underpinnings in the aggregate tribal population, in comparison, particularly, with their closest counterparts, namely, the lower caste (officially known as scheduled caste (SC)) people and others. Apart from illuminating useful insights into the nature and strength of the well known connection between sociocultural milieus and demographic behaviour, this paper throws fresh light on the Indian notion of the “tribe” and its comparative position vis-à-vis the mainstream since the late 19th century, especially in the contemporary context of development and globalization.
For example, India’s large-scale development initiatives in the post-independence period are often being seen by scholars to have induced a shifting orientation in tribal studies, namely, from a focus on tribes as communities to a view of them as subjects of modernization and development or as their victims (Xaxa, 2003).
Our present aggregative approach, of course, departs from anthropologists’ (and probably of many others) overriding perception that a study/analysis of aggregate tribal people can hardly make sense. However, the latter view is not always unquestionable. First, this (anthropological) perspective though it has for long dominated India’s tribal discourse, has arguably failed to provide cohesive and consistent statements on the predicaments of tribal people as a whole and on their effective remedies. As the report of an Advisory Committee on the Revision of the lists of SCs and scheduled tribes (STs) had observed in 1965,
…it would be in the best interest of these communities if they are taken out from the list of scheduled castes and tribes and are treated exclusively as a distinctive group, with development schemes specially designed to suit their dominant characteristics
Second, since diversities – sociocultural, environmental, and geophysical – are as much (or at least no less) germane to the tribal and non-tribal populations alike, it is pertinent to wonder as to why only tribal diversity, rather than commonality, should deserve academic priority and attention. If aggregate (or average) tribal patterns – say, demographic and sociocultural – are distinct from those of their non-tribal counterparts, the former could well be treated as one entity vis-à-vis the latter. Thus, while not denying the value of anthropological methods and micro-level studies, we adopt here an aggregative approach which we believe to be useful to policy formulation for India’s overall tribal people.
Tribes in the Indian Censuses
India is one of very few non-western countries for which detailed decennial census information is available since as back as the 1870s. The census reports and statistical tables have since been presenting demographic information separately for the tribal population – and often for many individual tribes. However, the census information, like most other large-scale data, is not perfect, calling for appropriate caution in drawing conclusions. In examining the long-term trends, the question of comparability of data from one census to other could be of key importance, while in a comparative demographic analysis of two sub-populations for a single census year the question of relative accuracy and coverage would be of greater significance. In the censuses of British India (except in 1941), religion was one prominent criterion for classification of the country’s population, with tribes being categorized as those practicing hundreds of different “primitive” religions. In fact, they used to be classified as “animists” until the 1931 Census, in which they were enumerated under the heading “tribal religion”. Thus, up to 1941, the use of religious category in the census enumeration enabled the authorities to bypass many complex issues – anthropological, sociological and historical – involved in the notion and/or identity of diverse tribes across the country.
It was only in 1941 that the tribals were defined, for the first time in the history of the Indian census, not in terms of their religion or faith, but their “origin”. In fact, this major shift in the criterion of enumeration brought in a serious difficulty of comparability between 1941 and the preceding census enumerations (Davis, 1951). Around the time of India’s independence, a serious rethinking on the notion of the tribe or tribal identity was initiated by political leaders who wanted tribal and other backward sections to bring gradually through “affection”, “friendliness” and some special protections and provisions to the mainstream levels.
The Constitution of India empowered the president to declare any tribal community or part thereof as a “scheduled tribe” eligible for those special provisions and benefits. With the adoption of the Constitution in 1950, the president promulgated in the same year a list of STs and scheduled areas, which was based, in a large measure, on the list of backward tribes promulgated in 1936 by the British colonial administration. At the first census of independent India in 1951, the number of scheduled tribal communities or part thereof was 212, with specific areas being earmarked for each. The Constitution provisions, thus, “sealed the boundaries between tribe and non-tribe” and gave to the tribal identity “a kind of definiteness it lacked in the past” (Béteille, 1986). Thus, since the 1950s, there emerged not only a definite tribal identity with legal sanction, but also a distinct political interest forging that identity.
Without laying down specific criteria for scheduling a tribe, the Constitution has empowered the president of the country to appoint a backward classes commission, with three major tasks: to evaluate conditions of socially backward classes; recommend policy for amelioration of their hardships and deprivations; and re-examine the existing list of STs for suggesting its revision, if necessary.
The first such backward classes commission was appointed in 1953, which came up with a recommendation for declaring some additional communities as scheduled. Accordingly, a modified (and enlarged) list of STs was notified by the president in 1956, and the list was published under SCs and STs (Modification) Order, 1956. Consequently, by the 1961 Census, the number of STs rose to 427 (which was an increase by more than twice the number at the 1951 Census), and to 432 by the Census of 1971.
Owing to various problems and complaints, the Removal of Area Restrictions (Amendment) Act of 1976 was passed to remove the area restriction on tribal identity, and, henceforth, the list of STs was made applicable to all areas in a state. Consequently, STs began to mean, for all practical purposes, “tribal population” of the country. Difficulties, of course, remained due, inter alia, to “the varying definition of a tribe, by changes to the list of officially recognised tribes, by qualitative deficiencies in demographic data, administrative changes to India’s regions and by the reclassification of tribes as castes” (Wiercinski, 1996). But these possible defects of census data have not usually been so serious as to obliterate the discernible distinctions in demographic features and parameters between the tribal and mainstream populations.
The preparation of schedules for tribal and lower caste people had occurred simultaneously. Although there might have been some anomalies in the official recording of these two social identities, this does not preclude the possibility of fruitful and imaginative use of census information (at least) for some specific purposes. In fact, census data do often depict contrasting demographic patterns/outcomes between these two social groups. Unsurprisingly, these two groups do not seem historically to have been much different in terms of economic levels and footings, but they have been pretty distinct socioculturally. Therefore, it should be illuminating if tribal demographic patterns and trends are examined in comparison with those of the SC population.
Understanding tribes in the light of their demographic trends, patterns, and outcomes should provide useful insights into the evolution of the notion of tribes and their relative social position.
Demographic Patterns and Trends of Indian Tribes
Table 1: Long-Term Trends in Population and Its Growth, and Sex-Ratio, Total and Tribal Populations, India (1881-2001)
Decadal Growth Rate (%)
Sex-Ratio (Female Per 1,000 Males)
(a) Includes 23,31,332 persons in North-West Frontier Province not enumerated by religion, but believed to be Muslim.
(b) In view of a change in classification in the 1941 Census, this is an estimate – made for the purpose of achieving comparability with the figures of tribal population identified as Animists till 1931 or as people practising tribal religion in 1931 Census – of tribal population in 1941, derived after adjustments to the enumerated population of “tribal origin”. See Davis (1951), Appendix J for adjustments and assumptions involved in obtaining this estimate.
(c) Excludes Assam. The decadal growth rate during 1971-81 has been calculated by excluding the population of Assam.
(d) Excludes Jammu and Kashmir. The decadal growth rate during 1981-91 has been calculated excluding population of both Assam and Jammu and Kashmir.
* See note 1below; + for India and Pakistan together (Visaria 1968, Table 2.9);
@ This has been calculated on the basis of revised estimate of tribal population for 1971 (which is 3,94,89,232 excluding Assam) after taking account of the abolition of hitherto imposed area restriction for most tribes by an act of Parliament in 1976, which resulted in larger population of several tribes in many states according to 1971 Census than were actually enumerated (see Sinha 1986, Tables 4.1, 4.2, and Appendix). In fact, the office of the registrar general worked the revised population of tribals for states where the revision was necessary (see commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes 1977; and also Sinha 1993).
(1) In 1951 Census the tribal population was for the first time enumerated according to a statutory list of scheduled tribes notified by the president under Article 342 of the Constitution, which was enlarged through modification as per order in 1956. According to the 1956 Modification order the tribal population for the 1951 Census was revised upward as being 2, 25, 11, 584, with the revised percentage rising to 6.23. Since tribal population in 1961 was enumerated according to the 1956 Modification list of scheduled tribes, the decadal growth rate of tribal population during 1951-61 has been calculated on the basis of this revised tribal population for 1951.
Source: For the British India figures, Davis (1951), Table 77, p 179; and Mamoria (1958), p 26; Natarajan (1971), p 9. For post-independence period, see Census Reports, Nag (1984), 15-16; Bose (1996), Government of India (2004).
We now examine the broad features of long-term growth of the tribal population since the late 19th century, in comparison with the total population (Table 1). Except for three decades, namely, 1891-1901, 1911-21 and 1921-31, the aggregate tribal population did register increases. For example, during 1881-91, the enumerated total population increased by about 12%, while the increase recorded for the tribal population was three and half times larger. This could be due to improvements in enumeration coverage of tribal peoples in remote and isolated terrains. However, over the following decade of 1891-1901, the tribal population had experienced a substantial decline in its absolute number vis-à-vis an increase in the total population. This (arguably) reflects a greater mortality toll among the former in the two large-scale famines of 1896-97 and 1899-1900. But in the following decade, 1901-11, the enumerated tribal population had increased much faster than the general population. This could be due to a lessened severity of famines in terms of frequency, scale and coverage, and also (presumably) due to quicker recovery in the post-famine years (e g, through higher than normal levels of fertility) of the tribal population, which had suffered a greater (proportionate) population loss in the preceding major famines (Maharatna, 1996).
Growth of total population was negligible during 1911-21 within which occurred the great influenza pandemic of 1918, causing a heavy toll of human lives including even considerable depopulation among tribals. Again, during 1921-31, Indian tribes appear to have experienced a decline in aggregate population, while there had been an increase in the total population. This differential seems attributable to the heightened politics over religious divisions around the 1931 Census, with, for example, an active political pressure mounting on the authorities to return “everyone of doubtful status as Hindu” (Davis, 1951).
Furthermore, the shift of criterion from religious affiliation to “tribal origin” as the basis of tribal enumeration in the Census 1941 was (at least partly) responsible for a record of their comparatively slower increase in 1931-41 (Table 1). Except for the dramatic effects of famines and epidemics, the enumerated tribal population up to 1921 was growing at rates no less (or may, indeed, be sometimes higher) than those for the total population. The somewhat sluggish recorded increases of the tribal population over the three decades preceding independence could partly be an artifact of social and political turmoil on religious lines.
Another noteworthy feature of pre-independence tribal population growth is the somewhat constancy of its proportion to the total since the late 19th century, as against secular declines in the proportion of the Hindus. While the former ranged between 2.26% and 3.26% during 1881-1941, the latter dropped from 75.1% to 69.5% (Davis, 1951). This differential, according to Kingsley Davis, was due to the higher fertility of tribal population than that of the Hindus. But there could be other possibilities as well. For example, as we argue later, this constancy of the tribal proportion could have resulted from its relatively lower mortality, not from higher fertility vis-à-vis those of the Hindu population.
In the first census of independent India in 1951, the enumerated number of tribal people turned out to be more than twice its size in the preceding census, despite the Partition of India in 1947. This might have been partly because the regions (e g, north-western parts and eastern Bengal) that were carved out from erstwhile India were historically of low tribal concentration. However, this can hardly be a full explanation, especially when total population of the country declined by about 7% in 1941-51. The clue lies in the fact that enumeration of tribal and lower caste people was made for the first time on the basis of respective statutory schedules prepared and approved by the government.
Many persons not considered as “tribals” on the criterion of their religious affiliation and/or otherwise before independence, could find themselves so identified in the 1951 Census. Thus, with the decadal growth of enumerated tribal population being higher than that of the total population in the post-independence period, the former’s proportion rose from 5% in 1951 to more than 8% in 2001 (Table 1). Note, however, that the gap in these two recorded growth rates has been the highest during the 1951-61 decade, and it narrowed down over the following decades (perhaps with the exception for the 1971-81 decade). This relative inflation of ST population in the post-independence period does partly reflect expansion of ST list. As Béteille (1986) observes, “paradoxically, the number of communities deemed to be tribes has increased with the modernization of India between 1950 and 1976”.
However fairly rapid enlargement of the list of STs, especially up to the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the removal of the area restriction in 1976, account for the extent of the recorded surges in tribal population that took place merely through reclassification, and, hence, of redistribution of the existing population. But there is the fairly strong evidence suggesting a higher real natural growth of the tribal than that of the total population. While the estimated growth of the “matched populations of STs” between 1961 and 1971 turned out to be only about 1% point lower (25.3%) than that (26.2%) based on unadjusted figures, the former happened to be 1% point higher than that of the total population, affirming a higher natural growth rate among tribes vis-à-vis general population in the post-independence period (Sinha, 1986).
The relatively high growth of tribal population in the newly independent country could be related to the new development and modernization initiatives, which via changes in lifestyles, customs, values, and some material improvements with little prevalence of modern contraception, could induce rises in fertility (so-called “pre-transition rise of fertility”, i e, rises of fertility just prior to the beginning of its secular decline). In fact, such pre-transition fertility rise has probably been relativity delayed, prolonged, and pronounced among the ST population vis-à-vis SCs, as the former have arguably lagged the latter in the processes of modernization/Sanskritization.
What emerges, on the whole (ignoring periods of dramatic losses of population during famines, epidemics and the like), is a picture of the tribal population having grown – much like the general population – at very moderate rates during pre-independence decades, but at much higher rates, thereafter partly because of inclusion of new tribal identities and partly because of late occurrence of their “pre-transition rise” of fertility. However, like total population, the indication of the onset of a declining trend in the growth of tribal population in more recent decades seems well discernible.
A broad regional pattern of India’s tribal population – namely, tribes being concentrated (in descending order) in central, eastern (including north-eastern) and western regions (these together constituting about 90% of total tribal population) – has remained largely unchanged.
However, there has been a distinct decline of tribal share of eastern states (particularly Bihar and Orissa) in the post-independence period. Notwithstanding possible enumeration biases (e g, over enumeration of tribals in southern and western regions most prominently up to 1981), the large part of the explanation for the changing pattern of regional composition of the tribal population lies in the interstate differences in real demographic processes, e g, birth, death rates and their trends, patterns of spatial mobility and movements of tribal people (Maharatna, 2005).
Table 2: Growth of Population and Growth of Numerically Large Tribes, India (1941-91)
Regions of Habitation
Average Annual Growth Rate (%)
Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan
MP, Orissa, AP and Maharashtra
Bihar, Orissa, WB and Tripura
Bihar, MP, Orissa and WB
Bihar, Orissa, WB, MP
Assam, WB, Tripura
** (Roy Burman 1993: 199); the percentage shares have been calculated by the present author on the total tribal population of India (exclusive of Assam). AP – Andhra Pradesh; MP – Madhya Pradesh; WB – West Bengal.
# These are 1941 Census enumerations of specific tribes on the criterion of “tribal origin” (rather than tribal religion used in 1931 and before). Therefore, the respective shares of tribal groups have been calculated on total enumerated tribal population of 25, 441,548, which is much larger than adjusted figure of 87,91,354 as presented in Table 1.
Source: Roy Burman (1993: 199); Government of India (1961), Report of the Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission,
Vol 1, 1960-1961, p 7; Sinha (1986), Table 4.3, p 47.
Despite the number of STs having already exceeded 500, it is only a few major tribal groups that constitute a large bulk of the aggregate tribal population of the country. For example, as Table 2 shows, about nine major tribal groups constitute nearly half of country’s total tribal population, and they are concentrated mostly in the central, western and eastern parts. The tribe-composition has remained broadly unaltered over the post-independence period, notwithstanding proliferation of new tribal subgroups. For example, relative shares of Bhil and Gond populations have risen, admittedly marginally, with a meager reduction in the share of Munda population (Table 2).
There are quite a few tribal groups – each constituting (e g, as per 1971 Census count) slightly more than 1% of total tribal population, namely, Ho (1.42%) in eastern India, Naga (1.23%) in north-eastern states (Sinha, 1986). Apart from them, there are numerous smaller tribal groups dispersed across the country. In fact, there are some “small” and so-called primitive tribes of which enumerated populations range from as low as 20. Many of such small tribes are, indeed, on their way towards extinction. However, the phenomenon of so-called “vanishing” tribes, if at all, is extremely localised, and indeed, specific to very small groups situated in very special circumstances. These most vulnerable tribal groups, who currently number around 75, constituting nearly 2% of total tribal population, include Onges, Shompens, the Greater Andamanese, Rajjis Didayis, Hill Korwas and Bondas. An acute food deprivation and extreme vulnerability to death and disease have generally been held responsible for diminution of some small tribal groups in specific locations (Bhagwan, 1997).
The “vanishing tribes” phenomenon, of course, deserves an attention and an effective public action in its own right, but it is important to keep in mind that the former does not represent the aggregate tribal situation in India. In fact, the major tribal groups (except some small vanishing ones) are not experiencing a uniform positive rate of population growth. While Bhil and Gond – dominant central and western tribes – have had accelerating population growth since the early 1960s, Santals, Mina and Munda – mostly eastern tribes – have fared far less in terms of population increase (Table 2). For example, the populations of Katkari, an originally nomadic tribe of Konkan region of Maharashtra, have been almost stationary during 1961-71 in the face of nearly 2.3% average annual growth rate of aggregate tribal population in the state (Kulkarni 2002). While this could well be related to acute material deprivation, other possibilities (e g, effect of removal of area restriction) cannot be ruled out. For example, among the major tribes of central and western states (e g, Bhil, Gond, Mina), growth of population has been above the national average and even accelerated in the post-independence period, at least up to the 1980s. This rapid growth of tribal population, especially over several decades since independence, seems to have caused inter alia by a relatively late occurrence of modern improvements in mortality of tribal population, and (somewhat related) by “pre-transition fertility rises” consequent upon generally sluggish pace of modernization across tribal communities.
In contrast, the major tribes of eastern India (e g, Santal, Orao, Munda, Khond) have registered much smaller population increase vis-à-vis both general population in this region and tribes of western and central India. A relatively larger underenumeration of tribal people in this region, especially in the late 1970s, could be a factor, since official recognition of tribal identity on the basis of “area restrictions” continued here for some time even after latter’s formal repeal in 1976 (Burman, 1993). But this cannot constitute a complete explanation. A relative mortality disadvantage and comparatively low fertility among these tribes (vis-à-vis those of central and western India) are also likely to have been contributors – especially over the recent past. Furthermore, specific historical factors might have made major East Indian tribes relatively prone to long distance migration and movement (Burman, 1993).
In sum: three major tribal groups, namely, Bhil, Santal, Gond constitute nearly 40% of the country’s total tribal population, and this numeric dominance of just a few major tribes amidst hundreds of tiny groups and subgroups has been continuing for a long time past, leaving aggregative analysis of India’s tribal population useful and credible.
Perhaps the most glaring difference between tribal and general populations lies in the sex ratio, i e, female-male ratio (FMR hereafter) (Table 1). In distinct contrast to India’s overall FMR being unfavourable to females, it has been relatively balanced among tribes.
In fact, females outnumber males in the entire western world and in many developing countries outside Asia and North Africa. Such excess female scenario derives both from females’ biological edge over males in natural survival chances as well as from their relative mortality advantage in wars, accidents and lifestyles. Thus, a huge deficiency of females, as indicated by low FMR in general population, reflects adverse social influences outweighing females’ intrinsic (biological) advantage in survival.
There have been several attempts at estimating what Amartya Sen famously coined “missing women” in countries with lower than a “benchmark” FMR, which generally obtains in the abs
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