Abstract: The paper argues that the concept of the tribe is modern. It is a term coined during colonial rule. The history of constructing the tribe in India has both colonial and indigenous roots. Colonialism is important in the construction of all modern identities and the case of the tribe is no different. The census is seen as a discourse that defines, constructs, connects and differentiates categories. The paper concludes with the assertion of the difficulty of defining both ‘Hindu’ and the ‘tribe’.
Keywords: modern identity, hindoo religion, caste/class, religious identity, religious classification, marginalisation
Tribe: Primitive or Modern?
In our contemporary imagination of the tribes, we still share the astonishment that Charles Darwin felt when he watched the ‘savages’ of Tierra del Fuego. In his words:
The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind – such were our ancestors…(Darwin quoted by Lively, 1999, 120) (emphasis mine)
The fear and simultaneous identification that ‘modern’ groups feel regarding the tribes is due to a very widespread phenomenon – the tendency to consider contemporary societies as primitive. Like Darwin looking at the Fuegians, we have been taught to look at right-now-existing societies as if they belong to our own distant pasts – what Fabin meant has the ‘other of our time.’ (Fabin 1983)
This paper, on the other hand, argues for the modernity of the concept ‘tribe’. Rather than taking the tribe as a category that has existed from time immemorial and as a surviving relic of the past, (which is the essentialist way of constructing the tribes), one should perhaps see it as having evolved in modernity.
When it is said that tribe is a modern category, it is not meant that the communities that are right now referred in that way did not exist before modernity. In fact, what is meant is that these communities were put under one banner ‘tribe’ during colonial rule and this bracketing affected not just the identities of the members of the community, but also their destinies in modernity.
There are other theorists who have been working with the concept of the modernity of tribes. For instance, Sumit Guha thinks that rather than taking these communities as actually being primitive, we have to see them as having been ‘primitivized’ in modernity. According to him:
The role that the modern regime of the forests played in isolating one segment of the population within the newly drawn boundaries of the forest is highlighted in order to make the point that the resulting primitivisation of these peoples is a recent consequence of the breakdown of their political system… It is argued that by concentrating solely on the truncated remnant of the old hierarchy, observers overlooked the living apex of the new one, succumbed to the notion of the simple, primitive and egalitarian forest tribe, and hence failed to see the simplified, primitivised, silvicultural proletariat that it was being hammered into becoming. (Guha 1999, 8)
Another point is that the modern articulation of tribal identities has been varied in different parts of the world and India had its own peculiar history of constructing the tribe. In India it was a mixture of both colonial and indigenous constructions. Both draw different histories.
Aloka Parasher in her study speaks about the changes effected by the British classification to an indigenous system. To quote her:
Administrators, missionaries and ethnographers from the nineteenth century intruded upon the discourse between tribe and civilisation that had been nurtured and developed in the Indian literary texts and tradition over a long period of time. In perceiving and denoting the tribes they had encountered as internally distinct social structures, the intruders distorted this discourse having unconsciously ignored the understanding of the total relationship between tribes and Indian civilisation. That there was an indigenous perception about the ‘tribe’ which bound it to the larger society was ignored resulting, thereby, in the creation of new categories of understanding people and imposed definitions as to ultimately place them in the context of an evolutionary pattern moving towards civilisation. (Parasher 1993, 140) (emphasis mine).
It is true that the British connected the tribes to a larger evolutionary paradigm that was influenced by their perceptions of Africa and Australia. But this does not mean that the connection pre-colonial India was making with the communities, now seen as tribes, was egalitarian in any sense. The binding with the larger society was also a simultaneous process of ‘othering’ for many of the communities now designated as tribes (Thaper 1978 152-193).
To repeat, ‘tribe’ as we know it today is the category that was officially consolidated in post-colonial India as the Scheduled Tribes. This categorisation was first initiated by the British. Colonialism is important for constructing all modern identities, and the nation itself was constructed during colonial times. Community identities were re-forged, sometimes pre-colonial community identities were asserted and very often transformed into modern identities during colonialism.
As Parasher’s quote shows, it was not just in colonial administrative records that the modern identity of the tribe was being forged. But this paper is only looking at one of the sites, an important site at that which helped to foster the modern identity of the ‘tribe’. The early census records are examined to see the birth of the modern category called ‘tribe’ in India.
Census is the enumeration of the people. According to a definition, ‘in the literal sense of the term ‘‘Population Census’’ is primarily an official enumeration through a direct visit of all the people either physically present or regularly residing in a country or any of its subdivisions.’(Srivastava 1971, 1.) Taking the number of people was a modern concept connected to the management of resources and people by the state. It has certain presuppositions.
1. Governance is management of resources and people.
2. It is important to have the data of people and resources of effective management.
Census assumes importance in that it gives the necessary demographic data of governable people and resources. Philosophically, it can be traced to the Enlightenment tradition of the State as the expression of the fully developed individual who consents to be enumerated as a member of the population. The idea of people becoming a population is very much there in the act of Census taking. The governable subject who willingly submits to the mechanisms of the state power is the imagined subject of European Census.
But the Indian Census, though drawing from these roots, does not imagine a fully formed individual. Instead what is enumerated is a wealth of communities. There are resistances to these classificatory processes, which are recorded, very often from perspectives, that are both pre-modern and therefore termed as ‘non rational’.1
Census is not just the data of the number of human beings. It is the data of classification. And this classification gives us an idea about how the people are imagined to be divided. This means that while the British thought they were just recording the groups available in this country, what was happening was that they were defining and constructing through these classifications. They remolded the communities. This is why it is said that the tribe is a modern category.
The Imperial Census makes visible the interaction of both the classificatory mechanisms of locally existing classifications of people and regions and the classifications as the British were used to at home. It takes it for granted that a particular self that sees itself as part of a nation (India) and a self, that sees itself as belonging to a particular religion has already emerged. Yet, it is the process of evolution that one finds rather than the taken for granted way in which these categories are used today.
The Tribe and the Hindu
The history of the connection between the categories ‘tribe’ and the Hindu religious identity goes back to the construction of both identities. The beginning of the consolidation of these identities shares a common story. In short, to ask who is a tribe in this country necessarily forces us to ask who is a Hindu. This is because the Hindu has been defined in particular ways in the British documents and the tribe has been defined in this category’s shadow.
It is clear that the British considered ‘religion’ as a major identity, which had to be enumerated and categorised. This was probably the follow-up of how society was perceived back home in Europe. Apart from Christianity, the other religions, which they were familiar with, were of course Judaism and Islam. A prophet, a holy book and sacred places where the religion was supposed to have originated defined these religions. They were of course familiar with the subdivisions within Christianity itself, the division of churches in Catholic and Protestant lines.
It should be noted that though they understood the importance of religion they refused to enumerate it back home. Yet, they thought it was necessary to do so in India. R.B. Bhagat thinks it is because of the different reasons, the colonialists had in taking Census in both places. In Britain, the Census was introduced as a result of the debates on population and poverty in the second half of the 18th century. While Census operations in Britain had direct economic and perhaps welfare motivations, in India, it was the desire of the colonial government to learn all it could about the people and the land under its control (Bhagat 2003, 686).
In India from the beginning of Census taking itself, that is, from 1872, the first Imperial Census, the data about religion had been collected. The colonial Census of India had questions on religion, caste and race. Moreover, religion was used as a fundamental category in Census tabulating and data and this was published without any restraint.
‘What is a Hindoo?’
In their innumerable efforts to define the category ‘Hindu’, we can see the Census reporters losing their ground and slipping. They very readily accepted that they were not on sure grounds.
It is true that there is no language to understand the religious system that the British saw in this country. As Bourdillon writes in the 1881 Census:
… concerning some of the faiths exhibited in Bengal, there could be no doubt. They stand distinctly apart. Their creeds are capable of definite formulation, and their followers are an acknowledged people, and an appreciable body in commonwealth. The Sikhs and Mahommedans, the Jews and the Parsees have an individuality which is impossible to mistake. The Christians profess a faith which separate them from all other classes of the community, and the Buddhists and the Jains, though they have been said to possess much in common, differ from each other by such imperceptible relation, and are separated from each other by such impalpable partitions, that is impossible to say where one ends and the other commences, so that the border land between each one and the next is a misty valley, now narrowing, but always thick with the exhalations of ignorance and the fogs of doubt. (Census of India, 1881, 19)
Due to this confusion, Hinduism was defined against Islam. As the 1891 Census report unabashedly claims about Hinduism:
Primarily and historically, it is the antithesis of Islam, and thus includes all Indian forms of faith in which the uncompromising Unitarianism of the adherents of the prophet detected signs of the worship of idols (Census of India, 1991, 158).
The fuzziness of the category ‘Hindu’ made many a Census official eloquent. The default religion of this place was named Hindu. But, this does not mean that the Census officials themselves knew what it meant. It was in the process of being formed precisely in these pages of the Census among other sites. Baines, who wrote the Bombay report for the 1881 Census says: ‘Beginning with Hinduism as a religion of the majority, we are met at the outset by a not uncommon difficulty, that of definition’ (Census of India, Bombay Report 1881, 22). The perplexity of Beverly who wrote the Census report of 1881 in evident in his exasperated questioning: ‘What is a Hindoo?’ (Census of India, 1881, 20) Beverly, who asked the perplexing question, also admits defeat with the definition:
No answer in fact exists, for the term in its modern acceptation denotes neither a creed nor a race, neither a church nor people, but is a general expression devoid of precision, and embracing alike the agnostic youth who is the product of Western education, and the semi barbarous hill man, who eats, without scruple what he can procure, and is as ignorant of the Hindoo theology as the stone which he worship in time of danger or sickness (Census of India, 1881, 20).
In this perplexity, he is clubbing completely different groups as one the tribes and the ‘Hindoos’, among many others, thus theoretically sharing a brief stint of being one. Yet, with all these confusions of whether they were Hindu or not, the tribe seems to have been finally declared out of the Hindu fold. In fact, there is resentment from the colonial authorities if they are included as Hindu in the categorisation. In fact, to avoid confusions, the 1991 Census even considers ‘tribal’ as a separate religious category. The Imperial Census report of the year complains against Madras that refused to show a single aboriginal in the religious category:
Madras …. does not show a single aboriginal in its religious classification, but it is unquestionable that in the Neilgherries there are races who, if they profess any religion at all, are nature worshippers and not Hindoos, Mohammedans, or any one of the religions shown in the Madras tables. I understand these aboriginals have been entered as Hindoo (Census of India, 1881, 18).
These attempts to mark tribal identity as a religious category is also visible in the methodology of organisation of the reports. For instance, the 1871 Census does have data on ‘Hindus’, ‘Sikhs’, ‘Mahomedans’, ‘Buddists’ and ‘Jains’, ‘Christians’ and ‘Others’. There is also division which says, ‘Religion not Known.’ It is true that the tribe might have been conceived of as belonging to the ‘Others’, or ‘Religion not Known’ category, apart from being included in ‘Hindus.’
Yet, the 1881 Census is very different. Here we find that ‘Aboriginal religion’ is a religious category that occupies the third position as far as population is concerned, with 6,426,511 people as members. (Hindu and Mohomedan religions being the first and the second.) My argument is that the effort in the 1881 Census to include tribal identity as a religious category were to mark its difference with the Hindu religion.2
Here is how the ‘aboriginal’ is defined in the 1881 Census:
A very large number of persons is shown in the Imperial tables under the somewhat dubious term, dubious so far as religious designation is concerned, ‘aboriginal.’ Those who I have grouped together under this term in the religious classification consists of the aboriginal tribes, who, not having been converted to Christianity, or to Islam, or to the Hindoo belief, retain, if they have any religion at all, the primitive cult of their forefathers, adoring nature under the various forms or images they have chosen to select as representative Deity.(Census of India, 1881 18)
We can find the confusions in the birth pangs of the category ‘tribe’ in the index of this Census itself. There is a mention of the aboriginal who are Christians. If aboriginal is a religious category, then this is a contradiction in terms. For, one religious identity usually excludes others. For instance, one cannot imagine a column for Muslim-Christians in the Census.
It is quite natural that the category ‘tribe’ was displaying such confusions in the early years for all the categories, religious or otherwise, were in the process of evolving. They were evolving in precisely these pages. At the time of the first Census the religious identity itself was being formed and people returned the columns for marking religions, with a caste name or a sect name. A humorous quotation from the Census report proves the confusion which itself finally crystallized as various religions that we know of today. Interestingly, the quote is about who are today known as tribes: The Deputy commissioner of Ellichpur, writes as follows:
‘When the hill people were pressed for a reply as to what their religion was, sometimes after much parleying, they said either that they were Hindoos, or that they knew nothing about religion, that they were arani log, ignorant people. All they knew was they were Korkus by caste. In one instance, two Korkus, brothers, one gave the one answer, and the other, the second … Now yesterday at Chikkalda there were representatives of eight villages present. Of these I called five Korkus, one Gaolan and two Nihals. All of the Korkus, when asked what their religion was, commenced by naming all the gods they worshipped as above.
When further pressed as to what name the religion had in which these gods were worshipped, five answered without hesitation, Hindoo, and one said he really could not tell. What ever their religion was called, that was his. He did not know its name. Of the two Nihals, both said they worshipped exactly as the Korkus did the same god; but they could not give the name the religion was entered by. How should they know it? Asked if they knew anything of the religions Mahommadans and Hindoos professed, one replied that the ‘does’ being the same, he supposed their religion was a branch of Hinduism. The other thought they were more like Mussalman, except that the latter abhorred pig’s flesh, which the Nihals liked (Census of India, 1881 19).
There was a general sentiment among tribes to be enumerated as Hindu, perhaps because of the vagueness of the identity ‘Hindu’, or because of the local associations with the upper castes. The same Census complains of the Berar report:
Where 37,388 only are showing ‘Aboriginal’ under religion, but in the Tribal statement, to be found at page 78 of the report, 164,981 are entered as aboriginals without distinction of religion. I must question whether the provincial authorities have rightly acted in showing so large a proportion of these aboriginals as Hinduoos (Census of India, 1881, 19).
There is resentment when the tribes themselves ask to be enumerated as Hindus. Thus, Drysdale, referring to this topic, writes in the Central Provinces report:
The instructions to enumerators required they should ask Gonds and all alike what religion they professed, and accept their reply as conclusive, but the Hindoo agency were so influenced by individual views and prejudices, that a great variety of practice prevailed in the record of the religion of the hill tribes. The result however shows very clearly, there is, among the aboriginal races, a very general desire to be regarded as of the Hindoo religion (Census of India, 1881, 18).
Yet, they were very clear of including the Dalit castes as Hindu even if they did not ask to be enumerated as such. Thus, it is reported in the same Census:
Another general doubt was what should be entered as the religion of debased castes like the Dher and Mang, who are generally ignorant of any religion except the superstitions of their castes, and are not admitted to the Hindoo temples. Many of the more bigoted High caste Hindoos employed as Census enumerators or supervisors objected to record such low persons as of the Hindoo religion. This was illustrated by numerous instances brought to my notice of such persons having been recorded as that of Dher, Mang or Chandal religion. Possibly some in their humility or ignorance may not even have claimed to be of the Hindoo religion. More probably they were not even asked. In my office they have all been tabulated as of the Hindoo religion, unless recorded as of some other recognized religions (Census of India 1881, 18).
The ignorance of the people was the ignorance of the category that was in the process of emerging – Hindu. Along with Hindu was also emerging the category under discussion – Tribe. It was the complexity of the forging of the categories in a particular way that one finds reflected in the Census pages.
Just to recount what ever has been discussed so far – Hinduism has been defined against Islam and other religions with Semitic properties. It has been seen as the default religion of the country. The tribes have not been included in the religion Hinduism though constantly there are references to their closeness. In fact, even when the tribes themselves have specifically asked to be included in the category, they have been excluded from Hinduism. Moreover, the brief trial at including the tribe as a religion in the 1881 Census also shows that the British Census officials maintained the distinction between the Hindus and the tribes. At the same time, the Dalits have been without any doubt included in the category, Hinduism. There are constant references to the indistinguishability between the ‘lower, forms of Hinduism and the tribal religions. Yet, this distinction is made and also maintained between these groups.
This is important because of the way Hinduism was defined. It was defined as Brahmanism in its pristine form:
This argument is permeated by the absent presence of the criteria of defining Hindu religion – Caste. The Census officials, like many other British officials, felt the essential characteristic of the Hindu religion was caste. The ease with which the British excluded the tribes from Hinduism was because they were conceived of as outside caste, and therefore as outside Hinduism.
But, the Dalits were not given this opportunity of being seen as outside caste. In the eyes of the British, the Dalits as well as the dominant castes were both united in a system that recognised communities placed in a particular hierarchy. The quote from the Census does prove that they viewed caste as the distinguishing feature of Hinduism. For instance: ‘It is true that very high authorities have described caste as the “express badge of
Hinduism”’(Census of India 1881, 182). Barthes is quoted in the 1891 Census to prove that …this institution (caste) is not merely the symbol of Hindus, but its stronghold and a religious factor of the very higher order’’(Census of India 1881, 182). Moreover, caste is defined as ‘the perpetuation of status or function by inheritance and endogamy.’ (Census of India, 1881, 182).
I feel, in the definition of the tribes the distinction that the British made with the castes is crucial. Why did they not include tribes as part of the default order they found in this country, Hinduism? Why were they perceived as outside caste?
To seek answers for this, perhaps one should go back to the Enlightenment idea of tribes that was being constructed in the West. According to this worldview, the Western society was the fully developed society. Progress was marked in terms of how close you were to being the fully realised individual who entered into social contract with other individuals. State was this individual’s social expression. In direct contrast was the society imagined to be practising primitive communism – the tribal society. In this hierarchy, caste was seen both as an expression of progress into a more complex power structure and falling short of being the fully individuated Western society. In this scheme of things, it was necessary to see the tribe as outside caste – therefore more egalitarian but also more primitive.
This is not quite a new argument. Many theorists have proved that by the mid-nineteenth century, this distinction between the caste and tribe was in place in India. As Ajay Skaria says: ‘By mid-nineteenth century, as is well known, colonial officials routinely distinguished between the castes and tribes of India, seeing the two as fundamentally different’(Skaria 1997, 729). My attempt was merely to see the process happening in Census records.
Outside Hindu, Outside Caste
To summarise the argument so far, in India, the tribes have been defined in contrast to another category – caste. This section has seen its definition like that.
It is argued that the colonial machinery constructed India in relation to the identity of the British colonizers. Many studies proved that while the colonialists thought of the West as characterised by the rational self, India or the Orient, being its ‘other’ was constructed as its opposite. These arguments are elaborated by Edward Said’s by now well-known arguments (Said 1978).
Among all the countries in the Orient, India was seen in particular as spiritual. Among Indian Orientalists, we can trace two major streams – the Utilitarians and the Romantics (Inden 1986 401-446). Both groups who were apparently against each other in their perception of India, agreed on one point – that India was basically Hindu. While Hinduism itself was portrayed as other-worldly and non-violent, the Utilitarians saw this as cowardice. The Romantics, on the other hand, saw this very character as gentleness and that the Western rational self had lost in its march towards modernity.
If India was Hindu and non-violence and spirituality were portrayed as characterising the country’s essential nature, its social expression was paradoxically seen in the hierarchical order of caste. Thus, like all other attributes, caste also came to define essential India. Again, both the Utilitarians and the Romantics differed in their interpretation of this order. The former saw it as a redundant system, well suited to the successive conquests that India underwent. The Romantics tried to either justify varna, the ‘uncorrupted’ theory of social stratification as a system that accords the station in life according to each person’s inclination and abilities and saw jati, the practice or caste, as a fall from this pristine state.
One is struck by the absence of the category ‘tribe’ in all these arguments about India. While the essential nation was being constructed, they were almost forgotten. This must be because, if the Orient is constructed as the ‘other’ of the West, then the tribe is the ‘other’s other’. Thus, even in the construction of the Orient, there is a civilised Orient and a primitive one.
2. The other groups which have been seen as separate religious groups like the aboriginals are the Satnamis, Kabirpanthis, Nat Worshippers, Brahmos and Kumbhipanthis. Most of these groups challenged the British notion of Hinduism, either by questioning caste hierarchies like the Satnamis or combined the imagined opposites of Hindu and Muslim as in Kabirpanthis. Brahmos with their insistence on a parallel Hinduism like the mirror image of Christianity, were visible because of their powerful social position.
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Census of India, Report, 1891.
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Guha, Sumit. (1999), Environment and Ethnicity in India: 1200-1991, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Inden, Roland. (1986), ‘Orientalist Constructions of India,’ Modern Asian Studies,
Lively, Adam. (1999), Masks: Blackness, Race and Imagination, Vintage, London.
Parasher-Sen, Aloka. (1999), ‘Of Tribes, Hunters and Barbarians: Forest Dwellers in the Mauryan Period,’ Studies in History. 14. 2: 173-191.
Said, Edward. (1978), Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Penguin Books, London.
Skaria, Ajay. (1997), ‘Shades of Wilderness: Tribe, Caste, and Gender in Western India,’ The Journal of Asian Studies, 56, 3: 726-745.
Srivastava, S.C. (1971), Indian Census in Perspective, Office of the Registrar General, Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi.
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BINDU K. C. Is lecturer at the Department of English, N.E.H.U (TURA Campus), TURA, Meghalaya.
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