According to most definitions of the word tribe, it’s accepted as “a socially, ethnically, and the politically cohesive group of people”. However, the word has a negative connotation. All tribes, mostly anywhere in the world, share some common characteristics. They are mostly found in the barbarous stage of development. They have not been able to advance with the external world. They continue to preserve their own peculiar traditions like their own religion, songs, dialects, territorial affiliation, laws, and institutions to punish crimes and regulate behavior. In fact, their esoteric lifestyle becomes evident when one sees their clothing sense. Mostly they are clad in leaves or even naked.
Thus, it can be immediately felt that all tribes, almost anywhere in the world, remained in the most primitive stage of man’s civilization. They enjoy economic isolation. While the world commoditized all resources endowed by nature with land, water, forests etc. tribal societies continue to delink the concept of commoditization with their existence. They share all resources they have with little or no demarcation. However, economic isolation does not preclude the presence of social hierarchies. They acknowledge the authority of a chief. They have their own moral codes and strict adherence to them is highly desired.
Besides, there is little or no freedom for the individual. A child born in a tribe is expected to be a part of that tribal culture throughout his life. Sociologists believe that small social interaction prompts the tribal people to discourage any errant behavior by making highly repressive laws, which seek to curb any deviation from observed behavior. It is highly feared in these societies that a revolutionary thought can overthrow their culture and thus, they seek to curb it, as soon as they even find its traces in any member. Since there is no writing culture, the transmission of tribal culture is mostly oral and learned through keen observation, training, and enculturation.
Let’s discuss the characteristics of tribes with special reference to few ones found in India.
The Santhals: these are the tribal people indigenous to Nepal and the Indian states of Jharkhand, Bengal, and Orissa. They are also found in Bangladesh. They mostly speak Santali. Santhals are fond of hunting. All men, whether young or old, enjoy hunting. The name of the forest is told by the forest priest and he invokes the Bongas, their deity. After hunting, the men are saluted and their feet are washed by their respective family members. The use of bows and arrows is extensively used. They worship bows and arrows, and if anyone happens to touch upon it with his feet, he has to bow to them. Besides hunting, they use it in their festivals and celebrations.
The Onge people: The Onge people are the inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. They are traditionally hunter-gatherers. However, the present state of this tribe is dire. It is only because of their contact with the external world. They have high infant mortality rates. Women get pregnant rarely at the age of 28. They have the very small population, of about 100 individuals. Once 8 men died of drinking poison, mistaking it to be alcohol. That situation brought a calamity in the tribal population of the Onges.
The colonial experience of the tribes was highly calamitous. The British developmental policies allowed the reckless cutting of trees. They appointed officials to dig deep into the hills of various mountain ranges and hills, so as to collect statistics relating to land, flora, and fauna. As those ‘white men’ entered the hills, they became enemies of the local tribes. They were seen as the enemies of their rich cultural heritage. As the officials handed data to the British government, they became aware of the rich flora and fauna latent deep within the hills and started their policy of exploitation. At the end of 1810, Buchanan, a British official, crossed Ganjuria Pahar, which was part of the Rajmahal ranges, passed through the rocky country beyond and reached a village. He wrote: “Gunjuriya is just sufficiently cultivated to show what a glorious country this might be made. I think its beauty and riches might be made equal to almost anything in the universe.”
The Santhals were given land and persuaded to settle in the foothills of Rajmahal. By 1832, a large area of land was demarcated as Damin-i-Koh. It was declared the land of Santhasls. After the demarcation of Damin-i-Koh, their settlements expanded rapidly. From 40 of their villages in the area in 1838, as many, as 1,473 villages had come up by 1851. Over the same period, their population increased from a mere 3,000 to over 82,000. They, however, soon came out of the illusion. They realized that the British were levying high rates of interests, Indeed the moneylenders confiscated their land when their taxes accumulated unpaid.
By the 1850s, the Santhals felt that the time had come to rebel against zamindars, moneylenders, and the colonial state, in order to create an ideal world for themselves where they would rule. It was after the Santhal Revolt (1855-56 ) that the Santhal Pargana was created, carving out 5,500 square miles from the districts of Bhagalpur and Birbhum.
The Kol revolt: In 1820, the king of Porhat owed allegiance to the British and agreed to pay huge taxes annually. He claimed the neighboring Kol region as his own and sent officials to collect taxes. This resented the population and officials were killed. The British sent troops to support the king. The troop subsided the population, which fought with traditional bows and arrows. The Kols rose again in 1831. The continued roughened policies of the British encouraged them to fight back. However, the cruel insurgents spared no one. A huge tribal population was wiped out!
Thus, we see that the tribal population lost hold of its customs with the British arrival. It penetrated deeply into their cultural living and tried to mold them as workers, laborers or farmers. As we peel through the layers of anger, we see that the tribal population was indeed very badly exploited. But tribes, all over the world still strive to maintain their cultural integrity, their social framework and distinct mode of life, the very thing that characterizes them.