Why a knowledge from within is critical for tribal studies in India today?

In the history of British India, there has been an interchange of categories between tribal identity and caste which were employed as synonyms in the compositions of the 18th century and later as cognates in administrative and ethnographic reports.

There have been tremendous fluctuations about its meaning and at different phases of British rule was inexplicit and blurred, so ‘tribe’ remained in vogue throughout the point. For example, the Census 1891 used the term ‘forest tribe’ under the broad category of agricultural and pastoral castes. In the Census 1901, they were described as groups that practiced ‘Animism’, the Census 1921 used the category ‘hill and forest tribes’ and in Census 1931 the term ‘primitive tribe’ was used. In the writings of the British a ‘tribe’ is referred to as a group claiming descent from a common ancestor or one which lived in primitive and barbarous conditions. 

In India There are 4693 communities, which include several thousands of endogamous groups, speak in 325 functioning languages and write in 25 different scripts (Ramachandran, 2008). The urbanization and modernization further enhance the complexities of India’s realities.

So there lies a unique and significant anomaly to study about tribal with a knowledge and perspective from within the tribe itself. The whole process of tribal studies can be taken from the concept of Marxist and the subaltern historians called ‘history from below’ with an example, almost most of the written history of our tribal society is based on the records kept by the colonizers. Our history is mostly based on oral tradition that gives the colonizers ample advantages to constructing the history for their own convenience, which eventually leads to loss of the real history. In the case of North-East India, where almost all the books were written by administrative officers whereby the primary intentions were for their main benefits and requirements. As the story which goes on that our script was eaten by a dog, when we don’t throw a script on our own and our history being mostly oral, the mythic expression of our society realizes it harder to grow a respectable story.



So studying a tribal from within is complicated because, at one hand, you have the records kept by the administration which are biased, and the records we get from the society are filled with imaginary constructions which make it very critical for our study. To understand something which has been secluded for decades, we need to be a part of it to understand the changes that have taken place in the secluded years.

One of the very ways to fully understand them is to study them through their perspective, if not the very essence of their lives/cultures will be dampened. The life and culture belong to them where there is an explanation for their acts, what is considered wrong in one society may be right in other society so it is very critical to understand how they think of their culture rather not how others think of their culture. There can be biases and ethnocentrism from the outsider point of view as realities are often quite different from the intellectual or academic perspective of an often biased academician.

The Britishers always kept the tribe’s marginalized and isolated. Even after independence we followed the policy of noninterference in tribal affairs, so tribal have largely been away from the mainstream society. They have their own customary laws, localized culture, and geography for their livelihood. The mode of life and society is intrinsically based on their natural surroundings and therefore it becomes a critical factor to have a perspective which is more localized and less generalized as every tribal group has its own culture and society. Ethnography can be a suitable method which can be used to study the tribals.

No amount of empathy could actually surpass the magic that originality could. First-hand information is always more penetrative than a second party report and of course the first-hand statement always has more teeth. Any political, social, economic and cultural issues are similar to so much time one deals with generic terms. One needs to incorporate every detail of the emotions, values, and ethos where the beauty of yet to explore tribal life lies. Miss a single knot and the whole essence is lost, which assigns an outline almost impossible task to relate irrespective of proficiency in narrative writing which relates to “if u have not lived it, you don’t know it.” 

Taking strong cognizance of the sensitivity of tribal life, governments around the world creates special autonomy for the tribal organization to govern them indirectly within the large governmental framework. UNO has special provisions under indigenous people’s rights. All these paramount to the recognition and knowledge from within is critical for tribal studies in India today. This recognition itself, as well as careful scheming and systematic allotment of literature on the part of the tribal’s, are a critical aspect of the overall critical study of the tribals.

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