Tribes and Indian National Identity: Location of Exclusion and Marginality

By Xaxa, Virginius | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Tribes and Indian National Identity: Location of Exclusion and Marginality


Xaxa, Virginius, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


National identity is generally posited as a feeling of consciousness and loyalty toward one's community as ethnos (people). As ethnos, communities have common origins (real or fictitious), histories, languages, cultures, customs, traditions, and territorial boundaries. Communities also have sovereignty, and they care specifically for their members' interests and welfare. At the same time, communities seek to preserve and promote their national identity through the enrichment and revival of language and other social and cultural customs. Given that India is a land of enormous diversity, this understanding of national identity poses serious challenges to the conception of a coherent Indian national identity.

Religion, language, region, caste, and tribe are the most critical aspects of India's diversity. Indians practice a wide spectrum of faiths, perhaps contributing to the fact that religion in India has historically been a source of segregation, cleavage, and conflict. Religion stands as a serious challenge to the unity and integrity of the nation. Moreover, Indians speak hundreds of languages. As such, language and region also complicate the Indian national identity. The country has been divided into different regions and sub-regions that invariably present themselves as distinct linguistic and cultural zones. This has engendered demands, dating back to colonial rule, for distinct states for people of the same language and culture. These divisions and demands are especially problematic for Indian national development as people from distinct linguistic regions are further divided into hundreds of castes and sub-castes. Moreover, there are people who fall outside of such linguistic-cum-regional societies and thereby are excluded from the caste system as well. They have been generally described as tribes with their own language, religion, culture, and geographical territories. They regulate their social and cultural life according to their own traditions, norms, and values.

This paper addresses the development of the Indian national identity, with a particular focus on tribal people. How have tribal people related to the development of Indian national identity in colonial and post-colonial India? What have they contributed to the nation-building process? How have the nation and national leadership accounted for tribal people in the nation-building process? How have they fared in this process and why? How have conflict and alienation manifested themselves?

Mapping the Margin

According to the 2011 census, tribal people number 104.3 million, forming 8.6 percent of the total population of India.1 Though they represent a relatively small proportion of the entire Indian population, they are quite ethnically diverse. The Anthropological Survey of India identified 461 distinct tribal communities in 1976.2 Meanwhile, the 2011 census lists 705 individual ethnic groups as scheduled tribes.3 As noted earlier, tribes speak distinct languages and have distinct cultural systems. Their languages originate from four families, and they stand at different stages of social, economic, cultural, and political developments.4 Thus, each tribe lives differently. Some tribes still depend on hunting and gathering for their livelihoods, others on shifting agriculture, and still others on settled agriculture. Tribes also differ significantly in size. Tribal populations range from 7 million on the high end to less than 1,000 on the low; such differences have a bearing on the Indian national identity, for the Indian state (as well as states in India) generally turns a blind eye to small tribes as their role in overall democratic electoral politics tends to be marginal. Their movements are not strongly felt unless they resort to armed struggle, and they are not able to negotiate effectively. This likely stems from their complicated demography as described above.

Tribes are scattered over the length and breadth of the country, but their distribution is far from even. …

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