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ANDRE BETEILLE

The Concept of Tribe with Special


Reference to India
The study of tribes has been of central importance to anthropologists,
which is also the source of their distinctive identity as anthropologists.
In the forties, a major change came about in its central orientation to
tribes when anthropologists claimed that in addition to tribes, their
discipline had a significant role to play in the study of civilizations. The
work of Robert Redfield in the United States was pivotal in this aspect. He
popularized the study of peasant societies and conceptualized them as
part societies and part cultures. This also gathered strength through the
studies of peasants of India, China and so on.
The emphasis on the study of civilizations has resulted among the
anthropologists an increased awareness of the importance of history. The
relation between tribe and civilization forms an important aspect of
anthropological studies in contemporary times. while the latter limits itself
to a particular framework of space and time and stresses the co-existence
of different social formations within that framework. Certain ambiguities
appear in the relation between tribe and civilization. Recent historical
experiences of the successors of Durkheim and Morgan from Australia, the
Pacific Islands and North America brought out the disjunction between the
two. Western civilization penetrated these areas in modern times and tribe
and civilization stood opposed in terms of race, language and culture. In
certain other parts like that of the Old world, comprising of countries like
India, tribe and civilization had co-existed and it was only with the advent
of British rule, that efforts to disentangle tribe from caste began, and had
unforeseen results.
The problem in India was to identify rather than define tribes. The
conceptions of those engaged in drawing up lists of Indian tribes were
neither clearly formulated nor systematically applied. The lists provided
constitutional guarantee of tribal identity to those included in them. The
present list shows tribes as accounting for 7.76% of the total Indian
population, ranging from a wide variety of social formations, i.e., from
small food-gatherer bands to vast populations of settled agriculturalists.
Thus, Indian anthropologists are confronted with a dilemma of what they
are obliged to describe as tribes. They have tried to sort this by calling
them all tribes in transition. This goes in vain as in India, tribes have
always been in transition.

Among recent attempts to provide a definition of tribes, the definition by


Sahlins has received some attention: A tribe is a segmental organization.
It is composed of a number of equivalent, unspecialized, multi-family
groups, each the structural duplicate of the other: a tribe is a congeries of
equal kin groups. There are various difficulties in making the segmentary
principle as described by Evans-Pritchard in his studies of the Nuer (1940),
the defining feature of tribes in all parts of the world. Sahlins himself
argues for a very restricted use of the term segmentary system. The
category of tribe was expanded to include tribal chiefdoms in addition to
the segmentary tribes, which had earlier made up the whole category.
The need to define tribes in an evolutionary perspective (a long-range
view of the passage of time, stressing the succession of social formations)
has been reiterated by Maurice Godelier who emphasizes tribes as a type
of society and a stage of evolution at the same time, since each stage of
evolution is characterized by a specific model of social organization. He
attributes the failure of anthropologists to arrive at a clear conception of
the tribe to their lack of a consistent theory of evolution. For Godelier
there is a difference between tribe and chiefdom because of inequalities
of class, different organizations of work and the undermining of the
primacy of kinship by the appearance of class in the evolution from tribe
to chiefdom. Godelier`s essay exposes the limitations of the evolutionary
point of view in terms of the uniform co-variation of mode of livelihood,
kinship structure and political system. Both segmentary tribes and tribal
chiefdoms are supported by various modes of livelihood. For instance, the
Tallensi and the Bemba are both agriculturalist, the former having fixed
and the latter shifting cultivation, but they have very different political
systems.
The need to opt for a simple scheme of classification of tribes is highly felt
in a country like that of India. The most persistent of all has been
recommended by N.K. Bose on the basis of mode of livelihood: hunters
and gatherers, animal herders, shifting cultivators, and settled
agriculturalists. But, this kind of classification does not aptly be fitted into
any rigid evolutionary scheme. Tribes with some of the simplest
technologies have been more closely integrated with the wider society
than others with a more advanced level of technology.
Among other anthropologists, who do not go by an evolutionary scheme,
provides us with the conception of tribes as highly ambiguous. Morton
Fried rejects the view of tribes as strictly endogamous units. He shows
evidences of unsanctioned sexual unions and socially approved marriages
taking place across boundaries of tribes. Again, in some other cases, like
in tribes such as Khasi, Garo, Munda, there seems to be a marked

preference for endogamy. This has been the case of transition from tribes
to castes, when the preference for endogamy was enforced. Language
too, has been very important in the identification of tribes in India. Fried
questions this by arguing the case of small-scale societies of people
speaking the same languages being divided into several endogamous as
well as examples of people intermarrying though their native languages
are different.
The relation between tribe, language and civilization in India can be
summed up as: the Dravidian languages of India include not only Tamil,
but also languages spoken by a number of tribes such as Baiga and Kond,
who live by shifting cultivation. The Tamils also share the same
fundamental structure of kinship and affinity with them. Thus, kinship
cannot be used as a basis for discriminating between tribe and civilization.
Moreover, some of the tribes, have no separate language of their own, but
use the language prevalent in the region they inhabit, for instance in the
states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Fried therefore, argues that tribes are
neither a society nor a stage of evolution, but are too amorphous, and are
regarded as a secondary phenomenon, acquiring its form and identity
from some external source. This cannot be accepted always as in the
historical relations between state and tribe, the state has not always had
the upper hand. The tribal way of life has appeared many times as
superior to that represented by the state. There has been rise to power of
tribal dynasties in various places and at various times. E.g.- Ahoms in the
thirteenth century, came as intruders from outside. What is characteristic
of the relationship between tribe and civilization in India is that there was
virtually no way in which a tribal dynasty could legitimize its rule without
becoming Hinduized and therefore, in the due course of time, replicating
the hierarchical structure of caste. This cannot be regarded as a
secondary phenomenon as it wasn`t a uniform Hinduization alwaysmany
continued with the tribal way of life. The state was not always the most
durable product of Hindu civilization. The weakness and decay of states
allowed the emergence of tribal chiefs whose aim was to create not tribal
chiefdoms so much as kingdoms after the Hindu model.
The line of division between tribes and caste is quite unclear in the Indian
case. Tribal society when compared with Hindu society, with its elaborate
arrangement of castes, the sharpest contrasts are visible. The former is
homogeneous, undifferentiated and unstratified, whereas the latter is the
reverse of the former. The polarity of equality and hierarchy is visible. On
the other hand, when individual tribes are compared with individual
castes, a certain homology can be seenthey emphasize and perpetuate
collective identities. The confusion between caste and tribe can be further
seen in cases of castes of tribal origin in areas in which the caste-based

division of labour is well established and also in the converse case, with
the growth of occupational specialization and the emergence of caste-like
groups in the interior of tribal areas. The difficulty often arises at the
margins of Hindu civilization.
Tribal society also carries the marks of Hindu culture in India and viceversa. Thus, the Indian case reveals not only the co-existence of tribe and
civilization but also their interpenetration. Thus, the collective identities
survive the conversion of tribe into caste. The argument cannot be
expected to apply equally well in all cases of India. The tribes that have
been affected the most by the Hindu method of tribal absorption are the
ones in the interior hill and forest areas where influences from other
civilizations, whether, Islamic or Missionary, have been feeble or absent.
E.g.- Bhil, Munda, Santhals etc. Bose argues that the absorption of tribes
by the wider society was connected to a material advantage to both. The
material base of a tribal community because of a sudden population
expansion led to a precarious situation in which the tribes sought
economic security by aligning themselves with the wider society. This was
granted by the wider society on the condition that the tribes took the
lowest position within it. Bose was criticized for dwelling too much on the
symbiotic relation between the two and not on the asymmetrical and
exploitative character.
In conclusion, Beteille is of the opinion that the historical approach should
be more favoured than the evolutionary approach in terms of defining and
identifying tribes as in the Indian case, where tribe and civilization has coexisted, tribes have stood more or less outside the Hindu civilization and
they were all not at the same stage of evolution.
The process of designating or scheduling tribes in India began with the
British rule, especially with the 1931 census. There was a political
controversy regarding the same by British officials on one side arguing for
a need to mark the aboriginals from the rest of Indian society because of
their unique and distinct identity, and Indian nationalists arguing that the
aboriginals were very much a part of Hindu society. The Indian
Constitution finally accommodated both view-points recognizing tribes as
distinct from castes, but treating them as Hindus all the same. Thus, the
state lists and labels the tribes adopting several measures for its benefit,
and the tribes have in turn acquired new interest in being listed and
labelled. The Constitutional provisions have given to the tribal identity a
kind of definiteness with a legal sanction in its maintenance it lacked in
the past, leading to a substantial increase in tribal population in the recent
years. This assertion of tribal identity in the political domain can be
described as a process of retribalization.