The debate between Verrier Elwin and G.S. Ghurye regarding tribes in India

 The debate between Verrier Elwin and G.S. Ghurye regarding tribes in India

The Framing of the Tribal Question: Elwin and Ghurye 

The autonomy and independence of tribal people in India is circumscribed by the legal regime laid out in the fifth and the sixth schedules of the Constitution of India. Their population is distributed over all states, except Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Laccadive, and Pondichery. A large percentage inhabits a large contiguous geographical belt that divides India into the Northern and Southern parts. This belt extends from the North East Frontier region into the Santal Parganas and the Chotanagpur plateau in West Bengal and Bihar into Orissa and Andhra Pradesh in the Southeast into Madhya Pradesh in Central India up to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra in Western India. Outside this belt there are pockets inhabited by tribal people in North and South India. 

The tribal population is socially, culturally, economically and politically differentiated on account of the different histories of interaction between them and the non-tribal people. There are only a few places where tribal people dwell in deep-forest, and continue to practice shifting cultivation for instance, in Abujhmarh in Bastar (Madhya Pradesh) and in Koraput and Phulbani (in Orissa). A majority of them however, live on wastelands, in settled agriculture regions, in towns and cities. Their mode of earning livelihood varies from teaching in schools and colleges to white collar jobs to running small shops to industrial entrepreneurs. Economically, a large number are poor because either they are landless labour or they are cultivators with small unproductive land holdings. Some are rich and some belong to the middle class. The tribal workforce is distributed over the following categories: cultivators, agricultural workers, livestock, forestry workers, mining and quarry workers, construction workers, workers in the trade and commerce sector, workers in the transport, storage and communications sector, and workers in other services (this includes white collar jobs, schoolteachers, etc.).

Nationalist freedom struggle and tribals

The nationalist freedom struggle was not rooted in the tribal and peasant movements. The Indian National Congress questioned neither the repressive legislation nor the cultural policy. It could not draw upon the heritage of these movements because it had internalised this cultural policy: it did not reject the way tribals were being thought of and talked about, as backward and primitive people. Nor was any question asked as to whether regulative state control was absolutely necessary. Congress justified protection and criticised exclusion. This, it was observed, later prepared the way for development programmes. It was expected that these would enable the tribal people to absorb the normative order of industrial modernisation. Tribal protest was considered an indication of their inability to adjust, adapt and change. Those who argued for their assimilation subscribed to the norms of mainstream development under the British regime. They were unaware of the contribution the tribal forest dwellers could make to the struggle for freedom and independence. Questions concerning their knowledge and  its relation to their way of life were ignored even though they were highlighted by tribal protests. 

Constituent Assembly Debates and Tribal people 

The Constituent Assembly debates too did not question the validity of both ‘excluded’ and ‘partially excluded areas’, or the view that tribals were backward. Nor did they draw upon the traditions of tribal and peasant movements to find out their mode of participation in the making of Independent India. They sought to deal with a problem that arises from a situation where cultural pluralism and politico-economic inequality are copresent and co-exist, namely, of social justice in an iniquitous social structure without re-examining the secularist policy of non-interference on questions of social and cultural differences. Article 16(4) and Article 335 were formulated to deal with this problem (this will be discussed later). The debates on this and other related issues were within the theoretical framework of the liberal political tradition of governance left behind by the British.

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