POLYLOGUES AT THE INTERSECTION(S) SERIES: The Construction of Tribal Identity in India

by Vrishali

A tribe in India is an administrative concept. The tribal identity plays an important part in the claims of around 84 million people in India. ‘Tribe’ as a category historically emerged in the colonial period and was used to describe the communities who did not form a apart of the so-called mainstream Hindu caste society and lived in remote, isolated and forested areas with difficult terrain. The tribal identity plays a crucial role in tribal socio-political movements in different parts of India by consolidating and mobilizing people. Organisations representing these communities unite as adivasis (‘first people’) and claim that they are ‘indigenous’ to India.[1]

It is presumed that the present day adivasis are distinct cultural communities which are historically marginalised and are descendants of the original inhabitants of an area. This identity is used in tribal movements to contextualize their spatial and temporal fixedness. The cultural characteristics of these communities is oftentimes concretized and appropriated by political movements that build on adivasi claims. Ancestral rituals then become staged performances, and photographs of ‘tribal’ dress and material culture are pictured as hallmarks of ‘tribality’. These methods allow the oral communities to link their present with the past through a shared sense of identity. Such claims are not only advanced by democratic means, but are also more or less explicitly associated with various insurgency movements in central and northeast India.[2] This article focuses on the Northeast India, in particular. The area has been chosen because of it being a tribal majority region and owing to its unique socio-political and economic history, and its brief yet, crucial interactions with the British colonial state and the post-independent Indian state that contributed to the shaping of the tribal identity and official status in India in a significant manner. Indigeneity and territoriality have remained recurrent themes in the region and have invited studies by scholars and policy-makers alike. Research on tribes, indigeneity and cultural diversity in India provides several examples of essentialist indigeneity politics, involving many differing actors who maintain a complex relationship to their purported identity. Attention should also be given to how tribal identities connect to people’s lifeworlds, since such identities will normally not only be legitimised with reference to a past, but also be rooted in various ways in present day cultural practices.[3] This paper is an attempt in the exploration of the same and takes into account the northeast region’s tryst with colonialism, and the importance of analysing the micro-debates on language, narratives, and ideological and religious influences within the discussion on indigeneity. But before we begin, it is important to understand a brief background of the politics of dialogue and negotiations between religions and tribes, in India, on a whole.

Hinduism, variously defined as an Indian religion because of the highest concentration of Hindus in this country, has been argued by scholars to be a plural tradition, as opposed to monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. In other words, the explicitly-defined universal creedal formulations present in monotheistic religions is absent in Hinduism due to its nature. What is really problematic about Hinduism’s pluriversalism, however, is that differences do not translate into equal stratifications but, rather, hierarchical ones. An example of this is the Hindu caste system which is a regressive system of ranks, unique to the Indian society, and which governs its existing framework, deeply plaguing it, while overtly engaging in or silently aiding the perpetuation of social and economic dominance and oppression. The system functions on the basis of a deeply embedded social hierarchy and entails economic, political and cultural exclusion of the lower castes with a religious sanction. British-born Indian anthropologist, ethnologist and tribal activist Verrier Elwin feared that a denial of the distinctiveness of the ‘tribes’ would result in their being categorised as low caste Hindus, despised and rejected for habits that went in many ways against the grain of the mainstream population.[4] Thus, the debate on tribal identity and its political correctedness cannot be divorced from the fact that the ‘high’ culture of mainstream Hinduism pushes the tribes to the margins and the peripheries and who thus consistently feel the need for emancipation. Schleiter argues that the question then is not whether or not Indian ‘tribes’ are authentic, but rather why and how members of ‘tribes’, political leaders as well as government officers construct ‘tribal’ authenticity in a politicised arena, and how this relates to the social and cultural realities ‘on the ground’.

The transformation of Northeast India was brought about by the conflicting processes of new identity formation in the colonial period and later, as the literal and imagined space of a frontier, simultaneously locally and centrally produced and resisted, were created which even to this day very strongly and quite definitively governs the perception and self-perception of the people regarding this region, subjecting it to abiding critical concern, with implications for the meanings of identity, the interpretation of history and the limits of democracy as the region gets marginalized, rediscovered and redefined time and again.[5] The roots of this grave historical problem and identity crisis can be traced back to the British imperial policies and projects in seeking to shape and define tribal identity, and to the tribal populations themselves- as they sometimes through resistance, sometimes in collaboration- fashioned their own worlds. Given their unique geopolitical situation, many tribes living on the international boundaries traditionally acted as buffer communities until the advent of colonialism when developments across the frontiers started governing changes within these areas.[6] Some native historians have also said that the negative attitudes of trust deficit and fear, and uncertainty for exclusion and violence instilled in the people towards the region are but some of the ramifications of the colonial experiences’ accounts, hyperbole and mythical narratives as British’s earlier administrative incapability to govern this tribal region gave rise to obvious anxieties and ambiguities which were in turn filled in by their whims, fancies and the figments of their imaginations, in the wide lacuna of written indigenous histories. Since language is something which is closely related to culture, lived experiences and everyday life, it gives people a strong sense of identity and stands as a symbol of community especially in tribal communities.  Tribes were categorized into separate communities on the basis of their linguistic preferences.

Northeast India, over the years of colonial acquaintance, began to be recognized as an important node in shaping transnational ideologies of science and commodity exchange, civilizational discourse and as a key modular representation of the ‘tropicalisation of modernity’.[7] The process of identity formation was also always powdered and presented as the veiled comrade or the invisible progeny of British social and cultural projects, all of which contributed in giving rise to a distinct, new politico-social, economic and cultural semantics, contributing to its ‘otherness’ with the effective dissemination of ideologies in the effective use of imperial and native language, literature and practices along with the transformation of indigenous populations into fiscal subjects and with the utilisation of the vast agricultural and forest reserves of the region to fill the colonial coffers. The resulting ascriptive identities vilified the indigenous more than accurately representing them.

The written language was used to create the first literature of certain tribes which, in turn, while being a boon to them in some ways, as recording was supposed to help them remember and recall things better in the future, was a process of standardizing the tribes’ ‘present’ by creating official archives. They were left with lesser scope, therefore, to exercise flexibility in their tribal identities and perceptions. This was not the case in previously used tools such as memory and oral histories. The British not only created a standard language for communication across dialectic barriers but also created common social spaces for their interaction, thus unintentionally promoting the geographical integration of societies replacing the traditional village oriented identities. But the colonial attempts at endangering and impeding local diversity through monolithic and homogenized presentation of tribes by arbitrary attempts at cultural relativism, and of constructing the image of durable disorder in the region, made this region the victim of violence, racism, prejudice and exploitation even in the recent times and the post-colonial politics in all its nationalism and chauvinism further receded this region from the rest of India making the borderland the ‘geometry of power’.[8] Rigid social boundaries were drawn and methods were devised to render them acceptable with ethnogenesis and with oxymoronic outward cohesiveness of all tribes, internal divisions and stratifications within a tribe intensified. Linguistic diversity was crippled as people were coerced to speak the same language and this coercion was very minutely and quite comfortably naturalised in the name of shared cultural past of the tribes. Thus myriad of dialects died a brutal death with this irrational and greedy flagging of tribes by the colonialists.

Later on, Christianity gave the tribals a strong sense of affinal identity and the phenomenal rise of this cultural dimension between 1961-71 as the tribal identity, also became a marker of status in many regions.[9] It is also important to problematise and destabilize certain notions of indigeneity in the context of India, as evidences suggest that several  tribes  got influenced by Sanskritisation and either converted to Hinduism as lower castes and shed their tribal culture and identities partly, or, for good, or, they adopted Hindu cosmology, worldview or ways of living in their own lives without shunning their tribal identity. Thus, some underwent detribalisation as they were included into the caste society and some re-tribalised due to political motives for seeking affirmative action to alleviate their historical marginalisation. De-sanskritisation also was resorted to by several tribes such as the Ahoms. Thus, religion becomes a functional requirement for identity formation as tribal identity formation happened mostly along cultural lines. Cultural normatives are created and new meanings are attached over time as former identities are discarded and new ones are embraced as per the requirement of a particular tribal group. Narratives and myths play a very crucial role in identity formation, in placing claims and seeking legitimacy. This chimera of ‘social construction of identities’ further blurred the line between adventitiousness and indigeneity of such identities, and requires a more careful and nuanced analysis.

In the modern period, as political processes developed and inter-village contacts and alliances got mitigated or extended, old tribes assumed new names, small tribes merged with larger tribes, and tribes often combined to form new ethnic-cum-territorial identity. Beyond territorial identity, states were created to accommodate tribal aspirations as the Sixth Schedule model for political autonomy was exceeded, which is a unique feature of this region.[10] The sixth schedule established Autonomous District Councils (ADC) in four northeastern states of Tripura, Assam, Mizoram and Meghalaya with the aim of buttressing indigenous rights over land and resources by devolving administrative power, and to subsequently protect their culture and identity. As a result, frequent conflicts have ensued between the state legislatures and the district councils comprising local leaders who voice the common people’s grievances against its repercussions such as insufficient and non-democratized decentralization leading to the appropriation of power and benefits by the regional elite and creation of multiple power centres instead- an issue which restricts development. Besides, several tribal communities with diverse culture and customs have been homogenized and subjected for administration to a single, autonomous council which increases chances of rifts and clashes between members of competing tribes vying for its ideological leadership, and in the absence of strong and proper political mobilisation. This has also exacerbated rifts between tribals and non-tribes. The recent trends of capitalism and globalisation have either led to inroads into the tribal regions with economic motives, or have led to plainisation of hills. British identity formation followed similar trajectories elsewhere in India except the territorial identity part.

In this carefully calculated move, the British emerged as the nouveau winners as they obliterated several social customs, engulfed the native religious traditions and gained greater acceptance which had many pros and cons on the very identity of the previously vibrant and now manipulated society. Through the conduits of the vindictive politics and effective social engineering, the kaleidoscopic landscape was monochromized as ideas breathed their last suffocated under humongous ideologies. Tribal identity formation followed similar trajectories elsewhere in India. The issue of identity, thus, has to be seen in its historicity.

Different tribes invoke national to sub-national to proto-national to ethnic to regional identities from time to time based on the needs of articulation. Some scholars have rightly pointed out that no matter how complex the relationship of the Indian state to tribal communities is, groups that are unable to negotiate a relationship with the state are definitely worse off. While the Deconstructivists warn against the adverse effects of an indigeneity discourse, stressing its communal components, as well as the pressure that it can exert onto members of the communities involved who fail to fit the ‘romantic images of adivasiness’, the Strategic Essentialists consider adopting an ‘adivasi identity’ as a strategic move, given the legitimacy that is attributed in popular discourse to ‘indigenous’ claims to land. Luisa Steur shows how academics can move beyond these limited approaches. This is essential if the complexity of the ways in which subaltern communities relate to and negotiate with the state is to be understood. Steur also points at the effectiveness of such identity construction and claims. Schleiter and Maaker argue for a shift from deconstructionism towards a deeper understanding of processes of building, maintaining, connecting and upholding cultural imaginations, and rightly so.

Vrishali is a graduate in History from the University of Delhi (2014-17), India and a post-graduate in the same with specialization in Medieval History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (2017-19). She has completed her MPhil in 2021 from the Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and is currently enrolled as a PhD research scholar in the School of Development Studies there. Her research interest areas include regional and local histories of India (Late Medieval and Early Modern periods), community identity-formation, political economy of labour, caste and markets, and, social exclusion and inclusion.


  1. Elwin, Verrier. The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin.
  2. A.J. ‘To Lay Down the Frontier of an Empire: Circumscribing Identity in Northeast India’ in Studies in History. Vol. 32. 1. 2016.
  3. Udayon.‘Immigration and Identity Transformation in Assam’ in Economic and Political Weekly.Vol. 34. 21. 1999.
  4. Peter. ‘The Colonial State and Constructions of Indian Identity: An Example on the Northeast frontier in the 1880s’ in Modern Asian Studies. Vol.31. 2. CUP. 1997.
  5. Schleiter, Markus and Erik de Maaker. Indigeneity as a Cultural Practice: ‘Tribe’ and the State in India in “International Institute for Asian Studies”. 2010.
  6. Singh, K.S. ed. Tribal Movements in India. Vol.I.
  7. J.J.P. ‘Reconfiguring Colonial Ethnography: The British Gaze over India’s North-East’ in T.B.Subba ed. North-East India: A Handbook of Anthropology. 2012.
  8. Xaxa, Virginius. Tribes as Indigenous People of India in “Economic and Political Weekly”. 1999.

[1]Xaxa, Virginius. Tribes as Indigenous People of India in “Economic and Political Weekly”. 1999.

[2]Schleiter, Markus and Erik de Maaker. Indigeneity as a Cultural Practice: ‘Tribe’ and the State in India in “International Institute for Asian Studies”. 2010.

[3]Schleiter, Markus and Erik de Maaker. Indigeneity as a Cultural Practice: ‘Tribe’ and the State in Indiain“International Institute for Asian Studies”. 2010.

[4] Elwin, Verrier. The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin. 1964.

[5]May. A.J. ‘To Lay Down the Frontier of an Empire: Circumscribing Identity in Northeast India’ in Studies in History. Vol. 32. 1. 2016. P.5.

[6]Singh, K.S. ed. Tribal Movements in India.Vol.I. P.xi.



[9]Singh, K.S. Opcit. P.xii.

[10]S.M. Dubey in K.S. Singh ed. Opcit.