Politics in India is coming to be driven increasingly by the competition for backwardness. The principal contenders in this competition are not individuals, households, or even classes, but castes and tribes. Even the religious minorities, whose proud forbears once ruled much of the land, are learning to recognize the advantages to be gained from being designated as backward.
Sociologists of an earlier generation had drawn attention to the wide prevalence of ‘Sanskritization’, whereby a caste of middle or inferior social rank claimed a higher status by adopting the habits, practices and rites of the twice-born castes and calling themselves Kshatriyas or even Brahmins. Today, such castes are less eager to represent themselves as Brahmins and Kshatriyas than to claim that they are backward. It is in this way that the lists of the scheduled tribes, the scheduled castes and the other backward classes have become progressively inflated in the last five or six decades.
In a book entitled First We Are People, the Swedish anthropologist, Stefan Molund, described the changing social position of a caste called the Koris in Uttar Pradesh. The Koris had, before independence, been grouped with the SCs. This, their leaders felt, compromised their dignity by tainting them with the stigma of pollution. They successfully petitioned the government to have their name removed from the list. But shortly after independence, their new leaders realized that they had foregone the special benefits in education and employment by asking for a change of status. So they made another plea, again successfully, to be re-included in the SC list. The Koris are not the only community to have gone through this kind of forward and backward movement.
What was not widely recognized at first is that the competition for backwardness would not stop at the boundary between the advanced and the backward communities. The Gujjars of Rajasthan, who have enjoyed the benefits of inclusion among the OBCs, have been agitating for being reclassified as a scheduled tribe. They feel that they will benefit from the reclassification because the OBCs include powerful castes, such as the Jats, with whose members they do not wish to compete. But their inclusion among the STs is not viewed with favour by the Meenas, who already enjoy that status and do not wish to have fresh competitors.
Leaving aside the rivalries among Meenas, Gujjars and Jats, can the claims of the Gujjars, or any community, to be designated as a scheduled tribe be judged any longer on merit, or on objective grounds? Does expert or professional opinion on the subject count any more? The problem is not simply that the subject itself is replete with ambiguity, but that professional opinion on such subjects bends so easily to the prevailing political winds.
What was so striking about the claims and counter-claims made over the designation of the Gujjars as a scheduled tribe, was the absence of any serious discussion of what we should mean by the term ‘tribe’. Does a tribe have any specific features as a social formation, or can any social formation be designated as a tribe because it once had, or is presumed to have had, the characteristics of a tribe even though its social composition and organization have in the meantime changed substantially?
Anthropologists have written about tribes for well over a hundred years. It was, in fact, one of the key concepts of their discipline in its formative years. No one will claim that all anthropologists have reached complete agreement on the definition of tribe, but that does not mean that no yardstick exists for deciding which groups may be regarded as tribes. One reason why anthropologists shifted their attention away from tribes is that in the world as a whole there are today fewer communities that can be reasonably characterized as tribes than there were even a hundred years ago.
In October 1960, that is, nearly 50 years ago, the Seminar magazine brought out an issue on ‘Tribal India’. In my contribution to that issue, I had suggested criteria for the definition of tribe, and, like several of the other contributors, including N.K. Bose and Verrier Elwin, had drawn attention to the many changes in tribal life that had already become visible. The criteria proposed by me were that a tribe should be more or less self-contained as a community, and that it should be relatively small and compact, and relatively undifferentiated and unstratified. Like the other contributors, I too had pointed out that what we had in India were not so much tribes in their pristine form as tribes that were in transition to a different mode of organization.
Significant changes have taken place in the character and composition of many of the groups that continue to be designated as tribes. Despite the changes they have undergone since independence, there is little prospect of any of them being declassified and removed from the list of STs. As a matter of fact, new groups have been added to the list, so that the officially designated tribal population increased significantly as a proportion of the total population between 1951 and 2001. It is said that groups such as the Meenas and the Gujjars were organized as tribes at some time in the past. This is almost certainly true: the Burgundians and the Lombards were also tribes at a certain time, and the Germany about which the Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote was inhabited mainly by tribes. All this changed elsewhere in due course of time: only in India, once a tribe, always a tribe.
The larger tribes are now less self-contained and more closely woven into the fabric of the wider society than ever before. They have also become progressively more differentiated and more stratified. Their members now live in remote villages, small towns and large cities. A study by Christopher Lakra of the Oraons in Ranchi town made about 20 years ago revealed the advance of occupational differentiation and social stratification among them. The Oraons may justifiably continue to regard themselves as Oraons, but for how many more decades should we continue to regard them as a tribe?
The continuous economic, social and political changes of the last 60 years have led to the growth of a self-conscious and assertive middle class among several of the larger and more dominant tribes. They now include lawyers, doctors, civil servants, schoolteachers, clerks and many others in white collar occupations. Reservations in education and employment have contributed something to this process, but the growth would have taken place even without reservations, for the expansion of the middle class is an all-India phenomenon which is changing the character of Indian society as a whole.
A tribe with an assertive and expanding middle class is, from the sociological point of view, a contradiction in terms. Such a phenomenon would have perplexed the anthropologists of the 19th century who first embarked on the systematic study of tribes. But it is the educated middle class, more than any other class or stratum, that is most zealous in safeguarding the identity of the community to which it belongs, and, especially, in ensuring that it continues to be designated as a scheduled tribe.