July- September, 1999 , Volume 1  No. 1

The Tribe Caste Continuum

B.B. Kumar

Article 342 of the Constitution of India empowers the President to draw up a list of Scheduled Tribes in consultation with the Governor of each State, subject to the revision by Parliament. Accordingly, the President has made orders, specifying the Scheduled Tribes in different States of India. Such lists have been amended by the Acts of Parliament. It is pertinent to note that though the Constitution has the provision for the listing of the Scheduled Tribes and the same is done accordingly, the ‘tribe’ is not defined in the Constitution of India. The social scientists have failed to provide uniform definition of the tribe. They have enumerated different traits for defining the tribe. Such definitions do not apply equally to all the tribes. Most of the definitions equally apply to the castes and the tribes. The tribe is an administrative category in India. This is precisely the reason that a particular community is listed as tribal in one state and non-tribal in other states. The Santhals are listed as tribals in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa and as ‘Other Backward Community’ (O.B.C.) in Assam. Such examples may be multiplied1.

The term ‘tribe’ was introduced in India by the colonial writers in the last quarter of the last century. The lead was taken by the Census department. Most of the tribes and the castes continue to use the term ‘jat’ or ‘jati’ to denote their social category. The terms for the tribe in some of the tribal languages given in the parentheses, such as, Bodo (jat, jati), Dimasa (jati), Garo (jat), Tripuri (jaiti), Khasi (jaid), Konyak Naga (jat), Phom Naga (jat), Zeliang Naga (jati), Kabui Naga (jati), Santal (jat, jati), Ho (jati, patki) and Kurukh (jat, jait, jaypuy, khut) confirm the statement. Different communities often considered them to be the castes. Even the colonial writers were not very clear about the ‘Caste-Tribe’ divide. The boundary line between the two remained blurred and the two terms were often interchangeably used. The monographs on the various communities studied the castes and the tribes together. Some of the publications of the kind were ‘The Tribes and Castes of Bengal’ by H.H.Risley, ‘Castes and Tribes of Southern India’ by E.Thurston, ‘Cochin Tribes and Castes’ by L.K.A.Ayyar, ‘Hindu Tribes and Castes’ by N.A.Sherring, R.E.Ethnoven’s ‘Tribes and Castes of Bombay’, Sherring’s ‘Tribes and Castes of Rajasthan’ and ‘Tribes and Castes of Madras Presidency’, ‘Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India’ by Russel and Biralal, and C.William’s ‘Tribes and Castes of the North-Western India’. The studies of the castes and the tribes were undertaken together because of the haziness which the colonial writers had about the differences between the two inspite of their biases and colonial interest in fabricating the social divide in India.2

The colonial writers have, often, translated Sanskrit word ‘jan’ as tribes. The Indian scholars of colonial tradition have also done the same3. In reality, the word ‘jan’ means ‘people’. Shayana, in his commentary of Rigveda, has translated ‘panchajanah’ as the four varnas and the Nishada. The castes of the mixed origin are also labelled as tribes by the colonial writers.4 In this connection, it may be said that neither jan nor mixed castes are the tribes. There is a continuum in Indian society incorporating the castes and the tribes. The break of the continuum and the resultant misperception is the result of the mis-interpretations of the kind mentioned above. Such mis-interpretations have thoroughly confused the Indian social scientists. The basic features of the caste and tribal organisations do not differ. The boundaries between the two remain blurred and undefined. And yet, they continue to over-emphasise the Caste-Tribe dichotomy.

It was the Census department under the colonial regime which initiated the Caste-Tribe divide in the Indian society, in a big way. According to Nihar Ranjan Ray, "First in the eighteenth century writing on India, the caste has often been used synonymously with tribe and later on, for a long time, not synonymously but in a cognate manner as in the phrase ‘castes and tribes’, as if they were cognate social groups."5 Gradually the term ‘tribe’ replaced ‘caste’ in the writings of the colonial writers, and the lead was taken by the Census of India.6 Baines, in 1891 Census Report, included ‘Forest Tribes’ as a sub-category under the category of ‘Agricultural and Pastoral Castes’. The term ‘animist’ was used in the next two censuses by Risley and Gait respectively. The head ‘Tribal Religion’ replaced ‘animism’ in 1921. ‘Primitive Tribe’ was replaced by ‘Forest Tribe’ in 1931 census. Their religion ‘animism’ was replaced the ‘tribal religion’ by Ruttom.7 These were not without lacuna and the biases. Ghurye observed :

"Even if a tribe has a Hinduized section and a non-Hinduized one, the whole tribe is included in the category of ‘forest’ or ‘primitive’ tribe, however large the Hinduized section may be."8

In the same way, the residence and the language were also not taken into consideration. Ghurye quotes Marten’s view and says, "…even when a large section of it lives in the plains amidst other sections of Indian population, is included in the category of "Forest" or "Primitive" tribe 9.

He further observed:

"It is not religious affiliation which determines whether a tribe is to be included in this category or to be excluded from it. Nor again the language is the test. Neither the Baigas nor the Bhils, for example, speak tribal tongues, and yet they are grouped under the category of "Forest" or "Primitive" tribes.10.

The ancient writers did not distinguish between the castes and the tribes. The Census officers also found it difficult to distinguish. The reason was obvious. Both the social categories were created in India ignoring the existing social continuum. Those who believed in the dichotomy were more confused. I would analyse in this case, the views of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. He writes:"…the ancient writers, like the modern census officers, were not always clear as to whether a particular backward people was to be called a caste or a tribe. The obvious coroleary is that the caste organisations, beginning from early times, continued, as it still continues, very strong relics of the tribal."11

The following statement of the writer makes his perception of the tribe clear:

"The tribe is endogamous, though it contains sub-divisions within it, called the clans that are strictly exogamous. All the members of a clan have a strong belief in common descent; the original ancestor being usually imagined to be a plant or an animal, from which the clan borrows its name. Lastly, the council is the great feature of the ancient society; all the affairs of the clan are managed by the clan council; similarly, at the tribal level there is the council of tribe with the supreme authority over all the members of the tribe. Expulsion from the tribe is the major form of tribal punishment."12.

The writer is conscious of the fact that above-mentioned features do not distinguish the tribe from the caste. He observes:

"We have mentioned these features of the tribal organisation because all these are found to characterise the basic features of the caste organisation."13.

The difficulty with Chattopadhyaya lies in the fact that he is searching something which does not exist. He defines tribe knowing fully well that the same applies to the caste also and yet he does not refute caste tribe dichotomy.

Chattopadhyaya’s above-mentioned statement shows his ignorance about the basic characteristics of the tribal society. The Kuki-Chin tribes – the Mizos, the Paites, the Hmars, the Zous, the Thadous, the Gangtes, the Simtes, the Koms, etc. – the Nagas of Tui and many other tribal groups do not follow clan-exogamy. A large number of clans of the numerous tribes do not believe in the totem and the totemism. Except for the traces, the tribes of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim neither claim their descent from the plants and the animals, nor have the totemic clan names. The tribes lack uniform pattern of the village polity. The tribal councils are not the essential features of all the tribes. The Nishings do not have their tribal council. Some tribes have very weak standing councils. The feature of the tribal society mentioned by Chattopadhyaya, therefore, suffers from over-generalisation.

Totemism is often described as an important trait of the tribal society. Two points need to be kept in mind in this case, which are:

  1. Personal names based on the names of the months, days of the week, rivers, animals and plants are commonly found in India. The elements of totemism are also present in the greater traditions. 14 The names of some of the Rishis providing clan (gotra) names, such as, Kashyapa (tortoise), Gotam (Cow), Vatsa (Calf), Sunaka (dog), Bharadwaja (a kind of bird), Mudgala (a kind of fish), Sandilya (a kind of bird) indicate the same.
  2. Totemism is a regional phenomenon. It is practised by a large number of tribes and the castes of Chhota Nagpur and Orissa. Even the Brahmans of Orissa are not free from the same.15 It is interesting to observe that many castes have totemistic clans in that region, but not elsewhere. Thus, totemism does not break the caste-tribe continuum.

The castes and the tribes do not form the two ends of the continuum. There is considerable overlapping in the middle range. The distinguishing traits are missing in most of the cases. Most of the castes and tribes are endogamous and have exogamous clans. The cross-cousin marriage is not favoured by majority of castes and tribes; nevertheless, it is practised by a large number of them.16 The joking relationship pattern of the castes and tribes is identical.17 Marriage ceremony in a large number of cases is identical.18 The seclusion and purificatory bath after child-birth19 and death20 the naming of child21 seclusion of the women during the menstrual cycle22 are common.

The disposal of the dead by cremation and burial is practised by the tribes and the castes.23. A section of the Nagas practised platform burial in the recent past. It is pertinent to note that the Indian scriptures allowed cremation, burial and the platform burial as the modes of the disposal of dead.24.

It is often emphasised that the caste society is organic and tribal society is segmental.25. There are numerous examples which show otherwise. Rigid stratification is the characteristic feature of the Apatani society of Arunachal Pradesh.26. The Ong clan of the Chang Nagas is a priestly clan. The other clans – Kangahou, Lomau, and Kudamji – have also their specific functions.27. The Semas, Mizos, Thadous, Konyaks, Ganchos, Reangs, Chakmas, Tripuris, Hmars, Paites, Khamtis, Singphos, etc. have their chiefs and the commoners.28. The Wanchos have the chiefs (Wangham), commoner (Wangpen), Wangsa and Wangeu sections. The descendants of the Wangham chief and the commoner girls are known as Wangsas and the descendants of Wangsas become Wangsus. Only the person with the pure Wangham blood becomes a Wancho chief.29. The same is the case with the Ang chiefs of the Konyaks. The Akas have khulos (slaves) as a separate class among them.30. Sherdukpens are divided into Thong and Chhao sections. The latter section has inferior status and sit at a lower position behind the Thongs during the religious ceremonies and food and the religious offerings are not allowed to be distributed by them.31.

The Gond society has its vertical stratification as well as the horizontal divisions.32. The Bhuiya,33, the Bhumij,34, the Kewat35, the Koch36, the Tharu37, the Tiyar38, and many other tribal communities do not exhibit segmental social structure and behave like caste clusters. The resident group of untouchables serve the Konds of Baderi villages of Orissa.39.

Bhumihar khunt (maximal clan) is the most privileged section of the Oraon tribe. They have Raja villages, Praja villages, Dewan (minister) villages and Panrey (clerk) villages.40 Namsoon clan has superior status among the Khamti clans.41 All the Ao clans did not have equall privileges.42 The Kiaku-had, Murmuhad, Saran-had and the Mardi-had are the kings, priests, soldiers and the farmers among the Santhals. This is just like the varna-system.43

The tribal society of Nilgiri hills consist of the Badaga cultivators, the Toda pastoralists, Kurumba sorcerers and the Kota musicians. Jajmani-like relationship existed between the four tribal groups. They were interdependent and part of the system of the organic nature. The Kotas provided music for funerals and worked in leathers. They handled carcases and ate the flesh of cows and buffaloes. They were considered to be defiling inferiors by the Badagas and the Kotas were fed separately at the Badaga ceremony in separate utensils and were not allowed into the inner parts the Badaga house. They did not go near the sacred things and used to make formal gestures of respect to a Badaga or a Toda as from a subordinate to a superior.44

Many tribes enter into jajmani relationship with the serving castes. The Oraons of Chhota Nagpur require the services of other serving castes like any other Hindu caste and have jajmani relationship with them. Julahas and turis supply them clothes and baskets, the Kumhars supply earthenware pots and tiles for roofing, and the Lohars supply and repair the iron implements. The Ahirs tend cattle and the Goraits act as the village orderly and musicians.45 Ros,46 Kharwars,47 Savaras,48 Kisans,49 Bathudis,50 etc have jajmani relationship with the serving castes. Many tribes, such as, the Lohars, the Mahlis, the Chik-Baraiks, the Koras, the Banjaras, the Baigas and the Turis serve the tribes and castes of Chhota Nagpur and have jajmani relationships with them.51 This clearly indicates that the castes and the tribes do not differ considerably on this count.

The people of this country have the capacity to adjust according to the changed situation. There are regional and cultural variations in this country and a person or group changes according to the changed situation without, of course, altering the over all frame-wrok, Aghareahs of Chhota Nagpur claim to be the Kshatriya migrants from Agra, Dalton wrote about them :

"They were there, they say, Kshatriyas, but having been subjected to some persecution by the ruler of the state they left it, and taking up new lands in a new country cast aside their sacred thread with all its privileges, and obligations, and took to plough. Their appearance favours their pretensions to be of good blood. Tall, well made with high Aryan features and tawny complexion, they look like Rajputs, but are more industrious and intelligent than the generality of the fighting tribe. They are orthodox Hindus in most customs, but they allow widows to remarry, and they bury the dead, but at any time when the bones are dry, the principle joints and the parts of the skull are taken up and conveyed by the representatives of the deceased to the Ganges."52

This clearly shows the vast range within which the change takes place. It includes the changes in status, profession and the customs. Other examples of such changes are not lacking in the North-East India and in other parts of the country. Nandelbaum has quoted the opinion of Hookings about the Badagas of the Nilgiri Hills. The Badagas were a jati people and became a tribe after their migration to the present habitat some times after the twelfth century. They might have acquired some tribal characteristics during their stay in the isolated Nilgiri Hills.53 Buchanan Hamilton in his ‘Accounts of Gorakhpur’ has mentioned that there are many Nagbangsis in that district considered Rajputs and acknowledging the Raja of Chutia Nagpur as the head of the family.54

Many communities of North-East India claim Kshatriya status. This includes Rajbansas,55 royal section of the Tripuri tribe and the Jamatiyas56, Tiwa/Lalung,57 etc. Rajbansis’s other synonymous are Bhanga-Kshatriya, Patita-Kshatriya, Kahatri-Sankoch and Surajbansi.58 They claim to be the remnant of the Kshatriyas scatted by Parasurama, who cast off their sacrificial threads, hid themselves in the swampy jungles to save themselves from his wrath.59 The Parasurama legend is shared by the Lalungs60, Poliyas,61 and many other communities.

The Parasurama legend is fully described in the Indian scriptures. The claim of the Rajbansis, Poliyas, Desis, Lalunga, etc. may not, therefore, be summarily rejected as fabrication by the Brahman priests. There is mention of the Kshatriyas of the Kirata (Indo-Mongoloid) and Dravidian origin in the Mahabharat.62 Thus, there is no basis to reject their claim on racial basis, as is done by the scholars of the colonial tradition.

The Indian scholars of colonial tradition often declare a caste as tribe on as flimsy ground. The tribal traits among the Bhumij according to one of them, are the following:

  1. They drink liquor and eat chicken;
  2. Remarriage of the women are allowed and the women dance at ceremonies;
  3. They follow burial, rather than the cremation; the bones of the deceased are later reintered in a custom which is common among many tribes.63

In this connection, it is pertinent to note that liquor is consumed by a large number of the castes and many of them eat chicken. Widow remarriage is prevalent among the majority of castes. The women danced with Shri Krishna in the famous Rasa dance. Lastly, as stated earlier, the Indian scriptures allowed burial.

Shifting cultivation/jhuming is described as one of the features of the tribal society. It should not be forgotten that jhuming depends on the topography of the area. Many tribal communities practise permanent cultivation. The Angamis, Chakhesanga, Maos, Mopas and Apatanis have excellent terraced fields and mostly go for permanent cultivation along with some jhuming.64 Miniyonga, Milangs, Koirenga, Tangkhuls, Maghs, Kacharis and Eastern Rengmas practise both permanent and jhum cultivation.65 Sherdukpens plough the level land with the traction using crossbreeds of mithan and ordinary cattle and practise jhuming on the hill slopes.66 The tribals in the plains plough their land like all other castes. On the other hand, the castes and the tribes in the hills, say in Sikkim, go for jhuming.

The caste tribe continuum is a reality in India. Many communities claim to be the castes and are labelled as tribes. There is need for realistic re-appraisal.


  1. Kumar, B.B.; The Tribal Societies of India, pp1-2.
  2. Ibid, pp.2-10
  3. Thapar, Romila; A History of India, Vol.I,1966; p.37
  4. Vide translation of Manu Smriti, X.62; quoted in ‘Caste, Race and Religion in India’ by Sarat Chandra Roy. P.159
  5. Ray, Nihar Ranjan; Introductory Address, in ‘Tribal Situation in India,
  6. K.S.Singh (ed.), Simla (1972), p.20

  7. Kumar, op. Cit.p.14
  8. Ibid, pp.14-15
  9. Ghurya, G.S.; The Scheduled Tribes, p.8
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad; Lokayat, Peoples Publishing House, p.23
  13. Ibid, p.24
  14. Ibid, p.25
  15. Kumar, op. Cit. P.174
  16. Risley, The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, Vo.I, p.161
  17. Kumar, op.cit., p.308
  18. Ibid, pp.306-08
  19. Ibid, pp.16-18
  20. Ibid, pp.310-24
  21. Ibid, pp.362-77
  22. Ibid, Annexure X.
  23. Seclusion and Purificatory baths are observed by the castes and tribes alike.
  24. Kumar, op. Cit., pp.362-77
  25. Atharva Veda, 18.2.34; Apasthmba Sutra, 1.87
  26. Mandelbaum, Society in India, p.579
  27. Haimendorf, C.V.Furer; Tribes of India, p.29
  28. Kumar, B.B.; Society and Culture in a Corner of Nagaland, Meerut, 1998, pp.18-19
  29. Kumar, B.B; An Introduction to the Naga Tribes, Meerut, 1997, p.53.
  30. Shrivastava, L.R.N.; Among the Wanchos, pp.44-45
  31. Sinha, Raghuvir; the Akas, pp.59-60
  32. Roy Burman, B.K.; Demographic and Socio-Economic Profile of the Hills of the North East India, p.315
  33. Haimendorf, op. Cit. P.15
  34. Risley, op. Cit., Vol.I, pp.112-14
  35. Ibid, pp.121-22
  36. Ibid, p.455
  37. Ibid, pp.492-94
  38. Ibid, Vol.II, p.314
  39. Ibid, p.328
  40. Mandelbaum, op. Cit., p.577
  41. Narmadeshwar Prasad, Land and People of Tribal Bihar, pp.86-89
  42. Kumar, Tribal Societies of India, p.9
  43. Hills, J.P.; The Ao Nagas, pp.13-14
  44. Narmadeshwar Prasad, op. Cit., p.71
  45. Mandelbaum, op. Cit., pp.600-01
  46. Narmadeshwar Prasad, op. Cit., p.87
  47. Ibid, p.105
  48. Ibid. pp.124-25
  49. Ibid. p.236
  50. Ibid. p.249
  51. Ibid. p. 243
  52. Ibid, chapters on different tribes.
  53. Dalton, Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, pp.322-23
  54. Mandelbaum, op. Cit., p.588
  55. Dalton, op. Cit., p.167
  56. Risley, op. Cit., Vol.II, p.183
  57. Ibid, p.324
  58. Sen, Soumen (ed.) Folk-lore in North East India, p.115
  59. Risley, op. Cit., Vol.I, p.492
  60. Ibid
  61. Sen, op. Cit., p.115
  62. Risley, op. Cit., Vol.I, p.493
  63. Mahabharat, Anushasan Parva, 35.17-18
  64. Sinha, Surajit; Tribe-Caste and Tribe-Peasant continum in Central India; Man in India, 1965, pp.75-77; Bhumij Kshatriya Social Movement in South Manbhum, Bulletin of the Department of Anthropology, Govt. of India, 8:9-32; p.11
  65. Kumar, Tribal Societies of India, p.84
  66. Ibid, pp.88-89
  67. Maimendorf, op.cit., p.31
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