“A group of citizens who are the special responsibility of the President of India”: The meaning of Adivasi, Tribe and Aborigines for administrators and anthropologists – Government of India

Definition of Tribe

The word ‘tribe’ conveys a neutral sense, a primary aggregate of people claiming descent from a common ancestor. The word ‘tribe’ has been a technical administrative term to denote aborigines. Tribes are regarded as the indigenous or autochthonous population of Indian subcontinent.

Modern usage of this term suggests that it is a small-scale social grouping that displays some form of cultural unity. The members recognize a close affinity towards one another.

A tribe is large enough to be a visible group and small enough to be mobilized for common action. Being cut off from the main stream of Indian life, they usually live in forests and hills and develop a different world view suited to their particular ecology. Eminent Sociologist [G.A. Mitchell (1979)] described ‘tribe’ as a ‘socially cohesive unit, associated with a territory, the members of which regard themselves as politically autonomous.

To an administrator, the term ‘tribe’ means a group of citizens who are the special responsibility of the President of India. To an anthropologist, it means a special field for a study of a social phenomenon. These tribal groups are presumed to form the oldest ethnological sect [sic] and therefore they are called ‘Adhivasis’ [Adivasi]. But the Constitution of India designates them as “Scheduled Tribe”.

A tribe has a sense of identify based on common language and culture. A tribe shows no system of writing and lacks the specialized division of labour. A tribe is associated with a definite territory and possesses a well-defined political boundary.

Source: Thulasi Brinda in “IRULA TRIBE OF DENKANIKOTTAI FOREST OF KRISHNAGIRI DISTRICT IN TAMIL NADU”, “Museum’s Journal”, Chennai Museum (October 2003 – September 2004), pp. 143 | The print edition is available here >>
URL: http://www.e-books-chennaimuseum.tn.gov.in/chennaimuseum/images/108/files/basic-html/page143.html
Date visited: 8 September 2020

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“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” – Eleanor Roosevelt quoted by the United Nations in Human Rights Day 10 December | Learn more >>


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“Since the Indian Constitution uses the term ‘Scheduled Tribes’ or ‘tribals’ to refer to indigenous communities in India and the colloquial reference used by several indigenous communities themselves is ‘adivasis’ these two terms shall be used interchangeably.” – Rebecca S . David in “An analysis of the impact of the Forest Rights Act (2006) in three states of India” (MPhil University of Cambridge, UK, 2014), p. 1 | Learn more | Classifications in different states >>

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