Tribal culture and society characterised by comparatively high levels of autonomy, equality, and social position of tribal women

There can be little dispute that the socio-cultural norms, practices, and rituals in the mainstream Hindu tradition subsume a deep ideological repugnance towards gender equality. But this contrasts with the country’s overall tribal culture and society. Indeed, the latter, which has for long been exterior to the patently patriarchal and caste-hierarchical Hindu socio-cultural orbit, is traditionally characterised by a high degree of gender equity with its many admirable demographic concomitants (for example, lower infant and child mortality and fertility). However, India’s tribal peoples have not exactly been insulated from the mainstream society and culture, and they have indeed been absorbing since long many of the mainstream socio-cultural features and values, particularly kinship patterns including gender inequities and biases. None can possibly doubt that this is a disturbing trend contrary to the oft-proclaimed goal of effacing India’s ‘infamous’ distinction of being a land of deep-rooted anti-female biases and discriminations. Ironically enough, as I argue here, it is some of the basic values and ideology imbibed in the traditional tribal socio-cultural milieus that should have been emulated and promoted amongst the non-tribal mainstream, not, as has been going on, the other way round. […]

The proportion of ‘unmarried’ women aged 20-24 years used to be about three times as large in overall tribal population as compared to that of their Hindu counterparts. For example, the average age of marriage of tribal females in Mysore was found to be 18.1 years in the 1901 Census, as against only 14 years among their Hindu counterparts. A typical tribal girl has traditionally been far more ‘liberated’ than her Hindu counterpart so as to choose the prospective groom through, as it were, pre-marital love affairs and somewhat free mixing with the prospective spouses. […]

In fact, India’s historical ethnography and other kinds of evidence provide distinct (though somewhat scattered) indications of a high degree of work participation (or sharing) of tribal females —a fact which reflects and perhaps reinforces comparatively high levels of autonomy, equality, and social position of tribal women. […]

Admirable demographic regime of India’s tribes thanks to living in tune with the natural resources of their environment >>

The author is a Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.

Source: “‘Who Is Civilised?: In Praise of Tribal Traditions, Society, and Culture in India” by Arup Maharatna, Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 40, September 25, 2010- Mainstream Weekly
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“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Photo: Report on Women’s Rights, p. 15

Equality of Opportunity in matters of Public Employment
Constitution Article 15

Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to— (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. 2 [(4) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.]

Source: pp. 9 & 16, “Women’s Rights in India: An Analytical Study of The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and The Indian Constitution, Legislations, Schemes, Policies & Judgements 2021” by Research Division, National Human Rights Commission, India ( | Learn more >>
Date Visited: 9 May 2023

“Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” | Learn more about India’s caste system and the effects of “casteism” on tribal communities >>

“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.” – Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) quoted by Abhijit Mohanty in “Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat” | Learn more about the work done by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and endangered languages worldwide >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta (The Hindu) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity | Success stories | Tribal identity >>

“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and … toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” – George Orwell | Learn more: Childhood | Customs | Games and leisure time | Literature – fiction | Storytelling >>

“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [C]aste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters) | Learn more: Accountability | Democracy | Education and literacy >>

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