Among India’s ‘people at the periphery’ are its tribes. Development planning in India (which took place roughly between 1940 and 1960) has attempted to foster their social and economic empowerment by focusing on various areas such as food security, health, education, employment and income generation. Tribal Development in India can be classified into the isolationist approach, the assimilation approach and the integration approach. Verrier Elwin, a citizen of Great Britain, came to India in 1927 as a Christian missionary. Elwin felt that the tribes were the most vulnerable groups in society who must be kept separate from the rest of Indian society in order to conserve and preserve their ethnic identity, their tribal social structures, their culture, and their way of life.
He strongly believed that contact with the rest of India would place the tribes in an unequal contest with the nontribal people and would expose them to virtually unlimited exploitation.
His approach was known as the ‘Leave Them Alone’, ‘National Park’ or the ‘Isolationist’ approach.
Literally, it meant letting tribes live in their own way, not infringing on their economic space, and allowing them to grow in their self-created or self-designed developmental paradigm. The first clue to Elwin’s isolationist approach came from his study on the Baigas. During his study, he strengthened his beliefs relating to keeping the tribes away from the mainstream society. He observed that the level of Baiga exploitation was quite severe, but the tribe dreamt of having a Baiga Raj in which they would have their own king and no abuse by the outsiders. Elwin observed the significance of this dream and translated it into his famous ‘National Park’ approach. Hutton, who was a commissioner for census of 1931, and Elwin suggested that keeping the tribes at a distance or in isolation from the rest of the society in “National Parks” or “reserved areas” would solve two problems: (a) The tribes would be in a position to maintain their independent identity; (b) They would be free from the exploitation of out¬siders.
However, Elwin’s approach was criticized, and labeled as anti-national. A.V. Thakkar pointed out that this isolationist way of looking at the tribal problem would keep the aboriginal population away from the mainstream independence movement and would weaken national solidarity even after independence. G.S. Ghurye criticized the isolationist approach, countering the argument that the Hindus were responsible for creating poverty among the tribes. He blamed the British as being responsible for this through their property rights in land, laws restricting the use of forest resources and the exploitative excise policy. In other words, Ghurye wanted to prove that Hindu castes had been in a symbiotic relationship with the tribes since ancient times and they both remained an intrinsic part of Indian civilization, which Elwin wanted to break by his isolationist approach. Thakkar Bapa, a friend of Ghurye, and a great social reformer of India said that the tribes could not be ignored and highlighted the need for assimilation, which meant including them into the main stream or larger society.
Assimilation was defined as the process whereby individuals or groups once dissimilar become similar and identified in their interests and outlook. Assisting and encouraging the tribes to assimilate them with the mainstream of national life, was considered as the only approach which could permanently solve the tribal problems. However, the Assimilation approach also proved disadvantageous on various grounds. There was the danger of ignoring one’s own culture and following that of the Hindu main stream society. Even in the presence of what was known as ‘total’ assimilation, the tribes were looked at as the “others”, which gave rise to further prejudices and stereotypes. Therefore, it was noticed that even after assimilating the tribes into the larger structure, the perceptions and ideas associated with them did not vanish. In 1941, the term ‘Tribe’ was finally introduced, and M.N. Srinivas, a social anthropologist focused on the policy of integration and not assimilation. This view recommends the rehabilitation of the tribes on the plains along with the civilized people, but away from their native places such as hills, mountains, forests, etc.
The policy of integration which aims at developing a creative adjustment between tribes and non-tribes was supported by thinkers and writers like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. After independence, Elwin, under the influence of Jawaharlal Nehru, changed his research area from the central tribal region to the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). In 1957 he published a book on the tribes of NEFA with an insightful foreword by Nehru. Being a border region, the government applied a law-and-order approach to the tribal problem in the North-East after the Chinese invasion. Nehru wanted an anthropological solution to such a bottleneck with the help of Elwin. After Elwin’s studies in NEFA, he altered his isolationist approach, as the situation of the tribes has undergone a change after independence. He stated that his earlier approach meant a temporary isolation for certain small tribes. He explained that a policy adopted to meet a set of special circumstances does not hold when the circumstances change, thereby changing the shape of his earlier approach to that of the integration approach.
The third approach of integration is actively followed in the recent years. The policy of isolation is neither possible nor desirable, and that of assimilation would mean imposition. Hence integration alone can make available to the tribes the benefits of modern society and yet retain their separate identity. Nehru and Elwin significantly contributed to the perspective of tribal development since the second Five Year Plan period. Nehru in 1957 in his foreword to Verrier Elwin’s “The Philosophy for NEFA”, laid down the five principles, that is, ‘Panchasheela’, or the policy of integration. The tribal “Panchasheela” as has been articulated by him are as follows: (i) Nothing should be imposed on the tribal people. They must be allowed to develop along the lines of their own genius. We should try to encourage in every way their own traditional arts and culture.
This meant that Nehru was of the view of uplifting the tribes through persuasion, integration and representativeness of the larger. Allowing the tribes to develop along their own genius could probably mean a particular aspect of socio economic development about their capacity and the abilities they possess. This acknowledgement dealt with the deconstruction of the matter that has been created about the tribes. Throughout the world, these societies were self-sufficient republics already. Therefore, laws should be enforced in a way that complements their way of life; and should be such that they consider, protect and integrate the tribal culture in the larger society. (ii) Tribal rights in land and forests should be respected.
This principle focused on the importance of land for the tribes. All the tribal traditions, rituals and occupations were vested on their lands and their legal system governing land rights was different from the main stream society in totality. This had to be understood and supported. (iii) We should try to train and build up a team of their own people to do the work of administration and development. Some technical personnel from outside will no doubt, be needed, especially in the beginning. But we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal territory. (iv) We should not over administer these areas or overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes.
We should rather work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and cultural institutions. This principle is a preventive measure that is used to understand better the possibility of a uniform administrative model that can be adopted. It also emphasized the ethnomethodology method, and the interdependence of these 2 models. (v) We should judge results, not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but by the quality of human character that is evolved. The tribal Panchasheela, therefore, makes the understanding of integration among tribal populations clear, something that had not been addressed in the constitution.