Tribal Issues | Part 1 | Pre Independence conditions

Following up from the introduction post on tribal issues.

In this post, you are going to read up about the events and factors which changed the tribal life with the advent of british in India. Summarising the developments under the major heads.

The territorial living

Over centuries, the Tribals have evolved an intricate custodial mode of living. Tribals belong to their territories, which are the essence of their existence. Back in history, the Tribals were in effect self-governing ‘first nations’. In general and in most parts of the pre-colonial period, they were part of the ‘unknown frontier’ where the rule of the reign in fact did not extend. Tribals governed themselves outside of the influence of the particular ruler.

The entry of Europeans and subsequent colonisation transformed the relationship between the mainstream communities and tribal communities.

Exploitation for business

  • They used forest produces for their business.
  • Trees were cut down for timber. Forestland was used for tea, rubber and coffee plantations.
  • Train lines and roads were built in forest areas. Routes from forest to sea coasts were built to transport goods.

Example 1: The early years of the expansion of the railway network, 1853 onwards, led to tremendous deforestation in peninsular India due to the railways’ requirements of fuel wood and construction timber.

Example 2: The Grand Trunk Road, which was built through tribal labour, helped in business, and there was an inflow of outsiders adding to the population. The so-called outsiders dominated the tribals in many ways. Most of the tribal families lost their agricultural lands and lived in a state of starvation. The tribals were also victims of a host of middlemen who operated between the new rulers and the tribals.

Private property

  • The introduction of the alien concept of private property began with the Permanent Settlement of the British in 1793 and the establishment of the “Zamindari” system.
  • It gave control over vast territories, including tribal territories, to feudal lords for the purpose of revenue collection by the British.
  • This started the forced restructuring of the relationship of Tribals to their territories as well as the power relationship between Tribals and ‘others’.


  • The missionaries, with the patronage of the government, spread Christianity among the tribals and helped them with health care and education.
  • Unlike Hinduism and Islam, Christianity spread widely in the tribal regions with the patronage of the British and established a firm footing.
  • The result was a feeling of discontent and unrest among the tribals.
  • At this stage, a number of movements took place. They raised protesting voices against the oppression and exploitation by landlords and British rulers who in general, stood by the side of the landlords.

Some notable movements are the Kherwar movement (1871 -80), the Birsa Munda Movement (1874-1901), the Bhil Rebellion (1879-80), the Sardari Movement (1881-95), the Bastar Uprising (1910-11), and the Tana Bhagat Movement (1920-35).

What happened in the North-East?

  1. Historically the north-east was never a part of mainland India.
  2. The colonial incorporation of north-east took place much later than the rest of the Indian subcontinent.
  3. Assam came under British control in 1826, Bengal was annexed in 1765, Garo Hills in 1873, Naga Hills in 1879 and Mizoram in 1881-90.

Consequently, the struggles for self-determination took various forms as independence to greater autonomy.

Factors inherent in Indian system which did not work for Indian Tribals

#1. Caste based religious system:

The predominant caste-based religion sanctioned and practiced a rigid and highly discriminatory hierarchical system.

This became the natural basis for the altered perception of Tribals by the ‘others’ in determining the social, and hence, the economic and political space in the emerging larger society.

#2. Upper caste rule:

Relegating the Tribals to the lowest rung in the social ladder was but natural. And it formed the basis of social and political decision making by the largely upper caste controlled mainstream.

The ancient Indian scriptures, scripted by the upper castes, also further provided legitimacy to this.


This series is a part of How to crack the Tribal Issues for IAS Mains?. For a much detailed understanding, read up with all the post in this section as we develop this story in full.

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By B2B

Revisiting the Basics

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