Tribal Politics and Movements

The term “tribe” typically suggests “a community denoting a collection of primitive, uncivilized groups under recognized leaders.” The initial discussion on tribal identity was influenced by those advocating for the integration of tribes into the national citizenry and others aiming for their absorption into the Hindu community. A tribe refers to a collective of individuals sharing the same ethnicity, customs, language, religion, residing in a specific area, often led by a chief. Scheduled Tribes (ST) make up 8% of the nation’s population and are alternatively known as tribes, adivasis, aboriginals, or autochthonous people. Research on tribal movements, especially in the 19th century, primarily focused on land and forest rights, but post-independence, there is a growing emphasis on issues related to identity and ethnicity.

Tribal Politics and Movements

Common features of tribal groups: 

They reside in remote areas, distant from mainstream civilization, often nestled within the most remote corners of forests and hills. These communities typically fall within one of three racial categories: Negritos, Austrologids, or Mongoloids. They communicate using a shared tribal language or dialect. Their religious beliefs center around animism, wherein the veneration of spirits and ghosts holds paramount significance. Their way of life revolves around traditional practices such as gleaning, hunting, and gathering forest resources.

Essential Characteristics of Tribal Communities

Primitive Traits:

  • Geographical isolation
  • Distinct culture
  • Reluctance to engage with the wider community
  • Predominantly engaged in primary sector activities
  • High levels of poverty and illiteracy

Features Defined by the Lokur Committee (1965):

  • Displaying primitive traits
  • Possessing a distinct culture
  • Tending to avoid interaction with the general public
  • Being geographically isolated
  • Experiencing social and economic backwardness

Scholars and their Contributions to Tribal Studies:

  • A.R. Desai (1979)
  • Kathelen Gough (1974)
  • Ranajit Guha (1983), who treated post-independence tribal movements as peasant movements
  • K.S. Singh, who categorized tribal movements into three phases: First Phase (1795-1860), Second Phase (1860-1920), Third Phase (1920-1947)
  • S.M. Dubey (1982), who classified Northeastern tribal movements into four categories: Religious and social reform movements, Movements for separate statehood, Insurgent movements, Cultural rights movements
  • L.K. Mahapatra (1972), who divided tribal movements into reactionary, conservative, and revisionary or revolutionary
  • Surajit Sinha, who categorized movements into Ethnic rebellions, Reform movements, Political autonomy movements within the Indian Union, Secessionist movements, and Agrarian unrests.


  • Following the Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar, the British gained control over India.
  • Their interference in various aspects of Indian life—social, religious, economic, and political—resulted in revolts and tribal movements across the country.

Causes of Tribal Movements:

  • Imposition of Forest Laws
  • Imposition of Land Revenue System
  • Forced Labor
  • Acquisition of tribal inhabited areas
  • Interference in religious matters, including religious conversion
  • Economic decline

Classification of Tribal Movements:

  • Movements seeking political autonomy and state formation (e.g., Nagas, Mizos)
  • Agrarian Movements
  • Forest-Based Movements
  • Socio-religious or socio-cultural movements (e.g., The Bhagat Movement among Bhils of Rajasthan)

Tribal Movements during the British Period:

  • Rebellion of Maher of Rajmahal Hills (1772)
  • Kol Uprising (1831)
  • Santhal Rebellion (1855)
  • Bhokta Uprising and The Ra Movement (1857)
  • The Sardari or Mulhi Larai and the Birsa Movement (1900)

K.S. Singh refers to them as “millenarian movements.”

Important Tribal Movements

Khasi Uprising – Meghalaya:

  • Occurred in Khasi Hills (Assam and Meghalaya) from 1829 to 1832.
  • The East India Company aimed to construct a road linking the Brahmaputra valley with Sylhet.
  • Numerous laborers from the plains were brought to the region, prompting resistance from the Khasis, Garos, Khamptis, and Singhpos under the leadership of Tirath Singh.
  • The revolt was suppressed by the British by 1833.

Khond Uprising (Orissa):

  • Spanned from 1837 to 1856.
  • Triggers included the prohibition of human sacrifice, imposition of forest laws, and the land revenue system.
  • Led by Chakra Bisoi.

Santhal Uprising (Jharkhand):

  • Took place in 1855.
  • Stemmed from British land revenue laws and the exploitation of tribals through forced labor.
  • Led by Kanhu, Sido, Chand, and Bhairav Santhal.
  • Declared independence in 1855 but were brought under British control in 1856.
  • Resulted in the creation of the Santhal Pargana district.

Munda Uprising (Bihar and Jharkhand):

  • Occurred from 1899 to 1900.
  • Triggered by the abolition of the Khuntkatti System (common land/joint holding of land by tribal families) and the revival of the Zamindari system, leading to indebtedness and forced labor among tribals.
  • Led by Birsa Munda, who was captured and killed in 1900, marking the end of the movement.

Rampa Rebellion (Andhra Pradesh):

  • Took place from 1922 to 1924.
  • Causes included the Madras Forest Act and forced labor.
  • Led by Alluri Sitaram Raju in the form of guerrilla warfare.
  • The movement collapsed after Raju’s death in 1924.

Naga Movement (Manipur):

  • Initiated as a political movement led by Jadonang, later continued by Rani Gaidinliu after his death.
  • Nagas actively participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement, violating forest and land revenue laws.

Tana Bhagat Movement (Jharkhand):

  • Formerly known as the Kurukh Dharam Movement, it was a movement of the Oraons in the Chotanagpur region.
  • Led by Jatra Bhagat and Turia Bhagat, focusing on internal social reforms among tribals.
  • Participants also joined the Civil Disobedience Movement.


The focus of studies on tribal movements in the 19th century primarily centered on land and forest rights. However, post-independence, there is an increasing emphasis on issues of identity and ethnicity.

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