Who are Scheduled Tribes

  • Who are STs & What is their origin? See their pics. British role in their creation before Indians took over. Should British Classifications of Indian Society be revisited? 

Recent clashes in Manipur between the Meitis and Kuki tribe made national headlines. We are told that Kukis are a Scheduled Tribe (ST). It got me interested as to how the term ST entered the Indian socio-political discourse. Actually it entered the Constitution around 1950, unlike Scheduled Caste (SC) which was first referred to in the 1930’s. Both terms are colonial creations.


So what is the way ahead in Manipur? As SC lose benefits on conversion, so must ST. If Kuki tribe, comprising mostly of Christians, lose ST benefits they would also start income-tax. Thus, there would be a level-playing field between the two communities.


Read What are the reasons for violence in Manipur    


Returning to who are ST I believe that seeing pictures of ST’s would give readers an idea of their life and culture. Ace music director R D Burman was a ST.

R D Burman’s music is popular even years after he gave up his body.  

In Tripura members of the former Royal Family are ST. Since R D Burman belonged to the royal family he too must be ST. Actress Moon Moon Sen’s husband too belonged to the Tripura Royal Family. Thus, he too must be ST. By patrilineality the Sen daughters, who are successful actresses, are also STs.

Bust of Ambedkar at entrance of Ujjayanta Palace (Agartala), former residence of rulers. 2014.

Ambedkar belonged to the Depressed Classes (called SC by British). Today terms SC and ST have got intertwined in popular discourse. So inspite of Ambedkar not being ST, a bust of Ambedkar adorns the palace entrance.


Today, ordinary people think that the word Dalit (a post 1990 construct) represents SC and ST. Read     History of word Dalit  

Meenas of Rajasthan (now ST) were rulers before the Kachhwaha Rajputs, the last rulers of Jaipur. 

According to this Outlook report, “Thus, while communities like Meenas went from high caste, to "criminal tribe" in the British times to ST, or the Jats who are now OBC, or Gujjars who now want to be STs from OBCs, there are a whole lot of "denotified tribes" (formerly the "criminal tribes" in British times) such as Sansis, Kanjars, Banjaras, Kalandars, Kalbelias who lack the numbers so necessary for a political bargain.”


Read History of Meenas and How a Printing Mistake made Meenas, a land-owning community, an ST in 1954


Today SC/ST classifications are more about reservations and economic benefits.

Hattees community celebrating on being declared ST. 

Prior to the Himachal Pradesh Assembly Elections of 2022, the Hattees  community of Trans-Giri area Sirmaur (“The Hattis are a close-knit community who got their name from their tradition of selling home-grown vegetables, crops, meat and wool etc. at small markets called ‘haat’ in towns.”) was declared as ST. Hattees here “shared the same tribal traits, culture, geographical isolation, etc.” as those of the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand whose government has already declared them as ST.


There are multiple examples where governments have for votes (cutting across political parties) declared communities as SC or ST before elections.  


Read Who are the Hattis of Himachal and why they want ST status


Artist of Bison Horn Maria tribe. Note smart phone left of pic. 2018.

In Bastar-Chhatisgarh I met with the Bison Horn Maria tribe, who danced and played local instruments superbly during the Bastar Dussehra Festival. These STs are repositories of local culture and musicians of the highest order.


Their team manager showed me their videos on U Tube and asked me to invite his group for a performance at my city of residence.


Just because they do not speak English, wear pant-shirt and live in the interiors are they backward?


Yes they live in not so well connected areas but things are changing and fast. Road and net connectivity have improved significantly between my 2012 and 2018 visits to Bastar. Yes they are not as rich as others. But is income inequality not a worldwide phenomenon and is being wealthy a guarantee for happiness?


Read There is more to Bastar than Naxalism


Musician and dancers of Bison Horn Maria tribe, Bastar Dussehra 2018.

Actually across India, esp. during marriages, see Indian men wearing western clothes i.e. pant-shirt and women wearing Indic ones, best brought out in pic.

Jodhpur Market 2013. Local man in pant-shirt while wife in colourful Indic outfit.  

Returning to the Northeast, I met with tribal students learning computers at the Vivekananda Institute of Culture, Shillong. Like in Manipur, most local tribes have converted to Christianity but continue to be treated as ST.

Computer training class at Vivekananda Institute of Culture, Shillong. 

At evening fair during Hornbill Festival, Kohima. 2014

During Hornbill numerous programs are organised in Kohima. There is nothing ST about it. In fact, “Nagaland is known as “the only predominantly Baptist state in the world” and more than 96 per cent of the Naga people identify themselves as Christian.” Indian Express 2018


During the British era and probably thereafter, the region suffered from geographical isolation but now road connectivity and education have improved. In Kohima, I saw very few two wheelers unlike Imphal (Manipur). People have money so have cars. Nagas are found working in many parts of India.

Are Colonial classifications relevant today?

A friend with Nagas during Hornbill Festival, 2014.

At the festival, I met many Nagas, who clad in Jeans and T-shirt can hardly be called tribal. At the evening music concert (group from England) I felt as if I was in Mumbai, Delhi or London: the crowd did not exude stereotypical ST vibes.

The famous Bamboo Dance by the Kuki tribe. Sangai Festival 2014.   

According to this Indian Express report , The Kuki-Zomi tribes are originally from Kuki-Chin hills in Myanmar. According to a retired fauji the British brought Kukis from Burma, settled them all along the road (now highway) from Dimapur (in Nagaland) to Moreh so that they could protect them from the Nagas. Note that Burma was part of British India administratively till 1937.


Thus, Naga-Kuki rivalry has a history. They fought, like their counterparts in Europe did, inspite of both being Christians. Not sure if both belong to the same denomination though.

Actually, the British classified Indian society in the 19th century in various ways which we continue to this day for e.g. people you see in pic below are called Vasudev who roam around temples, cities, towns singing songs of Sri Krishna. They wear a distinctive hat made of peacock feathers and dhoti, traditional men’s wear. They were classified as Nomadic Tribe. I met so many of them during Pandharpur Wari

Vasudev at Pandhar Wari. 2015.

Adivasis, called ST, from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat etc. come to celebrate the Kathi Holi Festival at a village in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district. It is an all night affair celebrated with music/dance and without water or colour. The celebration is an experience of a life time. The forward communities could learn how to celebrate Holi in an eco-friendly way. They wore a combination of t-shirt/towel and pant-shirt as you can see in this album

Locals all dressed up for Holi.

Similarly, there is the Gond tribe in Madhya Pradesh. They are not urban- English speaking, economically backward but look at their paintings. Wow!

Gond Painting. 2015.

Read about Gond Paintings – A Mystic world created by dots and lines

In 2012, at Kondagaon in Bastar I met students from the School of Sculpture, Pune (pic 29) who had to come to learn Bastar Craft from Dr Jaidev Baghel a state and national award winning ST. 


Here is another e.g. of how colonial definitions have created artificial boundaries.


About 15 kms from Bhuj is Bhujodi village, known for its weaving products. Here visited Shyamji Bhai Vankar's shop. He belongs to the Meghwal community, named Harijans by Gandhiji and scheduled caste by the British.


The shop sells shawls, saris, stoles, bedcovers, carpets, etc. During the two hours that I spent saw foreigners and a couple from Kolkata who bought stuff. The shop accepts payment by credit card. Shyamji speaks English, Hindi and Gujarati fluently. Shyamji's shop provides livelihood to about 225 people of whom app 35% are women.

Shyamji Bhai shop in village Bhujodi near Bhuj, Gujarat.

Those who came to shop were interested in his well designed and crafted products not his caste. I discovered the SC bit only when I saw a picture of Ambedkar in the shop. He would put any businessman to shame so astute is he!


Reflect on the words of former British Council Scholar and spiritualist Dr Satish K Kapoor who wrote in Hinduism:The Faith Eternal, “Indian society could not have survived for millennia on the staple diet of wrangles and altercations all the while.” (Pg. 69) 

Yet, most of us including the Government of India/Judiciary live by colonial definitions!


According to essay Historical Perspectives of Different Tribal Groups in India “Although terms such as atavika, vanavasi ("forest dwellers"), or girijan ("hill people")[5] are also used for the tribes of India, adivasi carries the specific meaning of being the original and autochthonous inhabitants of a given region and was specifically coined for that purpose in the 1930s.” 2 To know how wrong this original inhabitant bit is read Nageshwar Rao’s thoughts later. 


Dr Alka Maurya wrote in her paper, “So the state and discourse in India reject the term indigenous peoples' and prefer instead to use the Constitutional term Scheduled Tribes.” They are also called Anusuchit janjati.


Dr Maurya adds, “The Constitution of India does not define the criteria for recognition of Scheduled Tribes, but the definition contained in the 1931 Census was used in the initial years after independence. According to Census 1931, Schedule tribes are termed "backward tribes" living in the "Excluded" and "Partially Excluded" areas. The Government of India Act of 1935 called for the first time for representatives of "backward tribes" in provincial assemblies. Under 366 clause25 article of the Indian constitution defined scheduled tribes means such tribes or tribal communities or parts or groups within such tribes or tribal communities which are defined under Article 342 to be deemed as Scheduled Tribes under this constitution.”


“The Constitution Order 1950 declared 212 tribes located in 14 states as ―Scheduled Tribes‖ (STs).” 1


In many ways, India is still stuck with the Government of India Act 1935. When will we think in a contemporary way?

At Ramakrishna Mission School, Deomali, Arunachal Pradesh. 2013.  

So what is the Indic view on ST?

Muslim invasions caused Hindus to flee to the interiors. Later the British played a role of dividing our society. We have forgotten the close relations with the so called ST. Besides above pictures read views of Sandhya, Rao and Dharampalji.


Sandhya Jain wrote in book Adi Devta Arya Devta , “Jagannatha’s tribal origins are undeniable, though the god is today inseparable from the ‘high’ Hindu panorama and is a key constituent of Orissa’s regional identity. By all accounts the deity was first worshipped by the Sabara (Savara, Saora) tribe and made a ‘miraculous’ appearance in Puri much later. To this day, a special group of priests known as Daitas or Daityas (descendants of the original tribal worshippers) are entrusted with the task of dressing the god and moving him, besides regularly renovating his wooden image.”


An Oriya friend who lives in Puri agrees and says, “Daitas are descendants of Brahmin priest and Sabar princess couple. Although they can't do Puja, they do many rituals mentioned and almost take care of Rath Yatra.”


Senior and retired IPS officer M Nageshwar Rao wrote in The Times of India about the historical background of ST in mainland India.


Excerpts, “Isa vasyam idam sarvam” is a representative mahavakya from Isavasya Upanishad which encapsulates a fundamental Hindu concept that divinity is all-pervasive. In fact, Hindus consider nature itself divine. Therefore, it is no wonder that forests and hills have been the abodes of our rishis, munis, sadhakas etc. Gurukulas, the ancient centres of knowledge and education, were within or close to forests where much of our sacred knowledge and literature was produced. Vanaprastha an important ashram or stage of traditional Hindu life, is self-evidently the retired life in the forest, for, Hindus yearn to be closer to nature in the dusk of their lives.” 


Vanara (vana=forest, nara=human) are people living in forests. They are merely identified by the names of their totems. Since time immemorial the participatory role of various totemic people in religious, political and social spheres of our civilisational nation has been well documented all along in all our sacred and secular literature. It is impossible to remove either the sterling roles of vanvasis or the life in forest from our seminal scriptures such as Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavatam, and still have credible stories in them.”


In Tripura the tribal name of Lord Shiva is SUBRAI RAJA in kok borok dialect of Tripura’s tribal groups.  

Rathwa adivasi dance (Gujarat) performed during Holi. Shilpgram, Udaipur 2017.  

Rao wrote, “When incessant Islamic invasions became unbearable, it was the forests and mountains that offered sanctuary to the beleaguered Hindus. K S Lal in his ‘The Legacy of Muslim Rule in India’, reports that there was a huge surge of forest population during the Muslim rule. For a clear perspective I quote him at length: 


“According to Amir Khusrau, wherever the army marched, every inhabited spot was desolated. When the army arrived there (Warangal, Deccan), the Hindu inhabitants concealed themselves in hills and jungles.” 


“…. the defeated Rajas and helpless agriculturists all sought refuge in the forests.” “Those who took to the jungle, stayed there, eating wild fruits, tree-roots, and the coarsest grain if and when available, but surely preserving their freedom. But with the passing of time, a peasant became a tribal.” 


“And the peasants, finding continuance of cultivation uneconomic and the treatment of the regime unbearable, left the fields and fled into the jungle from where they organized resistances.”


“Even Babur, always a keen observer, had not failed to notice that peasants in India were often reduced to the position of tribals. In our countries, writes he in his Memoirs [Babur Nama, II, p. 518], dwellers in the wilds (i.e. nomads) get tribal names; here (i.e. Hindustan) the settled people of the cultivated lands and villages get tribal names.” 


“In short, the avalanche of Turco- Mughal invaders, and the policy of their Government turned many settled agriculturists into tribals of the jungles. Many defeated Rajas and harassed Zamindars also repaired to forest and remote fortresses for security. They had been defeated in war and due to the policy of making them nest-o-nabud (destroy root and branch), had been reduced to the position of Scheduled Castes / Tribes / Backward Classes.”

Mihir Bhoja, ruler of Kannauj, was a conqueror and protector of dharma.

Mihir Bhoja was a Gurjar Pratihaar king. The community, now called Gurjars have reservations in Rajasthan under as OBC (other backward classes) since 1994.

Read About Pratihara Empire

Rana Punjab, Bhil warrior of Mewar. 

This classification has made few remember the Bhils who fought alongside Maharana Pratap against Akbar. Read about Rana Punja, the brave Bhil warrior of Mewar Do attend the Baneshwar fair, main festival celebrated among the Bhils. It is held during the period of Shivatri and is dedicated to Baneshwar Mahadev also known as Lord Shiva. 2


So also, “The Gond Rajas of Garha-Mandla and Chanda are examples of an adivasi aristocracy that ruled in this region, and were "not only the hereditary leaders of their Gond subjects, but also held sway over substantial communities of non-tribals who recognized them as their feudal lords."[17][20] This relative autonomy and collective ownership of adivasi land by adivasis was severely disrupted by the advent of the Mughals in the early 16th century. Rebellions against Mughal authority are the Bhil Rebellion of 1632 and the Bhil-Gond Insurrection of 1643[21] which were both crushed by Mughals.” 2


On Gonds, Sandhya Jain wrote, “Around 1929, among the Gonds of central India, Bhausingh Rajnegi of Balaghat district, started a reform movement claiming that Bara Deo, the God Supreme God, was identical with Shiva. He asserted that the Gonds were once pure Kshatriyas and great warriors. He pointed out that in the sixteenth century their prince Dalpat Shah had married a Rajput princess, Devi Durgavati, who had resisted the Moghuls bravely. This abiding affinity between tribal and ‘high’ Hindu religious traditions raises the question whether Hindu dharma can reasonably be viewed as a grand elaboration of Adivasi beliefs. Mahatma Gandhi roundly condemned the British classification of tribals as “aborigines” and “animists” on the ground that such categories were alien to Hindu thought; indeed, they do not exist in any native language. The term ‘aboriginal’ simply means ‘indigenous or pertaining to the original population of a given region,’ but was first used as a derogative against the native people of Australia by British colonialists.”


Rao adds, “What the Muslim rule could not achieve completely, the British did by their devious policy of ‘divide and destroy’ the Hindu society. Quote K. S. Lal again: 


“…. their spirit of resistance had made them good fighters. Fighting kept their health replenished, compensating for the non-availability of good food in the jungles. Their fighting spirit made the British think of them as thugs, robbers and bandits. But the British, as well as other Europeans, also embarked upon an anthropological and sociological study of these poor forest people. In trying to find a name for these groups, the British census officials labelled them, in successive censuses, as Aboriginals (1881), Animists (1891-1911) and as Adherents of Tribal Religions (1921-1931).” 


The tribal people resisted British rule and fought against it. In his book The Great Tribal Warriors of Bharat, Tuhin Sinha has given names of 17 warriors who lived between 1750 and 1984 for e.g. Tilka Manjhi (1750-1785), Tantya Bhil (1842-1889), Guru Gobind Giri (1858-1931) and Alluri Sitaram Raju (1888 to 1924). To read full list click on PDF 


Also, “During the late 1850 Santhals hero Sidhu had accumulated around ten thousand Santhals to run parallel government against the British government. Baba Tilka Majhi was the first Santhal leather who raises weapons against the Britishers in 1789.” 2 Mangarh situated near the Rajasthan-Gujarat border is where 1,500 Bhil fighters lost their lives in mass shooting by the British. Source Yet Indians know only about Jallianwala Bagh.


Writing about Bihar’s Mungerilal Commission 1976 in Rediscovering India Dharampalji, a noted Gandhian, said, “According to it, these groups are largely of such people whose ancestors were warriors and gave unceasing battle to the British till they got exhausted and succumbed to the overwhelming British power. Besides being warriors, their main occupations are said to have been of iron smith (Iuhar), hunting, jugglery and acrobatics, snake charming and acting. After their total subjugation, on the one hand, they were compulsorily excluded from the rest of society and put under constant police vigilance, and on the other hand, to somehow satisfy their pressing needs (and perhaps also as a symbol of rebellion) took to thieving, begging etc.” To read more

Kalbelia dance, also known as Snake Charmer Dance, is awesome. 2013. 

Rao wrote, “In order to neutralize them, the British developed the template of delegitimizing the resisting Hindu communities by branding them as thugs, criminal tribes, etc. The Thuggee Act was passed in 1836 which was further amplified by ten enactments passed between 1836 and 1848. Post 1857 revolt, the British developed the second colonial template of ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’ to delegitimise and destroy the many untamable Hindu communities. Thus, came the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) in 1871. CTA was initially applied in Northern India and progressively extended to the rest of the country. The numerous rebellious castes were labelled as Criminal Tribes under CTA.” Note that CTA (repealed in 1952) notified about 150 tribes as criminal and just being born into them made you a criminal. The police had wide powers to arrest members of such tribes. Read More


“Pertinently, while the targeted communities were Hindu castes, the British maliciously labelled many of them as ‘tribes’. This mischief to segregate them from the Hindu society became evident from the religion-neutral synthetic ascriptions to them in successive Censuses thereby gaming them for ‘civilising’ missions.”


“The third colonial template was the policy of segregation of vanvasis first attempted in the erstwhile Madras Presidency after the first Ramapa rebellion in 1813. Act XXIV of 1839 was promulgated excluding the forested areas described as Agency Tracts of Ganjam (now in Odisha) and Vizagapatnam (now in AP) districts from the general administration. Its success led to the promulgation of a harsher Scheduled Districts Act, 1874 in whole of India not only excluding the vanvasi areas from general administration but from the general society as well. The Government of India Act, 1935, a precursor of the Constitution of India, further formalized the exclusion of vanvasi areas by classifying them as Excluded Areas and Partially Excluded Areas.”


“The fourth colonial template was isolating vanvasis from the general Hindu society by preventing physical, social and economic contact between them. Through the Forest Acts of 1865, 1878 and 1927 the British declared their monopoly over forests by truncating the millennia-old traditional use of forests by communities.” 


See 5 minute video Indian Daas vs. Western Slavery: The Unspoken Truth by Vishnuddhi Films The influence of slavery came to India through foreign invasions i.e. the Greek, Arab, Turk and British regimes.


Based on this colonial classification certain constitutional benefits (reservations in government jobs) were provided to ST. For obvious reasons, more want to be classified as ST. 


Read The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes site on ST, definitions of tribal communities adopted in the 1931 Census which forms the basis for the provision in Article 342 (1).


How relevant are the 1931 Census and GOI Act 1935 today?


Note that “As per Census-1931, Schedule tribes are termed as “backward tribes” living in the “Excluded” and “Partially Excluded” areas. The Government of India Act of 1935 called for the first time for representatives of “backward tribes” in provincial assemblies. The Constitution does not define the criteria for recognition of Scheduled Tribes and hence the definition contained in 1931 Census was used in initial years after independence.” Source

Undergoing training at Call Centre in Dantewada, Bastar. 2018.


The British had their reasons for dividing Indian society. Situation in the 1830-1920 period and today are vastly different. India is now independent. Yet we have continued with their line of thinking. This has enhanced divisions in society and prevented national integration.


Has an attempt been made to look at definitions of tribal communities from a non colonial, Indic and contemporary perspective?   


I think it is important to understand the origin of the term Scheduled Tribe and decolonise our thinking and society. However, we need to look at ST in mainland India and Northeast differently.


Across India am all for the state helping economically backward and deserving finding jobs. Further, the law must provide that government benefits are denied to STs who convert. Road/net connectivity to all areas and education must improve–it is an ongoing activity of all governments.  


See album   Education City Geetham, Dantewada, Bastar


Times are changing. In Orissa, Rajat Jain wrote, “the Kondh Kutiya tribes the women had tattoo their faces. The younger generation is not fond of getting tattoo done.” 

Rajat sister with Kondh Kutiya women who had tattoo on their faces.

Change needs to be affected carefully since vested interests will want status quo to continue. However, the truth about the origin of STs and their contributions need to be known to all at the earliest. We need to come out of the colonial stereotypical construction of an ST as fast as possible and find ways of defining the human person through non- derogatory and non-divisive terms.


A politico-judicial consensus must be developed if justice, fairness, equity and a non-discriminatory integral society are to be achieved.



1. Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development Chapter 6 by M B Das, Gillette Hall, S Kapoor and Denis M.

2. Historical Perspectives of Different Tribal Groups in India by Subhash Meena and NP Singh Meena

3. The Gurjar stir was never meant to be anti-Meena 2007 report

4. Forewords History and Culture of Indian People 320 to 1947  

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