Some Basic Background about India’s Indigenous (Adivasi) Communities
I have long been interested in the amazing project, Native-Land.ca, which shows approximate maps of indigenous communities, mostly in North and South America, but increasingly in other regions, including Australia/New Zealand as well as Taiwan. I've been curious about the prospect of having them add indigenous communities in South Asia to the list of maps. I've been in touch with people at the project, and have sent them the following document as a primer oriented towards producing a viable map of Adivasi communities in India.
Below, I am including some basic background information as well as a list of a few of the larger Adivasi communities, along with links to maps that could serve as starting points for mapping areas where these communities live. The focus, for now, is on India specifically, though some of these communities have populations in neighboring countries in South Asia (especially Bangladesh and Pakistan).
A Note on Names:
India’s indigenous communities are known by a number of different names – Tribals, Adivasis, Scheduled Tribes (a government name), Denotified Tribes (since 1952; another government name), and the British colonial government’s rather ominous Criminal Tribes (1871-1952).
The most respectful, politically empowering term in use is probably the term Adivasi, which is a Sanskrit word that means “Original Inhabitants." The term has been in use by activists since the 1930s (the term is thought to have been coined by the Gandhian activist Thakkar Bapa). Below, we will use the term Adivasi in most instances to describe these communities – though there are some historical and ethnographic complexities in doing so (see our note below).
The British passed a law called the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, that officially designated (“notified”) 150 Tribal groups throughout British India as “Criminal Tribes.” These were generally autonomous indigenous communities that hadn’t really been ‘ruled’ by any local governments or authorities. Some historians have claimed that the British use of the word ‘Criminal’ was a shorthand to mark the ‘outsider’ nature of these communities.
After independence, the Indian government reversed some aspects of the Criminal Tribes Act, but in effect kept the designation – and the Adivasi communities became “Denotified Tribes” (i.e., “Tribes formally known as Criminal Tribes”) Starting in the 1950s, the Indian Government dramatically expanded the number of communities it recognized as "Scheduled Tribes" -- there are at least 750 such communities now. Unfortunately, many urban and educated Indians continue to believe that Adivasi communities are inherently ‘criminal.’ Adivasi people are subject to ongoing discrimination, harassment, and organized violence at the hand of other communities as well as the police and military. A number of communities have also seen their languages and cultural practices under threat.
Size of population:
The Indian census of 2011 estimated about 8% of the country’s population to be Adivasi, meaning that the population is 100 million or more. There are also indigenous/Tribal communities in other South Asian countries. I saw an estimate that 1% of the population of Bangladesh is also Adivasi. And about 600,000 Bhils reside in Pakistan; there could be more.
There are certain regions that have particularly high concentrations of Adivasis, and I'll be focusing most of my attention on those in the initial phases of this project. The following map from Wikipedia shows population concentrations per capita.
The area that runs through the central part of the country is often referred to as the “Tribal Belt.” The regions in the north (Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh) and the Northeast have high proportions of the population understood to be “Tribal,” but these are much more sparsely populated areas overall. So it's that middle region of the country -- the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Jharkand, Bihar, and West Bengal that I'll be starting off with.
Historical and ethnographic complexities
The Adivasi populations around India are quite heterogeneous, with some communities likely with ancient roots in certain regions of India that might predate other settlers (such as the Indo-Aryans) In other cases, linguistic and ethnographic evidence suggests the communities might have migrated from other regions of Asia, including Southeast Asia (this is especially likely to be true for Tribal communities in Northeastern India); some of these communities continue to be nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the present day. So these communities may not ‘predate’ other (dominant) groups, but they nevertheless have been treated the same as the others historically. Also, the communities can be quite diverse, even internally, with several different sub-groups of the Gond, Bhil, and Munda communities (to name just three of the larger Adivasi groupings). Sometimes those subgroups have their own names, and there are some inconsistencies regarding whether and how they are marked as separate from the larger groups.
One important point of clarification – the communities listed below are specifically understood as indigenous “scheduled tribes” by the Indian government. In the list below, I am not including communities known as “Scheduled Castes” (i.e., Dalits); my focus is specifically on communities that have been included under “Scheduled Tribes.”
Larger Adivasi Communities:
There are a number of sources that indicate populations of Adivasi Communities (or Scheduled Tribe communities). The Indian government records extensive Census data every ten years, though analysis of that data sometimes lags, and it can be difficult to find visualizations or maps based on that data.
Below, I give a list of a few of the larger Adivasi communities, indicating population size for a sense of scale. I also am linking to Wikipedia as well as a source that features nice maps. (Warning: the source I am linking to for maps is a Christian Missionary project, so it should not be considered entirely reliable. That said, most of their information aligns with what one finds on Wikipedia and other sources fairly well.)
There is also an Indian government-funded project called the Illustrated Atlas of Tribal India (2002) that also contains much of this information. I have put a number of maps from that project into a Google Drive folder. However, the maps are much less easy to interpret (and would probably be more difficult to convert to GIS data). They are also kept entirely separated by state, making it harder to see the regional concentrations across state borders (for instance, the Bhil community has large populations in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh...)
Bhil (approx. 15 million people)
Gond (approx. 10 million people):
Santal (approx. 9 million people):
Oraon [they call themselves Kurukh] (4-5 million people):
Oraon is an exonym used by neighboring Munda people. They themselves use the name Kurukh…
Khond (~1.6 million people):
Munda (~4.4 million people)
Bhumij (~1.4 million people) (connected to Munda)
Banjara (~7.2 million people)
Bodo [Boro] (~1.9 million people)
Domar [or Damor] (~2.5 million people) (connected to Bhil)
Kokna (~1.3 million people)
Saora (~1 million people)
Andh (~600,000 people)
Baiga (~700,000 people)
Ho (~1.3 million people)
Kharia (~900,000 people)
Kol (~2.1 million people)