In most parts of the country, colonialism brought radical transformation of the tribals as their relative isolation was eroded by the penetration of market forces and they were integrated with the British and princely administrations. A large number of moneylenders, traders, revenue farmers and other middlemen and petty officials invaded the tribal areas and disrupted the tribals’ traditional way of life. They were increasingly engulfed in debt and lost their lands to outsiders, often being reduced to the position of agricultural labourers, sharecroppers and rack-rented tenants. Many were forced to retreat further into the hills.
Prime minister Nehru favoured the policy of integrating the tribal people in Indian society, of making them an integral part of the Indian nation, even while maintaining their distinct identity and culture. There were two basic parameters of the Nehruvian approach: ‘the tribal areas have to progress’ and ‘they have to progress in their own way’. Progress did not mean ‘an attempt merely to duplicate what we have got in other parts of India’. Whatever was good in the rest of India would ‘be adopted by them gradually’. Moreover, whatever changes were needed would be ‘worked out by the tribals themselves’.
Government laid down certain broad guidelines for government policy:
- The tribals should develop along the lines of their own genius; there should be no imposition or compulsion from outside. The non-tribals should not approach them with a superiority complex. Rather, the understanding should be that they had an equal contribution to make to the evolution of the common culture and social and political life of the country.
- Tribal rights in land and forests should be respected and no outsider should be able to take possession of tribal lands. The incursion of the market economy into tribal areas had to be strictly controlled and regulated.
- It was necessary to encourage the tribal languages which ‘must be given all possible support and the conditions in which they can flourish must be safeguarded’.