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Scheduled Tribes


SCHEDULED TRIBES India's Constitution, enacted on 26 January 1950, established compensatory benefits for members of India's "scheduled tribes." For centuries, tribes in India had been called "aboriginals," "hill tribes," "forest tribes," "animists," "backward Hindus," "criminal tribes," "primitive tribes," "backward tribes," and "depressed classes." They generally spoke their own languages, observed their own political and cultural patterns, lived in isolated areas, and were regarded as economically and socially "backward."

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indian and European reformers called on the British government of India to do something to improve the lot of India's most disadvantaged groups. The 1935 Government of India Act announced that certain "degraded" groups in India would have special electoral representation in India's forthcoming elections. In anticipation, in 1936 India's provincial governments prepared lists ("schedules") of local groups meeting the "degraded" criteria. Castes considered to be "degraded" because they suffered ritual disabilities (such as denial of admission to Hindu temples) were called scheduled castes (SCs). Tribes considered to be "degraded" were referred to as "backward tribes." The 1941 census recorded 24.5 million tribals (about 6.6% of India's population). In 1950, with the enactment of India's Constitution, these "backward tribes" were referred to as scheduled tribes (STs).

Tribes in India's History

Various terms for human groups appeared in the Vedas and post-Vedic materials. These included jana (people), gana (originally a nomadic group), and vish (a tribelike group). Other terms that might have referred to tribal phenomena included vidatha (tribal assembly), rajan (tribal ruler), and purohit (tribal priest who accompanied a rajan into cattle raids and other battles, protecting his rajan with prayers). Reference was made to the sattra, a sacrifice performed by yajamanas (sacrificers) to increase the number of sons and amount of wealth of the entire group. Men and women assembled in sabhas and samitis and discussed various topics, including cattle. Buddhist and Jain texts referred to tribal groups living in the Himalayan foothills, including the Shakya tribe into which Siddhartha Gautama (later the Buddha) was born as son of the rajan, and the Jnatrika tribe into which Mahavir, the founder of Jainism, was born, also son of the rajan. Later narratives referred to the Shakyas and Jnatrikas as Kshatriyas, warriors in the Hindu four-varṇa system. Applicable Sanskrit terms for tribals included atavika (forest dweller), avanyaka (native), and atavibala (forest troops).

The Dharma Shāstra of Manu described certain tribes as the result of the mixing of the four original varṇas (Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras) who emerged from the mouth, shoulders, thighs, and feet of the Cosmic Being when the Cosmic Being immolated itself on the funeral pyre. For example, the Pukkasas and Kshattris who lived in mountains and groves and subsisted by killing animals in holes were produced in turn by Brahman males impregnating Shudra females and Shudra males impregnating Kshatriya females. The Ugras, who also subsisted by killing animals in holes, were ferocious in manner, and delighted in cruelty, were produced by Kshatriya males impregnating Shudra females. The Artha Shāstra (Treatise on material gain) attributed to Kautilya (Chanakya) described how a wild tribe could obstruct a prince's movement and how a prince should use one army of wild tribes to attack another army of wild tribes. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka (3rd century b.c.) referred to the dangers posed in his empire by the forest tribes and to his desire to reform them through compassion rather than violence.

Tribes and forest dwellers appeared in the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyan . a epics as well as in Purāṇic legends and folktales. Visitors to India also described tribes and forest dwellers. In 1666 M. de Thevenot, a well-educated Frenchman who traveled in Gujarat, described a tribe of Kolies, with no fixed habitation, who migrated from village to village picking and cleaning cotton. In 1676 another Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, published a journal in which he described four North Indian tribes of Manari, nomadic tent-living caravaners. Each tribe numbered about a hundred thousand and had its own priests, portable serpent icon, and forehead marks or necklaces applied by priests. Each tribe specialized in the transportation of one kind of product: wheat, rice, pulse (legumes), or salt. Quarrels that interfered with trade occurred so often that the emperor Aurangzeb summoned the chiefs of the wheat and salt caravans and paid them generously—for the benefit of the common good as well as their own interests—not to quarrel.

Tribes and the British

The British East India Company developed a policy for dealing with tribals shortly after it acquired control of the Rajmahal Hills in Assam. To reduce potential resistance, the company paid tribal leaders to provide protection to the company's mail runners and to report any violent outbreaks in their territory. In 1782 the company turned over the administration of justice in the Rajmahal Hills to the hereditary tribal leaders, eventually converting the Rajmahal Hills tract into a rent-free government estate managed by tribal leaders.

In 1871 and 1872, following the military events of 1857 and the transfer of power from the East India Company to the British crown, the British recorded their first all-India census. They noted respondents' caste identities or tribal affiliations. Starting in 1872, M. A. Sherring published his three-volume Hindu Tribes and Castes, listing Brahmans and Kshatriyas at the top and continuing down the ranks of the varṇas to the lowest castes. The first decades of the twentieth century saw major publications describing castes and tribes in different parts of India, including Herbert Risley's two-volume The Peoplesof India and other authors' volumes of the castes and tribes of Bombay, the central provinces, South India, and the dominions of the Nizām of Hyderabad. In these publications, and in the district gazetteers, the lines between "castes" and "tribes" were often unclear. "Tribes" were generally considered identifiable because they lived in isolated areas, maintained their own subsistence economies, spoke their own languages, did not use Brahman priests, observed their own religious, cultural, and political customs, and differed from the majority of the populations in physical appearance or dress. Exceptions to these identifying features, however, were frequent.

British authorities differed in their opinions regarding the policies they should implement in territories occupied primarily by tribal groups. They wanted the tribes in these territories to be peaceful, which meant restraining the "criminal tribes." They also wanted to protect tribal groups from rapacious outside traders, moneylenders, and landlords (the British failure to provide sufficient protection led to rebellions by the Santals, Oraons, Kols, Hos, Mundas, and other tribal groups). In 1874, shortly after the British government of India completed its first census, it passed the Scheduled Districts Act, declaring that certain tracts of land in Assam, Bengal, the central provinces, and other areas were "scheduled" for possible exclusion from rules applying to the rest of British India. In fact, in those tracts, laws could be enacted to protect the tribals from invasive outsiders. The Government of India Act of 1919 empowered the governor-general to declare any tract of land in India to be a Backward Tract. Furthermore, some of the Backward Tracts were to be "Wholly Excluded Areas" (in which no laws of British India applied), and other tracts were subject to "Modified Exclusion," with the governor-general in council or the governor in council deciding which British-India laws did or did not apply to those areas.

Prior to the 1931 census, India's tribals were listed as "Animists" rather than "Hindus." Because of the permeability of both categories, it was difficult for census takers to make clear distinctions. The 1941 census abandoned the "Animists" category and referred to people of "tribal origin." This enabled the inclusion of Christians and Muslims of "tribal origin," swelling the census numbers and making it difficult to compare the 1931 and 1941 census figures. The Government of India Act of 1935 called for the first time for representatives of "backward tribes" in provincial assemblies. During the next few years, virtually every province in British India generated its list of "backward tribes," including the names of tribes living in the "Excluded" and "Partially Excluded" areas.

Scheduled Tribes after India's Independence

India's Constitution called for equality of status and opportunity for all citizens. In an effort to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the scheduled castes and tribes, the government of India initiated a policy of affirmative action called "protective discrimination" or "compensatory discrimination." Article 15(4) declared that the state could make "special provision" for the advancement of SCs and STs. Articles 330 and 331 reserved seats in the national Parliament and the state assemblies for members of SCs and STs. The percentages of seats in the legislative bodies were to match as nearly as possible the proportion of SCs and STs living in the represented territory. Article 325 declared that all voters—not just SCs and STs—could participate in the election of candidates for the SC and ST reserved seats. Article 335 reserved jobs in the central and state governments for members of the SCs and STs.

To address the guarantees in Article 16 of equal rights for all Indian citizens, the Constitution stipulated that these reservations of legislative seats and government jobs for SCs and STs would end after ten years. Over subsequent decades, Parliament periodically amended the Constitution to extend the SC and ST reservations another ten years. State governments introduced their own "compensatory discrimination" provisions for scholarships, admissions to colleges and professional schools, low-interest loans, and other benefits. The recipients of these benefits were members of the groups named on the government lists of SCs and STs. In 1960 the government of India published an all-India list of 405 SCs and 225 STs. In 1976 the government of India published an amended state-by-state list of 841 SCs and 510 STs, showing that certain tribes were "scheduled" in some locations but not in neighboring locations, and certain tribes were called by a variety of different names. When designations were unclear, India's Constitution assigned to Parliament and the president the final decisions regarding a group's "scheduled" or "nonscheduled" status. According to the published lists, SCs made up about 17 percent of India's population, STs about 7.5 percent.

The Indian Constitution's fifth schedule, in conjunction with Article 244(1), provided for the administration and control of scheduled areas and STs in parts of India other than Assam. The Constitution's sixth schedule, in conjunction with Article 244(2), provided for the administration of autonomous tribal areas in Assam. The president of India had the authority to declare which areas were or were not scheduled. In most cases, the authority for administering the designated areas rested with the local governor (in consultation with advisory councils) and the central government. The local governor could decide which legislative enactments in the Republic of India applied to the scheduled area under the governor's control. In the most autonomous regions, local councils were authorized to assign and collect taxes, regulate forms of shifting cultivation, manage unreserved forests, deal with inheritance, marriage, and social customs, administer justice, and control money lending and trading with nontribals. During the decades after independence, tribe-inhabited territories north, east, and south of Assam became states within the Republic of India. These included Nagaland (1963), Manipur (1972), Meghalaya (1972), Arunachal Pradesh (1987), and Mizoram (1987).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, India's largest tribes included the Gonds, Santals, Bhils, Oraons, Khonds, Mundas, Bhuiyas, Hos, Savaras, Kols, Korkus, Malers, and Baigas. Although more than one-third of the STs lived in scheduled areas, the majority lived in parliamentary constituencies where they formed a majority of the population. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, two new states formed by redrawing India's state boundaries in 2000, contained concentrations of scheduled tribes. India's scheduled-caste policies have aimed to reduce the socioeconomic differences between SCs and the rest of India's population. In addition, they have sought to preserve some degree of cultural distinctiveness for the STs by granting them considerable autonomy in designated scheduled and tribal areas.

Joseph W. Elder

See alsoCaste System ; Ethnic Conflict ; Tribal Peoples of Eastern India ; Tribal Politics


Davis, Kingsley. The Population of India and Pakistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951.

Galanter, Marc. Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Ghurye, G. S. The Scheduled Tribes of India. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1980.

Gomango, Giridhar. Constitutional Provisions for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Mumbai: Himalaya Publishing House, 1992.

Government of India, Office of the Registrar General. Census of India, Paper No. 2, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Arranged in Alphabetical Order. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1960.

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