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The tribal people of India are called "Scheduled Tribes" in the Indian Constitution. The designation, invented by the British, covers somewhat arbitrarily 255 ethnic communities which are economically and socially least advanced and are the earliest inhabitants of India. The English called them aborigines.
Most Indians consider the tribal communities, which live in isolated and self-contained communities as wholly distinct from them culturally and ethnically. They are right and wrong at the same time: culturally, Scheduled Tribes and Castes are distinct from the plainspeople; ethnically, they are not. Mostly, these aboriginal tribes and castes are less Aryan or totally non-Aryan, for they are predominantly Munda and Dravidian.
Out of the total one billion Indians, the tribal population accounts for nearly 6% of the population. The tribal people are a vast majority in the Northeastern States and some Union Territories: 88% of Nagaland, 80% of Meghalaya, 70% of Arunachal Pradesh population is tribal. Half of the country's tribal population is found in the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa. The numerically dominant tribes are the Dravidian Gonds of Central India, the Munda Bhils of Western India, and the Munda Santals of Eastern India.
In Kerala there are still 37 Scheduled Tribes out of 48 tribal communities; their number is only 1.26% of the state's population. What this figure indicates is that the rate of the assimilation of the aboriginals of Kerala has been extremely rapid. In the past few years 11 tribal communities have been declassified on account of the social and cultural porgress they have made.
Among the Scheduled Tribes of Kerala the numerically dominant ones are the Pulayans, Paniyans, Maratis, Malayarayar, Kurumans, Kurichiyans, and Irulas. The numerical strength of each remaining tribes is more or less 1,000. I am happy to record that my anthropological, linguistic and folklonstic research has been primarily among the Kadar, Cholanayikkar, Mudugar, Irular, Pulayar, and Kurumbar. I have also worked among the Santals of West Bengal.
Most of these tribes are forest-dwellers and food-gatherers. Increasingly, they are found living on the fringes of the forests near the highways and the villages of the plainspeople, yet apart from them. This frontier existence of the tribals is highly symbolic. They are caught between two worlds. Their forest home cannot support them any longer, for food in forests is getting scarce because of the state policy against deforestation.
There are fewer and fewer wild animals to hunt; there is also a legal ban on hunting. For rice and clothes they have to depend on the plainspeople who continue to exploit the helplessness of the tribals. The few tribesmen who go to towns looking for jobs soon find it difficult to cope with the demands of civilization and return home to jungles to live on the edge of culture and nature.