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People of India

An eye-opening introduction


The BJP notion of the Indian nation, of Indian society, culture and tradition has been most effectively challenged by the data published by the Anthropological Survey of India in a series of publications titled collectively as the Peoples of India. This data is the result of a detailed and complex survey carried out, analysed and reported upon by a specialised team of 500 trained scholars of whom 284 belonged to the ASI and 216 belonged to various universities, research organisations spread over the country. It was headed and coordinated by KS Singh the then Director of the organisation, and a scholar of great repute.

The survey was conducted mostly by anthropologists, particularly social anthropologists, although there were also some scholars from the allied fields of linguistics, psychology, ecology, bio-chemistry within ASI and a smaller number of historians, sociologists and political scientists as well who adopted the methodology derived through study and discussion. They were all scholars with grassroots knowledge of the communities studied by them.

The project covered a period of almost a decade, from 1985 to the publication of the first introductory volume in 1992. The methodology adopted for the study was such as to minimise arbitrariness. Its complexity and thoroughness is apparent from the fact that 91 cultural zones were identified.photo As many as 4258 communities have been covered in a single culture zone over the states, 331 communities have been studied in two culture zones and 45 communities have been covered in more than two culture zones. The data have been collected from 421 districts. Of them 3972 communities have been studied in one district, 512 have been covered in two districts and 151 in more than two districts. Sometimes as many as 1807 communities have been covered in a single village, 783 have been studied in two villages and 475 communities in more than two villages. Similarly, 1794 communities have been investigated in one city/town, whereas, 393 and 182 communities have been studied in two or more than two cities/towns respectively. The settlements and the communities are evenly distributed across the country. The total number of communities identified, after rigorous criteria of categorisation, located and studied, was 4635. The definition and identification accounted for how the communities perceived themselves, how they were perceived of by others in various ways, their present and changing profile in both cases. Not only are the changes covered, but the linkages between different communities have also been mentioned and dealt with.

This project has given real teeth to the political truth of unity in diversity that we talk so much about. And in the precise manner in which it has defined and given content to this truth it has also challenged every dogma that the Sangh Parivar has been propagating for so long. The conclusions of this valuable study are the following:

  • As a people we do not constitute a single homogenous community. We are one of the most diverse people in the world. There are 4635 identifiable communities in this country, diverse in biological traits, dress language, forms of worship, occupation, food habits and kinship patterns. It is all these communities who in their essential ways of life, express our national popular life.

  • Everybodyphoto who has inhabited this land for a long time is an Indian. Nobody is a "foreigner" in this country and there is no pure Aryan. Most Indian communities have a mixed ancestry, and it is today impossible to separate our roots. Indian roots derive from a mixed ancestry that includes the Proto-australoid, Paleo-mediterranean, Caucasian, Negroid, Mongoloid. The racial components that have gone into making the Indian peoples are the Aryan, Greek, Hun, Arab, Turk, African, Mongol, European. These have got so intertwined that none of them can be found in their pure form in India today.

  • Genetic and morphological traits within some communities vary more than those between communities. Homogeneity is along the lines of region, not caste or religion. It has been scientifically disproved that upper and lower castes have a different racial ancestry. For example, Tamil Brahmans have little similarity of Racial traits with Brahmins in the North - say, a Kashmiri Pandit. The Brahmans and people of the lowest caste in most regions show remarkable homogeneity in this respect. Many segments of the Muslim population do not show any component that can be called migratory. They have descended mainly from the local population.

  • There are few communities in India, which do not consider themselves as migrants or "outsiders". Every community recalls its migration in its folklore, history and collective memory. All accepted the regional ethos of the area that they settled in, and contributed to its local traditions. Even invaders became migrants eventually.

  • Indian culture has gained many of its elements from migrations.

  • Many settlers professing Islam actually settled here earlier than those today professing Hinduism.

  • Language is an important source of diversity and unity. There are as many as 325 languages and 25 scripts in use, deriving from various linguistic families - the Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Andamanese, Semitic, Indo-Iranian, Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, apart from thousands of dialects. At least 65% of the communities are bi-lingual, most tribal communities are tri-lingual. The numerous mother tongues are important instruments of cultural expression and preservation of diversity. Language contact through biligualism is a major vehicle for social and cultural inter-action.

  • 85% of the Indian communities are rooted in their resources. The lives and livelihood, the occupations, dress patterns, the songs and hut settlements of the different communities cannot be really separated from their landscape, climate and occupations deriving from their resources. Experts say, "rootedness in the eco-cultural zone is an outstanding characteristic of our communities, no matter what religious label attaches to them". Even the migrants seek to identify themselves with their local environment except in the matter of languages they speak at home or in marriages.

  • Only 3% of the communities derive their names from religious sects, while 71.77% live within a single regional or linguistic boundary and are rooted in its ethos. Those in Kerala and Lakshadweep share a great number of traits, those in Kerala and Punjab do not.

  • 55% of the communities derive their names from the traditional occupations they pursue. Say, Bhuiyar (peasant), Alvan (salt maker), Churihar (bangle-maker), Lohar (blacksmith), Buna (weaver), Chitrakar (scroll-painter), and also gaddis, gujjars, julahas, dhobis, sapera, nai, etc. etc. 14% have their names associated with their environment i.e. montains, plains rivers etc. 14% from their places of origin, such as Gond, Alhuwalia, Kanpuria, Chamoli, Arandan, Shimong.

  • Caste categories are also based on occupations, and cut across religion. Many surnames derive from occupations pursued, offices traditionally held, and original villages, cutting across community boundaries and region. Singh, Acharya, Patel, Naik, Prasad, Gupta, Sharma, Khan are examples.

  • Popular cultural expression cuts across religion. 775 traits have been identified by experts -photo relating to ecology, settlement, identity, food habits, marriage patterns, social customs, social organisation, economy, and occupation, linkages, and impact of change and development, which reveal a sharing of traits across religious categories. Hindus share 96.77% traits with Muslims, 91.19% with Buddhists, 88.99% with Sikhs, 77.46% with Jains. Muslims share 91.18% traits with Buddhists, 89.95% with Sikhs. Jains share 81.34% traits with Buddhists. The Scheduled Tribes share 96.61% traits with OBCs, 95.82% with Muslims, 91.69% with Buddhists, 91.29% with Scheduled Castes, 88.20% with Sikhs.

  • Markings of identification by different communities are mainly non-religious. In dispensing their dead, 3059 communities cremate them. As many as 2386 bury them. Many communities follow both practices. So is the case with many marriage symbols, food habits, dress, dance and musical forms. Clans bearing names of animals, plants or inanimate objects cut across religions, language, region etc.

  • The communities in India have not remained isolated. They have interacted with their physical and social environment and with each other, in conflict and a give and take through centuries of shared life and struggles. This has given form and content to our diversity and unity, and is the best guarantee of our unity in diversity.

    This summary has been prepared by Nalini Taneja.
    She teaches history at the University of Delhi.

    People of India: An Introduction by KS Singh is the introductory volume to the monumental series produced by the Anthroplogical Survey of India. The introductory volume has been published on behalf of ASI by Seagull Books, 26 Circus Avenue, Calcutta 700 017.

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