Tuesday, 26 December 2006

How several tribes turned into caste groups


By Syed Akbar

India, with its dozens of populations, presents a veritable museum of
humanity. It is the land of tribals and caste groups, not to speak of the numerous religious populations. A little peep into the past and analysis of the genetic data of different Indian populations shows that many groups, which were originally tribal in nature, have now become caste populations. And this transformation from "tribal" to "caste" groups may outwardly appear to be a simple sociological phenomenon, but a recent study reveals that it has genetic structure too.
The Hyderabad-based anthropology unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in its study on north-east Indian populations has established the effect of the sociological process of a Tribe-Caste continuum on genetic structure.
In north-eastern States of India there are two clusters of populations, Caucasoid caste populations on one side and Mongoloid tribal groups on the other. In between are the populations which were originally tribes but now have become semi-Hinduised caste groups, viz., Rajbanshi, Ghutiya, and Ahom. These groups have currently assumed caste status and speak Indo-European languages.
According to Dr B Mohan Reddy and Vikrant Kumar of Indian Statistical Institute, these tribes over a period of time assumed the characteristics and status of castes and this transformation of a tribe into a caste results in a Tribe-Caste continuum. A few such cases are Bhumij, Kharia, Bauris and Raj Gonds.
"This sociological concept of a Tribe-Caste continuum postulates that one end of the continuum is formed by caste populations, while the tribal populations constitute the other end. In between are the populations who were once tribes but gradually adopted the attributes of the caste population and ultimately became absorbed as an integral part of a caste system, albeit at the lowest rung of caste hierarchy," they point out.
One of the best examples is that of Rajbanshi, which claims to be Kshatriya, although a majority of them are Koch. Similar processes were reported from other groups such as the Dimasa of Tripura, Jantia of Jaintipur and Koch of Cooch Behar. The dwindling of Kachari groups from a large number of about 30 to 10 at present is said to be a result of this process, they said.
As part of the study the scientific group examined the gene frequency data for 11 genetic markers commonly available in the literature for 22 populations of north-eastern India in the light of their geographic, linguistic, and ethnic affiliations. The markers investigated were blood groups, serum proteins and enzyme systems.
The neighbour-joining tree and multidimensional scaling of the distance matrix suggest relatively high genetic differentiation among the Mongoloid groups, with probably diverse origins when compared to the Caucasoid Indo-European populations, which had probably come from relatively more homogeneous backgrounds. Broadly speaking, the pattern of population affinities conforms to the ethno-historic, linguistic, and geographic backgrounds, Dr Mohan Reddy and Vikrant Kumar observed.
The north-eastern part of India is inhabited by numerous endogamous tribes and castes that have their own distinct social, linguistic and biological identity. It has been hypothesised that a plethora of migrations, particularly through the north-east Indian corridor, has contributed to the present-day population of north-eastern India. Ethnically speaking, most of the tribal groups are Mongoloids, whereas caste groups are either Caucasoid or show a mosaic of features of both the ethnic groups. The Mongoloids/Indo-Mongoloids have come to India from different directions at different times and perhaps earlier than the Caucasoid.
While the Mongoloids have migrated from eastern, south-eastern and central Asian regions, the Caucasoid may have entered from western and northern boundaries of this region. While a majority of the Mongoloids are tribes affiliated with the Tibeto-Chinese linguistic family, excepting Khasi, most of the Caucasoid are caste groups and speak Indo-European languages. Although these groups have been broadly classified on the basis of language and ethnicity, they show considerable variations within these broad categories, they said.
Both the Mongoloid and Caucasoid groups show a certain degree of differentiation within themselves in cultural and biological traits such as anthropometry, genetic markers, and dermatoglyphics.
The study also confirms the hypotheses that Mongoloids have entered north-eastern India at different points of time by different routes and therefore might represent different parental stocks. On the other hand, the Caucasoid populations except for the Brahmins and Chetri of Sikkim, have migrated from the western route of north-eastern India. As far as the Brahmins and Chetri of Sikkim are concerned, they came from Northern India to Nepal and then to north-eastern India around the 19th century.

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