Tribal Livelihood

The term tribe is used in many different contexts to refer to a category of human social group. Tribal is made up from the word tribe.

Activities of Tribals

Tribal people engages io agrioutural activities. The Baiga tribals of Central India lived only on forest produce and considered it a shame to work as labourers for others. The tribal areas were often penetrated by traders, moneylenders or contractors. The traders came to sell their goods either at higher prices or in exchange of forest produce. The money lenders gave loans to the tribals at high rates of interest. The contractors came in search of labour at low prices. Thus, to make their ends meet, the dependency of the tribals on these countrymen increased. Many of them were reduced to poverty or came under heavy debts.


The tribal were involved in a number of activities for their sustenance in the rough lite the forests. Some of these activities were as follows:

Cultivation of food

The tribals practiced Jhum cultivation or the shifting cultivation. In this, small patches of land were burned in the forests to clear them for cultivation. The ash obtained from fire containing potash was used to fertilise the soil. Sunlight for the crops was assured by cutting the treetops. The seeds were broadeasted or scattered on the fields, instead of sowing, Once the crop was ready for harvest, the tribals moved on to another tract of land.

The field already cultivated was left fallow for many years to enable it to regain its fertility. This was called cultivation. It was practised mainly by the tribals of north east and central India. They kept moving from one fertile land to another and sustained themselves.

Hunting and food gathering

The Khonds – of – Orissa mainly lived by hunting and food gathering . They went out for hunting in groups and divided the meat among themselves . They also extracted oil from the seeds of ‘ Sal ‘ ( a tree ) and Mahua ‘ ( a flower ) and used it for cooking food. They ate forest fruits and roots of some trees. By living in the forests for years , the Khonds had acquired knowledge about the medicinal herbs and shrubs. They sold them in the local markets. In return , they acquired the goods they needed in the forest.

Labour Work

Some of the tribals worked as agricultural labourers in the fields of zamindars, They were also hired by planters as ryots (peasants). Some undertook work in district factories and mines to increase their financial resources. A reduction in forest supplies due to famine or fire compelled the tribals to come out of the forests in search of work.

European in India

Munda Rebellion

Munda Rebellion, also known as the ‘Ulgulan’ or the ‘Great Tumult’ was one of the most popular tribal revolts. Led by Birsa Munda in 1899- 1900, its centre was the south of Ranchi.

Munda Rebellion
Munda Rebellion

Birsa Munda was born in the mid 1870s in a poor family. As his father was a share cropper, his early life was spent in the vast forests of Bohonda, playing and grazing his sheep. As a young boy, Birsa heard the stories of the Munda revolts of the past and was inspired by them. He also saw the leaders of his community urging the people to raise their voices against colonialism. They often spoke of the establishment of a ‘golden age’ in which the Jagirdars, the Thikadars and the Dikhus (outsiders) would be expelled from their lands and they would regain their ancestral rights.

Birsa received his early education in the local missionaries. There too, in the Sermons, he heard that if the Mundas became good Christians and gave up their ‘bad practices’, they could attain the kingdom of heaven as well as regain their previously lost rights. Birsa who belonged to Vaishnavite section, wore the sacred thread and maintained purity. In 1893-94, he participated in a movement to prevent village waste lands from being taken over by the Forest Department.

It is said that in 1895, Birsa saw a vision of a Supreme God, after which he was endowed with miraculous hearing powers. He started his movement with an aim to reform his tribal society. He asked the Mundas to refrain from drinking liquor and being superstitious. He wanted them to return to their glorious past (Satyug) from the present life (Kalyug). He also stood against the Hindu landlords, money lenders and the Christian missionaries. whom he referred to as outsiders.

In his attempts to reform the Munda society, Birsa got the help of the tribal chiefs (Sardars) who wanted to throw out the alien landlords.

Thus, his movement soon became agrarian as well as political. He went from one village to another, organised meetings and rallies and urged people to support him in his cause, His followers attacked the Company officials, policemen, landlords and moneylenders. In an attempt to suppress the revolt, the British officials arrested Munda in 1895. He was accused of causing revolts and riots, and was sentenced for two years.

After his release, he restarted the movement with vigour. In 1899, on Christmas eve, Birsa proclaimed a rebellion to establish Munda Raj with himself as the head. He encouraged the murder of landlords, money lenders, rulers, aliens and Christians.

Change in the Life of Tribals After Colonialism

Colonialism not only resulted in the encroachment of forest land by the British, but also had an adverse effect on the political, economic and social life of the tribals.

Political Impact

Politically, the tribal chiefs were deprived of their independence, authority and administrative powers. They could still retain their plots of land and titles, but had to follow the British rules and laws in exercising their functions. The tribal tradition of joint ownership of land was disrupted. This resulted in tensions and conflicts within the tribal societies. The chiefs were forced to pay tribute to the British officials and also train their men according to their requirements.

Economic Impact

Economically, the tribals were oppressed and reduced to the rank of labourers. The British were against the ‘jhum’ system of cultivation which required movement from one plot of land to another. The British found tribals who were constantly on move. To ensure easy control, as well as a regular source of revenue, the British tried to introduce land settlements in the forest areas, and fixed the revenue demands of each area.

Tribals After Colonialism

The British failed to understand that it was not possible to practise settled cultivations in forest areas where water was less and lands got dried up quickly. As a result, settled plough cultivation did not yield good and sufficient crops. The tribals raised their voice and the British were forced to allow them for Jhum Cultivation in some areas of the forests.

In order to increase their revenues, the British took over large tracts of forest land and declared them as State property or the ‘Reserved Zoneg There, they grew cash crops like indigo, opium, jute and poppy which were in high demand in Europe. The tribals were not allowed to enter these reserved zones in search of food or animals. The British also put a ban on the use of timber and grazing of animals. Thus, the tribals were forced to move to other areas to earn a living.

The movement of tribals to far-off places deprived the British of cheap labour resources. In order to solve this problem, the British gave small tracts of land in the forests to jhum cultivators. They allowed them to cultivate these lands on the condition that the cultivators would provide labour to the British as and when required by them. The cultivators were also entrusted with the task of looking after the forests.

The small tracts of lands given to the cultivators did not produce enough for their families. As labourers, they got very low wages from their British employers. Consequently, in order to sustain a living the cultivators resorted to money lenders, traders and contractors. The money lenders exploited them by charging high rates of interests. The traders sold their goods at higher prices. The contractors gave them jobs at low wages. Thus, the condition of the cultivators became miserable.

Tribal movements in the North East

Tribals moved north east states as follows:


Assam witnessed a series of tribal revolts in 1893-94. The main cause of these revolts was the high land revenue demands. As a result of colonialism, the revenue demand of Darrang and Kamrup districts had gone up by 50 to 70 percent. When the peasants failed to pay the revenue, their lands were seized by the British officials. The peasants united together and protested under the leadership of local leaders. The British succeeded in suppressing the revolts.


The war of succession among the princes of Manipur gave the British a chance to interfere in the internal affairs of the State. On the death of the king of Manipur, his eldest son, Surchandra was crowned as the new king. But, he was overthrown by Prince Tikendrajit and his allies. Surchandra then sought British help to regain his lost power. The British declared war against Tikendrajit on 27th April 1891. Although, he offered tough resistance, Tikendrajit was defeated, captured and hanged by the British. Later on a monument called ‘Bir Tikendrajit Park’ was built in his memory on the place where he was hanged by the British.

Tribal Livelihood


The British got the Diwani rights of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa after the Battle of Buxar in 1765. For facilitation in collection of revenue, the British wanted to build a road which would connect the Brahmaputra and the Surma Valleys. The road had to pass through the Khasi Hills where the Khasi tribe resided. The British wanted build a sanatorium in the Khasi hills. The Khasi tribe opposed the ideas of both the road and the sanatorium. The tribe also- resented the house tax that had been imposed upon the people living in the Khasi hills in 1860.

The tribe, therefore, rose in-revolt but it was easily suppressed by the British as it was not well-organised. The British also levied an income tax on the people towards the close of 1860. This resulted in another revolt that was led by V. Kiong Nonbagh. This revolt was so well-organised that seven British regiments and troops had to be sent to suppress it. V. Kiong Nonbagh was arrested and hanged in front of the public to strike terror in people’s drajit hearts and minds. In 1872; the British sent their regiments in the Garo hills to establish control over that region. This sparked off another revolt led by Pa Togan Sangma. The tribals were again defeated easily.

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