People of India
India is Incredible. Ancient and rich cultural lineage of India is a great contribution to the world. A tour of India exposes one to incredibly diverse aspects of incredible India. India is a rich tapestry of peoples, cultures, faiths and festivals. The people and communities of India are thus, best seen in the regional context. The regions of India, ancient and culturally cohesive go back to the pre-historic period. The earliest literature refers to the Andhras, Vangas, Angas, Cheras, etc. Sangam literature mentions many communities of Tamil Nadu which can be identified even today. The Mahabharata is truly a story of all the communities in India-as many as 363 of than are mentioned. The Arthasastra and the Manusamhita mention a good many. The Ain-i-Akbari, the first national gazetteer of India, lists the dominant lineages drawn from different communities in various parts of Akbar's empire. However, the real ethnographic churning took place only in the colonial period. The Censuses (1871-1941), ethnographic surveys and the gazetteers yielded a comprehensive albeit mind-boggling, scenario of the ethnographic communities. However this was not complete. The People of India project (1984-96) was the first pan-Indian survey of all the communities in India, 4694 of them which included main communities (2205), segments (589), and territorial units (1900). In addition to the cultural profile of these communities, the project also generated a community-specific data on languages/dialects, 324 of them and on scripts (25). Lastly, the project collected secondary data on morphological and genetic traits involving around 800 communities, thus giving us more or less a composite profile of all the communities in India.
Since pre-historic times, the Indian regions have evolved into language areas and politico-administrative units as States (25) and Union Territories (7). These regions have been culturally distinct, the various communities within their ambit sharing a great deal by way language/dialects, folklore, elements of material culture, dress and ornaments, cuisine and so on. So strong has been the alchemy of regional identities that even 'outsiders' have been assimilated. If the matrimonial columns of national dailies are an indication, most people want to say the first word of love in their own language! The States are further divided into natural eco-cultural zones (around 96), defined by dialects, folklore, history and administration.
Castes or communities as mentioned earlier, are best seen in the linguistic cultural context of each region or even sub-region. The Constitution of India which speaks of the people of India in a collective sense goes on to identify five human groups-the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Religious and Linguistic Minorities, the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, and the Anglo-Indians. All these groups are spread all over the country and most of them have been heterogeneous in terms of their perception of themselves, their differing versions of origin, their kinship structures, their life cycle ceremonies, their occupations- which have now diversified-and so on.
These communities derived their identities inter alia from their environment, their resources, their occupations, their original territory or village (mool). This rootedness in the local eco-cultural system is an outstanding characteristic of our communities, no matter what religious label is attached to them.
On the face of it, many Indian languages come under four major language families and it is amazing that many linguistic traits have penetrated across these. Indians have a natural felicity for language, and most of them speak at least two languages. However there are villages located in border areas where people speak four to five languages/dialects. The Census data on bilingualism is perhaps a bit too conservative (13 per cent, 1981). One of the reasons for this could be mother-tongue loyalty. The tribals are trilingual. No State in India is unilingual in spite of the preponderance of speakers of the scheduled or the State language.
Most Indians are a highly 'mixed' people. Yet their likeness appears to be more prominent than their differences. The numbers of genes in which they differ are only few in comparison to the vast number of genes they have in common. There is a much greater homogenisation among communities in terms of morphological and genetic traits at the regional level. In fact most communities with in a region or State share many traits. This has been significantly brought out in the anthropomorphic survey of populations in various States.
People cutting across castes and communities share a great deal in common within an eco-cultural-linguistic region or its sub-region. As many as 775 traits have been identified, food habits, social organisation, economy and occupation, linkages and impact of change and development. The pattern of distribution of such traits has to be seen at some other levels as well. For example, it appears that a number of States or linguistic/cultural areas share a very high percentage of traits such as Lakshadweep and Kerala as well as all the southern States; the eastern States, the north-eastern States and Assam. Conversely, there are very few traits shared, say by Punjab and Lakshadweep.
Another dimension is the sharing of traits across communities. For instance, if one takes the communities grouped into religious categories, one finds that the Hindus share a very high percentage of traits with the Muslims (96.77 percent), Buddhists (91.19 per cent), Sikhs (88.99 per cent), Jains (77.46 per cent). The Muslims-Sikhs also share a high percentage of traits (89.95 per cent), Muslims- Buddhists (91.18 per cent), Jains- Buddhists (81.34 per cent).
So, the traits we share are far more than the traits that we do not share. A reason for this large scale sharing could be the fact that most communities have emerged from the same ecological, ethnic, socio-cultural background, even though later they embraced different religions or other ways of life.
Contrary to the general impression and in spite of the higher value attached to vegetarianism, only about 20 per cent of the Indian communities are vegetarian. "Milk culture" has spread in the wake of the white revolution and a large number of communities report the consumption of milk.
A shift from vegetarianism to non-vegetarianism is widely reported in many communities, as is a shift from non-vegetarianism to vegetarianism.
There has also been a sharp increase in the consumption of alcoholic beverages by men, occasionally in 2469 and regularly in 1106 communities. Women occasionally consume alcohol in 1037 communities. Smoking is very common. Chewing of tobacco and the use of snuff are also widespread. Chewing betel nut is common in a large number of communities. We can therefore be termed as a largely drinking, smoking and meat-eating people.
With the growth of the economy in the post-green revolution phase, there has been a diversification of occupations. As many as 42 major occupations and 307 current occupations bringing the total to 349 have been reported all over the country. A number of development strategies have been undertaken to inject a new dynamism into the rural economy and create opportunities for pursuing occupations of all types on a much larger scale than was the case in the late 1950s. With the diversification of the economy and social mobility a large number of occupations are now practised by members within a jati or community. There are today, few communities whose members follow only one occupation. Settled cultivation is combined with wage labour and often with animal husbandry. The average number of occupations per community stands at 5.3 of which 1.8 is traditional and 3.5 is newly-acquired occupation.
With the shrinkage of the resource base and depletion of forests, many communities have reported a decline in traditional occupations like hunting, trapping of birds and animals, salt making, toddy tapping, etc. Settled cultivation is the leading occupation pursued by many members in various communities (2503) followed by wage labour (2483) and animal husbandry (999). Fishing is pursued by 387 communities. Textile weaving is widely pursued (311) including spinning (68) and dyeing (71). Other occupations are masonry (191), pottery and terra-cotta (58), wood work (182), slate making (19), glass work (9), skin and hide work (114), jewellery (89), stone carving (47), ivory, bone and horn work (306), followed by mat weaving (160). Yet, other occupations are mining and quarrying (67) and specialised services such as priests, etc., (306). Of the modern occupations government service is the most sought after; members of as many as 3051 communities reportedly work in government. Participation is on the increase in business (2052), trade (878), industrial work (850), private service (2220) and self-employment sectors (2410).
The knowledge thus generated about the 'essential heterogeneity' of social formations of all communities is two-fold. At one level, a community is projected as homogeneous, marked by and sharing of many cultural elements. At another level, a community is found to be heterogeneous, its members speaking many languages, having different cultural and various morphological and genetic traits. Variation in terms of traits within a community is reported to be on a larger scale than that between communities.
Indian society is marked by division and hierarchy. There are no communities without divisions. On the face of it, segments (including exogamous divisions, groups, subgroups etc), synonyms, surnames and titles add up to a mind boggling figure of about 80,000. However, at another level they form a fascinating tapestry marked by different levels of perception, identity and status. They also demonstrate a wide range of interaction and sharing, of linkages and commonalties, among communities in a linguistic-regional context.
All the communities of India are also placed in a hierarchical order. Each region has its own hierarchy. Based on perception the communities are ranked in a high, middle and a low order. Two developments may be noted. There has been an all pervasive impact of the development process. As the movement towards political equality grows and as it is translated into economic terms there has been a swelling of the middle rank as members of more and more communities from the lower order move into the middle zone. This explains the burgeoning middle class, an amorphous category which encompasses a whole range of people moving up moving down into a growing arena of economic activity. The people of India project highlights the rise of the middle class over a large social spectrum, including most communities and from almost all regions. However, there are still some communities which have no adequate representation in these ranks. Similarly, even the remotest communities have been drawn into the vortex of Indian politics, and they are participants in the political processes. However, this process has hill to move forward so as to encompass everyone in order that our democracy, the social base of which is widening, becomes a truly, fully participative one.
Finally, the people of India are located within the civilisation framework they have built. There is distinctiveness. There is also a common vocabulary cutting across language barriers as expressed in literature. All ethnographers who have written about castes have mentioned this underlying unity. As Jawaharlal Nehru says, India is a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads. These threads are the traits, thoughts and the feelings that we share.