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
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
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
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.