When it Comes to Granting Tribal Status, We’re Still Stuck in Colonial Times

A tea plantation in Sonitpur, Assam. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A tea plantation in Sonitpur, Assam. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There are reports of much headway in the talks between the Union government and a faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), led by Arabinda Rajkhowa. Ever since he returned to India in December 2009, Rajkhowa has been in talks; this faction has since given up its demand for a ‘sovereign’ Assam and, unlike the Paresh Barua faction, is game for a settlement within the confines of the Constitution. About the several rounds of talks, held between officials from the Union Home Ministry and the rebel leader, we only know what the government wants us to know and very little of what transpired.

What comes out now is that the granting of Scheduled Tribes status to six social groups — Koch Rajbongshis, Moran, Muttock, Sootea, Tai Ahom along with those designated the ‘tea tribes’ —  has remained one of the core demands of the rebel outfit. While five out of the six communities are considered among the indigenous people of Assam (and disputed too), the ‘tea tribes’ are those who were taken to the region as indentured labour to work in the plantations during colonial times; interestingly, they are classified as Scheduled Tribes (STs) in places from where their forefathers came but are classified as Other Backward Classes in Assam.

The colonial administration devised a certain set of criteria to enlist people into categories; indications of ‘primitive’ traits, distinctive culture; shyness of contact with the community at large, geographical isolation and backwardness are all considered necessary conditions to enlist a set of people as STs. Notwithstanding the knowledge we now have, thanks to critical studies on colonialism, independent India has not cared to re-examine these. From Foucault’s thesis on ‘governmentality’ we know that the importance of the Census in the business of controlling a people is not merely a feature of the colonial ear; it remains relevant to the post-colonial state too and holds good for understanding the crisis that has marked society in the north-eastern region for long.

Nothing else will illustrate this better than the following simple facts: Until the 1990s, the decision to declare a community of people as STs lay with the Union Home ministry and since then with the Tribal Affairs ministry. This shift must have been accompanied by a change in the criteria too. The Home ministry, after all, is concerned with administering law and order while the Tribal Affairs Ministry was meant to administer welfare measures and contribute to the quest for building an equitable society! The demand for ST status is in the context of positive discrimination for a disadvantaged section in government jobs and such other facilities for their educational and economic development. In short, it has to do with the concept of social justice and not law and order, or criminal justice.

Same old, same old

But then, when the subject went to the Tribal Affairs ministry, it went lock, stock and barrel; the parameters for such classification remained the same. The exit of the colonial did not mean any change in thinking insofar as the identification a people as Scheduled Tribes was concerned. And when these parameters were taken into account, it emerged that many of those who claimed Scheduled Tribes status did not satisfy the criteria the colonial rulers had devised and thus, the Registrar General of Census refused to call them STs. Nor did the Tribal Affairs ministry consider it necessary to even propose different criteria and another set of parameters. Such a paradigm shift was necessary.

All these, however, seem to have been taken care of now, if reports of a settlement on the cards are true. It is understood that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has held meetings with his colleague Jual Oram and also with the Registrar General of Census and a Bill to include the six communities in the list of Scheduled Tribes is likely to be moved within months. That the consultation process also involved the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval is a fact and reflects the irony of the situation. As is that all this happened in the context of the talks with Rajkhowa. In the end, a decision that needed to be taken in the context of social justice is actually being done in the context of internal security and in many ways from the perspective of securing the nation’s security and after having pushed a set of people, the youth in particular, to pick up the gun.

Violence may not end

It must be added here that a settlement with the Rajkhowa faction, now on the cards, may not end the violent way of life in parts of Assam. The Paresh Baruah faction may stand isolated now and this could lead to an escalation of attacks against innocent people. It is not unlikely that some other faction of some other militant organisation will demand adding more such communities to the list of Scheduled Tribes. This, after all, is what we learnt from the Assam agitation in the 1980s. A lot of blood was spilled, lives lost and economic destruction caused before the Union government agreed to delete the names of those who came into Assam from Bangladesh after 1971 from the list of Indian citizens; the point is that their names ought not to have got into the voters list in the first place. Likewise, if a community qualifies as a Scheduled Tribe, it ought to be recognised by the Tribal Affairs ministry in the normal course; not as a point to settle with a group of gun-wielding youth.

It is time that the political establishment learnt from these mistakes and made a conscious effort to avoid blindly following  the approach that guided colonial policy makers. It might make sense for our rulers and administrators to pick up the arguments that Foucault raises rather than wasting their time instigating sectarian violence or arguing on TV. Scholarly works that critique colonial ideas and perceptions of the Orient must be made compulsory reading in the academy where administrators and police officers are trained.

V. Krishna Ananth is Associate Professor in the Department of History, Sikkim University, in Gangtok.