The general public discourse over the term ‘Schedule Tribe’ (ST) and its recognition has always aroused unpleasantness and turbulence within the sociopolitical milieu in India, from its inception till today. In India, being a ‘tribe’ and becoming a ‘Schedule Tribe’ is not the same thing – the former connotes anthropological significance while the latter carries the gist of a politico-administrative status in different states of India.

Since neither a clear definition nor any criteria for specifying STs is mentioned in the original Constitution of India, the task of identification of communities to be recognised and scheduled as ‘Tribes’ is entrusted to the state, rather than just into the hands of the anthropologists.

Hence, from time to time, there has been an increasing political demand of various groups and communities for their inclusion in the ST category, often premised on purely political considerations. Thus, identification of tribes has brought dilemma and debate in the postcolonial period due to political transformation of the so-called category into a specialised right-bearing one with the adoption of the affirmative action policy.

However, while groups demanding inclusion in the list of STs has been increasing, only a few have succeeded in getting such a status while others are still agitating for it. 

Genesis of the ST category

The term ‘Scheduled Tribe’ first appeared in the Constitution of India as a result of the integration policy adopted by India after a long debate over orientation towards tribal development in the political as well as intellectual realm. In this regard, reference can be made to two antagonistic ideologies that appeared in the scene for the future of Indian tribes – isolation and assimilation.

Young Baiga women (Adivasi tribe), India | Photo: Simon Williams, Wikimedia Commons

As a result of the subsequent debate, a middle path emerged under the initiative of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for tribal development with the advocacy of the ‘Panchsheel principles (five pillars of tribal upliftment).

In this process of integration, the concept of ‘redistributive justice’ was introduced as guaranteed by the Constitution on the backdrop of socialist ideas and equality and equity. Henceforth, conferment of special entitlements to the ST communities appeared as an instrument for emergence of a certain sociopolitical consciousness to safeguard their cultural identity. 

Postcolonial dilemma 

The issue of identification of tribes among social groups and their struggle for recognition as one clearly signifies the confusion that has erupted from the time of colonial era to due to absence of clear-cut definitions of the category.

Since the task of identification of ST is in the hands of the state, different social groups compete for legal recognition of this status with political considerations.

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Anthropologist Townsend Middleton observed that allocation of more and more resources to the development and welfare of tribal population with its lucrative incentives led to escalation of demands from various communities for ST recognition.

Escalation of such demands grew following India’s adoption of economic liberalisation in 1990 as a result of its turbulent economic impact on the marginalised sections of the population. Middleton also argues that following the Mandal commission’s recommendations to broaden the reservation quota further accentuated the lopsided effect of affirmative action.

Demand for ST status in Assam

In the context of Assam, six communities – Moran, Motok, Tai Ahom, Chutia, Koch-Rajbongshi and Tea Tribes (Adivasi) – have long been demanding ST status with their assertions for the restoration of cultural identity and availing preferential benefits for their sociopolitical and economic upliftment.

The issue has been in deadlock due to inherent complexities within the lengthy administrative and parliamentary procedures, and of course, due to lack of attention by successive governments to the impasse for an unduly long time. The question of being legally recognised as a politico-administrative category (ST) by six communities in Assam had always raised cacophony in the larger spectrum.

In Assam, 23 communities have been recognised as ST. However, there exists two categories within the ST category on the basis of their geomorphological (landform) characteristics in Assam – ST (plains) and ST (Hills). Out of these, 14 are hill tribes and 9 are plain tribes.

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According to the 2011 Census, approximately 12% of the total population in Assam are STs. It is estimated that if the six communities who are seeking ST status since many decades are granted that status, then the state will have more than 50% of its population under ST, which may lead to recognition of Assam as a tribal state.

This will go against the wishes of the political elites, who have come from general category, most prominently the upper caste social strata in Assam. In this regard, political parties like the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) had expressed their aversion on such eventualities, stating that it would threaten the very existence and survival of the general category people in Assam.

However, existing ST communities have also expressed their unwillingness on such proposals made by six communities with the fear that their rights and privileges would be infringed upon with the entry of other communities in the ST category.

The struggle for inclusion

Within a week of state cabinet approval and introduction of the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in the Rajya Sabha on 9 January 2019 for the classification of six communities in Assam as ST, the union home minister, Amit Shah, asked the Assam government to form a Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by the finance minister to recommend measures for protection of the rights of existing tribal communities as well as to set up modalities for facilitating benefits to be given to the new STs in a proper manner.

The GoM should have discussions with all the stakeholders before prepare modalities and submitting them to the central government. However, the GoM has not submitted its report to the central government till date, which delayed the entire process of granting ST status to the six communities in Assam.

These six communities have their own exclusivity for claiming ST status. Even though most of them had once ruled Assam within their own territories; their power and authority over every aspect of life was curtailed during colonial rule. They were eventually clubbed as a ‘backward’ communities and pushed into the margins of society for appropriation of their political and economic dominance with the shift of ruling authority into the hands of British colonial rulers after Yandabo Treaty (1826).

In case of Adivasi communities who were brought to Assam by the Britishers as indentured labour for tea plantations from the regions of Chotanagpur and Central India in various stages of nineteenth century, had to live as second-class citizens without any avenues for betterment of their living standards.

Thus, the only opportunity that they have to upgrade their social, political and economic position in society is by seeking the benefits and rights under affirmative action that come with the ST tag. But their proposal for inclusion is often attacked by the existing STs with the accusation of being ‘non-indigenous’ to the land of Assam. 

Demands of the six communities to be recognized as ST had actually gained momentum from 1968 when the All Koch Rajbongshi Student Union (AKRSU) first started making claims to the ST category. Since then, Koch-Rajbongshis, along with five other communities, have been demanding the status.

Notably, on 2 July 1996, the Constitution (Schedule Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill to include the Koch Rajbongshis in the ST list was introduced in the Lok Sabha. On 2 August, while the bill was discussed for consideration in the house, it was referred to a select 15-member committee headed by Amar Roy Pradhan, with clear instructions to report back to the house.

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The committee recommended inclusion of Koch-Rajbongshi community of Assam in the ST (plains) list and also suggested rescheduling the other communities – Chutia, Moran, Motok, Tai-Ahom and Adivasi – under ST category. Meanwhile, as Parliament was not in session, the Constitution (Schedule Tribes) Order (Amendment) Ordinance, 1996 was promulgated to give effect to the scheduling of the ST list of Assam.

Since then, the ordinance was re-promulgated three times, but not regularised into an Act. In this regard, the Assam Legislative Assembly too adopted an unanimous resolution urging the union government to include these six communities in the ST (plains) list. However, the decades-long issue is still hanging in the floor of the house, bringing in more complexity and discontent. 

Politicisation of demands

As the issue of granting ST status to six communities in Assam has started to gain momentum in the public space, the state government has continually attempted to pour cold water over the issue by offering mere compensatory arguments.

The politics over legal or constitutional recognition of ST was always used as an instrument to dissuade other grave issues in Assam. In this context, reference could be made to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) linked to the issue of migrants from Bangladesh and its burden on Assam particularly.

When people began to vehemently criticize the CAB on different platforms and came out into the streets, the Assam government announced hat the six communities would soon be going to receive ST status in the state. This was clearly done to divert the attention of the people from the citizenship issue, polarize the entire population in the state and trigger a political cacophony over the issue of granting ST status to six communities. But, the government failed to create such an environment at that time. 

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On 3 September 2020, the Assam assembly passed three bills to provide autonomous councils to Moran, Matak and Koch-Rajbongshi community. This move has appears to be yet another compensatory strategy, aimed at driving a fissure within six communities who have been demanding ST status.

Since the other three communities namely – Tai Ahom, Chutia and Tea Tribe (Adivasi) – have not been provided any political right to form their own autonomous councils for their overall development in the recently-concluded legislative assembly session, it is obvious that the state has adopted a strategy to weaken the concerted effort of the six communities for their joint demand of getting recognized as ST.

Now, as the State Assembly election inches closer, the six communities have started to organise public meetings and protest rallies to pressurise the government to fulfil their long-pending demand. In order to convince the population of these six communities to re-elect it in upcoming state election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Assam government has made public announcements time and again that it would soon accord ST status to the six communities by sending the report of GoM to the centre.

However, Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, has assured that government had already initiated consultations with all stakeholders regarding the issue of finalising modalities for granting ST status to the said communities without affecting the rights and privileged of the existing STs in Assam.

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A bargaining chip

It is clear that the state government remains silent on this issue until an issue of grave concern relating to their public confidence comes before them. This issue has always been used by successive governments as a political gimmick to placate the six communities fighting for their rights since many decades. The BJP government had also come to power with the same promise of granting ST status to the communities before the state election in 2016 and yet, no concrete results have emerged till date. 

On 11 January 2021, the National President of BJP, JP Nadda, further intensified the issue by making an untruthful announcement in Silchar that the centre has already granted ST status to Assam’s six communities and criticised the erstwhile Congress government for not resolving the issue during their rule. Such misreporting by the president of a ruling party clearly indicates how this issue continues to be used as a political ploy to win elections.

History is testament to the fact that no government has ever tried to deal with this contentious issue with seriousness. Since the entire power to decide whether one community should have be in the ST list or not is solely entrusted in the hands of the political executive, political parties have routinely leveraged the process of identification as a bargaining chip with the aspiring groups of people.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image (from L to R): Members of Chutia, Koch-Rajbongshi, Tea Tribe (Adivasi) and Moran communities. In addition to them, the Tai Ahom and Motok communities have also been demanding the ST status.