Post Beltola. It is time to review the debate over ST status for Adivasis of Assam.
Adivasis are among the most underprivileged groups of Assam. According to a study by North Eastern Social Research Centre 60 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys in the age group of 6-14 are out of school. Only 4 percent study beyond class VII.
While different tribal groups of Assam seem to be moving towards a head on collision over the grant of ST status to some underprivileged groups, it would be worthwhile to examine the arguments that are being put forward by those opposing ST status for Adivasis.
One argument that has been put forward is that the Adivasis have ‘lost their tribal characteristics’. Well, if this argument was to be applied impartially, probably all the indigenous tribal groups of North East and perhaps other parts of India (including the Tribal Affairs minister, Mr. Kyndia himself), would loose their ST status. The tribal people of the North East region are more modern (westernized) than any average Indian. This is not to suggest that the tribal groups of rest of India are not influenced by the west. They are, but not as much as the tribal groups of the North East.
Another argument that has been put forward is that the Adivasis are not an indigenous tribe. To this end, according to a report in the media, some indigenous leaders of Assam claim that even Bodos are not considered ST in the Karbi Anglong region. Now, that is very strange because the migrant Adivasis settled in the tea belt of North Bengal are recognized as Scheduled Tribes. Why this anomaly? Aren’t Assam and Bengal governed by the same constitution?
Another question that arises is: How long does a recognized tribal group of another region need to settle in a place to become indigenous? Isn’t 150 years long enough? Certainly, it is, if one were to consider the ST status accorded to the adivasi settlers of North Bengal.
Probably, the determining tests for ST status themselves are flawed, borrowed as they are from colonial knowledge. Sanjib Baruah rightly points out the dangers of depending on colonial knowledge for classification of different tribal groups for consideration of Scheduled Tribe and sixth schedule status (see his article in the editorial page of The Telegraph (Guwahati edition) dated 11th December 2007). Perhaps, it is time we applied our knowledge to make better sense of the people and redefine the rules to determine who deserves ST status and who does not.
Initially, I did not expect the kind opposition that the Adivasis of Assam are now facing. Here is a situation where the most underprivileged people of the state are fighting for their justified demands and the people opposing them are their more privileged fellow tribals stirred by the selfish interests of some politicians whose sole objective is to cling on to power at any cost. What a spectacle it must be for the other sections of the society to watch different tribal groups fight each other?
Sadly, even after 60 years of independence we are exhibiting the same kind of behaviour from which we sought to be free through our freedom struggle.
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My sincere apologies to anybody whose sentiments I may have hurt unintentionally. It wasn’t my intention to do so. My objective is to tickle some grey cells into thinking differently.