Bizarre and cynical the situation may seem to be, after 72 years of Indian independence, there are now a growing number of communities desiring to be classed as Scheduled Tribe, ST. This phenomenon is particularly strong in the north-east, where many of the states are predominantly ST already.However, in some of the states where some ethnic communities came to be excluded from the ST list, largely on account of the Hindu faith they embraced, there is a growing sense they have been put at a disadvantage and they want the playing field levelled out, precisely by their being recognised as tribal.
This internal friction probably cannot be generalised to all tribal populations in India, and is characteristic of the north-east region, where the lines that divide indigenous tribal and non-tribal communities are often thin and nebulous. Moreover, thanks to Christian missionaries who brought and spread education indiscriminately to all in the region, there is little or no disparity in literacy rates or quality between most of the communities.
The phenomenon probably is prompted by several reasons. One of these is the threat perception of small ethnicities, that they would be pushed to the margins of political power as well as landholdings in their traditional home grounds by a continuing unregulated inflow of settlers, therefore they need protection. The tension, however, is also internal. Here the contest is for the benefits of government job reservation. In effect, all that is asked for is to be classed officially as Scheduled Tribe, and not a reversion to a tribal in the anthropological sense of the term of communities untouched by the march of modernity.
In Manipur, a good section of the Meitei community, a proud people with a long history as a unique “Zomian paddy state” of the kind James C. Scott sketched in his influential Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of South East Asia”, known for their rich heritage in art and culture, theatre and cinema, are demanding it.
In Assam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already given the assurance that a proposal by the Assam government for inclusion of six communities, namely Koch-Rajbongshi, Tai-Ahom, Chutiya, Moran, Muttock and the Adivasi tea-tribes, in the ST list will be taken into consideration. Quite expectedly, these demands are met with strong opposition from those already in the ST list in these states, and the reason for this, too, is obvious — nobody wants new competitors for statutory benefits on turfs they consider as theirs exclusively.
There obviously is something very wrong in this new race for classification as primitive. But the fault is also with the system. If it is agreed that a society is a living organism given to learning, evolving and organising itself into progressively more sophisticated economies, cultures and polities, then at an early stage all societies would have been tribal. Somewhere down the line, encouraged by the incentive structuring in India, this evolutionary process has been deemed frozen to suit certain entrenched vested interests.
Hence, regardless of the economic and social progress catalysed by the positive discrimination bestowed on individual tribal persons and several generations of their progenies, the detribalisation process that normally should have been a natural process is deemed no longer relevant. With it, deprivation has ceased to be treated as an actionable social or economic issue, and instead in a skewed way, is now interpreted as a birthright.
The question is, how have third or fourth generation ST persons who are no longer compelled to eke out a living from subsistence slash and burn agriculture, or go hunting and foraging in the forests for additional nutritional needs, whose associations and fraternal bondages now extend beyond the spheres of clans and tribes, who are no longer engaged in hostilities with neighbouring clans and tribes but make thousands of friends on social media, who are members of some of the most prestigious and exclusive clubs in the cities, who live in swanky flats in the country’s metropolises, attend the best educational institutions, who have long left behind the barter system as a mode of commerce, and are instead more at home with credit cards and Internet banking, come to be still considered fit to reap the benefits of the ST status? However, since this remains the reality, it was only time before others outside the ST list should begin to say, why not these benefits for them as well.
This reality has also put many opposed to a reversion of their communities to ST status in a tricky situation. Though they see no merit in regressing to a primitive past, given the situation they are at a loss to rationally oppose the demand. The fact is, to be Scheduled Tribe and being tribal are no longer the same thing. The first is a constitutional privilege while the second is an anthropological state of being. Today the distance between the two has become stark, at least in much of the north-east region, making the incongruence and perceived unfairness acute in the eyes of those outside the category.
The answer probably is not in tribalising more as an attempt at equity, but detribalising those who have stepped out of the tribal world. The distinction between ST and tribal should be taken cognisance of officially. The creamy layer of those who call themselves tribal can and should remain tribal culturally, if they so wish, but not STs. This will have a double purpose. One, it will assuage the growing sense of injustice amongst those not on the ST list. Two, it will leave the benefits guaranteed for STs for those truly deprived amongst the tribal communities, helping them to ultimately rise to be in the creamy layer.