As the Centre gets down to reduce and revise the criteria for granting scheduled tribe (ST) status to communities, the political battle in Assam is heating up over the complicated issue. Tribal Affairs minister Jual Oram recently informed in Guwahati that a detailed note has already been sent to the Union cabinet, and revised modalities will take three months to prepare. Presently, the case for including a community in the ST list is judged on five criteria — indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, shyness of contact with the community at large, geographical isolation, and backwardness of the community in question. It needs be mentioned that the need for revising ST modalities has been felt for quite some time, with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment in 2013 terming some of the criteria ‘subjective’ and ‘archaic’. In a detailed report, it had called for revisiting the matter thoroughly and criteria based on ‘comprehensive anthropological and socio-economic studies and ussailable empirical evidence’. The UPA government mulled over the issue early last year after the Assam government conducted studies on the six communities and submitted a proposal for their inclusion as STs. However, the criteria for inclusion did not allow the Moran, Mottock, Koch Rajbongshi, Sooteas, Tai Ahoms and 36 tea tribes to be included then — and there the matter rested.
While campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections last year, the BJP had promised to include the six communities in the ST list within six months, and the issue is likely to figure strongly again in 2016. Representative bodies of the six ethnic communities have already warned that the process must be completed before the Assembly elections 10 months away. Jual Oram has rightly pointed out that the task is multi-discipliry, requiring the involvement of various authorities — the ministries of Tribal Affairs, Culture, Social Justice and Empowerment, Home Affairs, as well as the Registrar General of India (RGI) and tiol Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST). Since communities are notified as STs under Article 342 of the Constitution, any new proposal for inclusion requires Parliamentary approval. The Tribal Affairs minister has revealed that as many as 1,000 communities, including 13 from Assam have applied for inclusion as STs, with the list already containing about 580 communities presently. But there have been much discussion in the concerned Central ministries in the last couple of years over a task force report commissioned by the Tribal Affairs ministry. Reportedly the ‘primitive traits’ criterion is now being considered unrealistic and derogatory, while the ‘shyness of contact’ is supposedly irrelevant, except for rare cases like the Jarawa community of the Andamans. The ‘geographical isolation’ criterion too is being questioned for not covering the migration of tribal communities in search of livelihood.
A possible new criterion like ‘historical geographic location, which may or may not exist today’ could strengthen the case for the tea tribes of Assam, having been brought to the State as labourers by British colonists from Odisha, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh about two centuries ago. So will the proposed ST modality changes by the NDA government help revise the entire procedure, to ensure that only deserving communities get the ST status and reap the benefits of affirmative action as guaranteed under the Constitution? Hitherto it has been a technically complicated issue, with a state government first recommending a community for inclusion by submitting the proposal with detailed ethnographic report. It is only after the RGI and NCST thoroughly examine and approve the proposal, do Central ministries and the Parliament get into the picture. Whatever be the political compulsions, a government at the Centre cannot fast-track the process arbitrarily — for it may have to stand up to judicial scrutiny later on if aggrieved parties move the court. Considering the stiff opposition from existing ST groups in Assam, the Central government has assured that their interests will not be compromised while including the six communities in a new mechanism. But political observers are anticipating a seismic upheaval, for such a new tribal mechanism may bring about a change in the status of at least 80 Assembly constituencies in the State. This may have far-reaching consequences, as there have been huge demographic changes in at least 40 per cent of the 126 constituencies due to illegal migrants. If indigenous communities are divided over the issue while the immigrant vote-bank fights back desperately, the State is likely heading for very difficult times next year. The Modi government may hijack Tarun Gogoi’s earlier promise of turning Assam into a ‘tribal state’, and thereby reap the political dividend. It is certain that the Congress will seek to checkmate the BJP’s strategy while claiming credit for earlier pushing the cases of the six communities. With the Parliament turning into a battleground and the legislative process seriously stymied, it remains to be whether it can be moved to give its approval to the ST proposals from Assam, once the Modi government gets through with the nitty-gritty and paperwork.