ST status demands in India : A brief overview (Part 1)

Sanjoy Akoijam
In India today, the issue of who should be included in the list of ‘backward classes’ (OBC, SC, ST, etc) remains a contentious matter. It may sound strange to any layman that even after 75 years of independence from the British Empire; several groups in India are aspiring for ‘backward class’ status. Shouldn’t it be the opposite ? Well, No. In reality, what a majority of these communities are demanding is not the “backward” tag, but the many perks and rights in the field of education, job opportunities, land and cultural protection, etc. that are doled out to such communities by the Indian Government. In this article, let us have a brief look at some of the ongoing ST demand movements in the country.  
In Manipur, a sizeable section of the Meiteis/Meeteis (the major community in the State) has been striving for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for over a decade now. The fear of being outnumbered by migrants in their own land, rising unemployment in the community, a mental divide with the hill tribals who have ST status, the goal of being recognised as ‘indigenous’ inhabitants of India, etc. are all factors that have contributed to the genesis of the Meitei ST demand movement. However, the movement has been a stop-start affair with no credible momentum till date, except for some mass rallies, sit-in-protests and awareness campaigns. The movement has suffered due to two reasons-firstly, another sizeable section of the Meitei/Meetei community is opposed to the demand and secondly, the movement has always played second fiddle to other mass demands throughout the years of its existence.
Opposition to the demand has been fierce from the hill tribes, but the opposition from sections of the Meiteis themselves is also noteworthy. For many Meiteis, climbing down from the status of “rulers of a former kingdom that was a notable power in South East Asia with a history of 2000 years” to the status of a “tribe” in the Republic of India may sound too much to fathom. Many also feel that such a demand would lead to the deterioration of already fragile inter-community relations in the State. Some scholars within the community have even suggested that the demand was cooked up on the insistence of Indian intelligence agencies ! (Sounds a bit too strange, but anyway everyone is entitled to an opinion). Others simply contend that the community has very little ‘tribal’ characteristics. The attention of the authorities and the general public in the last decade also has been more  towards other mass movements/issues like the ILPS movement, District Demand movements and counter-movements, Indo-Naga peace talks, Indo-Myanmar border issue, Manipur University VC issue, Drug issue, Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement, etc. Both the authorities and the general public have not taken the Meitei ST movement too seriously. In fact, the authorities are yet to take up anything concrete in relation to the demand despite repeated assurances by both the current ruling dispensation and the previous one. Recently, the demand was raised on the floor of the Rajya Sabha by Manipur’s titular king Maharaja Leishemba Sanajaoba, who is Manipur’s representative in the Upper House of Parliament.
Manipur’s neighbouring State Assam has witnessed high profile ST demand movements by six different communities. The movements are at an advanced stage and the Central Government has already started the process to include them in the ST list, but the journey has not been smooth and it has stalled several times too.  After the approval of the Union Cabinet on 8th January 2019, the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 9th January 2019 by the then Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram. The Bill intended to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950, by inserting 41 entries (Chutia, Matak, Moran, Koch-Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Mal Paharia, Kawar, Lodha, Baiga, Nagasia, Bhil, Gorait, Halba, Majwar, Dhanwar, Asur, Khond, Korwa, Kherwar, Chero, Koya, Birhor, Parja, Mirdha, Kishan, Chik Baraik, Kol, Saora, Pradhan, Birjia, Damdari, Bonda, Mahli, Shabar, Kharia, Gond, Munda, Oraon, Bedia, Santal and Bhumij) for granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities in Assam (the first five in the list are separate communities themselves while the 36 others come under the broad category of Adivasis). This move came after years of agitations and consultations. However, the existing ST communities in Assam came out to the streets to protest. They feared that the amendment Bill would eliminate the ‘genuine tribal people’ of the State by enlisting six new ethnic groups of Assam as STs. Some of the people spearheading the anti-ST movement even alleged that the then Government had introduced the Bill only for “power and short-term benefits.” It may be noted that Assam also witnessed massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill at that very juncture.
At the same time, the ST status seekers too expressed their unhappiness with the Government as it introduced the Bill at the end of the Parliament session and kept it hanging. Bireswar Saikia, the then president of the All Assam Koch-Raj­bongshi Sanmilani clearly expressed his dissatisfaction over the delay, referring to the 2014 Lok Sabha poll campaign, where the then Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party assured the six communities of according them ST status within six months of coming to power. Advasi leader Rupesh Gowala also detected a poll-oriented design in the move and even identified the Bill as “a lollipop being doled out to the six communities”. Moran community leader Arunjyoti Moran too was critical of the move that came just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
Meanwhile, looking at the discontent of existing STs and also the ST status seekers, the Government started to seek out a middle path to satisfy both. Within a week of the Cabinet approval and introduction of the Bill in Parliament, the Government slightly shifted its position and on 13th January 2019, the then Union Home Minister asked the Government of Assam to prepare the modalities for granting ST status to six communities of Assam without harming the rights of existing STs in Assam. Post the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the ST inclusion move has stalled once again.
Among the six communities, the demand for ST status was first raised by the Koch-Rajbongshis in 1968. Since then, the Koch-Rajbongshis along with five other communities, namely Tai-Ahom, Moran, Matak, Chutia and Adivasis have been demanding the ST status. The Ahoms, which belong to the Tai group of people, ruled Assam for nearly 600 years (1228-1826), and played a major role in uniting the various ethnic communities of the Brahmaputra valley under a common ‘Assamese’ identity. The Morans and Mataks, whose roots can be traced to the Hukawng Valley in Burma, had migrated to Assam before the Ahoms. They faced increasing oppression from the second half of the 18th century and their situation became worse after the British annexed territories in Upper Assam to set up tea gardens. The Koch-Rajbongshis had their kingdom for several decades in Assam and present-day North Bengal. The kingdom of Cooch Behar joined India on August 28, 1949. The Chutiya community, the oldest among the six, is a Tibeto-Burman race which had its own kingdom for about 400 years in eastern Assam. The Adivasi ‘Tea Tribes’ mostly originate from tribal areas of central and eastern India, especially the Chhotanagpur plateau and were brought to Assam by the British to work in tea plantations from the mid-19th century. These peoples already have ST status in the States they originally came from, but not in Assam.
(To be contd)