ST status demands in India: A brief overview (Part 2)

Sanjoy Akoijam
The six communities seeking ST status are currently enjoying either Other Backward Classes (OBC) or More Other Backward Classes (MOBC) status in Assam. Though, historically, most of them were ruling communities, they have been cornered in many ways in post-independence India and have remained backward. For the Adivasis, some scholars have argued that a certain segment of population has remained at the very bottom of the social ladder, due to the constraints of the tea plantation economy and the inability of those outside tea gardens to take advantage of a development process that takes no account of their social and cultural ‘backwardness’.
The issue of ST inclusion in Assam according to many scholars is a matter of ‘political, not anthropological interest.’ The biggest roadblock on the road towards ST status for the six communities seems to be a lack of consensus with the existing Scheduled Tribes of the State.
In Sikkim, eleven Nepali speaking communities have been seeking tribal status Gurung, Mangar, Rai, Sunwar, Mukhia, Majhi, Jogi, Thami, Yakha, Bahun, Chettri and Newar. The Gorkhas of the neighbouring Darjeeling hills in West Bengal, too, have been demanding ST status for eleven communities living in the area. However, unlike in the Darjeeling Hills, the Sikkimese are demanding the tribal status on the basis Article 371F of the Constitution, which provides special status to the Himalayan State that merged with India in 1975. The previous Sikkim Democratic Front Government and the present Sikkim Krantikari Morcha led Government in Sikkim have submitted a number of representations to the Centre on the issue, but there have been no concrete steps from the Central Government so far. In January 2021, the Sikkim Government unanimously adopted a resolution to include the communities in the State’s Scheduled Tribes list. The ruling BJP led Government at the Centre has also repeatedly assured that the ST demands by the communities in the Darjeeling Hills would be fulfilled.
In Maharashtra, the Dhangar is a community which practices shepherding as their traditional occupation, due to which most of the population lives a socially isolated life, wandering mainly in forests, hills and mountains. Dhangar community is classified as a ‘Vimukta Jati’-Nomadic Tribe (NT) in Maharashtra, and it comes under the OBC category of the Central level. However, the community is demanding the reservation under ST category. Since NT category is not recognised at the Central level, the community members feel that they have been deprived of reservation in Central Government services.
The ST category list includes “Dhangad” community at the Central level, while Dhangars –with an ‘r’- have been excluded. The community claims that the difference in spelling is a clerical mistake since there is no application from any community in Maharashtra claiming to belong to the Dhangad category. So, the community demands that the Government should amend the mistake by changing Dhangad to Dhangar. They complain that “due to this typographic error, tribal Dhangar community is not getting any benefits since 1976”. In the caste census of 1931, the British Government included Dhangar as a similar caste with Oran. In 1968, the Central Government published the biography of SC, ST and marginal tribes and it mentioned Dhangar (Dhangad) as a Scheduled Tribe. The Mandal Commission also noted that Dhangar and Dhangad were the same. During the tenure of former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Government included the Dhangar community in the Scheduled Tribe in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha. The Maharashtra Government recommended to include the Dhangar community in the Scheduled Tribe in 1966 and 1979, but the Government for some reason took back the recommendation in 1981.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis which came to power in 2014 promised to materialise their demands. At the end of 2015, the State asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (TISS) to establish whether the Dhangars met the criteria to be identified as ST. In effect, this meant establishing whether ‘Dhangars’ were the same as ‘Dhangads’ to guard against any future legal challenge to Dhangars being moved from VJNT to ST. Over the past few years, almost all major political parties in the State have supported the inclusion of Dhangars in the ST category. Every political party, however, has found itself facing the prospect of dealing with people from Scheduled Tribes who are unwilling to allow the dilution of their quota by the inclusion of a big community like the Dhangar. Maharashtra’s most recent Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had assured that his Government would take positive steps towards the economic development of the Dhangar community and consult legal experts and various stakeholders over the reservation demand. The Dhangars in the neighbouring State of Goa are also demanding ST status.
Moving to Tamil Nadu, the Narrikurovar is a semi-nomadic tribe who originated in Northern India before migrating south to the area about half a millennia ago. Traditionally hunters (Narrikurovar means “jackal” or “fox hunters”), their origin stories tell of their tribe being associated with upper castes, mostly providing security for kings. However, once invaders took over the territories they inhabited, they became nomadic and retreated into forests. It has been seen that the community struggles with high levels of illiteracy, multiple health challenges, and unemployment. The Tamil Nadu Government classifies them as a Most Backward Class (MBC) community. This leads to erroneous assumptions about this population. For example, in 2005, the percentage of STs below the poverty line in rural Tamil Nadu was 32.1 percent (below the national ST average of 47.3 percent), but that of rural Other Backward Classes (OBC) and others was only 19 percent. Classifying the Narrikurovars as OBCs leads to the assumption that they have a higher chance of being above the poverty line than communities recognized as STs. Furthermore, by being classified as MBCs, the Narrikurovars have been competing for access to government benefits with nineteen other larger communities with higher socio-economic status and greater political clout.
Over the last three decades, the Narrikurovars have viewed themselves as “Adivasi” and have been attempting to gain ST status. Their precarious position is further complicated by their nomadic lifestyle across rural and urban areas which runs against the criteria of “geographical isolation” required for ST status. Additionally, as the Narrikurovar sell their products to the community at large, they might not display “shyness of connect,” which is another criteria. But since these criteria are not explicit, it becomes quite difficult for the community to formulate clear political demands.
The Narrikurovars have found it difficult to navigate this uncertain legal terrain and have been appealing to the principal Dravidian political parties, the DMK and AIADMK. Since 2013, the Narrikurovars have focused their efforts on grassroots political mobilization and have been organizing several sit-ins and hunger strikes. This increased awareness of the precarious state of the community led to efforts by the central government to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order of 1950 to include the Narrikurovar, Kurivikarran, and Malayelee Gounder among the STs. The bills were introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2016, but till date there has been little progress in this regard. In March 2022, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu MK Stalin appealed to the Prime Minister of India to grant the community’s demand.
Then, there are the Kudmi-Mahato people of Central and eastern India. The tale of the Kudmi-Mahatos is one of paradox. The Kudmi-Mahatos were enlisted as a tribal community in census related documents in India before 1931. But back then, the community strived to attain a Hindu Kshatriya status. There were several movements and attempts to cement their Kshatriya status, the establishment of the All India Kurmi Kshatriya Mahasabha (AIKKM) in 1894 being an example. The Kudmi-Mahatos also began using the spelling ‘Kurmi’ instead of ‘Kudmi’. After the 1930s, the community was successful in de-scheduling themselves from the list of STs and getting themselves the Kshatriya Hindu status administratively. It is believed that the community wanted to shed the tribal tag as the higher caste Hindus controlled a majority of natural resources back then. They performed ceremonies and rituals like higher caste Hindus and their agricultural activities were also performed according to the Hindu calendar and they also worshipped Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In short, one scholar remarked that they strived hard to “Kshtriyanise” into the upper categories of the Hindu caste hierarchy.
But now in the 21st century, the community is seeking a return to the ST list. The younger generations of this community are pointing out to a paradoxical issue of identity crisis. They want to be rescheduled in the ST list from which once their forefathers had de-scheduled themselves in order to become Kshatriya Hindus. With the passage of time and changing power relations, a large section of the community feel that they would be better off being STs. Movements for the same have been going on in the past few years in Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.
The case of the Kudmi-Mahatos seems quite similar to that of the Meiteis. The Meiteis/Meeteis too were listed as a ‘tribe’ (under the name ‘Manipuri’) in several colonial era documents. Mention may be made of the Census of India 1891, Census of India 1901 and the Census of India 1931. The 1931 Census mentions that the “Manipuris (Meiteis) are a wholly Hindu tribe, but retain their distinct language and culture.” Many proponents of the Meitei ST Demand movement have stated that they are simply asking for a ‘return’ to the list of tribes in India, and not something brand new.
Recently, there have been news reports of demands for ST status by some communities in Jammu (in the UT of J&K) and Himachal Pradesh as well, coupled with opposition to the same by the existing ST communities in the area. Interestingly, Assembly elections are due in Himachal Pradesh later this year, and political activities have also picked up in Jammu.
A common observation in a majority of ST status demand movements is opposition from other communities who already ‘enjoy’ ST status, and the varying situations and ways of life of the communities demanding ST status. This puts the spotlight on the concept of ‘tribe’ in modern day India, a concept which is still ill-defined and ambiguous in nature.