An identity crisis for tribal communities

April 18th, 2011 - 6:41 pm ICT by ANI  

By Baljeet Kumar

New Delhi, Apr 18 (ANI): Today, there are several regions, many of them forested and inhabited by the tribal communities, which have become flash-points of violence where Naxalism has taken root.

It is undoubtedly one of the gravest challenges facing the country. Contemporary political understanding has moved beyond viewing the phenomenon as a security or merely a law and order situation.

There is an acknowledgement, that development processes either bypassed these tribal regions or were severely compromised over the decades. The neglect of these regions and the impoverishment of its people has been widely perceived to be a fundamental cause pushing them towards Naxalism.

In its broad strategy to rid these regions of the ‘Naxal menace’, the Government has adopted as one of its core principles the restoration of the development process in these ‘regions of conflict’; to open up the tribal communities to opportunities, which they have remained excluded from and bring benefit on the ground.

We are then at an intersection of legacy of neglected development in tribal regions, the rise of Naxalism and now the government’s move meet the challenge head on. The strategy clearly has been to flush out the Naxals from the rural hinterland using force and quickly apply the balm of development to the areas affected.

It is at this intersection that the tribal community or the Adivasi stands today. What are the needs on the ground, how have they been addressed or not addressed and how can development agendas now become inclusive and integrate their interests with the rest of the ‘mainstream society? The answers to some of the fundamental questions of our larger polity and society lie in this, addressing the concerns of the adivasis.

On the face of it, it seems like a clear-cut policy line, but is it really that easy? Who actually are these adivasis? Here, we are not talking about their social, cultural, linguistic, ethnic entity, which in a sense defines their identity. We need to get beyond that to see how they are defined or categorised for the purpose of targeted development within the political system, their ‘political identity’ as it were.

Do we have a methodology in place to identify them on the basis of certain characteristics? Is there a nationally accepted yardstick to know who falls in this category and how they can be distinguished from other communities, who inhabit the same region?

The government parlance is ‘ST’, an interchangeable and official term that implies this distinct group. Yet do we know what this term ‘ST’ which is used commonly means? What are its parameters or its defining features? Only if we are clear, could we move ahead to assess the present policies, their impact on ‘regions of conflict’ and attempt to broaden or improve them.

This is the first point of ambiguity. Article 342 section (1) of the Constitution enjoins upon the President of India, in consultation with the Governor of a state to notify SC or ST communities. Article 366(2) of the Constitution of India refers to Scheduled Tribes as communities who are “scheduled” in accordance with Article 342 through a declaration by the President of India.

The ‘Adivasi’ then remains just a term, which according to the discretion of the President finds a ‘fit’ with a particular community living in specific areas, which the Constitution recognizes as “Scheduled Areas”. There is no uniformity or a set of features or conditions, which they need to fulfill to categorize them as such.Surely, this is an unacceptable situation considering the fate of 11 crore Adivasis in this country, constituting 6.2 per cent of the total population according to the 2001 Census hangs in balance. The process can be defined as ‘discretionary’ at best and ‘random’ at worst. This shows up as gross irregularities on the ground.

Thus, the Santhals living in Assam do not have access to benefits due to Scheduled Tribes, which are accorded to Santhals in Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal. Several tribal groups like Gonds, Pahari Korbas, Kanwar, Junawar spread in states like Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand are covered under different gradations of Central Government. This arises again from difference in their definition status.

In the Central Government’s records, the term is equally vague. There is no concrete definition, which means that Government policy for inclusion and upliftment of tribal populations is built on shifting sands. If the very definition is arbitrary, the entire process following it would be flawed. Massive sections of those, who are actually adivasis may not figure at all. This non- commitment to a set of standards in defining tribals is reflected at international levels too.

The ILO Convention No.169 adopted in 1989 refers to tribal peoples in independent countries whose social, cultural and economic conditions clearly distinguish them from other sections of national communities. Their status is regulated wholly or partially by customs or traditions handed down the ages or by special laws or regulations.

Interestingly, India was one of the first nations to ratify the precursor to Convention 169, the ILO Convention no 107 in Sept 1958 but has not ratified the present one. The catch is that all of this falls within the ‘objective criteria’, a parameter not sufficient to declare a people’ tribal’ or ‘indigenous’. The ’subjective criteria’ hinges on a process of ’self identification’ of these groups. Thus self-identification is supposed to compliment the objective criteria and vice-versa. Across countries, this ambiguity has left policy makers sans the required level of information on the communities whose concerns they are meant to address. Monitoring the effects of state interventions also gets jeopardized.The Lokur Committee set up in 1965 to revise the lists of SC’s and ST’s in the country defined the characteristics of the ST’s. Several communities living in forested regions in our country, who are seen to be fulfilling these norms, are excluded from the official tag of ST’s.

They face the biggest loss, excluded from a plethora of development programs devised keeping in mind communities with their particular characteristics. The extent of this exclusion is mammoth. The present categorization covers only 8.5 crore, out of 11 crore are Adivasis today. It is in some of these regions in India, amongst these hapless people, that the Naxals have their stronghold.

According to Charkha Development Communications, the government’s approach to development in tribal regions, need urgent identification and correction. The ongoing violence, loss of lives, property, livelihoods and security has been too heavy a price to pay for this ambiguity at the highest level. (ANI)

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