The Gujjar protests cumulatively represent a demand for equal citizenship and social justice. To its credit, the report of the Chopra Committee, constituted by the Rajasthan government to examine the Gujjar demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, had certain strengths. It pointed to State neglect and a situation that has been rendered so urgent that it is advisable not to wait for reclassificatory processes. Further, it acknowledged the need to review the criteria used to determine a group’s ‘tribal’ status.
The response of the Rajasthan government to the Chopra Committee’s recommendations has been half-hearted. The political class of Delhi, on its part, continues to distance itself from the issue, always ready to take advantage of vote banks but wary of their political fallout. In a presentation as part of a People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) panel to the Chopra Committee last year, I had pointed out that before pronouncing on Gujjar OBC/ST status, it must first review the question of what an ST is.
A national review of the conceptual category of ST would mean a review of the indices used by parliamentary legislation, governmental committees and the bureaucracy. ‘Primitive traits’ and ‘shyness of contact’ as indices for ‘tribality’ draw upon colonial anthropology. Far from ‘primitive’, Bastar tribals knew of iron-smelting and metallurgy and were able to build fairly advanced bridges. Tribal groups are often ahead of non-tribals in their understanding of nature, its powers and properties, a relationship often encoded in their religious cultures. Their indicators with respect to the girl child, women’s mobility and sex ratio also tend to be better.
New indices of backwardness then need to be debated, specified and concretised. Indeed, ‘vulnerability’ as a category disconnected from ethnicity, as a means of identifying groups might be considered. Further, the State must take responsibility for an every ten-year review of the backwardness of tribal, pastoral and backward class groups.
Finally, there is a need for hard data. The absence of demographic data leads to speculation as there has been no caste-wise census published after 1931. The Census of 2001 was a lost moment, one which could have been used to obtain comprehensive data on backwardness. Let us not lose the opportunity provided by the Census of 2011 to provide us with a richer understanding of marginality.
Shail Mayaram is Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.