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Rights for forgotten tribes

Renew the principles on which the Constitution envisaged special provisions for adivasis, writes Nandini Sundar.

india Updated: Jun 04, 2007 23:39 IST
Nandini Sundar
Nandini Sundar

Predictably, public discourse on the Gujjar-state-Mina (as the census spells them) standoff in Rajasthan has centred on two, or, at best, three issues: while a large section of the media and some political commentators — fresh from the OBC bust up — have decried the irrationality of community-based reservations, another section has tried to frame the legitimate claims of the Gujjars against the lack of trickle-down. The brutality of the police firing merits passing mention, but will soon disappear, like all the other statistics of people killed by a trigger-happy police let loose by incompetent administrations. As if five lakh rupees here, and one lakh there were enough to deflect from the underlying issue of how governments in India treat demonstrating interest groups.

It is easy to forget, in the midst of all this noise, that the Minas are not the only Scheduled Tribes (STs) in Rajasthan. But everyone, ranging from TV commentators to some Minas themselves, seem to think so: “Minas in Rajasthan are the only Scheduled Tribes and we would not tolerate any inclusion into our community,” Bhanwar Lal Mina, president of the Rashtriya Mina Mahasabha, is reported to have said. Even the MP from Barmer, Manvendra Singh, in whose district Bhils constitute almost 6% of the population (and 99% of the district’s ST population), neglects to mention that they exist. No TV reporter, to my knowledge, has asked a Bhil leader what she or he feels about the stands taken by the Gujjars and the Minas, and no political commentator has yet asked why groups like the Bhils or Saharias are unable to take advantage o0f the reservations they are entitled to, and which they so desperately need.

At 12.6% of the state, Rajasthan’s tribal population is somewhat higher than the national average: the Minas constitute 53.5% of the total ST population, the Bhils 39.5%, smaller groups like the Garasia, Damor, Dhanka & Saharia are 6.6%, while the Bhil Mina, Naikda, Kathodi, Patelia, Kokna and Koli Dhor with populations ranging from below 100 to about 3000 make up the remaining 0.3%. The Minas almost exclusively dominate the eastern portion of the state’s Sawai Madhopur, Dholpur, Bharatpur, Karauli, Dausa, while the Bhils live in south-western Rajasthan. Banswara district is 72% adivasi, with Dungarpur and Udaipur following next in terms of adivasi populations, and it is not co-incidental that issues like the right to food, employment guarantee and common property resources have been so critical here.

The differences between the Bhils and Minas are pronounced. While the Minas have an overall literacy rate of 52.2%, which is higher than the national ST average of 47.1%, the Bhils and Saharias have an overall literacy rate of 35.2% and 34.2% respectively. 3.5% of Minas are graduates compared to 0.9% of Bhils, 0.6% of Garasias and 0.1% of Saharias. No wonder then that all the government posts reserved for STs are occupied by Minas, making them not just the dominant tribe in Rajasthan, but one of the groups which has most benefited through reservations nationally, although their literacy rate is still lower than the state average of 61%. Even a cursory look at the civil services or even universities reveals a number of Minas, but scarcely any Bhils from Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, Gonds from Chhattisgarh, or Hos from Jharkhand, all numerically significant communities.

Explaining why certain groups have been able to take advantage of reservations and others have been left out is a complex issue. It involves tracking histories of education, migration, and social networks. For instance, the Uraons in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, another group with access to government jobs, have had a long history of missionary education, though within Jharkhand, they are not as politically powerful as the Santhal and the Mundas. However, the Minas are better off not just in terms of education and employment but also land holdings, annual incomes and assets. A study by MK Bhasin and Shampa Nag found that among STs in Rajasthan, a greater percentage was engaged in agricultural or casual labour (50%) as against cultivation (40%). Among Minas, however, 85% were engaged in cultivation, and only 1.5% in agricultural labour.

Literacy figures for Gujjars are hard to come by since the census does not disaggregate for OBC groups. But even assuming that they are disadvantaged compared to the Jats, or even the Minas, and have suffered under the neglect of rural livelihoods, that by itself does not constitute a justification for giving them ST status. As Ann Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar bring out in In the Time of Trees and Sorrows, the local politics was not about Gujjars vs Minas, both of whom were relatively privileged communities, although subservient to the court, but about access to the forests and the problems of agriculture. It is this lived relationship, the common frustration with government services and lack of employment, which needs to be restored to the forefront of political discourse. It is another question whether the current political parties and caste leaderships are capable of doing this.

While it is true that state categorisations placed one group in the st category and flung another into the OBC list, the solution lies not in inflating the ST list or scrapping reservations, at least for scheduled tribes, but renewing the principles on which the Constitution envisaged special provisions for adivasis. The criteria used initially were vague, so deserving communities like the Kols of Sonbhadra got left out and many, who were scheduled, still need this protection. The kind of sheer discrimination STs face is not comparable to OBCs or even SCs, who perform better on education and employment criteria.

Apart from being the major victims of displacement, the absence of a significant middle-class and successful political formations like the BSP mean the adivasis are the most voiceless group in Indian society today. Without reservations, we would not even have the few adivasi MPs that we have now. If, with a quota of 7.5% there are only 2.2% ST teachers in Delhi University, without reservations, even they could get edged out. Few adivasi communities can aspire to the kind of front page coverage of their mobilisation in the way that both Gujjars and Minas have achieved with their narrow caste demands — even when they come out in lakhs to demand the forest rights bill or protest against atrocities.

Since the other tribes of Rajasthan do not exist for the government, the media or political commentators — neither in a political nor a metaphorical sense — this makes them the groups, which are most deserving of ST status. The objectives of the National Tribal Policy of 2006 include: “Arresting the increasing demand from new communities for inclusion in the list of STs by rationalising the process of scheduling; examine the need for de-scheduling of certain STs and sub-categorisation of existing STs to ensure that benefits are evenly spread across the tribes by 2020.” Will the UPA and the NDA have the courage to live up to this?

Nandini Sundar is professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.

First Published: Jun 04, 2007 23:35 IST