The author in this post has portrayed the status of the Scheduled Tribes in India with special reference to Assam. The author has also analysed the conditions of the tribesmen after the Bodo Peace Accord 2020 which has primarily affected the sister states of North East India.
The mobilization of people on the ethnic line is one of the dominant features of the politics in Assam. On 27th January, the Union Minister of Home Affairs, the Assam government and Bodo groups -All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) signed a historic agreement in to redraw and rename the Bodoland Territorial Area District. The tripartite agreement has assured to grant the Scheduled Tribe (Hills) status to the Bodos living in the Hills areas in Assam. No doubt that Bodo Peace Accord, 2020 has ended decades of insurgency demanding the separate state of Bodoland but at the same time, the move of the government has been opposed by Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.
The reason for the dissenting view is the fear that pact would not only affect the identity of the Karbis but at the same time implementation of clause 8 of Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) would infringe upon the rights of the other two hill districts.
BACKGROUND OF THE ISSUE
In Assam, there are 14 total plain tribe communities and 15 recognized hills tribe communities. The Bodos, one of the ethnic groups in Assam, is recognized as a Scheduled Tribe (Plain) and since 1972 had been demanding a separate State.
The Bodo conflicts date back to the pre-independence era. In 1929, Bodo leader Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma submitted a memorandum to Simon Commission not only asking for reservations in Legislative Assembly but also for a separate political entity for the people. However, all his efforts went in vain. Even after independence Gopinath Bordolia, the Chief Minister of Assam refused to give them the tribal status. The repercussions of the denial were highlighted in 1989 surveys which portrayed indebtedness, landlessness, and unemployment faced by Bodos. The demand for a separate state was to protect their ethnic identity and to seek better governance and development.
Prior to the 2020 Bodo Peace Accord, the government of India in order to provide political and economic benefits to the Bodos without acceding the demand for a separate state had signed certain agreements. In 1993, the first accord was signed between the Government of India and the All Bodo Student Union (ABSU) and that resulted in the creation of Bodoland Autonomous Council with political powers. It was again in 2003 that accord was signed but this time it was between Bodo Liberation Tigers and Government of India. This pact led to the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution so as to have control over 30 subjects including education, horticulture, etc.
HOW IS THE STATUS AWARDED?
The tribe has been defined in State of Kerela v. Chandramohanan as
" a social group of a simple kind, the members of which speak common dialect, have a single Government and act together for such common purposes as welfare."
The characteristics of different tribes even though they have been living in the same area for a long time can be different.
Article 366 (25) read with Article 342(1) explains that " Scheduled Tribes" are those tribes or tribal communities or parts or groups thereof, as the President by public notification specify. The president after consultation with the Governor of the State may by public notification notify what tribes or tribal communities are to be treated as ST with respect to each State and Union Territory. In Kamta Prasad v. State of Chhattisgarh, it was held that no authority, other than the Parliament by law has the power to amend Presidential Orders.
Therefore, in the ' Lokur Committee', that is the advisory committee on the revision of the list of ST's, takes into consideration certain parameters to determine a tribe as Scheduled Tribe. The criterion followed for specifications of the community as STs are indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness. Though the criterion is not spelled out in the Constitution but has become well established. It subsumes the definitions contained in the 1931 census, the report of Backward Classes Commission 1955, and the Joint Committee of Parliament on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes orders (Amendments) Bill 1967.
The constitutional bench of the Supreme Court in Action Committee on the Issue of Caste Certificate v. State of Maharashtra observed that
"consideration for specifying a particular tribe, for inclusion in the List of ST in a given State would depend on the nature and extent of disqualifications and social hardships suffered by the tribe in that State which may be totally non est in another."
BENEFITS OF SUCH STATUS
In order to balance the caste system in society, the Government of India has several ministries, one of them is the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The objective of the Ministry is to provide a more focused approach towards the integrated socio-economic development of the Scheduled Tribes in a coordinated and planned manner. Having ST status ensures the highly desired tangible perks such as political representation (Article 243, 330, 334, 337); reserved seats in educational institutions (Article 15(4), 46); and government jobs as well. Taking into account the third Bodo Peace Accord, it would help in strengthening the existing structure of BTC with its increased seats from 40 to 60. Such benefits allow them to live with dignity and self-esteem and without any fear or suppression.
However, recently in 2018, in the landmark case of Bir Singh v. Delhi Jal Board, it was held that STs could avail the benefit of reservation in government jobs in their home states only.
Constitutional provisions for ST can be divided into two parts i.e. protective and development. The purpose of the Bodo accord is to fulfill political and economic demands besides safeguarding the Bodo language and culture.
1. Economic Safeguards; Art.244(2) provides that the provisions of the Sixth Schedule shall apply to the administration & control of the Scheduled Tribes in the State of Assam. It is also accompanied by Art. 275 that grants in-Aid to specified States (STs) covered under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
2. Cultural safeguard; Art. 350 extends right to conserve distinct Language, Script or Culture.
3. Political Safeguards; Reservations of seats for STs in Lok Sabha (Art. 330), State Legislatures (Art. 337), and Panchayats (Art. 243) are some of the constitutional rights that would be availed by the Bodos. Along with it Art. 334 lays down the period for reservation.
MAJOR SCHEDULED TRIBES IN INDIA
Scheduled Tribe population represents a heterogeneous group scattered in different regions of India depicting the diverse culture and socio-economic status. India has approximately 645 separate tribes including Aptani, Garo, Munda, Onge, Kinnar, Ho, etc.
As per the 2011 census, tribal groups make up 8.6% of India's population. They are particularly prominent in Andra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, some northeastern states, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Broadly the STs inhabit in two distinct geographical areas – Central India and the North- Eastern Area. BHIL in West India is the most popular tribe with a total population of 4,618,068 constituting 37.7% of the total ST population. GOND is the second-largest tribe, with a population of 35.6%.
Assam saw several splits earlier when some North Eastern States were formed curving out from Assam. As Bodo people have found a solution to their aspiration by remaining within Assam, as for now another split of Assam has been avoided. But one can't deny that with such latest development, non-Bodos in the Bodoland area might feel uneasy. Even, the Karbi Students’ Association (KSA) and the Dimasa Students’ Union (DSU) have strongly opposed the decision of the government.
The question remains whether the action undertaken by the central government is to maintain 'integrity and harmony" or to counterpoise the growing "anti-BJP and anti-NRC-CAA" feelings in Assam.
‘Sequence of earlier Movements for a Separate Bodo- Tribal State’, Chapter 3 available at https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/66676/8/08_chapter%204.pdf  2004 SCC (Cri) 1 348  W.P. 5793 of 2005  ‘The report of the Advisory Committee on the revision of the lists of schedule castes and schedule tribes’, Government of India available at https://tribal.nic.in/writereaddata/AnnualReport/LokurCommitteeReport.pdf  1994 SCC (5) 244  (2018) 10 SCC 312
University Institute of Legal Studies, Punjab University.
(Images used for representative purpose only)