A question from Manipur: Who is an ST?

Source– The post is based on the article “A question from Manipur: Who is an ST?” published in “The Indian Express” on 10th May 2023.

Syllabus: GS2- Polity

Relevance– Identity politics

News–  Rcenetly, there were voilent protest in Manipur over demand for affirmative action by the state’s Meitei community.

What are issues regarding ST status in India?

The stakes of reservation or affirmative action have become higher amid economic liberalisation and neoliberal reform.

Many marginalised groups not recognised as STs observe as their ST neighbours reap the advantage of affirmative action benefits. Such disparities can spark inter-community tensions and conflicts.

ST status has become a contentious issue. There are about 720 recognised STs in the country today. At least a thousand more groups are vying for recognition as STs.

These are symptoms of a crisis in India’s over-burdened, out-of-date reservation system.

There have been important policy documents that have made the same point.

The 2006 draft “The National Tribal Policy for the Scheduled Tribes of India” observed that, there is an increasing clamour from many communities to get included as ST. Adding new communities to the list reduces the benefits to existing STs. Therefore, it should be done, only if there is no room for doubt.

The draft pointed to the problematical nature of the official criteria for defining STs laid out by the B N Lokur Committee in 1965. These criteria are hardly relevant today. Other more accurate criteria need to be fixed. But, it may not be easy.

Justice Jasraj Chopra committee was appointed in 2007 by the Rajasthan government to examine the Gujjars’ demand for ST status.

As per the committee, a national debate should be initiated on the existing norms for according ST status to any community. Certain criteria should be abrogated as they had become outdated.

What are issues related to Assam’s Adivasi community seeking ST status?

It raises profound questions about our system of reservation. In Northeast India, unlike in the rest of the country, the word Adivasi, is not used as an equivalent for ST.

The only major group of people that call themselves Adivasi are not officially recognised as ST. They are the descendants of tea workers brought as indentured workers to Assam.

The region’s established STs don’t self-identify as Adivasi because of the “backwardness” associated with the term. They prefer the English words tribe or tribal for self-identification.

The census of 1891 classified tea workers simply as labourers. But the term Adivasi has a special appeal to their descendants because its original use was by tribal leaders of Jharkhand. They regard the place as their original home.

People who have spent years in tea plantations cannot be expected to retain their primitive traits and distinctive culture that marked their ancestors in other states.

They realy warrants some relaxation in the criteria. They are descendants of those having ST recognition in their places of origin.

If the Adivasis are among Northeast India’s most deprived people today, it is the result of the precedence accorded to indigeneity over citizenship and successful cultural adaptation into local societies.

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