New Delhi, June 8: Communities should not be denied Scheduled Tribe status just because they follow the “Hindu way of life”, a panel appointed by the UPA on the eve of the general election has suggested.
The recommendation comes at a time many tribes have been shifting gradually towards mainstream Hinduism and away from their animist and nature-worshipping traditions, anthropologists say.
Many among the 700-odd communities on the Scheduled Tribe list too have been following Hindu practices — some of them, perhaps, after having gained the status.
However, one of the five current criteria for inclusion on the list is “indication of primitive traits” — which seems to require adherence to the traditional animist practices.
Now this criterion has been dropped from a set of six new criteria suggested by a committee headed by Union tribal affairs secretary Hrushikesh Panda, which has also recommended the inclusion of 30 new communities. (See chart)
Sociologist Andre Beteille criticised both the old and the new criteria, saying they were based on “political considerations” and not on any “academic definition”.
Beteille blamed the “attraction of the quota” — the Scheduled Tribes have 7.5 per cent of government jobs and higher education seats reserved for them — for the clamour for inclusion in the list.
“The communities that are already in the list do not want others to come in,” he said. “The middle class people from communities that are outside the Scheduled Tribe list want to get into the list because they want a share in the quota. That is why these criteria are coming up.”
Union tribal affairs minister Jual Oram did not want to comment on the recommendations but said he would examine the report soon.
His predecessor, V. Kishore Chandra Deo, endorsed the Panda panel’s suggestions. He told The Telegraph that many hill tribes were being denied Scheduled Tribe status because of “rigid” (dated and narrow) criteria and “long bureaucratic scrutiny”.
“Many studies have shown that some tribal communities follow Hindu practices,” said Soumendra Patnaik, a Delhi University teacher and president of the Indian Anthropological Association, a professional body of anthropologists.
“The study by Surajit Sinha on the Bhumij community of West Bengal has established that a section of the Bhumij community was following Hinduism in the 1940s.”
C.R. Sathyanarayanan, deputy director of the Anthropological Survey of India, said: “In many mountain landscapes in southern India, tribals have started following the Ayyappa culture. They should not be left out of the Scheduled Tribe list for that reason.”
Lord Ayyappa, the deity of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, is considered by believers to be the offspring of Shiv and Mohini, the female incarnation of Vishnu.
Deo, the former Union minister, said the Saara tribe had fallen victim to the Odisha practice of spelling tribal names differently in different areas. He cited how the Shabar were included in the Scheduled Tribe list but the Saara — who Deo said were Shabar tribals living near Khurda — were not.
The Registrar General of India, a home ministry arm that oversees censuses and collects demographic data, has ruled that the Saara are not the same as the Shabar. But Panda’s panel has recommended Scheduled Tribe status for the Saara.
The demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe list is a major issue in many states, such as Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Nearly two lakh people from the Dora community in Koraput had threatened to boycott this summer’s general election if not granted Scheduled Tribe status.
If a community is to be included in the list, the state government has to send a proposal to the Union tribal affairs ministry, which forwards it to the Registrar General and, if it agrees, to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.
If the commission gives its nod, the ministry prepares a bill to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order of 1950 to include the new communities. After both Houses pass the bill, the government notifies the new communities’ Scheduled Tribe status.