Meghalaya’s bid to exclude “unrepresented tribes” from the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution has left minor tribes upset. The five minority tribes -Hajong, Koch, Rabha, Boro and Mann are clubbed together as “unrepresented tribes” and they fear that once the proposed amendment is implemented, their rights will be violated. Northeast Today reports.
On September 26, 2019 a sub-committee constituted by the State government of Meghalaya had decided to recommend to the Standing Committee of Parliament the removal of the word “unrepresented tribes” from the amended Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. In its second sitting, the 18-member committee headed by the District Council Affairs (DCA) minister, James K Sangma recommended deletion of the word ‘unrepresented tribes’ from the proposed amendment of the Sixth Schedule. It should be mentioned here that currently, members of “unrepresented tribes” are nominated to the autonomous district councils within Meghalaya.
Sangma’s bid to exclude “unrepresented tribes” from the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution has left minor tribes upset. Meghalaya is the home of three major tribes- Khasi, Jayantiya and Garo, along with other minority tribes. The minority tribes include the Hajong, Koch, Rabha, Boro and Mann. These five minority tribes are clubbed together as “unrepresented tribes” mentioned in the above recommendation. The proposed recommendation for removal of the word “unrepresented tribes” by the 18 members committee is likely to affect the rights of these tribes and hence there is a feeling of insecurity among them.
Fear has many faces
Constitutional amendments and changes in regards to the sixth schedule are not new in the country. In the past, there had been several such changes to protect the rights of the tribal groups. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) which is an autonomous district council for the benefit of the Bodo tribes was created under the Amended Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. However, sometimes such amendments do not satisfy all the stakeholders and it only benefits some dominant groups. The current fear among the minor tribes in Meghalaya with the removal of the word “unrepresented tribes” from the constitution is triggered by such experiences from other parts of Northeast India (where minority tribes and non-tribal indigenous groups have suffered due lack of constitutional safeguards and policies). Even in the larger context of South Asia, the rights of minority groups whether tribals or not have been denied in many occasions. In this context, the fear of the Unrepresented Tribes of Meghalaya is justified to some extent.
The Sixth Schedule makes special provisions for the welfare and advancement of the Scheduled Tribes and the tribal areas residing in the parts or the whole of the four northeastern states namely, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura. The District Council and the Regional Council under the Sixth Schedule have real power to make laws, possibility on the various legislative subjects, receiving grants-in-aid from the Consolidated Fund of India to meet the costs of schemes for development, health care, education, roads and regulatory powers to state control.
Under the Sixth Schedule provisions, Assam has three autonomous councils, namely: Bodoland Territorial Council, Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council. In Tripura, there is only one such council which is Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. Mizoram too has three such councils namely Chakma Autonomous District Council, Lai Autonomous District Council and Mara Autonomous District Council. On the other hand, Meghalaya the state in controversy has three such councils namely Garo Hills Autonomous District Council, Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council and Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council.
The proposed amendment will deprive the Bodo-Kachari, Hajong, Koch, Mann, and Rabha Scheduled Tribes of their constitutional rights to be represented in the autonomous district councils as of now, it will not be possible for them to get elected on the basis of adult suffrage. These five minor tribes are clubbed together as ‘unrepresented tribes’ for nomination in Meghalaya’s autonomous tribal councils.
In January 2019, Union Cabinet approved amendment to Article 280 and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to increase autonomy, financial resources and powers of the autonomous district councils in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.“The cabinet approves landmark amendment to Article 280 and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The most important part of these amendments is that these will significantly improve the financial resources and powers of the autonomous districts councils in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, fulfilling longstanding aspirations of the tribal population in these northeastern states,” the statement read.
The amendment also proposed to rename the existing autonomous councils as Karbi Anglong Autonomous Territorial Council (KAATC), Dima Hasao Autonomous Territorial Council (DHATC), Garo Hills Autonomous Territorial Council (GHATC), Khasi Hills Autonomous Territorial Council (KHATC), Jaintia Hills Autonomous Territorial Council (JHATC) and Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous Territorial Council (TTAATC) as the present jurisdiction of these councils extend to more than one districts.
In Meghalaya, THE CONSTITUTION (ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIFTH AMENDMENT) BILL, 2019 propose that Garo Hills Autonomous Territorial Council shall consist of not more than forty-two members, of whom thirty-six shall be elected on the basis of adult suffrage. The Governor will nominate six members of whom at least two shall be women and at least four shall be from the unrepresented tribes: Provided also that Khasi Hills Autonomous Territorial Council shall consist of not more than forty members, of whom thirty-six shall be elected on the basis of adult suffrage. The Governor will nominate four members of whom at least two shall be women and at least two shall be from the unrepresented tribes: Provided also that Jaintia Hills Autonomous Territorial Council shall consist of not more than thirty-four members, of whom four members including at least two women members shall be nominated by the Governor and rest of the members shall be elected on the basis of adult suffrage. The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Third Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in Rajya Sabha on February 11, 2019 by the Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram. It was passed by Rajya Sabha on February 13, 2019.
The three Autonomous District Councils (ADC) of Meghalaya have urged the National Commission for Scheduled Tribe to direct the State government not to interfere into their affairs.
The three ADCs have also apprised the 15th Finance Commission that the revenue collected is barely sufficient to carry out their day- to-day administrative activities and primary duties as envisaged in the sixth schedule leaving virtually no funds for development work.
Who are the unrepresented tribes?
We have already mentioned that the five minority tribes of Meghalaya who are labeled as Unrepresented Tribes are Bodo-Kachari, Hajong, Koch, Rabha and Mann. These tribes have been living in Meghalaya before the area was converted formally into a State in 1972. Among these five tribes, except Mann, the other four tribes share close affinities. Koch, Rabha and the Hajong tribes are very closely related with share historical memories and oral traditions. Bodo-Kachari, Hajong, Koch and Rabha are native to the sub-continent and are considered indigenous tribes in South Asia. There is a strong chain of evidence that a large part of the Garo Hills was ruled and populated by the Koches in the past.
According to the 2001 census, there are 28,153 Rabha, 21,381 Koches, 31,381 Hajongs and 2,932 Boro Kacharis in Meghalaya. Rabhas, Koches and Boro-Kacharis are a major tribe in neighbouring Assam, though Koches (who are also known as Koch Rajbanshis in Assam) do not have ST status in the state. All these three tribes are predominantly Hindu, but Koches in Meghalaya still maintain matrilineal traditions upto a large extent. Rabhas and Koches have their distinct language which belongs to Tibeto-Burman group. The Boro Kachari is a generic term and mostly referred to Bodos and some other Kachari Tribes of Northeast India.
These minor tribes are indigenous to Meghalaya and have been living in the state much before its creation in 1972.
Is there a communal angle?
Though politics in Meghalaya is determined by tribal politics and ethnicity, some groups are looking at the recent demand for removal of the word “unrepresented tribes” from the amended Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India as an act with communal intention as all these five minority tribes are coincidently considered Hindu by religion. It is a well known fact that when it comes to religion, Meghalaya emerges as Christian Majority state.
It should be noted here that Meghalaya is one of three states in India to have a Christian majority with about 75% of the population practicing Christianity as their religion. According to 2011 Census report Christians form majority in Meghalaya. Christians constitute 74.59% of Meghalaya population as per the census report. Christians form the majority religion in 7 out of 7 districts of Meghalaya state. On the other hand, Hindus consist of only 11.53% of the total populations. Interestingly, there was a slight increase in the Muslim population in the State even as the Christian population rose from 70.25 per cent in 2001, to 74.59 percent in 2011. Close to 90% of the Garo tribe and nearly 80% of the Khasi are Christian.
It might be a coincidence, but majority of the “Unrepresented Tribe” in Meghalaya are Hindus. More than 97% of the Hajong, 98.53% of the Koch, and 94.60% of the Rabha tribes are Hindu. It is evident that the religion of the people in Meghalaya is closely related to their ethnicity.
The current move to deny the rights of minority tribes in Meghalaya seems to be minority politics, rather than religious politics. However, taking advantage of the situation organizations far away from Maharashtra are taking interest into the matter. The Maharashtra-based legal rights organization named Legal Rights Observatory (LRO) has written to the Meghalaya government asking the Government to “immediately withdraw” the proposal to amend the Sixth Schedule in the state in relation to the matter of “unrepresented tribes”. (LRO) posted the letter on its Facebook page, terming move “controversial and a highly unrealistic, illogical and outrageous attempt to violate fundamental rights of Hindu tribes of Garo Hills such as Hajong, Koch, Rabha, Boro and Maan.” ‘We won’t tolerate exclusion of minority Hindu tribes which are living there since hundreds of years and are original inhabitants of the region having natural rights to be in Sixth Schedule. The move will convert Hindu tribes into third-rate citizens,” the LRO letter addressed to the Meghalaya chief minister, read.
The move is strongly opposed by various Civil Society Organizations, as well political leaders of Meghalaya. A joint delegation of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) representing five “unrepresented tribes” had met the Home Minister of Meghalaya James A. Sangma to voice their concerns about the amendment. These groups were the Meghalaya Koch Association (MKA), Meghalaya Hajong Welfare Association (MHWA), Meghalaya Rabha Jatio Sewa Sangha, All Bodo Students’ Union, Bodo Sahitya Sabha, All Meghalaya Mann Welfare Society and All Rabha Students’ Union. Leaders of these organisations stated to the media that the outcome of the meeting was not according to their expectations. “It is sad the minority tribes have run into tribal majoritarianism. We have virtually been made non-indigenous and unwanted in our own homeland,” an MHWA spokesperson said to media.
BJP leader and former minister from Tikrikilla KC Boro have termed this move as inhuman. Boro, who is also the state president of Kisan Morcha, said the Inhuman’ decision is against constitutional right and natural justice. Boro wondered whether the minority tribes are second class citizens in Meghalaya. Boro said the unrepresented tribe or other tribe is an ambiguous term. There are actually two categories of other tribes in Meghalaya like tribals outside Meghalaya- Naga, Mizo, Manipuri and others besides other tribes of Meghalaya such as Hajong, Koch, Rabha, Boro-Kachari and Maan including ‘Dalu’, ‘Barman’ and ‘Banai which are yet to be recognised as the STs under the Sixth Schedule. He said the minority tribes officially called as other tribes of Meghalaya like Hajong, Koch, Rabha, Boro-Kachari and Maan are the aboriginal inhabitants and the indigenous tribes of Meghalaya are Khasis, Jaintias and Garos.
What the MHWA spokesperson cannot be overlooked as these tribes are hardly visible in Meghalaya officially. Government Department like tourism doesn’t mention about these tribes and mentions only about Khasis, Garos and Janyatiyas.. It says, Meghalaya’s main ethnic communities, each having its own distinctive customs and cultural traditions are the Khasis (of Mon-Khmer ancestry), the Garos (of Tibeto-Burman origin) and the Jaintias said to be from South East Asia. The common trait binding all three communities is its matrilineal system in which the family linage is taken from the mother’s side (megtourism.gov.in).
Meghalaya which was part of Assam earlier became as an Autonomous State on 2nd April 1970 and as a full-fledged State on 21st January 1972. The former districts of Assam Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills became the new state of Meghalaya. The population of Meghalaya as of 2011 has been estimated at 2,964,007 of which females comprise 1,492,668 and males 1,471,339. Among the total population the numbers of the minority tribe are around 100,000. Once the rights of these minority tribes are violated as indigenous people of Meghalaya, it may create instability in the hilly state. On this context, what Mr. Bodo has stated is very significant. “Instead of torturing them, the government should take a decision to part the plains of Garo Hills (minority tribe-dominated areas) from Mendipathar up to Dalu via Tikrikilla, Phulbari , Rajabala, Ampati and Mahendraganj with Assam”, Boro said.