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Rising From The Margins

Kudmis Quest for Scheduled Tribe Status

Shamayita Sen

Tribalism, writes Mamdani, is ‘reified ethnicity’. The administrative category of ‘tribe’ is a colonial invention: ‘a politically driven, totalising identity’ which discriminates in favour of the native over the non-native. In India, caste, religion and tribe were the three administrative canisters into which the colonised were sequestered by the British. Since its inception, the category of tribe, which was later adapted as Scheduled Tribe (ST) by the makers of the Indian constitution was loaded with racist and evolutionist connotations. While initially Hindus were held responsible for the ‘savage state of the aborigines, the blame has presently shifted to the shoulders of the modern State. The ‘tribal’ though continues to remain savage and primitive, always seen through the lens of a ‘deficit’, as a community that is ‘behind, lacking, insufficient’. The ontology of the modern self to date has as its other in the ‘tribe’.

Notwithstanding the stereotypes that heavily inform the category of ST, a number of communities in India aspire to be categorised as such. ST remains a ‘pliable’ administrative category for its criteria are not clearly defined. In 1965, the Lokur Commission came up with five criteria of ST recognition: indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large and backwardness. While these criteria have been criticised, (for instance, the Xaxa Report (2014) admits of their ‘paternalistic and pejorative connotations’, no new criteria have been formulated to replace them. This has prompted scholars like Mayaram (2014) to see the category as a ‘mode of violence, pointing to the need to debate afresh the grounds on which tribality is constituted’. It is here that the struggle of the Kudmi Mahato community becomes important. What follows is a brief account of their struggle for ST status.

The Kudmi-Mahato community, spread across West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Assam is presently mobilising massively for ST status. In West Bengal, they are concentrated majorly in the south-western districts of Bankura, West Midnapore, Jhargram, and Purulia. They have an agrarian economy and control most of the fertile, arable lands in these districts. Kudmis are also politically influential, especially in Jhargram and Purulia where they constitute the demographic majority. During the 34-year Left Front rule in Bengal, they assumed a central role in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI. By assuming a leadership position in the Lalgarh Resistance Movement (2008-2011), remembered as a watershed movement in the political history of West Bengal, Kudmis also played a crucial role in sounding the death knell for the CPI(M). Although initially, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) could mobilise their support, recent trends foreground divided loyalties between the TMC, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their struggle to gain recognition as ST is the most significant reason behind their party/electoral dilemma.

In colonial India, till 1931, Kudmis were recognised as Primitive Tribe. After 1931, they were de-scheduled from the list of tribes after successful mobilisation by a section of upper-class Kudmis for Kshatriya status. The ST list which was prepared in 1950 too did not mention their name. The Kalelkar Commission (1955) proposed their name to be included in the list of Backward Classes in West Bengal. Since the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission’s report in the early 1990s, Kudmi is constitutionally recognised as an Other Backward Class in the state. The struggle for ST status among them has a long history. In Bengal, it has its epicentre at Purulia where in 1987 about a lakh Kudmi congregated to voice their claims to tribality.

While the CPI (M) government made no promises along the lines of recognising Kudmis’ tribal status, the TMC chief Mamata Banerjee recognised and endorsed their demand. The Cultural Research Institute (CRI) in West Bengal (functioning under the Tribal Development Department) which evaluates claims of communities to tribality has not assessed Kudmis’ demands favourably. While changes to the report have been suggested by Kudmi mulmanta (leaders) leading the agitation for ST status who have given clarifications on several conclusions made in the report,a failure to accommodate Kudmis’ demands has created a stir against the State government. The BJP has taken advantage of this situation to reap political benefits. Interestingly in 2019, BJP candidates won in Parliamentary election from both Jhargram and Purulia. In 2024, while in Purulia, Kudmis have fielded Ajit Prasad Mahato, their veteran and most-influential leader as an independent candidate, in Jhargram which is an ST-reserved Parliamentary constituency, the community is supporting Surya Singh Besra, a veteran leader of Jharkhand movement. This comes as a response to foot-dragging on parts of both the Central and state governments over the community’s demand for ST status.

The politics of recognition among Kudmis has not gone down well with communities presently categorised as ST, mostly Santhals and Bhumij. They have organised protest sit-ins both at the district and regional levels to argue against Kudmis’ claims which mostly centre on the pervasiveness of Hindu religious practices among them. While their claims are not entirely unverified, it should be remembered that ST is a religion-neutral category. Kudmis present an interesting case in the criterial politics of tribality because they defy the archaic markers on the fulfilment of which a community is given ST-status. But, this does not make their claim illegitimate. Kudmis indeed escape the notions of lack and inadequacy that are central to the construction of tribe as an anti-modern community, but their struggle needs to be closely surveyed.

While movements for ST-status generally get ‘trapped in the language of the state… constrained by the single demand for reservation’, the Kudmis are practising a subversive politics by embodying their criterial absence. Instead of framing their history through the lens of an archaic tribalism, by escaping the existing criteria for ST-recognition, Kudmis are ‘living the absence’. ‘Unidentifiable by any of the available markers and protocols’ of tribality while still demanding ST status , Kudmis are embracing dis-identification thereby opening the way for a more nuanced understanding of who constitutes the tribal in modern, postcolonial India, a question that has the potential to also dislodge the modern. ooo

References:
Ambedkar, B. (1968). Annihilation of Caste.
Carlson, B., & Frazer, R. (2021). Indigenous Digital Life: The Practice and Politics of Being Indigenous on Social Media. Australia: Palgrave Macmillan .
Das, S. (2015). Living the 'Absence': the Rajbanshis of North Bengal. TISS, Working Paper(5), 1-16. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from http://rnd.tiss.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/TISS-Working-Paper-5-Samir-Kumar-Das.pdf
Mamdani, M. (2012). What is a Tribe? London Review of Books, 34(17), 20-22.
Mayaram, S. (2014). Pastoral Predicaments: The Gujars in History. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 48(2), 191-222.
Middleton, T. (2013). Scheduling Tribe: A View from Inside India's Ethnographic State. Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology(65), 13-22.
Xaxa et.al, V. (2014). Report of the High Level Committee on Socio-economic, Health and Educational Statuss of Tribal Communities of India. New Delhi: Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India.

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Vol 56, No. 47, May 19 - 25, 2024