Justice is an important pillar of existence for any civilised society. The commitment to justice is very well manifested in India by the Preamble of our Constitution. In order to ensure justice, the Constitution makers have provided for the reservation policy as well as other benefits for various tribal communities for their development and upliftment. Certain criteria were taken into account when listing a community as ‘Schedule Tribes’, including geographical location, distinct cultural identity, traditional customs and judicial system, and social and economic backwardness. On the basis of these factors, various communities were listed in the 5th and 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
It is very discouraging to note that despite the significant constitutional safeguards, the tribal communities are still lagging behind and remain deprived of the rights to equal opportunities and respect. These communities exist in smaller and larger groups in different parts of the country since time immemorial. They are followers of Sanātana tradition. All these tribes follow some or the other Sanātana deities, though with their distinct lifestyle and cultures. They are worshippers of nature i.e. earth, water, fire, air, and space. Their various art forms like dance, painting, music etc. correspond with the Sanātana way of life. They are the real saviours of forests, water and land resources – they are, in fact, the backbone and protectors of the Sanātana society.
Unfortunately, a large section of the tribal society is unable to reap the benefits of constitutional provisions such as reservation. The reason is rampant conversions. It is an inviolable fact that converting into another religion mean non-allegiance with the faith associated with traditional tribal values and customs. The tribals, once converted, neither behave in accordance with tribal values nor do they keep faith in tribal gods and goddesses.
Let us not forget that it was these tribes that kept the Indian tradition of chivalry and sainthood unscathed from the conspiracies of foreign invaders. They have, in fact, fortified our holy belief system and sacred cultural practices. These tribes are actually the true manifestation of the civilisational glory of India.
Converted tribals get double advantage – while they continue taking the benefits reserved for the Scheduled Tribe category, they also start enjoying the benefits provided to minorities. This fallout of conversion is dangerous in its own way – as it works as an incentive for converting to a ‘minority’ religion
Unfortunately, the ground situation is that now more converts are availing the benefits of reservation than those tribals who continue to maintain their faith.
Article 342 of the Indian Constitution is to protect and preserve a tribal’s way of life, culture, customs, rituals etc. as a whole and to uplift the listed Scheduled Tribes’ socio-economic conditions by giving them reservations in education, jobs, elections etc. Article 371 prevents even Parliament from making laws which may affect the way of life and cultures of certain tribal areas. The fundamental purpose of the tribal reservation becomes meaningless when the people reject their original faith, culture, customs and convert to another religion. It is but natural that a person who changes his/her faith will also change his way of life and adopt the cultural values of the new faith.
Reaping Double Benefits
Now the germane question is how converted tribals are encroaching on the constitutional benefits, to the disadvantage of non-converted tribals.
Converted tribals get double advantage – while they continue taking the benefits reserved for the Scheduled Tribe category, they also start enjoying the benefits provided to minorities. This fallout of conversion is dangerous in its own way – as it works as an incentive for converting to a ‘minority’ religion. Also, conversion activists make it a point to help and guide the newly converted tribals to avail all possible benefits, as an inducement to others to also convert.
In this scenario, the converts stand to gain financially, politically as well as socially. On the other hand, those who continue in their traditional way of life remain deprived and unaware of their rights or the ways to avail the benefits. Even if they try to avail the facilities, they are not in a position to compete with the converted tribals who have attained financial and social advantages after availing double benefits. The genesis of the delisting movement is not recent, it dates back to 1970 when late Kartik Oraon (who was a janajāti (tribal) leader and a politician from the then Bihar) submitted a memorandum signed by 346 Lok Sabha members to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – highlighting the anomalies in the provisions for Scheduled Tribes. Oraon was a Lok Sabha member from Lohardaga. He had appealed in the memorandum to delist converted tribals from the list of the Scheduled Tribes and exclusively reserve constitutional guarantee for tribal people who follow their faith and culture in letter and spirit. The Joint Parliamentary Committee constituted by the then government had also recommended the same, but unfortunately no action was taken.
Again in 2009, a signature campaign was conducted in support of the demand by JSM (Janjāti Surakshā Manch), which was formed in 2006. This forum organised awareness campaigns, dharnas and many other activities in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland. JSM obtained 28 lakh signatures of people belonging to Scheduled Tribes from across the nation. A memorandum along with the 28 lakh signatures was submitted to then President Prabhia Singh Patil. Once again, nothing happened.
Again in 2020, the delisting movement gained momentum on the occasion of the 96th Birth Anniversary of Late Kartik Oraon. Even the apex court has ruled in a case related to Kerala. The Supreme Court gave a ruling that if anyone changes his religion, his tribal status would be ascertained to find out by an appropriate court whether the person is still following the lifestyle and traditional practices of the particular tribal community.
Therefore the need of the hour is a clear legislation that delists a converted individual. Only then can we eventually ensure the fulfilment of the aspiration of the Constitution makers to bring the least advantage members of the society within the purview of justice.