On the politics of recognition and coloniality of India’s affirmative action system.
India’s affirmative action system is the largest and perhaps most fraught in the world. Currently, the Indian government provides vital protections to hundreds of millions of individuals from government-designated castes, tribes, and other disadvantaged minorities across the country. Stretching into virtually every sector of life, affirmative action has become a signature of multicultural democracy on the subcontinent. But despite its centrality, India’s affirmative action system is in crisis. Violent protests in the 1990s over proposed hikes in positive discrimination quotas fired a shot over the bow. Subsequent protests and violence have confirmed the crisis at hand. India’s affirmative action controversies have focused primarily on caste. The last decade, however, has thrust a new category to the fore of concern: that of the tribe.
India’s affirmative action system is the largest and perhaps most fraught in the world.
Arising in dialogue with a now-global discourse of indigenous rights, recent years have seen an onslaught of demands for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. The government already serves more than 700 constitutionally recognized ST communities (a population totaling more than one hundred million individuals). On top of that daunting figure, there are upwards of a thousand additional communities vying for this suddenly coveted status. These groups have tapped anthropology and a broader network of indigenous movements to strengthen their demands. The force and sheer quantity of their claims has put the postcolonial state in a veritable bind.
Among those demanding recognition are the people of Darjeeling. Historically, the majority of these Nepali-speaking groups moved across the Nepal Himalayas into the Darjeeling area to sell their labor in the budding industries and tea plantations of the British. They have suffered anxieties over being-in and being-of India ever since. Despite being citizens of India, they continue to be call “outsiders” and “foreigners” and remain subject to enduring forms or precarity and exclusion. In the 1980s, these groups—who collectively identify as “Gorkha”—launched a violent agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland. When this bid for subnational autonomy failed, politics took a decidedly ethnological turn in the 1990s as individual ethnic groups began mobilizing for tribal status. By 2005, the race to become tribal was on.
The people of Darjeeling, like so many marginalized communities in India, have increasingly found themselves on the outside looking in at a quickening national mainstream. Amid the turbulence of economic liberalization and neoliberal reform, the stakes of affirmative action have intensified. Unrecognized minorities watch as their ST neighbors reap the advantage of affirmative action benefits—sending children to college, obtaining reserved governmental jobs, and accessing legal and financial protections unavailable to the unrecognized. Not surprisingly, in Darjeeling such disparities have bred inter-ethnic tensions and competition. These are but some of the unanticipated dynamics—and drivers—of Darjeeling’s recent tribal turn.
Not just in Darjeeling but across the country, the government has struggled to meet the escalating demands for tribal recognition. By all accounts, India’s affirmative action system is over-burdened, out-of-date, and severely backlogged. Applications for tribal status take years, sometimes even decades, to process. Waiting out this interminable delay and shoehorning communities into the anthropological straightjacket of “tribalness” in order to gain government recognition may have deleterious consequences.
Communities in Darjeeling have splintered internally over what it means to be tribal. The time and immense resources it takes to become a Scheduled Tribe has fomented frustration among these groups, spawning, in turn, an array of alternative movements—none more notable (and violent) than the second Gorkhaland Movement that has raged intermittently since 2008. The people of Darjeeling are not alone in their frustrated bids to become tribal. Violence in Assam (two dead and hundreds injured in 2007), Rajasthan (60 dead in recent years), and elsewhere has confirmed the rising volume and volatility of these politics of recognition.
The government, for its part, has taken note. At a press conference this month, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram, announced “The guidelines to change the current norms for inclusion in the ST category of tribes are being changed. One of the major changes is that such demands should be decided within six months.” Oram went on to explain that once the new measures were “framed and approved, demands would be decided within six months irrespective of the State Government’s recommendation.”
These encounters between tribes and anthropologists are highly charged—and stilted—affairs, where community leaders, civil servants, and everyday villagers vie for the ethnographic truth.
This announcement marks a promising step. But my research suggests that an overhaul of the systems may be easier said than done. This is a form of governance with conceptual and structural roots extending deep into India’s colonial past—and which has taken particularly acute postcolonial forms. Per current modalities, government anthropologists are to ethnographically verify the tribal identities of applicant groups based on the criteria of: (a) Indication of primitive traits (b) Distinctive culture (c) Geographical isolation (d) Shyness of contact with the community at large and (e) Backwardness. These encounters between tribes and anthropologists are highly charged—and stilted—affairs, where community leaders, civil servants, and everyday villagers vie for the ethnographic truth.
Following these pivotal classificatory moments, government anthropologists then write up official reports—a process that itself takes months and years. ST applications next begin a complicated bureaucratic journey through various technocratic organs of the state and federal governments before eventually making their way to parliament and becoming law. This is the path of successful cases, however. Most files do not proceed so easily. As the people of Darjeeling know well, rejections are rampant. Files are lost, found, and lost again. Technical errors and anthropological disagreements frequently send files back down the chain and/or lead to outright termination. All of this takes time—time that many minorities simply do not have.
An ostensibly colonial category—“tribe”—has now come to rewrite the prospects of millions of individuals in postcolonial India. There is no doubt that the process of tribal recognition must change, but there are major challenges ahead. Overhauling the system will require constitutional orders that are sure to evoke thorny question of states’ versus federal rights. Presently, it remains unclear what a new or better set of criteria and procedures might actually entail. Prior to Oram’s recent announcement, officials I worked with were already articulating a desire to cap the number of Scheduled Tribes. There has even been talk of de-notifying existing STs. Both measures are sure to meet dire resistance from aspiring and existing tribes, who rely on affirmative action for hope and support.
Neither the strains nor urgency of tribal recognition are abating. Given the quandaries at hand, the Minister of Tribal Affair’s recent suggestion of a new system with the powers of recognition vested solely in the federal government raises some concerns: Are we seeing here a consolidation of power that will enable quick and easy denials of affirmative action? Or is India perhaps on the cusp of finding a new way to recognize and meet the needs of its most marginalized? Amid the uncertain transformations that define India today one thing has become clear: the time to rethink recognition is now.
The Demands of Recognition is one of the inaugural books in Stanford University Press's new book series, South Asia in Motion. To learn more about this series, see series editor Thomas Blom Hansen's explanation of the series' aims.
A new book series aims to capture the tectonic transformations of the subcontinent.
The legacy of authoritarianism and people’s movements.