The self-rule system in tribal society draws strength from the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
New Delhi: New President of India Droupadi Murmu has with her poise shown the high qualities possessed within the tribal community of India. This is for the first time that an individual from this segment of the population has risen to the highest post in the land. This has given hope to those who are supporting reform in some aspects of the self-governance system being followed in tribal communities.
And not a moment too soon, for issues concerning the functioning of some of the councils set up in such a process are such as to cause uneasiness among those committed to the welfare of the tribal community, a proud component of the mosaic of Indian society. Consider what took place in Sobolpur village, Birbhum district (West Bengal).
On 20 January 2014, a couple was “suspected to be having love affair”. The local “Manjhi-Paragana Sabha” “pronounced” a penalty of Rs 25,000 to each. The man, a Muslim, paid the amount and escaped. However, the family of the poor tribal girl Balika Murmu was not able to pay the amount. The “Manjhi-Pargana Sabha” then announced rape as the punishment to her. Subsequently, she was gang-raped by some villagers. An FIR was lodged in this regard.
The case went up to the level of the Supreme Court. As many as 13 villagers were given life imprisonment. Meanwhile, the victim committed suicide on 19 July 2021 unable to endure any more the effects of that gross injustice.
Such incidents, quite rampant in tribal societies across the country, are why many have been calling for reform in the matter of tribal self-governance. The situation in states like Jharkhand, Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Assam has come under scrutiny by those backing reform, especially within the Santhal tribal society wherein the Manjhi-Pargana Chieftain system of traditional self-rule is in force. The issue has assumed great significance as incoming President of India Droupadi Murmu is herself a Santhal tribal and has been a strong supporter of empowerment and justice within the community. In particular, democracy needs to be the rule rather than a dynasty where self-rule is concerned. Each member of the community should have equal rights of representation, just as every citizen of India has the right to be considered and if possible secure the highest offices of the nation. As per 2011 census, the population of tribals in the country is around 104.3 million, accounting for 8.6 % of India’s total population. There are nearly 700 state-specific Scheduled Tribes (STs) all over the country. In the self-rule system as practiced in several places, appointment of the Chief of the village tribal society is done on the basis of dynasty, as per the tradition.
So the Chief of the “Adivasi Samaj” will always be appointed from one family. The Fifth and Sixth Schedules under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution in 1950 provided for self-governance in specified tribal-majority areas. The Fifth Schedule provides for the administration and control of tribal lands (termed “scheduled areas”) within nine states of India. The Fifth Schedule provides protection to tribal people living in scheduled areas from alienation of their lands and natural resources to non-tribals. The self-rule system in the tribal society draws strength from this Fifth Schedule. The government / administration does not interfere with this system, saying “this is an internal, societal matter” of the tribal society. What is urgently needed is reform within this vibrant community so that such injustices as have been pointed out earlier are avoided.
Absence of individual equality and adherence to democratic methods of selection is prevalent in the working of the self-rule system. Such concentration of power that in effect is often unchecked has led to complete monopoly of a small section of the people in the social affairs of the tribal society, and which is taking undue advantage of this power. Several social evils are now prevalent in these societies, such as “dandom” (penalty), “baron” (social boycott), “daan pante” (witch hunting), anti-woman mindset etc. which have their roots in the absence of democracy in the self-rule system. Allegations of witchcraft are quite common in the tribal villages, which speaks volumes about the failed self-rule system. The village heads / chiefs overtly endorse such practices as identifying witch-craft.
In recognition of this system, the “Pathalgadi” movement gained momentum in several areas in Jharkhand. “Pathalgadi” means planting a stone order. Stone plaques and signboards have come up at the entry points of over hundreds of villages in the state. This stone order dismisses the authority of the Union or the state governments in the villages.
This movement is spearheaded by those who want to retain their control over the tribal society through the unelected self-rule system. Recently, there was also a demand to set up an Independent Kolhan Nation. In such a context, the powerful symbolism of Head of State Droupadi Murmu can be matched with a push for reform from within the community.
Looking at the change that has been brought about through the Presidential election, tribal people have started voicing their doubts about existing practices concerning local leadership and are calling for reforms. There are demands for constituting a committee, on the lines of Dilip Singh Bhuria Committee, to study the merits and demerits of the existing self-rule system and recommend a fresh set of rules, to make the system more participatory and inclusive. Tribal empowerment cannot be done unless democracy is introduced in the selection process of every chieftain.
With Droupadi Murmu becoming President, it is expected that the issue of self-governance reform will get needed attention from policymakers, government officials and civil society.