Himachal: Declaring Haati as a Tribal Group will Reinforce Caste Hierarchies
Image Courtesy: Sirmourhaati
This incident pertains to the last years of the 20th century in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh when I was on an internship towards becoming a full-time functionary of the democratic movement in the state.
The area chosen for my work was the Satluj basin (River Satluj, which flows from Kinnaur as it enters India, Shimla, Mandi, Kullu, Bilaspur and finally into the Nangal Dam in Punjab). My area was the Satluj basin in Kinnaur district, which is a tribal district and has high hydropower potential. Hydro projects were being constructed on the Satluj and its tributaries. My work was to build worker-peasant unity with the workers - most of them from native Kinnaur - build connections in the rural base and thus establish the unity of the kisans and the workers.
In one of the incidents, we were able to mobilise some of the youth from the Rupi village right above the Maytas hydropower project. Actually, it is in practice that we learnt that even amongst the tribals, there is caste differentiation, and untouchability is practised widely in the region. So, amongst the tribal Kinnauras, there is also a scheduled caste subgroup.
As we interacted with them, they revealed that they had to go without work for a month because they had to carry the local village deity for a procession, and the drums used for the rituals were placed on their backs. They will move with the deity, live separately, mostly in the open in the fields as their entry into houses is not allowed, eat separately, and will be doing begaar (a form of serfdom where they will not be paid a penny for this work). After a month, once the deity comes back to the village after the tour to other villages, they will be relieved.
Now, since I was a new intern and was radicalised myself from the university, I passed on the same wisdom to these two friends and asked them to raise these questions in the village panchayat: Firstly, to say they are not prepared to carry the drums free of cost and must be paid for that job; secondly, the drum carrying work should be equally shared between them and the non-SC’s; and thirdly, they should be given the same meals as consumed by the other tribal people.
As we had radicalised them, they raised these demands, and the result was ominous but beyond our comprehension. They were ostracised, were not allowed to enter the village, and even their parents sided with the village panchayat hierarchy finally. It took six months and an intervention from the Himachal Pradesh High Court, after which they could go back to their villages. Perhaps they were made to pay a fine to the deity, and it was only then that they were allowed in the village.
Such is the case and the reality of the devbhoomi - Himachal Pradesh, where caste atrocity is embedded in the institution of the deity. Where all seems to be good, but it is not.
The reason I recall this story is that a similar subsuming of the scheduled caste into the larger ambit of the scheduled tribe is about to take place in the trans-Giri River region of the Sirmour district of Himachal Pradesh. The trans-Giri region pertains to the portion of land that is on the left bank of the Giri River. The people residing there have been raising a demand to declare a particular community, i.e., Haati, as a tribe and award tribal status to them.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting Shimla tomorrow on completion of 8 years of his government is holding a rally, and it is expected that he may announce tribal status for Haati.
HATTI COMES FROM HAAT
The BJP government at the state level has strongly advocated for declaring this community as a tribal community. The people of the region who will be awarded this tribal status would fall mainly under these regions: Shillai, Sangrah/Renuka and some parts of Rajgarh.
Different sections of the dalit communities have represented to the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister not to declare Haati as a tribal community.
Once the entire population residing in the trans-Giri River is termed as tribal, the SC & ST Atrocity Act will not be of use anymore.
These representations have termed the entire exercise of declaring the “Haati community” as a fraud.
Haati flows from the word Haat. The people of this region, mainly those who were doing begaar in the region, used to frequently visit Vikasnagar (now in Uttarakhand) as it was the closest market to sell their produce. They produce mainly comprised of agricultural and animal products like ginger, potatoes, wool etc. In the times of the barter system, they used to get salt, sugar and other essential items in return that was not available to them in their local habitat.
In Vikasnagar, they used to put up stalls called Haat (just like Delhi Haat) to sell their products and thus evolved the name Haati meaning those putting up stalls coming from the mountains. It was, in fact, a derogatory remark against the mountain communities.
Apparently, the term Haati does not figure in any of the Haruls (local dialect folk songs of the region). The population mainly comprises Kassites, who had internecine warfare amongst themselves and, in the current context, represent the worst form of obscurantism. The famous Thodo(Thodo ground in Solan) is actually a dance of Kassites, where different groups would dance, displaying their valour by killing the enemies and making a maala (garland) of their heads. Kassites are not just in trans-Giribut also in major portions of Shimla, Kullu and even in Solan. These Kassites have a strong Khund system (clan system, which is identifiable by their surname, for example, Priety Zinta, a film actress from Shimla, represents Zinta Khund). Hence, Haati is not the transformation of Kassites.
The dalits of the region point out that it was through a purported conspiracy that the state government-appointed official made a recommendation for the Haati community to be considered a homogenous group, thus qualifying for being a tribe.
Interestingly, the RGI (Registrar General of India), in its 2017 order, categorically rejected the claims of the Haati community and had stated that it has no composite culture and is segregated into different groups. But the same office in 2021 recommended that Haati be considered as a tribe.
So, the fear amongst the scheduled caste population of the region that once the entire population of the region is announced as Haati, and thus tribal, there would be more caste atrocities on them is not unfounded.
According to government figures from 2015 to 2021, there have been 116 cases registered under the SC & ST Atrocity Act in the Sirmour district. Out of these, 116, 110 are registered in this region, i.e., the trans-Giri region itself.
Quite interestingly, the so-called Haati Samiti of district Sirmour comprises 100 per cent upper-caste Hindus, and there is no representation of the dalits in it. However, the scheduled caste population is nearly 40% in the trans-Giri region.
Another startling fact about this region is that recently a Swarn Commission was formed in the state, and the initiative to form this forward caste commission was taken from this region. In 2021 a funeral procession of the SC/ST Act was also taken out by the upper caste Hindus of the same region.
The caste untouchability is quite acute here. Kedar Jindan was a dalit rights activist and a whistleblower of the region who was killed by upper caste people in a cold-blooded manner. However, the strong links of the upper caste people did not even allow a public meeting to take place in his support.
POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS STEER THE MOVEMENT
The BJP, which is known for its upper caste support, is trying to break the Congress support base in this region. Two MLAs, even in the current Vidhan Sabha, Shillai and Renuka, are from the Congress party. The BJP intends to win a big base of the upper caste and intends to dominate this region.
The other major reason is that the delimitation commission is supposed to take place in 2027. Once the entire population is declared tribal, then there is no need for SC reserved seats (Currently, there are two SC reserved seats in this region). The upper caste, who now would be tribals, will dominate the politics in the region.
What can be a viable solution is that instead of Haati being declared as a tribe, the trans-Giri region under Schedule V should be declared as a tribal area, and the population should be given an opportunity to opt either for scheduled caste/scheduled tribe benefits.
Else, what the state is witnessing is the negation of the whole concept of a democratic state, which was founded by Dr YS Parmar, leading the Prajamandal movement for the merger of the princely states. This movement had also pushed for democratic values and a hit on caste and feudal support systems by implementing widespread land reforms.
With the formation of the Swarn Commission and such movements, even being supported by Congress leadership, the caste hierarchy and feudal values are being reinforced like never before in the post five decades of Himachal's statehood. The state and its people cannot afford to lose the progressive character that was established during its birth.
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