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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 48 November 19, 2022

Hatti Tribal and Swarna Aayog Movement: Deciphering Caste Majoritarian Churn in Himachal Pradesh | Rohit Kumar and Rakesh Kumar

Saturday 19 November 2022

by Rohit Kumar and Rakesh Kumar *

India being a country full of caste-religious and ethnic-cultural diversities made it susceptible to many conflicts based on these deep rooted differences. Though Indian constitution provided to mitigate these differences through many of its provisions but these still remained major hurdles in achieving the liberal-democratic goals of egalitarianism. The similar diversities have also made its way in the politics and economy of the country after independence. Many parties, pressure and interest groups being formed to protect these identity based interests. Many protests and movements have emerged either to identify the differences and discriminations based upon these identities or to defend long standing caste cultural privileges.

Though independent India witnessed many of these caste-communal conflicts but in recent years these became everyday practices intentionally manifested through social media to project caste-religious privileges and superior status of certain communities. Where urban India seems much fragmented but more susceptible to communal consolidations historically, the rural India known for caste conservative-traditional character and prone to caste consolidations and discriminations. Caste conflicts and caste related crimes became everyday practices which can be witnessed through social media platforms in past few years and its worst form is identifiable through protests and movements in protection of upper castes and their caste privileges.

Himachal Pradesh, being a peripheral state, intact with its rural-traditional character, is one of the prime examples where two new movements- movement for Hatti tribal status in Sirmaur district and movement for the formation of Swarna Aayog, to protect the interests of the Swarna castes against lower caste minorities- manifested this new trend of caste majoritarianism in protection of upper caste privileges. To decipher this caste majoritarianism the separate attention, to identify the causes, context, caste character and politics behind these two movements has been attempted here. The data from a field study has also been presented to establish that being economically dominant why upper castes (Rajputs-Thakurs) were leading and favouring this movement and Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are still against the same. The article concluded by establishing that why this demand has found more recognition and met at this particular time by proving that growing caste polarization, majoritarian anxieties and favourable regime being the sole reason for this.

Hatti: The Demand and Opposition

Hatti community of Transgiri region of Sirmaur, though being depicted as homogenous group based on cultural distinctiveness and geographical aloofness, but does not form historical evidences of being culturally homogenous and descendant of a single clan or tribe character which should make them a pure ethnic-cultural and blood based community. It is not though mandatory to be such to be declared a tribe but considering the similar criteria can make a large population of Himachal Pradesh eligible for having a tribal status. Because the cultural commonality, ruralness based on dis-connectivity and backwardness is common to a vast rural population of Himachal Pradesh considering the geo-topographical characteristics of the state. And this is not only responsible for cultural distinctiveness and uniqueness based on clothing but also in dialects, religious-deity rituals, songs, fairs and dietary practices etc.

The demand has been raised on the bases of its being similar to the region and culture of Uttrakhand’s Jhaunsar Babar which got its tribal status in the late 1960s. From that moment a passive demand was always there to declare this Hatti population of Transgiri region of Sirmaur as tribal which did not met since recent declaration. Successive governments keep on promising to give similar to this particular population but the BJP recognized its political-electoral value and importance and eventually decided to declare Hattis as triblas. But the whole Transgiri population has not been declared tribal keeping in mind the opposition from the scheduled caste population which have been excluded from the status. This is one more contradiction of providing tribal status to the population of the region.

The Trans-Giri region of Sirmaur constitutes a society full of vast caste distinctions and discrimination due to its traditional rural character. Where the SCs of the region, 30.34 per cent of the total population of this region, avail caste based reservations, the Brahmins and some other castes of the region (about 7.25 the percentage of the OBCs of the region) provided OBC status which made them un-supportive of the demand for tribal status. These communities found tribal status discriminating when they already have their fair share given in the constitution. SCs have other fears of being discriminated in terms that after tribal status the upper castes will not come under Anti-Atrocities Act and then continue to harass these lower caste communities. Even some blocks like Sangrah and Rajgarh of the region has 43 and 45 per cent of schedule caste population and was not in favour of the demand. For better understanding of caste divides an economic analysis of share of per capita income and land holding has been provided here.

Economic Divide 

A visible economic divide has seen between the schedule caste population and Rajput-Thakur. Economic divide in ownership of land, per capita earning from all resources and relative poverty among various social categories in Trans-Giri have been some of the indicators. Kumar (2022) calculated about 78.48 per cent (41.18 per cent of General and 37.30 per cent of OBCs) of income was concentrated in two categories and SC holds only 21.52 per cent income

The percentage gap of per capita income between upper castes and SC was of 19.66 percentage points, whereas, between OBCs and SCs it was 15.78 per cent (among 382 population sample that has been studied in this region). SCs in all farm categories had lesser income than upper and OBC castes. The reason for this divide as evidenced from a field study was that that scheduled caste respondents owned: i) lesser lands and ii) smaller land holdings compared to the upper caste and OBC respondents. Since a major portion of income was earned through farm income in this rural region, quite naturally smaller and lesser holdings meant correspondingly smaller incomes. Additionally, Scheduled Caste households were characterized with lower skill levels which render them merely as menial labour. Per capita income gap between upper and SC categories in Trans-Giri region offers clear insights into income inequality. Since income inequality is the main component of inclusive growth, it can be concluded that in terms of income inequality, growth is not inclusive in Trans-Giri region specially, for the SC communities. Having these vast economic inequalities what is the politics that given flare to the movement like Hatti at this particular time is question that require clarification?

The upward mobility of the lower castes and OBCs, due to the reservations given to them, generated the anxiousness and feeling of remained-behind became a major reason responsible for the movement for Hatti tribal status. Though the anxiousness and remained-behind-feeling because of the reservations has erupted among upper caste groups of the country but specific to the majority population, that is Rajput-Thakur castes, in case of this region. The counter reservation demands and movements around India also provide a picturesque to assess this case of tribal status too. Though the economic-educational reality (56 per cent of scheduled category households are poor as compare to 31 per cent of Rajput-Thakur. The same can be seen in the ownership of land. Overall scheduled caste category households own about three time lesser land than general caste households) of the population belonging to scheduled castes and OBCs, in comparison of this particular group, presents an opposite picture which culminated this debate to the social-caste majoritarianism as a sole reason behind the movement.

Where reservations have provided opportunities and fair chances to these minorities to be represented politically, with time these have been observed an onslaught and discriminations inflicted upon upper castes not only India wide but in the similar localities like this one. Their representation and formal power equalization has been identified an offensive on caste privileges of political, economic and intellectual power which has given birth to the protective social-caste majoritarian movements like tribal status for Hattis without properly considering the caste and community dimensions, differences and discrimination prevailing in this particular population. The similar demand, and now status, also projected to hide prevailing discriminations and to un-equalize the constitutionally egalitarian character evolving slowly and steadily in the rural setting like the Transgiri region of Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh.

The perceived political under representation and misperceptions in relation to reservations came up a sole region in the consolidation of caste-majoritarian anxiety among Rajput-Thakur castes of the region (evident from the leadership of the movement which is specifically hailed from these castes and rallies organized in which the maximum number is from these castes) which gave life and breath to this movement but the goal still remained half achieved as scheduled castes have been excluded from the tribal status. And the pain and voice of the OBCs is still unrecognized and marginal in this debate of caste polarization in the region because their right to have OBC reservation have been un-consensually snatched and merged in tribal reservation.

Swarna Aayog Movement: A Manifestation of Caste Majoritarian Impulse

Himachal Pradesh constitutes a large population, approximately 27% of SCs and around 13% of OBCs. Though it has second largest Scheduled Caste population in the country only after Punjab but still there is no major uprising from their side even under the adverse traditionally characterized prevalence and infliction of caste atrocities and discriminations against them. This region (Sirmaur district) of Himachal Pradesh saw the brutal murder of Kedar Singh Jindan, an RTI activist, in 2018. Aftermath a fact finding committee was constituted in 2020 and submitted its report to the National Scheduled Castes Commission. National and State Human Rights Commission in 2020 also noted the similar other points of atrocities. The apathy and lack of sensitivity of the police and administrative authorities in cases of caste violence, the poor conviction rates (Himachal Pradesh has less than 10% conviction rate as per the NCRB report for 2019), is because of the meager representations of the lower caste communities in these areas. The conflict around issues of land and access to resources for marginalized and SC communities in the region, the accused and their supporters also exercise counter pressures through communal and casteist propaganda on social media which became often under majoritarian privileges and protections. About 129 caste based practices of un-touchability reported in Trans-Giri region in recent time.

The reason for the passivity around the caste discrimination and crimes, not culminating in major uprisings from the lower caste communities, is uneven distribution of their populations in geo-topographically unapproachable regions and terrains and also the caste divisions prevalent among the scheduled castes which is a prime hurdle for lack of their communication and mobilizations. Other reason, which is also the primary one, is the majority socio-economic and political domination of Rajput-Thakur-Brahmins castes-combine in the state. The Rajput-Thakur constitutes the majority population in the state and also dominated the politics and economy of the state historically.

Then what are the reasons responsible for the emergence of the movement for the formation of Swarna Aayog, having the objective of the protection of so-called rights of the upper castes perceived to be under threat in presence of the reservations and meager economic-political representations of lower castes?

Swarna Aayog is a movement led by the upper caste organizations like Himachal Pradesh Kashtriya Morcha. Though there are other upper castes’ organizations associated and active in the movement but this particular one and its leader Rumit Singh Thakur like people are on the forefront in leading this movement. Initially, the fuel has been poured in the fire by the people and leader like Vikramaditya Singh of Congress party and later got supported beyond party lines and by upper castes’ lobbies and groups already dominant in state politics. Till date it has organized two famous rallies, one during the Vidhansabha session in Dharamshala under pressure of which Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur of the state promised to constitute a committee to look into the matter, and another one during the budget session of Vidhansabha in Shimla, where a break in the support has also emerged in the light of the decision of the leadership of constituting a party and contesting elections if the demand has not been accepted. The decision did not go well with one section of the supporters after which the movement got a setback and its leadership has been sent on police remand for some old registered cases later, but the dharnas and strikes are still on in many places.

The discussion is still on in identifying the causes responsible for the emergence of such caste motivated and caste dominant movement in a state which has already a domination of upper castes in society, economy and political affairs. One can easily observe that there is a narrative and discourse at national level recently that has been patronized and politically motivated from a particular political section and regime that how historically, especially after the independence, the upper castes have been discriminated while protecting the caste and religious minorities by affirmative action in form of reservations which eventually even termed un-meritocratic political affair that promotes and legitimizes un-meritocracy. The terms of social justice discourse has now been made upside down to protect upper castes privileges justified under the discourse of poverty and introduction of many policies in the similar directions. This national narrative of reducing reservations and other protective measures for caste and religious minorities culminated into social anxiousness of caste majoritarianism which even got patronization from law and regime under particular ideology and ongoing social legitimization of the similar became one of the primary reasons of uprising like movement for the formation of Swarna Aayog in Himachal Pradesh.

Another important but associated cause for the similar is the upward mobility of the downtrodden in terms of representations that introduces the competition across society, economy and in political power. Though there is no direct linkage that how the existence of the commissions for SCs, STs and OBCs are threatening the rights of the already privileged but definitely the constitutional protection due for them are changing the power equations leading to a social change and setting that is not easily acceptable for traditional-caste-conservative sections of the society. The way opposition and contrast in the rights of two sections (upper castes and lower castes) has been drawn by some traditional upper caste conservative sections is only politically motivated and logically flawed considering the goals and establishment of a democratic nation. This is evident from the above examples that how the social-caste-majoritarian anxieties eventually leading to the movements like Swarna Aayog which cannot be termed democratic and favourable to a social democratic order. And the acceptance of the similar can be only to restore old caste traditional order favouring particular sections and social elites.

As is evident from the examples that Himachal Pradesh is already a upper caste dominant state and its rural traditional character still privileges upper caste conservative sections in society, economy and politics of the state, the movements for the Hatti tribal status and for the formation of a Swarna Aayog only manifests an anger and anxiety from caste elites having caste majority but fear of losing the social caste privileges under slow but perceived upward economic and political representational pressures from the downtrodden.

The existence of the support for both the movements is also concentrated to the pockets where the traditionalistic of society is still intact but conservative turn of the urban towns also reverberating these pressures by favoring these patterns in the state. How the upcoming state assembly elections but more importantly the state under any regime and government going to tackle and handle these affairs will also decide the character of the polity in future. But definitely these are the new trends and discourse that present Indian state under particular ideology is in mood of favoring and chalking out the political benefits from.

* (Authors: Rohit Kumar is PhD in Political Science from Himachal Pradesh University and he is associated with Peoples Pulse Research Organization, Hyderabad, Email: peoplespulse.hyd[at]gmail.com
Rakesh Kumar is Assistant Research Officer in Economic and Statistics Department of Government of Himachal Pradesh and pursuing PhD in the Economics from Himachal Pradesh University)

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