North-Eastern Areas – Scheduled Districts Act of 1874, political and constitutional changes

Over six years after its signing, the Bodoland Accord is yet to usher in substantive changes on the ground.

M.S. PRABHAKARA in Guwahati

[…] The Sixth Schedule, extensively amended since the adoption of the Constitution, along with the Fifth Schedule (applicable to the scheduled areas and the Scheduled Tribes outside the northeastern region) was described by the late Mohammed Hidayatullah, Chief Justice of India, as “miniature constitutions for certain scheduled areas of India” (“The Fifth and Sixth Schedules to the Constitution of India,” The Anundoram Barooah Law Lectures, Second Series, Guwahati, 1979). The Sixth Schedule, which contains the provisions for the administration of tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, is applicable only to the ‘hill areas’ of these States. Its origins go back to the very constitution of Assam as a separate province of British India in 1874. Parts of the province, described as ‘backward tracts’ which were to be administered under the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874, have, over the years and several political and constitutional changes, including the crucial North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act of 1971, became the States (or parts of the States) of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.

The Schedule as it stands is applicable only to the two autonomous hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, as well as the tribal areas of Tripura and parts of the Chhimtuiupui district of Mizoram inhabited by the Chakmas, the Pawis and the Lakhers. The application of the provision of this Schedule is uniquely informed by a crucial geographical factor: that the Schedule is applicable only to the ‘hill areas’ of the given State.

The assumption behind this restrictive and specific application has been informed by a deeply entrenched colonial, paternalistic, perhaps even racist, mindset in the political and bureaucratic establishment regarding both the history of the people and the geography of Assam and the northeastern region, the last of the frontiers to be incorporated into British India. The “isolated and backward” people of these “remote hill areas” of a region, which itself was the back of beyond of the country, were uniquely handicapped and hence required special constitutional safeguards from the “rapacious exploiters from the plains”. Such provisions were never made applicable to the tribal communities in the plains of Assam because it was assumed that since they lived in close proximity to the non-tribal communities inhabiting the plains, they would in course of time become “assimilated” into the communities in their neighbourhood and indeed cease to be “tribal”.

The assumptions worked for a while, but not any longer. The hill tribal people are not more isolated than the more economically and socially backward people of the plains, tribal or non-tribal; and the tribal people of the plains are no more getting assimilated into neighbouring non-tribal caste Hindu (or Muslim) society. Indeed, as noted above, a reverse process of ‘re-tribalisation‘ among communities that were supposed to have ‘de-tribalised’ themselves is also on.

Anachronistic as such provisions may appear now, over a century and a quarter after they were conceptualised, they remain on the statue books and are jealously guarded by those who benefit from them. Hence, any move to extend the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the plains tribes (Bodos in this instance) is bound to find resistance from those who are exclusively covered by these provisions. […]

Source: The Bodo question

Frontline Volume 19 – Issue 15, July 20 – August 02, 2002
India’s National Magazinefrom the publishers of THE HINDU

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Date Visited: Mon Jul 11 2011 15:13:32 GMT+0200 (CEST)

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

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