( It also appears in Garhwal Post as part od Series "A Ring Side View")
Now that I have finally settled down ( to the extent one could call it settling down as visits to places outside Uttarakhand have since expanded alarmingly ) in as remote a place as Munsyari ( fabled for its pristine beauty ) it is but natural for me to reflect first on the local ethnic community, and the broader class to which they belong to, the so-called Bhotias, one of five Scheduled Tribes of Uttarakhand. They, of course, do not address themselves as Bhotias, but Johari Shaukas. Those who know this region and these people well enough, would also like to address them, as such. ‘Shauka’ is the ethnic identity, and Johar is the administrative region they inhabit – hence Johari Shaukas. In this new series, ‘ A Ring-side View’, I propose to share with the readers the issues, the groups of people and the concerns which in this new state now seem quite remote and marginalised i.e. not centre-stage. Some facts will be new but now worth sharing, as this state can ill afford not to face or confront them head-on and it is hoped that appropriate solutions might be attempted, in the light of the present situation. This writer would be more than anxious to work for possible and pragmatic solutions, and resolution of all ticklish issues, suggestions-wise. I first take the tribal issues as they are the remotest, physically as well as figuratively, in Uttarakhand today.
The Tribes and their Spread
Official statistics on various parameters still continue to rely on 2001 census, so I will also stick to them, so that the figures I quote match theirs, and thus become quotable. When Uttarakhand population was nearly 85 lakhs, the Scheduled Tribes were just 2.56 lakhs, say barely over 3 per cent. This figure is therefore used as their various Constitutional entitlements, within this state, say for various reservations purposes. At the central government level, it is much higher, 7.5 per cent. Like every one else, the STs also look up to employment in public services, as their very first priority – however, the fact remains, that except where the services are through the channel of Public Services Commissions, it has not been possible to ever reach this 3 per cent mark ! It is just 2.48 for category ‘A’ ( surprising ! ) and 2.34 in category ‘C’ and 2.74 in category ‘D’. So there is much truth in their deep sense of disenchantment, with all the official efforts, as the only place where some count is actually kept, they feel that they have been short-changed. Obviously, for any government the very minimum that they can assure, these disadvantageous groups, is that their Constitutional entitlements are honoured, in letter and spirit.
Of the five Scheduled Tribes, namely the Tharus, Jaunsaris, Buxas, Bhotias and the Rajis, Van Rajis in fact – the Tharus dominantly reside in Udham Singh Nagar, Jaunsaris are mostly found in Dehradun and Tehri-Garhwal districts, the Buxas really are most well-spread, found in US Nagar, Naini Tal, Pauri, Haridwar and Dehradun ( 5 districts ). The Bhotias, including the Jads of Uttar Kashi, are traditionally to be found in regions, or districts, bordering our Tibet/Chinese neighbour-hood. Today, in terms of districts, these would be Pithoragarh, Chamoli, Uttar Kashi, Almora and Bageshwar. Almora and Bageshwar to many readers today may not appear exactly as border-districts. Let me remind them, that the so called border-districts of Pithoragarh, Chamoli and Uttar Kashi, before the Chinese aggression of 1962, were mere Tahsils of Almora and Pauri Garhwal districts. Uttar Kashi, of course, was part of the Tehri Native King, merging with the Union of India in 1949 ( two years after 1947 ).
This leaves the Rajis, or the Van Rajis. Today, in India, they count just 682, something like our vanishing Tigers. In fact, of the five STs the Rajis and the Buxas, happen to be the two Tribes which are classified as ‘ Primitive Tribes Group – PTGs’. These are the tribes whose number is declining, by the year, and they are at the very bottom of the pile.
Three Broad Groups
Broadly speaking, of the five STs, we have three categories. The Tharus and Buxas, have been the real forest-dweller ethnic groups. Let us call them the “Forest-land, depended Group”. As the Turai-Bhabar thick forests got cleared, say in 1830s and 1840s, soon after the East India Company firmed up its roots in the Indo-Gangetic plains, urbanisation meant clearing off the forests, from the Tharus and the Buxas ! In my book on British Indian history in these parts I have mentioned how Major Henry Ramsay, the Deputy Commissioner settled Haldwani and Ramnagar, and uprooted several Buxa forest ‘villages’. Several village names so cleared carry the ‘Buxa’ prefix ! Tharus have also been equal sufferers, when it comes to losing hold on land, due to their penurious conditions. These two Tribes account for almost 60 per cent of Uttarakhand tribal population. Both depended on land as well as forests, and as land and forests got appropriated through laws ( forest and settlement laws and operations ) or by money –power or muscle ( by settlers of various hues ), the tribals always found themselves at the receiving end. They got their ‘scheduling’ or Constitutional listing only in late 1960s ( 1967 ) and by that time they had lost almost every thing .
Without doubt, among the five tribes today, if the government is really serious to alleviate the economic condition of the Scheduled Tribes, they will have to find a solution to the land alienation which took place before 1967, that of ‘land’ and ‘forest’, from their right-ful owners, the Tharus and the Buxas. Much of the settlement of Turai –Bhabar has been at the cost of the tribals, the Tharus and the Buxas. This undoubtedly is a thorny issue, made thornier by the recent bhumidhari rights accorded to the later settlers. The consolidation of land-holding operations in Khatima tehsil and part Naini Tal tehsil, with-held for many years now, thank to the prickliness of this ‘land-issue’ calls for some real hard-thinking, and harder decisions. Tribal development issue is directly linked to their restoration of rights over land and forests. The Forest Rights Act story, remains confined on those tribes, who do not have a Constitutional status, the Gujjars, but its poor run in these tracts, means that the development of the Tharus and the Buxas will await a day, when the very politics of it will dictate it, precipitate it. This situation must be avoided. Chief Minister Bahuguna has a legal back-ground and one hopes that he will appreciate its inflammatory potential, political or otherwise.
Back to the tribes. The second major group of Tribes relates to those whose history and geography linked them to the High Himalayas, the so-called Bhotias. History will bear out that these tribal groups, I call them the ‘transhumance-transporters’, lived in their world of own, not really coming in the way of any one, till the Chinese decided to cross over the Himalayan passes. Before these groups realised what had hit them, the UP government decided to give them a solid second punch, by applying the UP ZALR Act, as KUZA Act, 1964-65 in Kumaon hills. And, this quick second jab, proved to be near-fatal. As these transhumance groups never stayed at one place, they being ‘ non-occupant’ land-owners, lost almost every thing to their occupant-tenants. If domestic expansion and urbanisation pushed out the Tharus and the Buxas from their habitats, the external aggression changed the definition of the habitat of the so-called Bhotias. Transport and trade stalled due to external conditions and land snatched through the State undertaking land-reforms in a mindless fashion, the second group of tribals was thus soon converted from a self-reliant group into a mendicant one. It was, as the records would show, ‘a political decision’ to provide relief and succour to the so-called Bhotias, through the ST conferment route, rather than a very strict application of the so called ST eligibility- criterion.
The third big group of tribals, is known as the Jaunsaris, who really have a ‘regional or geographic’ identity, rather than a racial, ethnic or occupational one. In this respect, this third group is, distinct both from the first, the ‘forest-land dependent’ group as well as the second ‘the transhumance-transporters’ group of the so-called Bhotias. Here, a parallel exists in our neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. In Himachal we have districts of Kinnaur and Lahul & Spiti declared as Scheduled Areas, and any one living within this area gets the Constitutional benefits in reservations in services and educational institutions etc. In district Chamba there are two more tehsils, enjoying the same status. Only Gujjars and Gaddis, as distinctive ethnic groups, get identified as STs and regardless of their place of residence they get benefits as an ST. So, like Himachal we also have a mix, namely tribes by name specifically entered and enjoying ST benefits, as well as those enjoying ST benefits on account of their residence or ‘ region ’, like Jaunsar-Bhabur. In defence of Jaunsar-Bawar being declared as ‘Scheduled Area’, let me refer the readers to a book I got reprinted from Varanasi, entitled Whalley’s British Kumaon ( P. Whalley : 1861 ), where a full chapter on Jaunsar-Bawur has been included, showing how precious little was known about Jaunsar-Bawur even as late as in 1860s. GRC Williams, of the Memoirs of Dehradun fame, has also used the same Note as a Annexure in his book on Dehradun. P. Whalley and GRC Williams, both had been given the same task, Whalley beat Williams by a full decade. These tracts remained neglected and backward, practicing distinct social practices, which entitled them to these benefits in independent India. In all such ‘regional tracts’ what is really required is a group-wise analysis, as to who has remained relatively unaffected by special dispensations, and pointedly aim such schemes on such groups e.g. Kols, Bajgis etc. One always wonders, as to why these tribes could not be listed up, either as ethnic groups or as a ‘Scheduled Area’ way back in 1950, when the exercise of scheduling was taking place ? Records in the Ministry show that no representative from UP attended the conference called for consideration, and a message was sent from Lucknow, that UP has no Tribes to be scheduled, and even if there are any, sincere efforts are being made to induct them into the ‘mainstream’. Good intentions, indeed, factually correct also, but then in 1950s the Backward Classes Commission had considered the case of the Tharus and which had then raised such a hue and cry. Tharus and Buxas, if not the others, certainly paid a very heavy price for a well intentioned ‘mainstreaming’, still being attempted on six-cylinders ! If any one suffered a loss being a part of a huge state like UP, or gained owing to being in a relatively small state like Himachal, in hindsight, appear to be the Tribes – those like the Tharus or the Buxas, who lost being scheduled in UP List and Gaddis and Gujjars or the three Scheduled Areas of HP, in HP List and Constitutional Schedules for Areas. The Scheduled Districts Act, 1876, the flexibility in amending laws, for the British Kumaon Garhwal, seems to have suffered the same fate, post Govt of India Act, 1935 and Rules made there in.
Tharus ( 82,990 ) lead the pack, when it comes to numbers, and the Buxas ( 57, 020) occupy third position, while the ‘regional’ Jaunsaris ( 75, 030 ) come second only to the Tharus. The ‘trancehumance-transporters’ the so-called Bhotias, who appear ubiquitous, though spread over five valleys, in Pithoragarh, Chamoli and Uttarkashi ( as well as Almora and Bageshwar ) districts come nearly at the last, numbering just 40,407. Rajis, numbering just 682 in 2001 census, defy any classification whatsoever, as they have ‘successfully’ defied all attempts so far to settle them, educate them. However, it is highly creditable that one of their members, Mr Rajwar, became a member of the last two State Assemblies, representing the Dharchula ST seat. Dharchula, is now no more a reserve or ST , MLA Constituency.
Next, we will try to examine how these tribes find mention in histories and official accounts and how they have coped with their rulers, in ancient times to the present, and also make an assessment of as to how they have made use of their intrinsic qualities in managing their own ecosystems and continue to improve and sustain their ancient habitats. Photographs of Munsyari will accompany, net system permitting.