On 31 March, the Asiatic Society organised a colloquium in Kolkata on the status and progress of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in the North-east.  And, though it was quite in keeping with the broad charter laid down by Sir William Jones at the time of its foundation in 1788 that “whatever is produced in nature and performed by man in Asia should be the limit for study by the society,” it was a remarkably bold initiative on the part of SB Chakrabarty, its present general secretary, to take it up as a subject for research.

There are several reasons why the Sixth Schedule is an area where quite literally angels fear to tread. First, it was enacted to deal with the hill areas of the composite Assam in 1950 (covering all areas of the North-east other than Tripura and Manipur), meaning the areas inhabited by the hill tribes only and not plains tribes like the Bodos in Assam.

Second, it ran into rough weather from its very inception for various reasons, so the government decided not to make it applicable in then Naga Hills district of Assam and frontier tracts, including Naga tribal areas, which constituted Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland today and have ceased to be part of the Sixth Schedule.

And third, the extension of the Schedule to Tripura in 1985 and the Bodoland Territorial Administrative District of Assam in 2003, has opened a Pandora’s box as it is being perceived as an “arrangement short of statehood” that might, as well, be acceptable to the ethnic groups in the region demanding recognition of territoriality of their distinct ethnic and political identities.

This was not envisaged by the framers of the Constitution as the Sixth Schedule was conceptualised to administer the hill areas of undivided Assam, which were either “Excluded” or “Partially Excluded areas” under the Government of India Act, 1935 or covered under the Inner Line, according to the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873.

Interestingly, the perception that the Sixth Schedule is a “solution” to the problem of “identity assertion” in the region gained ground after its extension to Tripura, as evident from the 27 July 1994 Memorandum of Settlement between the Hmar People’s Council, an insurgent group in Mizoram, with the Mizoram government, which envisaged formation of a Sinlung Development Council under the Sixth Schedule.

That was, however, not implemented. The relevance of the autonomy scheme under the Sixth Schedule after grant of full statehood to Meghalaya, in particular, is often questioned for good reasons, as it is perpetuating a parallel power structure and a political class with little interest in protecting the land and other rights of tribal society, enshrined under the Sixth Schedule.

The demand for a separate state in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills raised by insurgent groups is, to a considerable extent, due to the failure of the district council to protect the forest and land rights of the Garos and to provide food, environment and ecological security because of lack of enforcement of key environment laws in all Sixth Schedule areas, most notably in Tripura and Meghalaya.

The anomalous situation created in BTAD, where the scheduled tribes form only 30 per cent of the total population, while 30 of 46 seats are reserved for the tribals in the council, created under the Sixth Schedule, have raised complex governance issues, which need early resolution for peace and progress of the region.

In this background the initiative of the Asiatic Society to carry out a holistic review of the Sixth Schedule is commendable and timely. Professor JB Bhattacharya, noted historian of the North-east, chaired the colloquium in which several scholars from the NE Hills University, Shillong, Guwahati and Tezpur and Assam University, Silchar, including well known commentators on the region like Subir Bhoumik, Pradip Phanjoubam and eminent scholars on the North-east such as Professor Samir Das, former vice-chancellor of North Bengal University, and researchers on the North-east and the Sixth Schedule Areas, participated.

Bhattacharya reminded participants about the unique role of Rev JJ Nichols Roy, the great leader of the Khasis in pushing the Sixth Schedule through and underlining perception that the integrity of Assam was a strategic necessity. The concept paper prepared for the colloquium highlighted the crisis the Sixth Schedule is facing now, both as a philosophy for tribal development and as a legal and administrative arrangement for protection of the tribal way of life as enshrined in the Constitution.

It also stressed the fact that including the seven states, 10 autonomous district councils under the Sixth Schedule and 12 other councils the North-east would appear, administratively, the most “fractured” zone of South and even South-east Asia and is prone to purposeful external interest and even interference.

Phanjoubam’s point that the British plan during transfer of power to separate the North-east hill areas as a “crown colony” — commonly attributed to Oxford professor R Coupland, it was actually drawn up much earlier by Sir Robert Reid, Governor of Assam — was well taken in the colloquium.

It covered primarily the functioning of the autonomous district councils in Tripura, Assam and Mizoram and a consensus emerged that the Sixth Schedule scheme has not been able to protect the tribal land and forest rights or to provide food and environment security or address gender issues of development and administer justice under the customary laws as envisaged under the Sixth Schedule. They have failed to put in place physical and social infrastructure, education and skill development to enable tribal society to become active stakeholders in the market- led growth path and attracting investment in tribal areas.

The total dependence on central funds routed through the state budget to the councils in an environment where “ extractive” activities like mining of coal, sand, extraction of manganese and timber only hold prospect of a quick fortune, inevitably lead to the rise of phoney insurgencies and “extortion-driven identity politics”.

The failure of the autonomous district councils to prevent privatisation of community lands, rapidly growing inequality in tribal society and high incidence of landlessness was mentioned. The researchers also referred to a “negative asymmetry of power” arising out of the Sixth Schedule councils’ powers over land and regulation of trading and manufacturing by non-tribals, which created a kind of dual citizenship that was not envisaged by the makers of the Constitution and the consequent tension in the tribal non-tribal relations.

The anomalous situation that has been created in BTAD presently in the matter of land rights of non-tribals — following certain decisions of the Council even when non-tribals constitute 70 per cent of the total population — is serious as it seems to go against the “basic structure” doctrine of the Constitution.

The colloquium, however, favoured “recalibrating” the Sixth Schedule institutions and not scrapping it altogether. Some even recommenced its revival in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. It is time now, the colloquium argued, to take a holistic review of the Schedule and that, the Asiatic Society is uniquely positioned to take it up as a multi-disciplinary policy research project covering agrarian relations, changing tribal sociology caused by disruptive technology and mode of production founded on profit. The research might as well give a hard look at the functioning of the autonomous councils in Manipur and Assam, which are outside the Sixth Schedule.

 

The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the government of India.