The case of the tribal state of Meghalaya is a study in contradictions in many respects. Meghalaya was formed in January 1972 by carving out the United Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills districts from the erstwhile composite state of Assam under the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971.
These districts were predominantly inhabited by the people belonging to the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes respectively. These districts were also included in the Sixth Schedule as part of the tribal areas of Assam ~ they now constituted as a full-fledged state along with the Sixth Schedule ~ a possibility not divined by the Constitution makers.
As a result, in Meghalaya, there is a unique governmental architecture, with three parallel administrative structures operating simultaneously within a single state the boundaries of which often get blurred ~ the legal-constitutionalpolitical structure of a state under the Indian constitution, the political-administrative and quasi-judicial structure under the Sixth Schedule and the traditional autonomy of Khasi Durbars that enjoy certain powers and exercise limited autonomy within the State.
At its birth in 1972, Meghalaya’s population had 20 per cent non-tribals. Most of these people belonging to different communities were living in the state for many generations. It is important to understand the historical context that brought them to Meghalaya. In the 19th century, the British administration had brought the Bengalis, one of earliest Indians to become English educated, into Shillong which was then the capital of the composite state of Assam, to help them with their administration.
The contiguous district of Sylhet which was made a part of Assam by the British before it went to East Pakistan at Partition also had close ties and warm relations with the Khasi and Jaintia people based on trade and other exchanges since the early 19th century. When partition forced the Hindu Bengalis out of Sylhet, many came naturally to Shillong. They contributed richly to the educational, commercial, economic and cultural life of the town which emerged as a major educational hub in the region. The British had also encouraged the Biharis, Nepalese and Punjabis to help with their labour and other skills, like trade and commerce by Marwaris and Sindhis. Many members of these communities got assimilated into the economic life and settled permanently here.
Once Meghalaya was carved out of Assam as a separate hill state, these people suddenly found themselves in a quagmire. The state having reserved 85 per cent of jobs for their own people way above the 50 percent limit mandated by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney case, they effectively lost the right to public employment. The Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act, 1971, took away their right to settle in the state where they and their ancestors had lived through generations. Subsequent violence, genocide and riots that erupted with regular frequency against different non-tribal communities in the state ~ in 1979, 1987, 1999, 2018 and recently in 2020 ~ orchestrated by a rogue outfit that masquerades as a student organisation ~ the Khasi Students Union (KSU) ~ drove most of the non-tribals away from Meghalaya, which is as much a homeland to the non-tribal communities as it is to the indigenous khasis, Garos and Jaintias, and for the development of which they had also contributed equally, especially during its formative years.
But by 2011, the share of non-tribal population had reduced to only 14 per cent. Inaction by the state government to bring the culprits of such massacres to book or to provide protection to the minority non-tribals have relegated them to the status of second-class citizens, who have to live with the permanent fear of violence and threat to life. Can the Constitution allow marginalisation of one community in the name of protecting the interests of another?
In a different context, while dealing with the discretionary powers of the Governor, the Supreme Court, in deciding the appeal case of Pu Myllai Hlychho & Others vs. State of Mizoram & Others (2005), had observed, “it was argued that the tribal areas are to be administered as per the provisions of the Sixth Schedule only. This contention of the appellants cannot be accepted for various reasons.
The Sixth Schedule to the Constitution is a part of the Constitution and cannot be interpreted by forgetting the other provisions in the Constitution. It is impossible to visualize complete segregation of the Sixth Schedule from the rest of the Constitution. As regards the inclusion of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution, there is a legislative history, but that by itself is not sufficient to hold that the Sixth Schedule is a ‘Constitution within the Constitution’.” This takes us back to the question of the continuance of the Sixth Schedule in a state that possibly needs no such protection for its tribal people, or to limit such protection only in certain areas within the state and not the entire state.
The Sixth Schedule was incorporated in the Constitution to protect the rights, culture and identities of the minority tribals living within the erstwhile composite state of Assam. Now that these tribal people have their own state within which they enjoy overwhelming majority and overpowering voice for their own governance, with 90 per cent of the Assembly seats (55 out of 60) reserved only for the tribal candidates, the original consideration of protection of their rights has long ceased to exist. It is the rights of minority non-tribals that need protection. Applying the Sixth Schedule to the entire state is thus not only unnecessary but also illogical, and undermines social harmony, political stability and economic development of the state and the region.
Presently the KSU is spearheading anther movement for extending the so-called Inner Line Permit (ILP) ~ another legacy from history dating back to the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 ~ to the state to regulate and control the entry of outsiders to Meghalaya, for which the Meghalaya Assembly had passed a resolution in March in the wake of widespread communal riots against Bengalis in Shillong and other places, following clashes at the village of Ichamati bordering Bangladesh in which a Khasi youth was killed.
The KSU has threatened not to rest till the ILP ~ now applicable in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland ~ was granted to Meghalaya. However, the Union government has not yet acceded to this demand, for obvious reasons. Meghalaya has a number of national educational institutions that automatically attract outsiders into the state, like the IIM, NIT and NIFT, besides NEIGRIHMS ~ a Postgraduate Medical Institute in lineage of AIIMS, and the Central University of NEHU.
It also has units of Central Public Sector Undertakings which employ Indian citizens from other states who are likely face inconceivable inconvenience and harassment. This would also effectively prevent any capital investment inflow by outside investors for development and employment generation in a state that has only been surviving on Central support which finances no less than 80 per cent of its budgetary expenditure. This support comes by way of Central grants and State’s share of Central taxes ~ while the tribal people living in the Sixth Schedule areas are totally exempt from the payment of income tax under section 10(26) of the Income Tax Act which again defies all economic logic and accentuates disparity within the tribal society itself.
It would also seriously undermine the Prime Minister’s Act East Policy focussed on culture, commerce, connectivity, capacity building and national security, for the success of which seamless connectivity and exchange within the north-eastern states is an essential element. Hopefully, the Centre will not yield to such irrational demands, but it also behoves upon the Centre to drive the sense of duty upon a state that has abdicated its duties in respect protecting the life and liberties of minority non-tribals, which is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The writer is a commentator and an author