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Tribal Autonomy: Politics of Exclusion & Inclusion

In the face of a tussle between majority’s democratic exclusion and marginalized community’s desire for separation from existing institutional arrangement lies the ideology of a deepening centralization of the regional polity by the Central government through constitutional arrangements of Sixth Schedule.

Historical and contemporary experiences suggest that tribal autonomy in Northeast India’”particularly, the autonomy packages under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution’”is embedded with the idea of decentralization from the existing state structure in one way or the other. These demands for autonomy came along with the awareness among some groups of people that the end to their growing marginalization lay in self-governance in terms of control over their lands, traditions, customs, and finance. Thus, acquiring the status of Autonomous District Council (ADC) under the Sixth Schedule is envisioned as a step towards

(i) empowerment of the tribal communities, and

(ii) decentralization of power from the existing regional states. In the process, there has been a great deal of inclusion and exclusion of identities of the tribes vis-a-vis the Indian state. No less importantly, the autonomy packages have belied its very raison d’aªtre ‘” the promise of decentralization. Consistently, the autonomy packages have led to a process of centralization of the larger state structure whereby the Central government gradually gains control of the regional states, both of the old and new ones.

The emerging district autonomous councils, which emerged in the form of a demand for separate administration over certain areas and people (a procedural form of local self-government), have actually become the site for the construction of a culturally cohesive ethnic population. An inbuilt part of this politics is exclusion of a group/groups of population for being different from the majority population.

The autonomy package given to the tribes in the form of the Sixth Schedule is the byproduct of a liberal logic that excludes people of ‘˜territorially concentrated and insulated cultural experiences’ while simultaneously controlling (read ‘˜including’) them through the same initiative. It shows a selective act of exclusion and inclusion in a peculiar way. Under the Bordoloi Sub-Committee, only those who were considered to be relatively concentrated in the old ‘˜excluded’ and ‘˜partially excluded’ areas (for which the Constitution used the term ‘˜tribal areas’) came under the provision of the Sixth Schedule. This exclusion may be argued as a political necessity for culturally diverse societies like India. However, autonomy on the basis of ‘˜territorially concentrated and insulated cultural experience’ equated with the respect for plural identities has been blissfully oblivious to the dangers of raising impermeable politico-cultural boundaries.

But it is also through the same logic of ‘˜territorially concentrated and insulated cultural experience’ that these plural societies have been fragmented leading to easy control over the newly scattered territories and peoples. Autonomy, in practice, is thus treated as a game of both ‘˜democratic exclusion’ and ‘˜control’. This is because the modern liberal state is pervasively informed by the individualist foundations of the liberal philosophy, notwithstanding the exceptional constitutional provisions for separate governance of the ‘˜historically excluded tribes’. As a result, autonomy given on the ground of historically and culturally differentiated experiences sounds like an illiberal arrangement that exists outside the pale of the liberal modern state. However, this liberal logic is also taking care to satisfy the political necessity of a territorially inclusive state (Horowitz) 1 by ‘˜legitimizing the illiberal practices of the tribes.’ The parliamentary debates on policies towards tribes, right from the constitutional assembly days till date, are part of the process of ‘˜legitimizing illiberal practices’ through the constitutionally safeguarded autonomy provisions. It is through the constitutional provisions that the policy of exclusion and inclusion gets formalized. Certain sections of the population have been excluded from an otherwise seemingly homogenous majority by associating these sections with the idea of ‘˜illiberal practices’. The idea of the ‘˜tribal’ is the outcome of this exclusion. But, as Horowitz suggests, these excluded tribal communities will still have to remain within the territorial and political boundary of the given state structure as an ‘˜other’. It is through such policies of exclusion and inclusion that these marginalized ‘˜tribals’ are governed and controlled. Further, the ‘˜civilizing mission’ is revived and self-mandated by the Indian state on the Northeast by imbuing the tribes with the idea of an ‘˜other’ who have not yet formed the capacity for self-governance a la the white man’s burden. This is clearly manifested in the weave and wove of the debate over tribal autonomy in the Constituent Assembly.


The Constituent Assembly debate on tribal autonomy saw the clash of two schools of thought:

(i) The assimilationists, who argued that tribes in the schedule areas should be absorbed into the larger society and,

(ii) liberals who thought that they should be given autonomy, along with the self-governing rights. The assimilationists considered terms like scheduled areas, reserved areas, or excluded areas a colonial baggage and argued for a uniform administration in independent India. Babu Ramnarayan Singh, a member in the Constituent Assembly said, ‘˜We wanted that there ought to be one and one administration only in every part of the country.’¦ During the British rule, we did not want that there should be such a thing as backward tracts or excluded areas, but now we are going to have such a thing as a Scheduled area.’ (2)

The future of India, according to B.R. Singh, is that of a uniform political community. This is reflected when he said that ‘˜unfortunately, the country has been divided into so many classes and communities. We should proceed in such a way that all the different communities may vanish and we may have one nation, the Indian nation.’ (3) In other words, he argued for an inclusive Indian nation that basically reflects a vision of the liberal state, for which the axis of reference is the republican notion of freedom: no social distinctions, no hierarchies, but there will be a sum of individuals whose membership in the nation will be determined by the freedom he/she enjoys. In relation to tribals, however, there was a school of thought that considered it preferable, in the interest of unity of India, to focus attention rather

on the broad mainstream of Indian culture ‘” to promote the study of Sanskrit and inculcate the patterns of behavior, dress and belief prevalent in the main body of the country. (4) This tendency is reflected when another member of the Constituent Assembly, Shri Lakshminarayan Sahu, said, ‘˜[T]heir life is gradually changing’¦. Some of the customs of the aboriginals have crept into Hinduism and some of the useful customs of the Hindus have found place, in the life of aboriginals.’ (5) One can interpret from this debate that along with the production of Indian brand of western liberalism, there also emerged in this engagement a cultural reference point (identity) defined through the Hindu religion/culture. As a result, tribes were even defined as the lower caste Hindu. (6)

The tendency of assimilation (7) was also reflected when the members of the Gopinath Bordoloi Committee visited the Lushai Hills and Naga Hills in 1947. Shri Jadubans Sahay, who went with the Committee members, said, ‘˜the more we are able to know of these tribes, the better it is for the country as a whole to assimilate those tribal people as fast as we can in the whole society of the nation as we are now.’ (8 Shri Brajeshwar Prasad, another member in the Constituent assembly, felt that these tribal areas should be centrally administered. Shri Prasad’s suggestion was grounded on the strategic interests of India and need for central control of the tribal areas because of the political instability in the region of Assam. (9)

There was another school of thought in the Constituent Assembly, who thought it wise to leave alone the tribes to govern themselves. Shri Biswanath Das, another member in the Constituent Assembly, said,

‘˜[W]e want that the Scheduled Tribes in the whole country should be protected from the destructive impact of races possessing a higher and more aggressive culture and should be encouraged to develop their own autonomous life’¦. They should not be isolated communities or little republics to be perpetuated forever.’ (10)

The underlying assumption behind this view is that tribes should be integrated but they should be allowed to preserve their own autonomy. Integration along with autonomy would also mean the respect for the pluralities of tribes. (11) Both the above schools of thought, however, reflect basic problems that are being faced by the liberal Indian state in relation with the tribes. In making the state inclusive, it denies the differences of the tribes. But in giving autonomy also, it does so only on the basis of differences between the tribes and the rest of population (in an area) without weighing the heterogeneous relationship within/ among the tribal communities. :


The debates on tribal autonomy in Northeast India call for contextualizing the issue within a continuum of the new national democratic society’s desire to maintain uniformity within and the demands by the geographically concentrated tribes of the Northeast for autonomy.

Modern democracy requires people to sense themselves as a collective agency rather than a mere chance grouping. Charles Taylor has written about the inner link between popular sovereignty and the idea of the people as a collective agency.(12) A crucial difference of the modern democratic regime from the earlier monarchical regimes is that people under the former have come to understand self-rule as both a right and an ideal. But the experiences of modern democracy in Europe had shown the republican notion of freedom taking on a nationalist form. It came to be accepted in many circles that a sovereign people, in order to have the unity needed for collective agency, had to have an antecedent unity or culture or history or language. Hence ‘˜it is not only the sense of freedom but also the common cultural identity that define the collective agency,’ (13) with which its members identify the locus of their national/cultural expression. (14)

However, in a modern complex society like India, the idea (political identity) of India is a highly contested one. The fact also remains that the political necessity for a strong common identity to sustain the modern state as a viable entity has itself contributed to a modern paradox. This necessity has led to separate administrative packages for many of the tribal areas in the Northeast India. In fact, the urge for identifying the people with the state based on the republican notion of freedom was manifested during the Constituent Assembly debates on tribal autonomy by liberals. (15)However, some others read the liberals’ espousal of the policy of emphasizing tribal cultural identity as an indirect incitement to the forces of separatism. (16) This fear can also be rooted in the basic character of the modern state. Along with a drive towards inclusion in modern democratic societies, there is a ‘˜standing temptation’ towards exclusion, which arises from the logic of modern liberal state that ‘˜democracy works well when people know each other, trust each other, and feel a sense of commitment towards each other.'(17)

The tribal areas, particularly of the erstwhile ‘˜excluded’ and ‘˜partially excluded’ areas in Northeast India posed a dilemma to the newly independent Indian state. Nari Rustomji (1983) wrote: ‘˜India’s dilemma in inheriting the frontiers from the British was that she found herself having to deal with a multiplicity of tribes whose way of life and thinking she had little knowledge and even less experience’. (18) Verrier Elwin (1959) also shared the ‘˜fundamental problems’ faced by independent India in inheriting the tribes of Northeast, particularly the tribes of former North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), presently Arunachal Pradesh. Between the policies of ‘˜leaving them alone’ and ‘˜detribalization’, the then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru opted for a policy of integration ‘˜with a spirit of comradeship.'(19)

Notwithstanding this liberal view of Nehru, the political necessity of the liberal state for territorial inclusiveness led to the consideration of strategic location of the frontiers tribes,(20) historical experiences of these tribes, who were not fully integrated to the administration from the plains, and the increasing demands for separate governance from various tribes. As a result, independent India decided that governing these tribes through exceptional provisions in the Constitution was the best policy option.

Now this case of separate Constitutional provisions can be interpreted as a case of exclusion that results from two sources. Will Kymlicka (1995) argues that ‘˜demand for self-government’¦ reflects a desire to weaken the bond with the larger political community, and indeed questioned its very authority and permanence.’ Further, this demand for self-governance mainly emerged from the fact that there are ‘˜national minorities’ whose cultures have been ‘˜territorially concentrated and insulated from outside.’ This could also mean that the source of the demand lies outside the liberal frameworks and hence the demand for exclusion from the larger political community.(21) However, Selma K. Sonntag (2004), who studied the case of district councils in Darjeeling, argues that this exclusion, because of the distinctiveness of certain group’s culture, can be taken as the result of the process from within the liberal framework itself, rather than from outside.(22) Irrespective of whether the demand is from outside or inside of the liberal framework, what is obvious is that this ‘˜exclusion’ through certain special constitutional provisions do not give room to the excluded group(s) to secede from the existing state structure. The ‘˜liberal state’ thus exhibit a duality ‘”to exclude as well as to control its otherwise excluded group(s).

Tribal autonomy, therefore, may be seen as the byproduct of the liberal nation state’s political necessity for maintaining a common cultural expression (political identity), along with the tendency to exclude those which do not conform to this uniformity, and also the demand for separate treatment by certain groups of tribals in the Northeast India. The need for maintaining common political expression, which may either be present in the practice of republican notion of freedom or common cultural identity, demands construction of ‘˜liberal walls’, excluding (by providing autonomous rights to govern themselves) those groups of people which have differentiated experiences of culture. So, what is an authentic and geographically concentrated culture can be the result of liberal state’s tendency to establish borders or to exclude certain groups of people from the larger uniform political community by providing separate administrative packages. (23)

However, should we say that autonomy is only the result of this exclusivist tendency of the liberal state? In the context of Northeast India, autonomy was demanded by the tribes of the formerly excluded and partially excluded areas. The demand for tribals’ autonomy initially emerged from the then Naga Hills of undivided Assam. The ground for demanding autonomy was also the ‘˜insulated experience of the Naga culture’ from the plains administration of Assam. During the British period, the major part of the Naga Hills formed a district of Assam. Constitutionally, large parts of the district was an ‘˜Excluded Area’, that is, its administration was ‘˜excluded’ from the jurisdiction of the popularly elected Assam Ministry and fell within the direct responsibility of the Governor of Assam. The district was lightly administered and the main part of the administration was carried out by the tribals themselves. The British followed the policy of least interference, leaving to the missionary activities to bring changes in the religious beliefs and ways of life. The Naga area that formed a district was closed to the people in the plain areas. However, the British were content to leave the area ‘˜virtually unattended’. Remote Naga areas extend up to the Burmese frontier. It was only when the Nagas from these unattended areas raided the villages in the plains that a punitive expedition was dispatched. (24) Even in 1930s, the entire administration of the Naga Hill District was in the hands of one deputy commissioner stationed at Kohima, and one sub divisional officer based in Mokokchung. The people of the plains were not allowed to acquire land in the hills, and the indigenous system of land tenure was retained virtually unchanged. (25)

The insulated cultural experiences of the Naga Hills, may fulfill the definition of ‘˜national minority’, given by Will Kymlicka, whose culture has been ‘˜territorially concentrated and insulated from outside’. So for the Nagas of then undivided Assam, demand for separation from the Assam Province reflected a desire to weaken the bond with Assam on the basis of an insulated Nagas’ cultural experiences. In 1948 Nagas expressed their desire to be separated from Assam. They argued that ‘˜the Nagas are quite distinct from the people of Assam and had in the past been administered separately (i.e. by the Governor as a special responsibility and not by the ministry)’¦’ (26) The same cultural logic is being repeated in autonomous district councils. The demand for homeland of the Dimasa comprising of the whole of North Cachar Hills and Cachar district can be cited as an instance. (27) In 1952, the United Mikir Hills and North Cachar Hills district council was formed on the recommendation of Bordoloi sub-committee. But later it was bifurcated into two separate districts, the Karbi Anglong Hills district and the North Cachar Hills district. This demand has led to Hmar-Dimasa conflict in the above two districts. This has further led to the demand by the Hmar Inpui (Hmar Supreme House) for a separate administrative unit for the indigenous Hmars in both the districts.(28) The home rule demands may thus be seen as a form of decentralization from an otherwise encompassing tendency of the regional states which have treated these communities as ‘˜others’.


The historical and contemporary experiences with the Sixth Schedule in the Northeast have shown that the political communities are largely based on the ascriptive principles. The basic determining factor for any autonomy demand has been the differentiated experiences of numerically large ethnic groups. However, if the determination of membership in a political community is largely based on the ‘˜cultural experiences’ or ‘˜the unique cultural identity’, a serious crisis emerges. One would argue that this problem has been solved by the introduction of election of representatives through proper democratic procedures. But as Donald L. Horowitz (1985) argues, when the election are held in an area dominated by a majority ethnic group, then there is the problem of ‘˜majority rule by that ethnic group in perpetuity’. In this condition, ‘˜the possibility of shifting majorities, of opposition becoming governments, of an alterable public opinion’ is foreclosed. This possibility is further foreclosed by another development. The experiences of tribal autonomy in Northeast have shown that what has begun as a drive for democratic rights, usually defined as ‘˜self-governing rights of the ethnic groups’ ends up with the demand for recognition of the groups as a pre-defined or given nation. We can put in this category the rise of Naga nationalism and the demand for Dimaraji or Dima Hilali (golden land of Demasa).

It is difficult to imagine an insulated cultural experience at the present moment, particularly in Northeast. If there is a call for such kind of culture, then that is the by-product of an ideologically driven strategy to demarcate or to make an impermeable cultural boundary. In the Khasi Hills Autonomous district council, when a bill was passed in 1997 to codify the Khasis system of inheritance through the female line, it became controversial. Many Khasis organizations proposed change in the system that would have allowed only children of two Khasi parents to be regarded as Khasi. This calls for redefining who a Khasi is. (29) Cultural experiences can be the basis of autonomy. But these experiences should be the by-product of a shared cultural experiences based on liberal democratic values.

Another significant conclusion that is being arrived in this paper is that autonomy on the basis of ‘˜geographically concentrated and insulted cultural experiences’ is the by-product of a liberal logic. This means that tribal autonomy is not so much the result of genuine interest to empower the tribes. Rather it is a form of exclusion. The pervasive dominance of individualist foundation of liberal philosophy (that there should not be any reserved administration or scheduled areas, reflected particularly in the constituent assembly debate) and the necessity for maintaining common cultural expression, which the Hindu custom and tradition provides, have led to exclusion of the frontier tribes into a geographically and insulated cultural experiences. However, there was a perception among the earlier generation of nationalists that these tribes cannot be left alone; for, there was a fear of separatism possibly coming from these tribes. As a result, the liberal state policy towards the frontier tribes, particularly of the formerly excluded areas, is also very much the result of the principle of territorial inclusiveness. This principle comes into play when the strategic dimensions are explored with respect to the frontier tribes. It both excludes and includes at the same time, but in a very different form of exclusion and inclusion.

Lastly, but not the least, is that while ADCs are formed in the name of either ‘˜excluding the tribes’ or ‘˜empowering the tribes’, the administrative hands of the Central government becomes much stronger than before. Formation of ADCs is supposed to curve the centralizing tendencies of the regional states, thus, leading to decentralization. But what is supposedly decentralization from an existing regional state may turn out to be consolidation of control by the Central government under whose supervision the ADCs will function. The very act of freeing from the ‘˜clutches of the regional state’ leads to the hands of the Central government. So, a true form of decentralization seems to be still a distant dream within the constitutional structure of the country. The idea of autonomy seems to still operate within the centralized vocabulary of exclusion and inclusion of the Central government.


1. Donald L. Horowitz argues that politics in severely divided societies manifest the competition between the principles of membership in modern state on the basis territorial proximity and the ascriptive principles which connotes fixed social placement. Further, territorial basis of the modern state is meant to encompass everyone within its boundaries. See Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict, (University of California Press), 1985, pp. 83-89.

2. Constituent Assembly of India, Volume no. IX, Monday, the 5th September, 1949.

3. Ibid.

4. Nari Rustomji, Imperiled Frontiers, India’s North-Eastern Borderlands, (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1983, p. 47.

5. Constituent Assembly of India, op. cit.

6. G.S Ghurye conceptualized tribes as ‘˜the backward Hindus’. See G.S. Ghurye, The Schedule Tribes, (Bombay: Popular Prakashan), 1963.

7. While analyzing state policy towards tribes, Xaxa argues that the conception of assimilation entails that small minority must give up its culture in favor of the dominant majority. See Virginius Xaxa, ‘˜Politics of language, Religion and Identity: Tribes in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, March 26, 2005, pp. 1362-1370.

8. Constituent Assembly of India, op. cit.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Xaxa argues that the underlying assumption behind integration is that it provides space for diversity. See Virginius Xaxa, op. cit. p. 1366.

12. Charles Taylor, ‘˜Democratic Exclusion (and Its Remedies?)’, in Rajeev Bhargava, Amiya Kumar Bagchi and R. Sudarshan (ed.), Multiculturalism, Liberalism and Democracy, (Oxford University Publication), 1999, pp. 139-141.

13. Ibid. p. 142.

14. Charles Taylor talked about ‘˜republican’ and ‘˜national’ appeals to popular sovereignty, which in practice cannot be distinguished from each other in the ‘˜rhetoric and imaginary of democratic societies’. See Charles Taylor, Ibid.

15. Ramachandra Guha, ‘˜The Absent Liberal, An Essay on Politics and Intellectual Life’, Economic and Political Weekly, December 15, 2001, pp. 4663-4670.

16. Nari Rustomji, op. cit. p. 47.

17. Taylor, op. cit. p. 149.

18. Rustomji, op. cit.

19. Verrier Elwin, A Philosophy For NEFA, (Shillong: Published by Sachin Roy on behalf of NEFA), 1959, p. 54.

20. Nari Rustomji (1983) wrote that ‘˜as China proceeded to entrenched herself in Tibet’¦had reservations regarding the validity of the Mc Mohan Line as the international frontier between China and India, it no longer remained possible for the India to allow the vast belt of mountains stretching out northwards from Brahmaputra valley to remain an unexplored’¦’. See Rustomji, op. cit., p. 18.

21. See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1995.

22. Selma K. Sonntag, ‘˜National Minority Rights in the Himalayas’, Heidelberg Papers in South Asian & Comparative Politics, Working paper, No. 21, ISSN 1617-5069,, June 2004.

23. Ibid. Talking about the liberal borders, Michael Walzer considers liberalism as a way of drawing the map of the social and political world. See Michael Walzer, ‘˜Liberalism and the Art of Separation’, Political Theory, 1984, 12 (3) pp. 315-30.

24. See Rustomji, op. cit. pp. 26-27

25. Christoph Von Furer-Haimendorf, op. cit. p. 35

26. Rustomji, op. cit. p. 54.

27. Lal Dena, ‘˜Hmar-Dimasa Ethnic Conflict: 1988-2004’, Unpublished work.

28. Ibid

29. See Sanjib Baruah, Durable Disorder, Understanding the Politics of Northeast India, (Oxford), 2005


*The paper was written by G. Amarjit Sharma.

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