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The “indigenous tribes” of Meghalaya.
Bengt G. Karlsson, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University, Sweden.

While one can dispute whether half a century of government engagements to uplift communities designated as scheduled tribes has made much headways in terms of improving the economic, political and social situation of these people, the ST status has no doubt become a priced asset in India today. A case of point here, for example, is the large number of movements that seek government recognition as scheduled tribes. But obviously, if the category becomes too inclusive, the practical usefulness of the ST status diminishes. In this paper I will look at such a situation.

In the northeastern state of Meghalaya as much as 85 percent of the population fall under the ST category. There are 17 tribes and 35 sub-tribes listed as scheduled tribes in the state. The majority of people, however, belong to any of the three dominant ST communities; the Khasi, the Jaintia and the Garo. During last years the politics of tribal identity has not so much revolved around the ST list as such – for example, whether some communities ought to be added or deleted from the list – but rather around a newly crafted category, the so-called “indigenous tribes”. Claims to indigenous tribe status have especially been articulated in the context of the contentious issue of land rights, i.e. the question of who should have the right to hold or own land in the state. Several powerful organisations in Meghalaya now assert that this right should be assigned only to the indigenous tribes of the state, namely the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos. In focus is the much debated Land Transfer Act that prohibits transfer of land from a tribal to a non-tribal person. The Land Transfer Act is there to protect the interests of all the STs in the state and make, for example, no specific reference to three communities now claimed to be the indigenous tribes. This is what organisations like the Meghalaya Indigenous Peoples Forum seek to redress.

In this paper, I will address the wider significance of this new claim for “indigenous tribe” status. As I argue, this is an example of how the global discourse on indigenous peoples’ rights intersects with and partly evades the existing state-centric scheduled tribes’ framework.

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