Finally, a scheduled Tribe status!!
Dr. Vijay Kumar Bodh
Archaeological Survey of India
On 14th September 2022, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Mr. Arjun Munda announced decision taken by the Cabinet to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the Hatti community living in the Trans-Giri region of Himachal Pradesh
A silent struggle for the last 55 years, has finally yielded fruits. After the Bill is passed by both the houses of the Parliament and it becomes an act, The Hatti community would then get listed in the Fifth Schedule as a Scheduled Tribe under article 342 of the constitution. It has been a long struggle. In 1967 the adjoining region of Jaunsar (now in Uttarakhand) was included in the Scheduled Tribes list and the Hattis of Himachal Pradesh, thriving on the other side of river Tons were denied the status. Hattis and Jaunsars although separated geo-politically by the Tons River, but they have Daichara (kinship ties) and cultural affiliations with each other. In all aspects be it economy and agricultural practices, ritual and cultural practises, social status, festivities, they are alike. It is just that one lives across the other side of the river and falls in the administrative jurisdiction of another state that it has been neglected and denied the status of a scheduled tribe. The community has lived with this grievance for more than five decades.
I visited the trans-Giri region in 2015. It was during the winters, a fellow researcher Arun Bhardwaj, was generating data to write “AN ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY OF THE HATTI COMMUNITY OF DISTRICT SIRMAUR, HIMACHAL PRADESH”. He was travelling to his field sites in Himachal Pradesh to document the festival of Buddi Diyali in Shillai and its adjoining villages. We attended the celebrations in many villages. Memories of Drabil and Mohrad villages are still intact. The fire-lit wooden torch dance in front of the main temple during the wee hours did warm up the chilly December morning at Drabil village.
Budi Diyali is a three-day long festival celebrated exactly a month after Diwali in accordance with the Hindu Calendar on the Amavasya of Maag-sheersh. People dance and sing with fire lit torches in their hands. It depicts the triumph of divine over darkness and demon with light and fire. The mythological links to the festival are many. Few relate it to the Ramayana, and state that it is celebrated to mark the return of Sita to Ayodhya after the Vanvaas (after spending fourteen years in seclusion in the forest). To mark her return, elder women of Ayodhya decorated the city with fire torches. The festival is symbolic of celebration of mythological events. Another explanation suggests that the fire lit torches and associated songs and dance depict the legendary contest between Indra and Vrita-the Hindu mythological figures. A similar festival is also celebrated in various other regions of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh.
On this occasion, villagers perform a special dance popularly called Haathi Nach (elephant dance). Dancers would take cover under a large cloth canopy designed to look like an elephant and dance in unison imitating a warrior sitting on the elephant, somewhat like the Yak dance of Lahaul & Spiti. The configuration of the dance allocating specific position to dancers depicts the prevalent intra-community hierarchy. The Hatti community follows a rigid hierarchy. The community is broadly divided into two categories. Bhat and Khash are accorded the status of upper echelons and Badhois are seen to be below them. Marital alliances between these two categories are discouraged. The community is governed by Khumbli (traditional council).
Those belonging to the lower category are assigned lower positions in the elephant formation during the festivities of Budi Diyali. They take the ascribed position of the elephant’s feet and carry men of higher status on their backs. Men of upper category perform the role of warriors. The dance drama depicts a war like situation showing men fighting while riding the elephant. They made manoeuvres displaying sword movements with an ancestral sword and shield. It is an attempt to display valour and skills in warfare. The focus is only on the warriors, while those carrying them are hidden under the canopy that is given the shape of the elephant and decorated accordingly. The act is symbolic and majestic but also tells a story of discrimination and marginalization and that of inherent social hierarchies.
TUSSLE OVER SCHEDULED TRIBE STATUS
I must admit that I have no expertise on Hatti community or their struggle. I spent few days with them to assist a fellow researcher and collect several photographs of the festivities as part of my memorabilia. Few of these I have shared with you in this blog. But I am a Himachali and trained anthropologist and that has made me aware of my surroundings. Call it my reflexivity or anthropological gaze; Hatti’s struggle to be listed as a scheduled Tribe has registered with each one of us. Should Hattis be included among the tribes? Subjectively speaking-Yes, they should have been recognized long back. There were contestations within the community. Some of them thought that asking for a Scheduled tribe status was humiliating for the community. Those in favour of a tribal status argued that scheduled tribe recognition would bring socio-economic ‘development’ as amply visible in Kinnaur and Lahaul & Spiti.
The advantage of being listed as tribe in a Hill state is not a secret. One thing is for sure, at least the roads and infrastructure leading to their villages would become better on their being declared a scheduled tribe. Connecting roads to villages were in a state of neglect when I visited these villages in 2015 and it was a tough drive back then. In addition, there would be several new schemes for education, health, and irrigation infrastructure. Assumption is that being recognised as scheduled tribe, they will get better opportunities for education because of reservation mandated by the constitution for the ST students. The Hatti children are at a disadvantage now. In addition, allocation of special budget from tribal sub-plan would provide for better planning.
Hatti name is probably driven from the word Haat since the villagers go to sell their crops in the nearby towns in Haats (weekly markets). Most of them are agriculturists and lush green fields at the outskirt invite attention of every visitor. Residents appear economically secure.
It is a closely knit community with their own set of customs and practices. The community is broadly spread in and around Shillai region of District Sirmour in Himachal Pradesh. They are often termed as trans-Giri community, named after the river, that bifurcated the geopolitical and socio-cultural scenario along its banks. A population of 1.60 lakh people resides in about 400 villages comprising of 154 Panchayats spread across 4 Vidhan Sabhas namely Shillai, Renuka Ji, Pachhad and Paonta Sahib. According to the census of 2011, tribal population in Himachal Pradesh is currently 57% (39,2126) of its total population and to this would now be added another 1.60 lac people of Hatti community.
Imparting quality education to the students is going to be the key factor. At present the total literacy rate in Sirmour district is 78.8 % (according to the official website of the district). Qualitative improvement in education and ecotourism are advocated as development agendas for the newly incorporated community. The region is rich in natural beauty and has several popular trekking trails. There are several religious and spiritual centres in the district, namely Churdhar, Haripurdhar, Paonta Sahib. Renuka lake and Shivalik fossil parks are also located in this district adding to its tourism attraction. Few things would inevitably change as community acquires a scheduled tribe idenity. The contestations and struggle of ‘to be or not to be’ a tribal status would end, and the factions and opinions could now divert towards carving a better future.
On a scale of household level, the socio-economic measure of development and affluence has been associated with the shape, size, and spending capacity of the given household. On a village or Panchayat level, the overall development is determined by the square kilometres of its roads, number of bridges and number of new buildings (multi-storey hospitals, Panchayat Bhawan, Grain storage facility, Sabzi-mandi etc) constructed during a given financial year. On the flipside, most of the schools in the tribal belt of Himachal Pradesh are under-staffed. Multi –storeyed, multi-crore hospital buildings in the tribal belt awaits specialist medics.
The only thing that has worked in favour of the people of Kinnaur and Lahaul & Spiti is ‘Tourism’ (popularly constructed as ‘eco-tourism’) and suitable climatic conditions for ‘Cash Crops’. But there is a big ‘if’? We all know that ‘suitable’ ‘climatic conditions’ rely upon global warming and are subject to change without prior warnings, then uncertainties loom large? Hill regions are far more susceptible to the vagaries of climate change as is being witnessed this year. Landslides have become a regular feature. In such an eventuality, possibilities of getting instant attention and adequate compensation as members of the scheduled tribe are far more than being a member of the general community.
One wishes best for the Hatti community and congratulate them for the long-awaited triumph. One also admires them for their perseverance that finally bore fruits even if it has taken 55 years to fructify. They may have to wait a little longer for the notification as the cabinet decision has to be cleared by both the houses of the Parliament, but their struggle is hopefully over. Many call it a political decision because of approaching elections in the state, whatever it may be, it is for the people and must be appreciated in the larger interest of the community.
My satirical sense tells me that development activities and notification may take time but for sure in the next academic session, many more students from Anthropology and Sociology will be visiting the region to study Hatti community! Being a community in the general category did invite attention of the researchers to focus on their contemporary cultural practises or heritage.
*Image source and Copyright: Vijay Kumar Bodh
 Difference between these two dance forms is that in Yak dance there are only two individuals dressed in Yak looking cloaks and dance in unison with each other. But in the Hathi Nach (elephant dance) there are several dancers and positions assigned to them to caricature an elephant represent caste hierarchy and even marginalization during collective festivities.