By Yuingam Jajo
I have been following the ‘campaign’ surrounding the candidature of P.A. Sangma, the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha and a National Congress Party (NCP) stalwart, for the post of the President of India for a while now. In fact I have even posted some personal comments on the issue in the Facebook but have been more of a keen spectator by choice. P.A. Sangma, a ‘tribal’ (Garo) from Meghalaya, one of the ‘northeastern’ states of India, is seen by many as the face of the tribal in general and the people of northeast in particular. From ‘Go, Sangma’ to ‘All the best, Sangma’ to ‘You can do it, Sangma’ there is a sweeping wave of support for his candidature cutting across the existing divide that marked the ethno landscape of the region (northeast). Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that his candidature comes at a time when there is an outcry against the discrimination of northeasterners in mainland India. The charged climate, however, appears to be conducive for his candidature-the right candidate at the right time for the right post from the right place; the mainlanders need to show that they care and the allegations about the discriminations as baseless and at the same time assuage the hurt sentiments of the northeasterners. Against such a backdrop the appointment of P.A. Sangma as the first tribal from the northeast for the President of India appear to be the best option available. Indeed it is a perfect fit, as some would say. It appears to be as well.
But just as a book should not be judged by its cover, I, a ‘tribal’ from the ‘northeast’, prefer to be a little skeptical of P.A. Sangma’s candidature for the post of the President of India. If I remember correctly, it was P.A. Sangma who first raised the proposition of having a tribal president. These long years of not having a tribal as the head of the state, the initial argument goes, is a denial of equal opportunities to the marginal groups, the tribal or Scheduled Tribes (ST) in particular, and is damaging for the democratic image of the nation. So the mood was kind of ‘why not a tribal President to right the wrong’. Many supposed that electing one tribal fellow, regardless of who the tribal is, would mean absolution for the wrongs and denials meted out to the tribal in India until now. Perhaps some are also of the opinion that it would reaffirm the democratic image and credentials of the nation and reassure the possibility of possibilities –‘from log cabin to the White House’ – to the masses. In short, it would reinvent and reinstate the democratic utopia. Alright, one may ask, if having a woman president for the last so many years have actually brought about a visible improvement in the status of women in the country. The answer is, besides the image building and perpetuating the democratic myth of being accommodative, the plight of women in India has sadly deteriorated if not substantially remained unchanged over the years. Thus, it is doubtful if having a tribal as the head of the state would really go beyond the cosmetic makeover. Moreover, judging by the recent news PA Sangma seems to have taken the candidature for the post of president too personally. What is perplexing is his hobnobbing with the Bhartya Janata Party (BJP) whose anti-Christianity, anti-minorities and fascist credentials are well established. What a heady concoction this is!
What is completely absent in the current discourse is the possibility that having a tribal as the head of the state on such parochial ground would further marginalize and alienate the so-called tribal. It would only reaffirm the identity of the tribal as the marginalized section of the society and lend credibility to the popular assertion that tribal thrive on the patronage of the non-tribal while leaving the pejorative term ‘tribe/tribal’ intact. Without challenging the representations structured around the term tribe/tribal and the attitudes and responses engendered by such representations the present preoccupation of having a tribal as the President of India in the hope of alleviating the lot of the tribal is misleading. More importantly, the possibility of exploring other avenues of challenging the constructed representation and position of the tribal is narrowed by such state centric discourse. It gives the state a good excuse: ‘A tribal has been made the President, what more can it do?’ The same would go for the northeast. Having said this, the real challenge lies in opposing the veiled moves of the state and exposing the politics behind ‘tribalizing’ the post of the President. It is against such a backdrop that one needs to assess the supposedly unstinted support extended by one of the chief ministers whose state has one of the largest populations of tribal outside the northeast. It needs mention here that the state in question is also home (presently) to the most ‘primitive’ tribal group (Dongrias) in the country and many of the non-primitive tribal groups in the state continue to live under pitiable conditions while their rich natural resources are siphoned off in connivance with the state machineries. It is said that tribal in these mineral rich regions own just six inches of the soil. What lies beneath that do belong to them. The irony is that the present chief minister and his party have been ruling the state for decades.
The need of the hour for a tribal therefore, in my opinion, is not occupying the Rashtrapati Bhavan on a petty excuse that tribal in India needs to be given a chance in order to showcase the world’s largest democracy. On the contrary, what is urgently required is to question the world’s largest democracy as to why a derogatory term like tribe/tribal continue to decide the fate of approximately more than 8 per cent of the total population of the nation; why, after sixty and more years of independence, the nation has not discarded the colonial attitude towards its fellow ‘tribal’ citizens and they continue to be looked upon as second-class citizens; why is it that though many of the tribal groups across the country who inhabits areas rich in resources continue to remain abysmally poor eking out their livelihood in an almost famine-like situations; why should a tribal be the President because he/she is a tribal. What does tribe/tribal mean? Until satisfactory answers can be found to these and many other related questions the ceremonial crowning of tribal would hardly make an impact on the existing conditions of the tribal in the country. To be fooled into believing otherwise would not only be demeaning oneself as a tribal but also legitimizing the marginalization processes emanating from the power centres of the state. Instead of basing on narrow pejorative considerations the nation needs find broader and more democratic grounds for electing the head of the state.