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The Hattis of Himachal Pradesh are going into elections with ST tag, new hope, old fears

One community, four seats and a BJP-Congress slugfest to woo the divided Hattis is playing out in Himachal Pradesh assembly elections.

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Sirmaur: It was late on a cold night in Bhawai village of Sirmaur district, but the community centre was full of enthralled audience belonging to the Hatti community, a hill tribe from the Trans-Giri region of southern Himachal Pradesh. Their centuries-old identity and fate is set to change. Sitting on a worn-out sofa, their leader Ami Chand Kamal reiterated how the Hatti children will soon reap the benefits of years of struggle by the group to get the Scheduled Tribe status.

“Your children will now get scholarships, hostels, jobs and in no time, the region will produce officers who will serve in the Indian Administrative Services,” said Kamal. A loud applause erupted from the men and women gathered.

In October, Kamal, a retired professor and president of Kendriya Hatti Samiti, a non-profit, along with men from the community, managed to convince the Narendra Modi government that Hattis have been deprived of development because of remoteness of the Trans-Giri region and deserve to be classified as a Scheduled Tribe (ST). Of the 14 Hattis sub-castes, 12 enjoy the Scheduled Caste (SC) status. Now, the remaining two, which have been viewed as dominant castes until now by everyone, will be considered STs – a spectre that brings both hope, tension and fear in the community. But the government’s move is also likely to upset the politics-as-usual dynamics of the region in the upcoming Himachal Pradesh assembly elections.

Hattis predominantly live in the area that falls between two rivers, Tons and Giri, cutting across four blocks of the Sirmaur district. The community was part of the princely state of Sirmaur and it got its name as the people from this region used to carry locally produced goods to far away markets called haats in exchange of food for their household consumption.

Though tar roads now connect the region with the rest of the state, and schools and colleges have opened, the infrastructural upkeep is in shambles. The geographical isolation of the region brought this meagre development late, say local people. The spread of formal education also led to migration of young boys and girls. Those who can afford, move to cities such as Shimla, Solan and Delhi for studies and work.

A special status, claim Hatti leaders, would bring dedicated funds and development to the region.

Their demand of over five decades was met earlier this year by the ruling BJP government at the Centre and the state. On 13 April, the Registrar General of India (RGI) registered Hattis as a Scheduled Tribe. Months later, on 14 September, the Union Cabinet passed it.

To celebrate this historic win, the Hattis have plunged into the campaigning season in the state for the polls on 12 November — to repay the party that met their wish, the BJP.

“It is time to pay them (BJP) back,” said Kamal at a public gathering in Shivpuri village of the Renukaji assembly constituency. “We should make them (BJP) win with such a big majority that leaves everyone surprised,” he added.

Though not officially associated with the BJP, the Hatti men led by Kamal are traversing on the difficult terrain in Shillai, Renukaji, Pachhad and Paonta Sahib constituencies of Sirmaur district, along with Shimla and Solan, which also have Hatti population, and are openly mobilising support for the BJP.

Ami Chand Kamal (front) and members of the Kendriya Hatti Samiti going for a public awareness meeting in Nohradhar area of Sirmaur district. | Photograph by Sonal Matharu | ThePrint 

Teams of four to five men are driving in private vehicles sans political flags and banners and are holding Jan Jagran Abhiyan, or people’s awareness campaigns. Their pamphlets list the benefits Hattis will get under the ST status.

Banking on the support of the Hatti community, the BJP is confident of making in-roads into the traditional Congress strongholds of Shillai and Sri Renukaji constituencies. And with political heavyweights like PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah counting the ST status of the Hatti community as a big achievement in public rallies last month, it has become one of the primary issues in the remote district.

The Congress, meanwhile, calls the move an eyewash.

“The ST status to the community has not yet been finalised. People are still doubtful about this. Also, if the BJP really wanted to get the ST status for the community, they should have done it timely and not right before the elections,” said Vinay Kumar, Congress leader and MLA from Renukaji.

While the Hattis are hailing the ST status as a life-changing event, cracks are emerging within the SC groups of the community. The SC groups that fall under the Hatti community say that the move by the BJP is an election gimmick, which has polarised the Hattis and will suppress the rights of the SCs within the community.

“Hatti castes which will get the ST status are upper castes. The SCs will be losers in this deal as those who inflict the atrocities will now be STs. The SCs will no longer be able to use the SC/ST Atrocities Act against them,” said Ashish Kumar, convenor of Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch and CPI(M)’s candidate from Pachhad constituency.

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Long struggle for recognition

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Kamal and his colleagues from the Kendriya Hatti Samiti to meet Home Minister Amit Shah with their demands on 24 April. But they reached 20 minutes late. Their driver from Shimla could not navigate Delhi’s roads. Time was slipping and the ministers were waiting. The Hatti leaders abandoned their car and made a dramatic entry into the North Block in a rickshaw and alert security.

“Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur who was part of the delegation joked that they are Hattis, they even celebrate Diwali one month late,” said Kamal.

The joke on Hattis, which is common in the hills, he says, tells how remote the Trans-Giri region is. Nestled between hills with poor road connectivity, the news used to reach the area late in the old days. Smartphones and internet connectivity, however, are overcoming these limitations now.

“The legend is that the news of Ram’s return to Ayodhya from exile reached Hattis one month late. That is why our Diwali is celebrated one month later. It’s called Budhi (old) Diwali,” said Ram Singh Chauhan, a Hatti from Shillai.

Ghuman Singh, a Hatti from Shivpur village in Renukaji constituency, has decided to support the BJP in the upcoming elections. He credits the party for financially supporting farmers and starting a free ambulance service, which he used thrice to take his one-year-old son to the hospital. Photograph by Sonal Matharu | ThePrint

The news that the Hatti community had already been registered by the RGI too did not reach the community leaders when they met the home minister.

“We had gone with a presentation. But Amit Shah said to us, ‘why have you bothered to come all the way? Your matter has already cleared. You should go back and celebrate’,” said Kamal.

It was indeed a time for celebrations in the hills. But the victory for the community has not come easy.

The demand for declaring Trans-Giri area a Scheduled Area and ST status to the Hattis of Himachal Pradesh was first made in 1967, when the same community in Jaunsar-Bawar region of then Uttar Pradesh (now in Uttarakhand), was given that status by the state government.

Since then, the Hattis’ proposal reached the RGI several times for consideration, but poor studies of the community by the state government and lack of political will deprived them of their rights, the Hattis told ThePrint.

“For the longest time, this Trans-Giri region had no schools and colleges. People from almost every household used to migrate to earn because the land there cannot be cultivated throughout the year. Even today, if someone falls sick, the nearest good hospital is in Solan, which is kilometres away,” said Kamal Singh Kamal, member of Kendriya Hatti Samiti, Solan.

These findings were also noted by the Tribal Research and Training Institute under the Tribal Development Department of the state in 2018, which did an ethnographic study on the Hatti community based on the Lokur parameters, such as geographical isolation, shyness of the people, economic backwardness, distinct culture, and primitive traits. The 1965 advisory committee report on the revision of the SC and ST is known as the Lokur Committee report. The Lokur parameters are the ones given in this report.

The 2018 study found that the Hattis still practise bartering of goods as the villages are cut off from markets and not everyone can afford to go to towns and cities. Access to formal healthcare is considered in the community only when a person is critically ill. “In villages not connected to gravel roads, the person is carried on a bamboo cot,” the study said.

The powerful local bodies called the Khumblis (like the Khap panchayats in north Indian states) are the first recourse to settle matters in the Trans-Giri region and there is almost no formal litigation, it added.

Modernisation, meanwhile, has touched life in Trans-Giri region in certain pockets. Many villages lining the road now have cobbled lanes. With the literacy rate rising (literacy rate in Sirmaur has risen from 70.39 per cent in 2001 to 78.8 per cent in 2011), people are moving out for government and private jobs to cities and bringing the money back to the villages. Prosperous families own private vehicles and their houses are equipped with modern facilities.

But the proposition of reservation in jobs and educational institutions is attractive nonetheless.

“If we get the option to get secure jobs then it will uplift the families. If we are getting it, why should we say no to it? If we don’t get it, then we will go back to cutting grass in the fields,” said Tota Devi from Bhawai village.

The Hatti villages are also a reflection of mixed cultures. While polyandrous families are functioning smoothly in the villages, the young boys and girls – many of whom have been raised by uncles, aunts and grandparents who were in such relationships – are now embarrassed of this custom.

Jhurgi Devi, a Hatti from Beyong village, was in a polyandrous relationship, a common practice in the community in the past. Sonal Matharu | ThePrint

“This used to happen earlier when there was no concept of private space. But now, no one wants to have multiple partners. No one would like to share their partner,” said Sanjana Sharma, 19, from Beyong village who studies in Shimla.

For the older men and women in Hatti villages, polyandry was a way to keep the families together when resources were limited and poverty rampant.

“The land holding was small in villages and male members were most of the time away to work. So, having one wife prevented the families from going nuclear and the land was not divided between brothers,” said Jhurgi Devi, who had two husbands, from Beyong village.

While polyandry suited the economic and social conditions of the times when Trans-Giri region was cut off from the rest of the state, the generation gap and influence of outside cultures has changed the way a family unit is in the Hatti community now, said Sharma.

Some of the traditional practices, however, stay intact. Like goat sacrifices for community feasts.

“Sacrificing a goat is still considered the highest form of respect in the Hatti community,” said Ram Singh Chauhan from Cheog village, Shillai.

“At weddings, relatives take a goat as a gift for the feast. The heart of the goat is given to the wisest man of the community as a mark of respect. And the Hattis celebrate a special goat festival called Bhatizog on 11 January, where families dry the goat meat and store it in traditional ways without refrigeration for months,” he explains.

The final settlement at Khumblis and the ultimate form of punishment in the Hatti community is also through goat sacrifice.

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Vote power

Beginning this year, however, the peaceful struggle of the Hattis took a decisive turn. Three maha-Khumblis (public meetings) were organised by the community leaders where they invited political leaders from both Congress and BJP. The Hattis resolved that whichever party gets them the ST status, the community’s consolidated vote will go with that party. And if no party meets their demand, the Hattis will boycott the elections.

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur was quick to act and within months, the Hatti population of 2.5 lakh, as per the 2011 Census, spread in 154 panchayats in Sirmaur, became BJP’s loyalists.

“The party has done something which was impossible,” said Ravinder Chauhan, Hatti samiti member from Nohradhar. He added how the Hattis are laying the ground for the BJP. “Political leadership is very poor here. Neither BJP nor Congress could consolidate people,” he said.

Out of the five assembly constituencies in Sirmour district, Hattis are spread over four — Shillai, Renukaji, Pachhad and Paonta Sahib. 52 panchayats of Shillai, 44 of Renukaji, 34 of Pachhad and 14 of Paonta Sahib are dominated by the Hattis.

Though a traditional Congress belt, BJP was able to make in-roads in Pachhad in 2012 and retained the seat in 2017 and in 2019 by-elections. The party won the Paonta Sahib seat in 2017.

But Congress continues to maintain its strong grip on Renukaji and Shillai constituencies. In Renukaji, Congress won two consecutive elections in 2012 and 2017. And in Shillai, the party had the seat for four consecutive terms since 1993. It lost it to BJP in 2012, only to win it back in 2017.

Hattis’ significant presence in Renukaji and Shillai could then be disruptive for Congress. Kamal explained that around 66 per cent population of Trans-Giri region is comprised of Hattis. Bhat and Khash-Kanet who would be given the ST status are about 1.6 lakh and could be important in swinging the Congress votes, he said.

“This is a move (of giving ST status to Hattis) to break the Congress stronghold in Trans-Giri area. They (Hattis and BJP) brought Amit Shah in my constituency. This is clearly their motive to break a Congress belt. Time will tell whether they will be successful or not,” said Harshwardhan Chauhan, MLA and Congress’ candidate from Shillai.

The BJP, meanwhile, claims that the ST status to the community was not a strategic move for the elections.

“The ST status has been the demand for over 50 years, which has been met now. It was work in progress. It is a coincidence that it has happened around the time of elections. This wasn’t done only keeping elections in mind,” said Suresh Kashyap, BJP MP from Shimla and ex-MLA from Pachhad.

While the door-to-door campaigns by the Hattis and the BJP are assuring people of a radical change in the region, the Congress is calling it an eyewash.

“When Constitution’s article is amended, it goes to both the houses of Parliament. Such cases have come to the Cabinet before but have not passed in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The leader of the house can withdraw the matter at any time without conditions. BJP is misleading the Hatti community,” said Vinay Kumar, MLA from Renukaji and Congress’ candidate from the same seat.

Besides, the demand by the Hattis, the party said, was to declare the Trans-Giri region a Scheduled Area. Instead, the BJP government has given ST status to the community.

“Now the Hatti people will only get a certificate. The development money that is given to Scheduled Areas has not come. The BJP leaders are saying they have met the demand, but people are not believing them,” claimed Chauhan.

ThePrint tried to reach the BJP candidates from Renukaji and Shillai, but was unsuccessful.

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Cracks within the Hattis

The news of the ST status for the Hattis has brought the fault lines within the community to the surface. Out of the 14 castes that form the Hatti community, only two would be given the ST status. These are Bhats and Khash-Kanets. They have a bigger population of 1.6 lakh compared to 90,000 Hattis who are SCs.

While one section of the SCs in the region is upset that the ST status for the upper castes will put them at par with the SCs and render the SC/ST Atrocities Act ineffective, another group wants the ST status too and has branched out into a political party in the region.

“The SC/ST Atrocities Act will be diluted. A Rajput (equivalent to Khash-Kanet) today, who is inflicting the atrocity, will become a tribal. So, an SC cannot book a tribal under the Act. On paper, that upper-caste person is an ST, but in the society, he will still be a Rajput,” explained Ashish Kumar, convenor of Dalit Social Mukti Manch, a non-profit, and CPI(M)’s candidate from Pachhad.

On 24 July, a PIL was filed in the Shimla High Court by six petitioners from the Hatti community who are SCs. They claim that the Bhats and Khash-Kanets enjoy a higher economic status, education, and are prosperous. Hence, they do not fall under the Lokur parameters. They add that the term Hatti is used for three social groups, Rajputs, Brahmins and SCs, and is not homogenous.

“Since we have filed the PIL, the upper castes have started discriminating against us more. This region has casteism and untouchability. There are different utensils for us at functions, temples become impure if we enter. These cases just don’t get reported,” says Bhagat Ram, one of the petitioners.

Caste discrimination between the Hattis plays out in many forms in Sirmaur, local people said.

“The sources of water are different for us. We have different cremation grounds. At weddings, separate tents are spread out for Hattis who are SCs and utensils in the houses of upper castes are kept outside the house for SCs,” said Prem Chauhan, a Scheduled Cast Hatti of Renukaji constituency.

He added how on Diwali people from the lower castes within the Hatti community are expected to dance at upper caste homes and sing songs in their praise. “This old custom is still practised and if we refuse, we are fined thousand rupees and a goat,” said Chauhan.

Meanwhile, a two-month-old political party, Rashtriya Devbhoomi Party (RDP), has entered the political arena in the Trans-Giri region, demanding ST status at par with the Bhats and Khash-Kanets.

Office of the newly formed Rashtriya Devbhoomi Party, which is fighting elections over the issue of ST reservation to the Hatti Community, in Renukaji constituency. Sonal Matharu | ThePrint

“Our demand is equality. We are not opposing the ST status but we want the 12 SCs, which also fall under the Hatti community, to get an equal status. We also want to be counted in ST,” said Jagmohan Singh, RDP candidate from Renukaji.

In the villages, BJP and the Hatti leaders are criss-crossing paths. The Hattis are hopeful that once they get the ST status, their population will be more than 50 per cent in the region. This, they say, will also make the region eligible to be declared a Scheduled Area.

But to make it a possibility, they are hinging their hopes on the BJP.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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