Last week when President Droupadi Murmu signed into law the bill granting the scheduled tribe (ST) status to the Hattis of Himachal Pradesh, the community of around 2.53 lakh found closure to a movement they had waged for the past 56 years.
The ST status for Hattis marks the end of uncertainties and despair and the beginning of a new chapter of hope. For over five decades, the Hattis living in 154 panchayats in the remote hilly parts of Himachal waged a peaceful, non-violent movement.
The Lok Sabha passed the bill granting the ST status to Hattis last year in line with the promise made by Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, who had held a series of meetings with community representatives in Delhi. At a rally before the assembly elections last year in Shillai, the centre of the community’s movement, he had said the community’s demand is genuine and will be fulfilled.
“Chief Minister Jairam Thakur, who is leading the BJP to the elections, is at my neck to see that the Centre grants tribal status to Hattis before the state goes to the polls,” said Shah at the rally.
The Union Cabinet granted its approval to the proposal to grant ST status to Hattis in September 2022. This cleared the decks for Hattis to be eligible to get benefits granted by the Constitution.
Before the Narendra Modi government’s action on the demand, the Hattis had served an ultimatum to the government. They had threatened boycott of the state assembly polls as a mark of final show-down with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Who are the Hattis?
Hattis are an ethnically close-knit tribe who have traditionally survived on earnings by selling home-grown vegetables and other crops, meat, and wool at small rural markets called ‘haats’. Over the years, they suffered topographical disadvantages and even neglect.
The Hattis are settled mainly in Shillai, Sangrah, and Kamrau, which are known as the trans-Giri areas of Sirmaur district, bordering Jaunsar-Bawar hilly region of Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region.
Historically, the Hattis have lagged behind in their education and socioeconomic status and have thus remained deprived of employment opportunities too.
The Hatti men traditionally don a distinctive white headgear on ceremonial occasions and their dances like Bhedaltu —which is at the verge of extinction— are clear evidence that the community wants to preserve their culture and rituals.
The community follows a very rigid hierarchy. It is broadly divided into two categories of Bhat and Khash which enjoys higher status and Badhois in the lower ranking. The community is governed by a traditional council called Khumbli, which is like the ‘khaps’ of Haryana
Last year, noted Pahari poet and folk artist Vidyanand Saraik was honoured with Padamshree for preserving the culture of the Hatti community.
Hattis of Himachal lagged behind kin in Uttarakhand
It was quite a paradoxical situation that while their identical tribes and community settled in nearby Jaunsar-Bawar in Uttarakhand were enjoying the tribal status —granted to them in 1967— they lived and fought miseries in deprivation of similar rights for more than half a century even after the Independence.
“Even after creation of Himachal Pradesh as full-fledged state, Hattis suffered isolation though researchers and anthropologists discovered our traditions, economic backwardness, and primitive culture justifying tribal status as per parameters of the Constitution,” says Dr Amichand Kamal, President of Central Hatti Committee, a non-political forum that spearheaded the community’s movement.
Kamal draws a comparison between the Hatti community in Uttarakhand, which was granted tribal status in 1967, and those in Himachal Pradesh.
“There is a notable difference in the socioeconomic conditions of our community members in Uttarakhand and us in Himachal. Some of their sons and daughters have got education in the best institutions and are therefore serving at top positions in the central government and state services. We remained deprived of education, employment, and also development,” says Kamal.
Hopes for a new future
Now, since a Gazette notification has already been issued, the Hattis are eligible to get scholarships and hostel facilities in big cities like Delhi, Bangaluru, Pune, Chennai, and Hyderabad for higher studies, including in institutions like IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS. Thereafter, they would also get reservation in government jobs.
The area will feel proud to have its children at top positions in the IAS, IPS, Foreign Services, and railways, beside state administration under the tribal quota, says Kamal, President, Central Hatti Committee.
The greater benefit will be getting a budget under the tribal sub-plan for construction of road infrastructure — which is totally negligible in areas inhabited by the community.
Community leaders thank Amit Shah
Kamal, when asked to look back at the struggle and some of the turning-points, says, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take the credit, but it was Union Home Minister Amit Shah who really took the issue forward because the Office of the Registrar General of India (RGI) comes under his ministry.
“The government had appointed a nodal officer at the state level and we provided him all data on eligibility criteria for granting status of Scheduled Tribes which included indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness,” recalls Ram Kumar Gautam, a former Deputy Commissioner of Sirmaur.
As the celebrations among Hattis have already begun, former Chief Minister Jairam Thakur received a rousing reception in Shimla as hundreds of men and women reached the town dancing and singing.
“We took up the long-pending demand of Hattis with the Centre for tribal status in right earnest, not as a poll issue as earlier governments did. Finally, good news has come as a result of our efforts. Our leadership including Prime Minister Modi, Amit Shah Ji, and BJP National President JP Nadda displayed the political will for taking this issue to a logical end,” says Thakur to Outlook.
Ironically, Himachal’s first Chief Minister Dr Yashwant Singh Parmar hailed from Sirmaur —the home to Hattis— but the Hattis faced complete apathy of the earlier governments. Thus, it took 56 years to get their demand to be met.