APST women: Identity and gender inequality

[ Nellie N Manpoong ]

The status of a child born to an Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribe (APST) woman and a non-APST man has been challenged time and again by anybody who is of “pure” APST blood.
As a lawyer puts it, this debate on APST and non-APST marriages is controversial and reeks of gender inequality.
An APST man was freely allowed to marry a non-APST woman and provide all the benefits to their children, but a tribal woman wasn’t allowed the same privileges.
Many women raised their eyebrows when the issue of off-springs of APST mothers and non-APST fathers enjoying APST status was raised by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPS) a few months earlier to protect the state from mass infiltration of non-APSTs.
The movement was at its peak, especially when the Joint Core Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was visiting the northeast in May this year.
The step was appreciated by many in the state; even me. Because like many others, I believed that it would save my state from losing its true identity.
On introspection, I found that the identity of so many people, especially women, would be lost in the process.
A person would no longer be able to proudly claim that he or she was half of an Arunachalee because his or her mother was one. It implied that a woman’s identity was not worth even half of a man’s.
Some women were vocal about the gender inequality imposed onto them in the name of filtering out non-APSTs who entered the state illegally, or for the non-APST men who married APST women only for the benefits of their ST status.
A lady who works for the welfare of women and children was of the opinion that if a child born to an APST woman and non-APST man was not entitled to anything then the same laws should apply to APST men who marry non-APST women as well.
“No matter what, the child is a half of his or her parents in both cases. The courts need to look into the constitutional violation,” she said.
A few also argued that the ST status came by birth, and since majority of Indians live in a patriarchal society, it was only right to follow lineage and give all the privileges to men no matter who they married or had children with.
However, women were quick to point out that many pregnant women are abandoned by their lovers or husbands. There are circumstances where men lie about their identity and also cases of rape, which may leave the woman impregnated and without any knowledge of the father’s true identity.
How does the society then decide whose name the child carries? The law provided the option of adoption.
During such circumstances, the child’s maternal uncle or the next husband of the child’s mother steps up to the plate and gives their name to the child through relative adoption or state adoption.
Also, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the name of the father is not required in birth certificates for children born out of wedlock or of single mothers.
The Supreme Court in its 2012 judgment also did not agree when the Gujarat High Court said that an off-spring of an inter-caste marriage or marriage between a tribal and non-tribal person has to take the status of his or her father.
It observed that several other factors, such as the environment in which the person grew up and whether he or she lived a tribal lifestyle with the lack of facilities and certain rights, was also to be considered during such cases.
When it was said that the identity of adopted children would also be questioned, many adoptive parents feared the worst.
They had to be pacified by lawyers and adoption agencies that the Supreme Court has ruled that a legally adopted child is entitled to all the rights of a biological child.
“Even if the state makes its own laws regarding the status of such off-springs, it has to be within the peripheries of the Constitution,” explained the lawyer.
With people moving from one place to another for better opportunities, it is natural to see an increase in inter-caste and tribal with non-tribal marriages.
The issue, however, becomes more complicated in a tribal society with each tribe having its own set of customary laws, which are yet to be codified.
It is much more than such children enjoying APST benefits, and has become yet another war against women who choose to get married to people outside of their own tribe or state, while there are no questions put on men for the same.
The organisations giving momentum to the movement should also sit with women organisations to come up with logical ways to implement their ideas on keeping the state safe from increased and unwanted incursion.
While it is imperative to save the state’s identity, the identity of an individual should not be put to the test every time. Circumstances leading to a child adopting the mother’s name should be considered before people go raising slogans against it.