Who is at fault for the ‘offspring’ issue?

[ Bengia Ajum ]

The issue of children of tribal women married to non-indigenous persons obtaining ST certificates has become a big issue in the state. The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) has been pressing the state government to come up with strict guidelines and laws to check such acts. The relentless pressure exerted by the AAPSU recently forced the state cabinet to approve the recommendations of the joint consultative committee on the issuance of Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribe certificates. The guidelines disqualify and debar non-indigenous people who adopted APST status and obtained APST certificates from their maternal side.

As the debate on the issue rages on, no one is really discussing who is actually responsible for starting the trend of children of tribal women married to non-tribal men obtaining ST certificate in Arunachal Pradesh. Instead of humiliating and trying to look down on such children, the society should look out for the actual wrongdoers who started this wrong precedent years ago, and try to make rectifications. Quite often it is seen that such children are innocent and it is the relatives of the tribal mothers who usually give the children tribal surnames and later ST status. A four-year-old child going to school will not think about ST status and all. It is the relatives, especially the uncles and aunties, who force them to adopt tribal surnames. They also do it out of love for their sisters, despite knowing that it is the wrong step. Therefore, it is unfair to blame the kids. The law will take its own course of action, but civil society, especially community-based and clan-based organisations, should create awareness about this issue. There needs to be healthy conversation regarding this topic.

I speak from my own personal experience. Although it is not an ‘offspring’ issue, for a very long period of my life, I used my mother’s surname, Taba. I started using the Bengia surname only after mending my relationship with my father, and I am glad I did it. Here again, it was my close uncles who had given me the Taba surname because of whatever circumstance prevailed at that time and I had no role in deciding my surname as I was a little kid. However, as I was growing up, even though I was using the Taba surname, I was constantly made to realise, at times by my own relatives, that I belong to the Bengia clan, and that one day I have to return to my roots.

Considering the situation at that time, my uncles thought they had taken the decision in my best interest, and I respect their decision; but later in my life, it did create some kind of identity crisis for me. I was quite happy living using my mother’s surname and I have no regret but only love and affection for my uncles. However, finally I had to face the reality and I decided to return to my roots. Since then, I have proudly adopted my father’s Bengia surname.

Therefore, when the ‘offspring’ issue comes up, it is unfair to specifically target the children of tribal women married to non-indigenous persons. I know of many cases where non-APST fathers have resisted the attempt of their wives’ relatives to give a tribal surname to their children. In a few cases, some children have even returned their ST certificates and are proudly living as non-tribals. Now that the state cabinet has adopted the guidelines to disqualify and debar non-indigenous people who adopted APST status and obtained APST certificates from their maternal side, hopefully, the ‘offspring’ issue will see a logical end. However, there should not be any attempt to try to humiliate the children of tribal women married to non-APSTs by using these new guidelines. There is every possibility that people may misuse these guidelines and laws to settle personal enmity and harass them. The authorities should keep an eye on it. Everyone agrees that tribal identity needs to be protected, but it should not be done at the cost of humiliating fellow human beings. At the end of the day, we should remember that the children of tribal women married to non-APST persons are the children of our own sisters and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.