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Politics of Scheduled Tribe Status in Assam

The trajectory of six communities of Assam in demanding a Scheduled Tribe status is traced. The history of these tribes is elaborated upon and the struggles they have faced in claiming the ST status are adescribed along with detailing the operations of the various government committees that were formed to look into the matter. 

After the approval of the union cabinet on 8 January 2019, the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 9 January 2019 by the Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram.1 The bill intends to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950, by inserting 41 entries for granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities in Assam.2 Opposing the move of the government, the existing ST communities came out to the street as a sign of protest. The Coordination Committee of Tribal Organizations of Assam (CCTOA) called a statewide 12-hour bandh on 11 January 2019 to protest against the bill (Outlook 2019).3 The CCTOA feared that the amendment bill would eliminate the “genuine tribal people” of the state by enlisting six new ethnic groups of Assam as STs (Business Standard 2019). 
 
The CCTOA chief coordinator Aditya Khakhlari even alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the centre is anti-tribal. The BJP has introduced the bill only for power and short-term benefits (Sentinel 2019a). At the same time, the ST status seekers too are unhappy with the government as it introduced the bill at the fag end of Parliament and kept it hanging. All Assam Koch-Raj­bongshi Sanmilani president Bireswar Saikia clearly expressed his dissatisfaction referring to the 2014 Lok Sabha poll campaign, where the BJP assured the six communities of according them ST status within six months of coming to power. But it was least bothered about introducing the bill in Parliament on time (Sentinel 2019a). Adivasi leader Rupesh Gowala also detected a poll-oriented design in the move identifying the bill as a lollipop being doled out to the six communities (Karmakar 2019). Moran community leader Arunjyoti Moran too was critical of the move ahead of the polls (Karmakar 2019).
 
Meanwhile, looking at the discontent of existing STs and also the ST status seekers, the government started to seek out a middle path to satisfy both. Within a week of the cabinet approval and introduction of the bill in Parliament, the government slightly shifted its position and on 13 January 2019, the union home minister asked the Government of Assam to prepare the modalities for granting ST status to six communities of Assam without harming the rights of existing STs in Assam. Immediately, the Government of Assam set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by the finance minister to recommend measures for protection of rights of the existing tribal communities as well as to decide on the benefits to be given to new STs (Sentinel 2019b). 
 
A Hanging Case 
 
Among the six communities, the demand for ST status was first raised by the Koch-Rajbongshis in 1968 (Roy 2018). Since then the Koch-Rajbongshis along with five other communities, namely Tai-Ahom, Moran, Matak, Chutia and Adivasis have been demanding the ST status for themselves. Notably, on 2 July 1996, the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill to provide for inclusion of Koch-Rajbongshi in the ST list was introduced in Lok Sabha. On 2 August 1996, during the discussion on the motion for consideration of the bill, the house authorised the speaker to refer the bill to a select committee of the Lok Sabha with instructions to report back to the house. Then the house referred the bill to a 15-member select committee with Amar Roy Pradhan as chairperson.4 
 
Meanwhile, as Parliament was not in session, the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Ordinance 9 of 1996 was promulgated to give effect to the scheduling of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the ST list of Assam. The ordinance was repromulgated three times, but not placed for voting. In this regard, the Assam Legislative Assembly too adopted a unanimous resolution urging the Government of India to include all these six communities in the ST (Plains) list.5 However the decade-long issue is still hanging in the floor of the house bringing in more complexity and discontent.
 
Politics of Discontent 
 
The six communities seeking an ST status are currently enjoying either Other Backward Classes (OBC) or More Other Backward Classes (MOBC) status in Assam. Though, historically, most of them were ruling communities, they have been cornered in many ways in post-independence India and remained backward. Taking the case of Adivasis, Gohain (2007) argued that a certain segment of population has remained at the very bottom of the social ladder, thanks to the constraints of the plantation economy and the inability of those outside tea gardens to take advantage of a development process that takes no account of their social and cultural “backwardness.” To him, the matter is of political, not anthropological interest. As is the case in all capitalist societies, such communities tend to get left behind unless the state resolves to come to their assistance with planned affirmative action. 
 
The only affirmative action these communities can expect under the Constitution is advantages and opportunities granted to those with an ST status (Gohain 2007). The State, therefore, must come forward with planned affirmative actions for the development of the communities that are at the bottom of the social ladder, not limiting itself within the framework of granting an ST status. The deplorable state of health, education, sanitation, employment, etc, in most of the tea gardens reveals that they may not be in a position to reap the benefits even of the ST status without other affirmative actions at the grass-roots level. The struggle for the ST status of the communities, therefore, must be seen as a part of the larger struggle. 
 
Select Committee’s Observations
 
Against this backdrop, the investigation and observations of the Select Committee (1997) are noteworthy. Their field investigation reveals that the Koch-Rajbongshis of Assam are backward in respect of social, economic and educational fields (Select Committee 1997). The Backward Class Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar, in 1953, recommended the Koch-Rajbongshis of Assam for an OBC, and also the Report on the Socio-economic Survey of Koch-Rajbongshi Kshatriya Community of Goalpara District, 1969 clearly indicates that with the mounting pressure on agricultural land and lack of industrialisation, the Koch-Rajbongshis are not economically well-off than their previous generation. 
 
At the same time, while the Select Committee (1996) conducted a study tour6 and held discussions with the representatives of various associations, organisations and individuals, a number of contestations were also revealed. On being enquired by the Select Committee, Golap Borbora, the former chief minister of Assam, stated that there are several “tribals” in Assam who need to be included and the quota percentage of reservation might be increased to accommodate them. He advocated the cause of the Koch-Rajbongshi community and desired to include them immediately in the ST list. Borbora also referred to the committee that Chutias were once included in the ST list but later on they were excluded (Select Committee 1997). 
 
On the other hand, a number of individuals and organisations opposed the process. The Dibrugarh Nagar Deori Unnayan Samittee stated before the committee that the Koch-Rajbongshi is an advantageous community having a contradictory historical existence and does not fulfil the criteria of the Government of India for being accorded the status of a tribe (Select Committee 1997). In their representation before the committee, the Sonowal Kachari Jatiya Parishad (SKJP), United Tribal Nationalist Liberation Front, Darrang, etc, also have opposed the idea of inclusion. The SKJP analysed the developments in the reservation scenario in Assam during the President’s ordinance in 1996 which included the Koch-Rajbongshis in the ST list for a very short time. The SKJP stated that most of the reserved seats for STs either in services or in admissions to educational institutions went to the Koch-Rajbongshis during that period, marginalising the existing tribals. 
 
In Jorhat Engineering College, Jorhat eight tribal reserved seats are occupied by Koch Rajbanshi students out of ten seats of STs. Similarly, twenty five out of forty two medical seats reserved for STs were occupied by Koch Rajbanshi students. (Select Committee 1997)
 
In this connection, the staging of a hunger strike7 by the existing tribal groups under the banner of CCTOA against the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 must also carry a message of grass-roots realities to the policymakers.
 
Is There a Way Out? 
 
The government is dealing with this long-standing issue in a very haphazard manner. This may be a tactic of the government to engage people with the issue and at the same time sideline it. This also reflects lack of seriousness and proper homework on the part of government. The government must take all the sections of the society, including existing STs, Scheduled Castes (SCs), OBCs, minorities, and other communities in confidence and formulate a concrete decision. In this regard, the GoM must have discussions with all the stakeholders to prepare modalities before submitting them to the central government.
 
If the six communities are granted an ST status, the state will approximately have over 50% population as STs. This may lead to the recognition of Assam as a tribal state. But this recognition will be unable to address the complex ethnic and identity issues. Given these complexities, political parties like the All India United Democratic Front state that this will threaten the general category population.
 
Assam is a land of diverse ethnic and cultural groups since time immemorial. To deal with the complex issues arising out of diversity, the colonial rulers coined the mechanism of “area restriction” or “territorial restriction,” which was also adopted by the independent government in India in different formulations. This practice of “restriction” is not observed as a tool of “inclusion” to deal with the present problems of the state. There are 23 STs in the state, of which 14 are hill tribes and nine are plains tribes. It is an anomaly that those who have been accorded an ST status in the hills lose their status if they settle in the plains and vice versa (Misra 2007). In this regard, the historical issue of recognition of the Bodo-Kachari as an ST in the hills may be taken into account. Confrontation over the issue is well reflected in Clause 8 of the Bodo Accord signed between the centre, the Government of Assam, and the Bodo Liberation Tigers in 2003: 
 
The government of India agrees to consider sympathetically the inclusion of the Bodo Kacharis living in Karbi Anglong and NC Hills Autonomous Council area in the ST (hill) list of the state of Assam. (Clause 8, Bodo Accord)
 
Possible Solutions
 
The Lokur Committee too identifies area restriction as an “anomaly,” which has its origin in the lists prepared under the Government of India Act, 1935. The territorial or area restrictions were then probably introduced because the social disabilities were attached to certain castes, or tribes were appreciably more distinctive in particular localities. Such area restrictions may check on social mobility as the community concerned would confine themselves to the specified areas as they lose the special privileges and benefits by moving out (Lokur 1965). Therefore, restricting STs within some territorial boundaries in the name of innovation will not solve the purpose; rather it will affect it adversely. 
 
Looking at the complexities, de-scheduling the “‘already advanced”’ communities may be a way out. Against this backdrop, the observation of the Lokur Committee towards de-scheduling or complete integration may be taken as a long-term goal. Like the process of scheduling backwards, the more advanced communities in the lists are gradually to be de-scheduled. To accelerate the pace of de-scheduling, a deadline may perhaps be fixed when the lists of SCs and STs are totally dispensed with (Lokur 1965). The committee opines that this is the only process to bring about “complete integration” of the population (Lokur 1965). In this regard, a strict adherence to the economic status of the people in the creamy layer will pave the way towards progress within the tribals. The ST status for the six communities, against this backdrop, could be a significant means to establish a more equal and just society, but not an end in itself. All-round development of all the communities must be the first condition to enable the backward classes of citizens to move forward and join with other citizens of India on an equal basis.
 
Notes
 
1 Bill No III of 2019.
 
2 Forty-one proposed entries include Chutia, Matak, Moran, Koch-Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Mal Paharia, Kawar, Lodha, Baiga, Nagasia, Bhil, Gorait, Halba, Majwar, Dhanwar, Asur, Khond, Korwa, Kherwar, Chero, Koya, Birhor, Parja, Mirdha, Kishan, Chik Baraik, Kol, Saora, Pradhan, Birjia, Damdari, Bonda, Mahli, Shabar, Kharia, Gond, Munda, Oraon, Bedia, Santal and Bhumij in Part II (Assam), in paragraph II, after entry No 14 to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 for granting the ST status. Besides Chutia, Matak, Moran, Koch Rajbongshi and Tai Ahom, all other 36 communities belong to the broad category of Adivasi.
 
3 Bandh supporters blocked National Highway-37 by burning tyres and laying tree trunks, disrupting the road traffic between lower and upper Assam for hours; trucks were stranded on NH-36 at Doboka, in Nagaon district. In Kokrajhar district, the bandh supporters burnt tyres at different places, including at Athiabari, Salakati, Fakiragram and Kokrajhar towns. The districts affected by the bandh included Morigaon, the BTAD districts of Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Baksa and Chirang and Dima Hasao.
 
4 Select Committee on the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill; C B (II) No 426, presented to Lok Sabha on 14 August 1997; besides the chairperson, other members were: Dwaraka Nath Das, Lalit Oraon, Phagan Singh Kulaste, Paban Singh Ghatowar, P R Das Munshi, Pinaki Mishra, Uddhab Barman, 
P Kodande Ramaiah, S S Palanimanickam, Jayanta Rongpi, Arun Sharma, Prabin Chandra Surma, M Selvarasu and S K Kaarvendham.
 
5 Resolution adopted on 5 August 2004.
 
6 The Select Committee (1996) undertook a study tour to Kolkata and Dibrugarh from 4 February to 8 February 1996.
 
7 Shillong Times, 12 February 2019.
 
References
 
Business Standard (2019): “Stir against Centre Giving ST Status to Six Communities Hits Normal Life in Many Assam Districts,” 11 January, https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/stir-against-centre-giving-st-status-to-six-communities-hits-normal-life-in-many-assam-districts-119011101038_1.html.
 
Gohain, Hiren (2007): “A Question of Identity: Adivasi Militancy in Assam,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 49, pp 13–16.
 
Karmakar, Rahul (2019): “Mixed Response to ST Status to 6 Assam Groups,” 9 January, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/mixed-response-to-st-status-to-6-assam-groups/article25944596.ece.
 
Lokur B N, A D Pande and N Sundaram (1965): “The Report of the Advisory Committee on the Revision of the lists of SCs and STs,” Department of Social Security, Government of India, 25 August, New Delhi.
 
Misra, Udayon (2007): “Adivasi Struggle in Assam,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 51, pp 11–14.
 
Outlook (2019): “Stir Against Centre Giving ST Status To Six Communities Hits Normal Life In Many Assam Districts,” 11 January, https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/stir-against-centre-giving-st-status-to-six-communities-hits-normal-life-in-many-assam-districts/1456627.
 
Roy, Kapil Chandra (2018): “Demand for Scheduled Tribe Status by Koch-Rajbangshis,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 53, No 44, pp 19–21.
 
Select Committee Report (1997): “The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill,” 1996 C.B.(II) No 426, Presented to Lok Sabha on 14 August 1997, Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi, 1997, viewed on 12 January 2019, https://eparlib.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/757628/1/jcb_11_1997_scheduled_tribes.pdf.
 
Sentinel (2019a): “Both Existing Scheduled Tribes and the ST Seekers See ‘deceit’,” 11 January, https://www.sentinelassam.com/top-headlines/both-existing-scheduled-tribes-and-the-st-status-seekers-see-deceit/.
 
(2019b): “Himanta Biswa Sarma To Lead Group of Ministers (GOM) To Solve ST Bill-Triggered Row,” 13 January, https://www.sentinelassam.com/top-headlines/himanta-biswa-sarma-to-lead-group-of-ministers-gom-to-solve-st-bill-triggered-row/

 

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Updated On : 8th Apr, 2020

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