The issue of granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six indigenous communities in Assam is once again in the limelight with the state assembly elections just seven months away. Currently categorised as Other Backward Classes (OBCs), these groups -- Koch-Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Moran, Matak, Chutia and tea tribes – have long accused successive governments of betraying them and denying them of greater benefits of reservation in education, employment and legislature.
Of late, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the northeastern state seems to have attached utmost urgency to the matter, something critics term as “poll gimmick”. The matter was among the key issues that were discussed during chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s meeting with Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi on September 20.
Earlier this month, the Assam legislative assembly had passed three bills in order to create autonomous councils for the Koch-Rajbongshis, the Morans and the Mataks in the multi-ethnic state. However, the Opposition has accused the BJP of adopting a “divide-and-rule policy” among the six communities that have been demanding ST status.
Days before his party’s landslide victory in the 2014 general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to fulfill the long-cherished demand of the six communities at a poll rally in Assam. He also slammed the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government for doing nothing for them in its 10 years of ruling.
Tall claim as it was, the Modi government sat on the proposal until January 2019 when Assam was up in arms against the Citizenship Amendment Bill fearing it would allow more migration thereby posing a threat to the state’s ethnic demography. In order to calm the tempers, Union tribal affairs minister Jual Oram had introduced a bill in the Rajya Sabha to include the six communities in the ST category, but the same was not put to vote and allowed to lapse due to reasons best known to the ruling BJP.
Even the Sonowal government did not make any efforts to fulfil its 2016 poll promise of granting ST status to the six ethnic groups all these years. The creation of the autonomous councils is, therefore, seen as yet another attempt by the BJP to regain trust of these communities ahead the 2021 assembly polls.
The larger picture
The 2011 Census put Assam’s tribal population at 3.3 million, constituting 12.4 per cent of total 31 million in the state. The six communities would together account for around 15 million, according to some estimates. Granting them ST status would, therefore, make Assam a tribal-majority state, which could help tackle the vexed problem of illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh in the long run. The idea is to create a legislative mechanism to disenfranchise the illegal settlers spread across the state.
Apart from the six communities, which have from time to time, resorted to agitations to highligh their demand, rebel group United Liberation of Front of Asom (ULFA) is also believed to have stressed on the issue. A faction of the ULFA that is currently negotiating with the Centre reportedly highlighted the threat posed by unabated influx of illegal immigrants to the state’s demography.
In its “charter of demands” presented to the central government, the rebel group is understood to have sought tribal status to the six communities in order to protect the rights and the identity of the indigenous people.
Needless to say, illegal immigration has been a dominant political issue in the state dating back to the six-year anti-foreigner agitation that led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. Although the process to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in order to weed out illegal settlers was completed last year, it has failed to meet expectations of the state’s indigenous groups. Ethnic organisations believe significant numbers of illegal immigrants have made it to the final list that excluded 1.9 million people out of total 33 million applicants.
So near, yet so far
Among the six communities, the Koch-Rajbongshis seem the most aggrieved because of the 1996 fiasco. The 6.9-million strong community has been demanding ST status since the late 1960s besides a separate Kamatapur state. On January 27, 1996, it was accorded tribal status through an Ordinance, but the same was not enacted in time and the matter was hanging fire since then.
According to central government norms, communities that fulfill the five criteria – indication of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographic isolation, shyness of contact with community at large and backwardness – are eligible for ST status.
The six communities of Assam clearly meet these requirements as evidenced from a January 2019 report by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes that said, “After careful consideration, the NCST concludes that the above six communities possess characteristics of Scheduled Tribes and qualify to be included in the list of STs of Assam.” Prior to this, the Registrar General of India and the Anthropological Survey of India had also given approvals to the proposal.
It, therefore, appears that successive governments have played cheap politics with the dreams and aspirations of the six communities, depriving them of their legitimate rights, all these years. And the political parties could not have done it alone without the connivance with a section of leaders from these communities.
Also Read: Why MHA panel’s definition of ‘Assamese people’ could be difficult to implement
There is also apprehension that the creation of the three autonomous councils in Assam would benefit only a handful of leaders as they would occupy important posts and handle flow of funds. Many fear that the ST status issue would get sidelined as the BJP government would, in the run-up to the assembly polls, start harping on these councils and how they would benefit the benefit the people.(Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. He writes on issues related to India’s Northeast. Views expression are personal)