Tribes, new and old

Print edition : January 14, 2005

Members of the All Assam Adivasi Students Association demonstrate in New Delhi on December 15 to press their demand for Scheduled Tribe status. -

The Union and State governments' `tribal policy' for the northeastern region is characterised by ad hocism, if the policy followed in Assam is any indication.

THE decision of the Government of Assam to enlarge further the categories of plains tribe communities to be recognised under and included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, as well as to enlarge the very category of Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) so as to include several communities now not recognised so, is merely the latest example of the ingrained ad hocism that characterises the Union and State governments' `tribal policy' in the northeastern region. A brief recapitulation of the issues involved would be in order since these issues are not particularly headlines grabbing and, in these hurried and harried times, the attention span of readers even in respect of more immediate issues is probably very short.

Briefly, the 23 tribal communities so classified in Assam are grouped under two broad heads: hill tribes, comprising 14 communities, inhabiting predominantly though not solely the hill areas of the State which, after the last major reorganisation of the State in 1970-72, now comprise the two hills districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills; and nine plains tribal communities inhabiting, again predominantly though not solely, the plains of the Brahmaputra Valley. The State government has decided, following a recommendation to this effect by a Cabinet sub-committee on the granting of the Sixth Schedule status to the plains tribes, that is the Mising, the Rabha and the Tiwa - all plains tribal communities and all since 1995 having `Autonomous Councils' carrying their respective nomenclatures - would be brought under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, a provision that was originally meant to cover solely the hill tribes of the State.

However, since the signing of the Accord on the Bodoland Territorial Council (February 10, 2003) and the subsequent amendment (on August 10, 2003) to the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950, to enable the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) area, there can be no reason for not extending the same provisions to the three other plains tribes (Mising, Rabha and Tiwa), or for that matter to all other plains tribes.

These communities, like the Bodos who before the formation of the BTC had the Bodoland Autonomous Council under the first Bodo Accord of February 20, 1993, have since 1995 been granted similar Autonomous Councils. Indeed, the decision to confer the Sixth Schedule Tribes status on these tribal communities is almost certainly the first step in the eventual transformation of the present Autonomous Councils, which really amount to little more than offices in the respective headquarters of Gogamukh (Mising), Dudhnoi (Rabha) and Morigaon (Tiwa) to Territorial Councils, and some perks of office to the functionaries though the demarcation of the territory of such Territorial Councils is going to be even more problematic than the yet-to-be-resolved territorial demarcation of the BTAD area. Though the BTAD comprises the districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, the boundaries of the territory are yet to be demarcated because of unresolved problems about the inclusion of some villages in the BTC area.

Even more unrealistic demands are articulated by other organisations. The All Deori Students' Union, claiming to represent the Deori, a plains tribe with a numerical strength of less than 34,055 according to the 1991 Census (very much less than the population of the municipal ward of Guwahati) spread across six districts on either bank of the Brahmaputra in Upper Assam, is engaged in an agitation demanding not merely the inclusion of the Deori in the Sixth Schedule but also the constitution of a Deori Autonomous Council and, eventually, also a Deori Territorial Council. There is also a related and highly complex dispute involving the contending claims of the Deori and the Chutia (classified as OBC and now seeking an S.T. status) touching on language, culture and ethnicity. Organisations claiming to represent the Sonowal Kachari, the fourth largest plains tribal community of the State (2,40,465, according to the 1991 Census) and rather more numerous than the Tiwa (1,37,397) who have already secured an Autonomous Council, have threatened to launch an `armed struggle' unless their demand for `self-rule' is conceded.

Until the Bodo autonomist agitation broke out in the wake of the success, such as it was, of the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam, the categories of hill tribes and plains tribes and, more clearly, the physical and political space of their relevance and applicability, were mutually exclusive, though of course the broader political policies of the State government impinged upon them. The two hill districts, formally known as the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District and the North Cachar Hills Autonomous District, by their very nature enjoyed a measure of autonomy, constituting in fact, if not in form, mini-district States within the State of Assam. However, this very fact has also encouraged demands in both the districts for greater autonomy and a formal recognition as `autonomous state within Assam', under the provisions of Article 244-A of the Constitution.

The BTC accord has radically altered this equation, except that the opposition from non-tribal people in areas claimed by the Bodo autonomists and expected to be included in any sort of a deal between the leaders of the agitation and the government is now more generalised.

Mising tribal people celebrating their Spring Paddy Planting Festival, "Ali-Aye-Lvgang", in Guwahati. The Mising is a plains tribe mostly inhabiting Upper Assam.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

For instance, as against tribal groups such as the All Assam Tribal Sangha that are opposed to the granting of the tribal status to non-tribal groups on the periphery of Assamese society (an expression which is fraught with all sorts of ambiguities though not for dominant elements in that category) are sections from within these very non-tribal groups who bristle at the suggestion that their communities should be classified as tribal. They oppose such classification on grounds of historical memories of great achievement and distinction as well on more material political calculations of existing and possible future political alliances with other non-tribal people. Such tensions and contradictions exist within several such people or, rather, organisations claiming to represent such people who are at present outside the rather narrowly defined tribal milieu, reflecting the plasticity of such alliances and calculations.

For instance, the periodic calls for the recognition of the Muslims of Assam, constituting a little less than 30 per cent of the total population, as an Other Backward Class (OBC) is widely opposed by Assamese Muslims, a much smaller category (an even smaller category of whom are already classed as OBC) whose leaders have a broader and longer range view of the historical role and potential of the community as a whole.

Similar differences mark the stand of the Tai Ahom community, from whose stock came generations of kings and the aristocracy that ruled Assam for six centuries. Now classed as OBC, some organisations claiming to represent the community are demanding a tribal status to the Tai Ahom. Among other communities now classified as OBC but agitating for recognition as tribal communities are the Moran (analogous to the Tai Ahom); the Motok; the Chutia, living predominantly in Upper Assam; the Koch Rajbongshi, sharing the same political and physical space as the Bodos to whose stock they originally belonged; and the Adivasi, formerly known as tea garden and ex-tea garden communities, who indeed present the most anomalous example of the classification of people as tribal and non-tribal.

The Adivasis, comprising about 20 lakh people, are descendants of persons originally from Central India indentured to work in the tea estates of Assam. Their ancestors clearly belonged to and were classified in the lands of their birth as tribal communities and persons even more marginal to Hindu society. However, because the bureaucratic rules said so, their tribal status was organically linked to their origin and ceased to prevail when once they migrate out of their original home. In other words, a person's tribal status is inextricably linked to his or place of origin - a piece of nonsense that prevails even in respect of non-migrant tribal people of the State. Thus, the Bodos, or for that matter any other plains tribal people of the State, are not recognised as tribal in the hill areas - and vice versa. This was one of the issues that influenced the All Bodo Students' Union to include consistently among its three core demands the demand that the Bodo Kachari of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts be recognised as S.T. The Constitutional amendment extending the Sixth Schedule recognition to the Bodos should have corrected this anomaly. However, this has not been the case as is evident in any close reading of the `exemptions' spelt out in Article 4 and its sub-paragraphs of the February 2003 Accord, `negating by affirming' the promise made in Clause 8 of the Accord - that the Government of India would sympathetically consider the demand for the inclusion of the Bodo Kachari living in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts in the S.T. (Hill) list of the State of Assam.

Does the government have a policy in respect of these issues? Since ad hocism is central to such policy as is there, there is no questioning of the viability of the structures existing, and promised and proposed to be created. Incremental concessions are the easiest way out of a predicament that defies any `solution' - for the simple reason that given the way these problems have been tackled and the `solutions' provided, there really cannot be any rational, workable and democratic solution to the issues, real and contrived, that are being raised.

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