In the name of tribal identities

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

The `ethnic clashes' reported from Assam are in fact targeted killings intended to destroy systematically groups perceived as the `other'. A look at the population distribution in Assam as reflected in the 1991 Census reinforces this perception.

M.S. PRABHAKARA in Guwahati

THIS article is an attempt to explain and analyse the two Tables that accompany it. Table 1 presents the district-wise distribution of the tribal population of Assam according to the 1991 Census (the corresponding breakdown of the 2001 Census is not yet available), officially classified into two mutually exclusive categories: the Hill Tribes and the Plains Tribes. Table 2, based on a much longer Table that gives the details about the speakers of the 94 languages with a strength of 10,000 and above not specified in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution (Languages and Mother Tongue and their strengths in the 1991 Census), highlights the disjunction between and the total population identified and enumerated as Hill Tribes and Plains Tribes in Assam and the number of people enumerated as speakers of a particular language identified with a tribe. The essay also draws attention to some interesting inferences that can be made from these figures.

The exercise is intended to throw some light on two aspects of the present situation in Assam that, by extension, may have implications nationally as well. One, the recent killings in Karbi Anglong district where in an almost tit-for-tat exercise, scores of persons were killed over a period of less than a month in a carnage that seems to have abated for the present. These, usually described as `ethnic clashes', are, more accurately, targeted killings of the Other periodically with a view to making `unpersons' of that hated Other.

One such group of such alleged killers calls itself United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), and claims to defend the interest of the Karbi people (still officially referred to in the Table by the old name, Mikir), the majority population in the district. The other group, called Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), claims to represent the interests of the Dimasa, the majority population in the neighbouring North Cachar Hills. Given the highly complex demographic composition of the two districts, such clashes have occasionally involved other people, both as perpetrators and as victims and survivors. The districts, which were not so long ago one administrative unit, continue to share many commonalities, the most significant of which is that they are inhabited by tribal people who are officially designated as `Hill Tribes'. The people whose interests these groups claim to represent, the Karbi and the Dimasa, are significant minorities in the `other' district - 15,065 Karbis in North Cachar Hills and 4,224 Dimasas in Karbi Anglong. Small numbers, much blood.

The two outfits have signed ceasefire agreements (rejected by small factions of these groups) and have designated camps outside of which they are not supposed to move wearing uniforms and carrying arms. This part of the ceasefire agreement is routinely flouted by both groups. Both, like so many other similar groups of killers, are routinely referred to as `militants', a euphemism which has acquired legitimacy through repeated use by the media all over the country. In reality, there is nothing militant about their actions, such as dragging unarmed villagers out of their beds in the dead of night, lining them up with their arms tied behind their backs and shooting them down, or dragging them out of buses and hacking them to death.

Second, the exercise is also intended to focus attention on what may be in store when elections to the three Autonomous Councils (Mising, Rabha and Tiwa), created at various points over the past decades as part of an exercise of defining and consolidating `identities', are held, sometime within the next six months. The aim is to draw attention to the more fundamental problems surrounding the so-called `identity' questions in Assam in the light of the disjunction between language and `ethnicity', so-called because much of the discussion about identity is as much about issues that are real as about a fabricated fetish - if not rationalisation for plain murder.

To take a stark example, the total population of the Deori, a Plains Tribe of Assam, as enumerated in the 1991 Census, is 35,849. However, according to Table 2, the total number of people who returned Deori as their mother tongue in the 1991 Census is 17,901. There is nothing mysterious about this disjunction, given the social reality of Assam where several tribal people, living in the vicinity and in the environs of more advanced languages, have lost their mother tongues through the process of both pull and push, and have over a period of time come to use the more advanced language which gradually becomes their first language.

The case of the Sonowal Kachari, another Plains Tribe of Assam, far more numerous than the Deori, presents a classic instance of a people who retain their tribal identity but have more or less completely lost their language. Their mother tongue, if it had ever existed as different and distinct from Assamese (the word Sonowal refers to the profession of goldsmith that they historically followed) does not even find a mention in the Table of 94 Languages not specified in the Eighth Schedule, referred to above.

Table 1, based on the 1991 Census, presents the distribution of the population of the Plains Tribes and the Hills Tribes of Assam in the 23 districts of the State. Two of the districts, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, are designated as the Hills Districts. The remaining 21 are assumed to be Plains Districts. Since topography or the choices that people make do not always necessarily follow distinctions made by politicians and bureaucrats for administrative or other kinds of convenience, these districts are not exclusively located in the plains or the hills of Assam. The social and cultural mores of the people inhabiting these districts that are historically supposed to be unique and exclusive to their locational status, do not always apply to the people concerned. In other words, there are many commonalities between the peoples of the plains and the hills.

The total population of Assam according to the 2001 Census was 2,66,55,528, of which the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) population was 33,08,570 (12.41 per cent) and the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) population 18,25,949 (6.85 per cent). The figures of the tribal population in the 2001 Census breakdown are not yet released; but the trend, including the errors and fictions, are unlikely to be different.

A striking feature of Table 1 is the strange preponderance and distribution of `zero population' in respect of some of the tribal communities in some of the areas. One notices straightway that the first 14 communities (Nos. 1-14), who are all Hill Tribes and are a residual feature of the once composite State of Assam, are enumerated only in the two Hills Districts, and not in any of the other 21 districts of the State. Similarly, the nine Plains Tribes (Nos. 15-23) are not enumerated in either of the two Hills Districts. Thus, the zero population of people classified as Hill Tribes in each and every one of the 21 Plains Districts; and the zero population of people classified as Plains Tribes in both the Hills Districts.

This does not mean that these communities, the Hills Tribes and the Plains Tribes, do not inhabit the `Other' districts; it only means that they are not enumerated as tribes outside the Hills Districts and Plains Districts, and so are not recognised as what they are outside their notified habitats. Guwahati, the largest city in the region, is home not merely to every other Hill tribal people enumerated in the Table but also to tribal people from other States of the region; it is also home for a substantial number of non-tribal people from other parts of the country. However, while the latter are enumerated for what they are, with whatever identity they have or claim, recognised and recorded, the same is not the case with the Hill people of the region who too have made a home in Guwahati, or in any of the other Pains Districts of Assam. Thus the so-called locational specificity unique to Assam, where areas, along with specific communities of people inhabiting that area, are notified as `scheduled'. Thus, too, the scheduling of a people has come to be intrinsically linked to the scheduling of the areas they inhabit.

The theoretical underpinnings, such as they are, of this approach can be traced to the colonial administration's approach to the peripheral areas it annexed following the conquest and annexation of Assam. These, supposedly inhabited by `wild tribes', were variously classified as Excluded Areas, Partially Excluded Areas or Unadministered Areas, with notional lines drawn to separate them from British Indian territory. The rationale was apparently colonial paternalism and, rather more materially, concerns for the safety and security of the colonial administration and settler communities. The colonial administration paternalistically viewed these `wild tribes' as dangerous but also innocent in the ways of the wicked Indian world. Such people therefore required to be protected from the rapacity of Indians, especially the Indian traders - historically always seen by the colonial administration as a real, long-term challenge in every area Britain colonised. At the same time, the British commercial interests like the powerful planter community whose domains extended to the very edge of British territory and sometimes crossed into the so-called Excluded Areas needed to be protected from the all too real threats of ravaging raids from the `wild tribes'.

These twin approaches, sustained throughout the colonial period, took a formal shape in independent India with the adoption of the Sixth Schedule as part of the Constitution. The Sixth Schedule presents, like so many other features of the Constitution, both continuity and departure from the inherited colonial state. The scheduling of the tribal communities in Assam came to be related, in a way strangely reminiscent of the colonial rationale, as much to the classic requirements that defined a community as a tribe (economic and social backwardness, remoteness and difficulty of access of the habitat and such things) as to the scheduling of whole areas, once classified as Excluded and Partially Excluded areas.

The figures in Table 1 for the Sonowal Kachari, a recognised Plains Tribe inhabiting mostly pockets in the undivided Upper Assam districts of Lakhimpur and Sibsagar, present a curious story. As can be seen, very substantial numbers in the districts of Nalbari (15,752) and Kamrup (18,922) in Lower Assam returned themselves as Sonowal Kachari in the 1991 Census, though the population of Sonowal Kachari in these districts is nowhere near these numbers. The only explanation can be that this is part of the struggle on the part of the Koch Rajbongshi/Sarania Kachari, once part of the Boro Kachari group but now Hinduised, to secure recognition as S.T. by seeming to subsume themselves under this broader identity. After all, if Hinduised Sonowal Kacharis and the Thengal Kacharis can be recognised as S.T., why not the Sarania Kachari?

A further peculiarity marks the enumeration of one of the Plains Tribes, Barmans of Cachar, referred to simply as `Barmans' (No.15). This tribe, actually part of the Dimasa Kachari family (Hill Tribe) that had migrated in historic times to the neighbouring Cachar district, had lost their Hill Tribe status after moving to the plains, and so were recognised as a Plains Tribe only in that district. However, when in the 1980s the old Cachar district was restructured into three districts, Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, the Barmans of Cachar lost their recognition as a Plains Tribe in Karimganj and Hailakandi and are now recognised as a Plains Tribe only in the new smaller Cachar district. The zeroes against their names again tell this weird tale.

In the perspective of exclusivist nationalism of every kind, in this kind of location-specific perspective which provides the rationale for those who simply hate and want to kill the Other, the zeroes should ideally cover other columns as well, marking the space that the communities at present occupy exclusive to themselves. Given the complex population mix of the two districts, this would mean periodic killings, involving all the people jointly and severally. These, as and when they happen, do get reported, but as `ethnic clashes', though ethnicity is not a special requirement that transforms ordinary people into perpetrators and survivors. More central is the felt need to clear the space of the hated Other, for which historically colonial practice has provided the rationale, continued in independent India, by legitimising exclusivist, but quite false, histories and memories and ground realities. Much of the so-called `ethnic clashes' in the Hills Districts have this openly stated objective of totally eliminating the hated Other from one's own space.

Table 2 is intended to provide some insight into some of the potential problems posed by a generalised phenomenon in Assam, where communities recognised as S.T. (Plains) are seeking greater autonomy in the form of Autonomous Councils and Territorial Councils. There is also a related phenomenon of communities at present not recognised as S.T. seeking such recognition. Six communities, at present classed as Other Backward Classes (OBC), are seeking such `upgradation' to full tribal status.

The potential for more violence of the kind that recently occurred in Karbi Anglong is inherent in the structuring of the various Autonomous Councils for the Plains Tribe of the State. Eight of the nine Plains Tribes live in the Brahmaputra Valley; and of these eight, the Boro have a Territorial Council while five others, Mising, Rabha, Tiwa (Lalung), Sonowal Kachari and Deori have, or are in the process of having, Autonomous Councils. Legislation was passed recently for the creation of an Autonomous Council for the Thengal Kachari, a people about whose numbers or habitat little is known for certain, who have never been enumerated in all the post-Independence Censuses separately and whose status as a Plains Tribe is therefore fraught with ambiguities ("Manufacturing Identities", Frontline; October 7, 2005).

When elections to these Autonomous Councils, in which the State's Electoral Commission has no role to play, are held, a most important preliminary exercise will be the tribe-wise enumeration of the villages included within these Councils. There are unending controversies in every Autonomous Council `area' over the inclusion or exclusion of village(s), the `area' having the vaguest kind of definition. For instance, one claim is that the Mising Autonomous Council will comprise 1,713 villages, a claim hotly contested by the non-Mising population. Indeed, it is conceded on all sides that not all the 1,713 villages are 100 per cent Mising villages. A corresponding situation exists in every other Autonomous Council `area'. Any enumeration in these villages with a view to the tribe-wise identification of the inhabitants is bound to be a recipe, or even a provocation, for violence. The situation is repeated in virtually all the villages included in the three Autonomous Councils where elections are to be held.

Further, the disjunction that seems to prevail between the so-called ethnic identities and linguistic identities, brought out in Table 2, is another area of potential conflict and violence. There are already situations where a tribal community does not have a corresponding tribal language as its mother tongue, and yet has secured all the supposed advantages that tribal status brings, including in the case of the Sonowal Kachari the passage of a Bill providing for the creation of an Autonomous Council for the Sonowal Kachari. The Thengal Kachari, not even recognised as a tribal community, also recently got an Autonomous Council though little is known of this community's numerical strength. In contrast Sarania Kacharis, whose situation is indistinguishable from that of the Sonowal Kachari (near-total Hinduisation, loss of any original mother tongue that may or may not have existed historically, a habitat no different from that of the neighbouring non-tribal communities) are striving for the restoration of their status as a tribe that they undoubtedly once had.

Just as the silly question - who is an Assamese - is now being solemnly debated, questions scarcely less silly challenging the identity or even the very right of existence of every one of these tribal communities are not unlikely in the future, if this trends continue. The implications of such provocative challenges and inevitable responses that await them are too grim to contemplate.

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