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Tribal turmoil

Print edition : Dec 21, 2007 T+T-

Assam goes through a violent phase over the tea garden communities stir demanding Scheduled Tribe status.

in GuwahatiLocal residents beat

ASSAM reported its most shameful incident in recent times on November 24 when a teenaged adivasi girl, stripped naked by some youth during mob violence, ran for dear life on a street in Guwahati with her attackers chasing her in full public view. The girl, a Class X student from Biswanth Chariali in Sonitpur district in northern Assam, pleaded with her attackers for mercy, but in vain. A middle-aged man finally came to her rescue and offered her his own clothes to cover herself. Local newspapers even published pictures of an assailant kicking her private parts, which was subsequently shown by television news channels.

The girl had come to the city for the first time, to participate in the All Adivasi Students Association of Assam (AASAA) rally taken out by the Adivasi student body to press for the inclusion of Santhal Adivasis and the Tea tribes in the list of Scheduled Tribes (Plains). The rally was taken out in defiance of a magistrates order against holding it. The State government, however, had no explanation as to why AASAA was denied permission to hold the rally although the organisation applied for it as early as on November 6.

The march along Basistha Road in the city turned violent soon after it started. First, a section of the protesters resorted to acts of vandalism, and this invited brutal retaliation from residents of the Beltola locality. Nearly two hours of violence left one person dead and 240 injured, some of them critically. Curfew was clamped on the entire road but was lifted the next day.

On the basis of photographs published in newspapers, the police arrested three young men, two of them shopkeepers in the Beltola locality, and slapped on them charges of murder, attempt to rape, and outraging the modesty of women. The police also arrested five leaders of the AASAA. The organisation said that 32 of its rallyists were missing. On November 28, it demanded that the government should inform it about their whereabouts within 48 hours. The violence broke out when the valedictory session of the first leg of the India International Tea Convention, 2007 was in progress in Guwahati. The failure of the police and the administration to make timely intervention evoked widespread public condemnation.

The AASAA called a 36-hour State-wide bandh on November 26 and 27, which was backed by the All Assam Tea Tribe Students Union (ATTSA). This was followed by a 12-hour bandh called by the All Assam Santhal Students Union. The violence that broke out during the bandh claimed the life of a teenaged boy in Kokrajhar district and left many injured. Tension gripped several towns, which prompted the administration to clamp a curfew in Rangapara town in Sonitpur district.

The violence spread to other parts of the State in the following days. Adivasis from the tea garden areas, armed with bows and arrows, lathis and machetes, forced their way into nearby towns and indulged in arson and attack.

Political leaders from Jharkhand, including former Union Minister Shibu Soren and former Chief Ministers Arjun Munda and Babulal Marandi, rushed to Assam to take stock of the situation since many of the tea garden tribes hail from what was once south Bihar. They expressed shock over the brutalities and the governments failure to prevent them. Opposition parties in the State such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held the Congress-led coalition government in the State responsible for the mayhem and demanded Chief Minister Tarun Gogois resignation. The State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), and the Communist Party of India (CPI) also blamed the State government and demanded that both New Delhi and Dispur take steps to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the Adivasis in Assam and five other communities. The violence was a manifestation of the frustration of these underprivileged sections, which have waited for over five decades for a positive government response to their demand.

As a damage-control exercise, Tarun Gogoi announced in Jorhat a compensation of Rs.1 lakh to the teenaged girl, an ex gratia payment of Rs.3 lakh each to the next of kin of the deceased, and Rs.50,000 to those who were seriously injured and Rs.10,000 to those who suffered minor injuries. The government transferred the Deputy Commissioner of Police of Kamrup (Metropolitan) district, the Senior Superintendent of Police of Guwahati, the officer in charge of Basistha police station and a sub-inspector, following the violence in the city. The Chief Minister initially ordered a probe by the Additional Chief Secretary but later decided on a judicial probe to be headed by Justice Manisana Singh, retired Supreme Court Judge. The probe is expected to find out if there was a conspiracy behind the mob savagery of November 24.

Four Cabinet Ministers in the Gogoi government Prithibi Majhi, Ripun Bora, Himanta Biswa Sharma and Dinesh Prasad Gowala tried to placate the angry Adivasi and Tea Tribe organisations by claiming that the State government had always backed their demand for S.T. status. Majhi and Bora said that the government had, in 2005, submitted a report compiled by the Assam Institute of Research for Tribals and Scheduled Castes, Guwahati, recommending the inclusion of 97 Tea-garden and Ex-Tea garden communities in the S.T. (Plains) list and that the report was very much in the Central governments consideration.

However, this was contradicted by Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil in the Lok Sabha on November 27 when he said that Assams Tea tribe communities had tended to lose their tribal characteristics over the years and that the Registrar-General of India (RGI) also did not support their inclusion in the S.T. list for Assam. He said: There has been a demand for giving S.T. status to Tea and Ex-Tea garden communities comprising Munda, Oran, Gonds, Santhals, etc. from Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, etc. This has been examined several times by the office of the RGI. The Lokur Committee had also considered this issue in 1965 and had noted that it agreed with the opinion of the Backward Classes Commission and did not recommend the ea plantation labourers to be treated as S.Ts. The settlers in the tea estates have tended to lose their tribal characteristics in their new surroundings. Moreover, the office of the RGI noted that many of the Tea tribe communities (Basor, Bhattar, Basphoor, Bhagta and Tandoi) were not listed as S.Ts in their native States but as Scheduled Castes.

This September, the All Indian Adivasi Coordination Committee submitted a memorandum urging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to initiate positive steps towards conferring S.T. (Plains) status on 97 Tea- and Ex-Tea garden communities.

The history of the migration of tea and ex-tea garden communities to Assam is a long one, characterised by exploitation, deprivation and treachery.

After the annexation of Assam from Burma (Myanmar), the British colonial administration started tea plantations on a large scale in the region. The first tea committee was formed in 1834, and the first tea garden was established in 1837. By 1900, there were 804 tea gardens covering an area of 337,000 acres (1 hectare = 2.47 acres). The industry soon began facing a shortage of labourers. With the native people of Assam engaged in independent farming, a labour class seeking wage employment on a regular basis was not available locally. It therefore became imperative for the planters to import labourers from outside Assam. The Tea District Labour Association, constituted under the Tea District Emigrant Labour Act of 1932, started recruiting labour from six labour-surplus provinces Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Central Provinces, United Provinces and Madras. The first batch of tea garden labourers were recruited from the Chotanagpur division of Bihar by the Assam Company in 1841. The industry continued to import labourers until 1960.

The labourers thus brought into Assam had a trying time. The agents, known as free contractors, enticed them with secure employment, good wages and healthy habitation. But what the labourers got was a raw deal. The mortality rate among them became high. The abuse of the free contractors was so grave that it met with protests from various quarters.

Some of the recruits did not stay in the tea gardens. They settled in government khas land or unused tea garden land in the vicinity of the tea estates so that they could earn their living as casual labourers in the tea gardens and also by cultivating land. This led to the creation of the Ex-Tea garden tribe.

In 1995, the Director of the Assam Institute of Research for Tribals and Scheduled Castes recommended to the Government of Assam, after conducting a detailed study of the status of Oraons, Santhals, Mundas, Kharias and so on, known as Tea and Ex-Tea garden communities of Assam, that these tribes be included in the list of S.T. (Plains). In the same year, the Hiteswar Saikia government also recommended the same to the Central government. On August 5, 2004, the Assam Legislative Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution urging the Government of India to include Tea and Ex-Tea tribes/Adivasis and five other major communities (Koch Rajbongshi, Tai-Ahom, Moran, Mottak and Chutia) in the list of S.T. (Plains). The report submitted by the Amar Rai Pradhani Committee also made the recommendation.

Union Minister for Tribal Affairs P.R. Kyndiah told Parliament that the Assam government had sent a report regarding the social status of the six communities, recommending their inclusion in the S.T. list for Assam. He informed the House that in 1993 the then Assam government recommended the specification of Koch Rajbongshi as an S.T. but the report appended to the State governments recommendation was found contradictory and the RGI rejected the claim. Later, the State government sent a revised report, on the basis of which in 1995 the RGI supported its inclusion in the list, without connecting it with the earlier report. On Jaunary 27, 1996, an ordinance effecting the inclusion of Koch Rajbongshis in the list of S.T.s of Assam (excluding the autonomous districts of Assam) was promulgated. The ordinance was re-promulgated thrice, on March 27, 1996; June 27, 1996 and January 1, 1997. It lapsed on April 2, 1997, prompting the organisations of Koch-Rajbongshis to revive their movement.

The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 1996, was introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 12, 1996. The Bill was referred to the Select Committee of the Lok Sabha on August 2, 1996. The Select Committee submitted its report on August 14, 1997. This report was circulated among the Assam government, the RGI, and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The government of Assam and the Registrar General of India had recommended the inclusion of Koch Rajbongshi in the list of Scheduled Tribe of Assam (though in March 1997, the Government of Assam had stated that Koch Rajbongshi have benefited like other sections of the society by the process of development and it will not be correct to say that they have become backward during this period so as to claim status of Scheduled Tribe). But the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes did not favour its specifications as Scheduled Tribe. However, in 2002, the National Commission changed its stand and recommended the inclusion. It also referred the case to the RGI for the justification, but the RGI rejected the claim of Koch-Rajbongshi community. The RGI has commented eight times (1981, 1992, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2005 and 20.3.2006) on the proposal for inclusion of Koch Rajbongshi including the above referred reference of 2005 (on 20.3.2006). Similarly in the case of other aforesaid communities, the RGI has rejected the claim for their inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Assam several times, the report said.

Kyndiah also stated that the modalities required the consent of the State government concerned, the RGI and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for modification in the list of Scheduled Tribes. That would take time, and therefore, no specific time frame can be mentioned, he said.

New Delhis stand on the issue has added to the worries of the Congress government in Assam, which fears that it will lose its traditional vote bank in the tea belt. And with only a month left for the panchayat elections, State Congress leaders are now under pressure to go on an overdrive to hold on to this vote bank. The Gogoi government is also worried about the armed outfits among the Adivasis throwing their weight behind the overground organisations. Local newspapers published a statement purported to have been issued by the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), a new militant outfit active in the tea garden areas in Upper Assam, which threatened to target civilians and the Gogoi governments men to avenge the brutalities on Adivasi protesters in Guwahati. In the coming weeks, the Gogoi government will be under pressure to convince New Delhi to concede the communities demand.