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Manufacturing identities?

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005 T+T-
M.S. PRABHAKARA in Guwahati

The uniqueness of the development lies in the fact that the people, Thengal Kachari, for whom and in whose name this council has been formed, have till now not been separately enumerated as a tribal people in any of the Censuses held since Independence. The category, Thengal Kachari, does not figure in the list of 23 tribal communities recognised in the State, 14 of them recognised in the two hill districts and the remaining nine recognised in the plains districts of the Brahmaputra Valley and the Barak Valley. There are also several other curious anomalies.

This essay analyses the context and background of this development and its possible social and political implications.

IN March this year, there came into existence in Titabor, near Jorhat in Upper Assam, an organisation called Thengal (also spelt Thangal) Kachari Autonomous Council (TKAC) Demand Committee whose stated objective is explicit in its very name - the creation of an Autonomous Council for the Thengal Kachari, a community of people living mostly in some villages in Jorhat and Golaghat districts. On August 10, barely five months later, the State government signed an accord with the TKAC Demand Committee; and two days later, the State Assembly passed the Thangal Kachari Autonomous Council Bill, 2005, providing for the formation of such a Council. The Bill now awaits the assent of the Governor. However, pending such assent, a 11-member interim Executive Council has been appointed by the State government, as provided for in the Transitional Provisions of the Bill (Section 80).

Thus, following the path charted in the creation of Autonomous Councils for the Mising, the Rabha and the Tiwa (earlier known as Lalung), between July and October 1995, and the more recent accord (of March 4) for the creation of similar councils for the Sonowal Kachari and Deori, all designated plains tribal communities and enumerated so in successive Censuses, the State now has a sixth autonomous council, this time for the Thengal Kachari whose very status as a tribe is fraught with some ambiguities. Further, the utterly uneventful five months between the formation of the `Demand Committee' and the passing of the legislation and the appointment of an interim TKAC do stand in sharp contrast, for instance, with the militancy and violence, that preceded and accompanied and even followed the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (May 1993) and, subsequently, a body with slightly more substantial powers, the Bodoland Territorial Council (February 2003). Indeed, the interim BTC itself came into being on December 7, 2003, nearly 11 months later, after the BTC accord was signed.

Similar was the case with the agreements on the formation of the Autonomous Councils for the Mising, the Rabha, the Tiwa, the Sonowal Kachari and the Deori, each of which was preceded by prolonged agitation, though not as violent as those that accompanied the Bodo autonomist assertion. In the case of the Deori and the Sonowal Kachari, though the accord for the creation of the autonomous councils for these two communities was signed on March 4 and the required legislation was passed on April 6, the appointment of the Interim Executive Council pending elections to the autonomous councils has not taken place. In the case of the Deori, progress in this regard has been hampered apparently because of differences within and between several organisations all claiming to represent the community.

Incidentally, none of these bodies that agitated for greater autonomy is satisfied with the autonomous councils that have been legislated into existence; and it is a mere matter of time when the struggle will be resumed to the next, higher stage, for the creation of territorial councils for these communities. The fact that even in the case of the Bodos, the largest of the plains tribal communities, the ambiguous territoriality that has been attained continues to be contested by other communities, tribal and non-tribal, occupying the same space, has not come in the way of similar territorial assertions by other plains tribes.

The Census in Assam enumerates 23 tribal communities, as well as a small and notional 24th category described as `unclassified'. Fourteen of these are designated as `hill tribes' and the remaining nine are `plains tribes'. The hill Tribes are a residue of the once composite state of Assam that included the four hill districts that eventually became the separate States of Nagaland (1963), Meghalaya and Mizoram (1972).

However, the political leadership in the two hill districts, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, at the time of the creation of Meghalaya forming one district called United Mikir and North Cachar Hills District, chose not to join the All Party Hill Leaders' Conference (APHLC) that led the movement for separation from Assam in the contiguous Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills District and refused to become part of the new State of Meghalaya. Instead, they chose to remain part of Assam, with the substantial autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that the district, like other hill districts of Assam before they split to become separate States, enjoyed. Since then, the once united district has been constituted into two separate districts, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills. There is a demand, and an on-now-off-now agitation as well, cutting across party lines, for the upgradation of the two districts into an `autonomous state within Assam' under Article 244-A of the Constitution, a status briefly enjoyed by Meghalaya before it became a full-fledged State. For reasons that are not clear, this Article was not annulled after the creation of Meghalaya.

A curious way in which this historical background impinges on the present is that the 14 designated hill tribes of Assam are enumerated only in the two hill districts of the State, though a substantial number of these tribal people also dwell in other parts of Assam, including of course in Guwahati, the largest city and capital, without however being recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in the plains. Similarly, this same location-specific identity applies also to the nine plains tribes who are enumerated as a tribal community only in the districts of the Brahmaputra Valley and the Barak Valley, though here again, many of these plains tribes also live in the two hill districts without however being recognised there as a Scheduled Tribe. This anomalous locational specificity that flies against common sense was at the root of one of the core demands of the Bodoland agitation - that the Bodo Kachari of Karbi Anglong should be recognised as a Scheduled Tribe.

Another peculiar anomaly is that one of the plains tribes, known as `Barmans of Cachar', are so recognised only in Cachar district of Barak Valley and not in any other district, neither in the two hills districts nor the 19 plains districts of the Brahmaputra Valley. Further, when Cachar district was trifurcated in the 1980s by the elevation of two of its subdivisions to full districts, Karimganj (1983) and Hailakandi (1989), the Barmans of Cachar were not enumerated in the 1991 Census in Karimganj and Hailakandi districts, but only in the residual Cachar district, though historically they were part of the undivided Cachar district.

WHO are the Thengal Kachari and where do they fit into in this categorisation? The simple answer is: Nowhere. The community has never been separately enumerated in any of the five Census operations (1951, 1961, 1971, 1991 and 2001) conducted in Assam since Independence. (Because of the disruption caused by the Assam agitation, the 1981 Census could not be held in Assam.) The published details about Assam's Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) population in the first four of these Censuses make no reference to the Thengal Kachari. This is the case with the 2001 Census as well, though population figures of individual tribes are yet to be released.

On the face of it, the Thengal Kachari, as the very denomination of Kachari indicates, should have been recognised as a tribal community, part of the great Kachari family, and enumerated in successive Censuses as a Scheduled Tribe. This has not been the case. According to the government and community leaders that this correspondent has spoken to, the Thengal Kachari were, in all these Censuses, counted as a tribal community but not enumerated so separately. They were instead included with the Sonowal Kachari, a people closely related, and their numbers were subsumed in the total of the Sonowal Kachari. Indeed, the TKAC Bill as originally drafted clubbed the Sonowal Kachari and the Thengal Kachari and envisaged the creation of a Sonowal Kachari-Thengal Kachari autonomous council. However, such hyphenation was not acceptable to either of the communities. Thus came into being two separate autonomous councils for the Sonowal Kachari and the Thengal Kachari.

However, while some figures, howsoever disputed as under-enumerations (as the population figures of every community in every Census are) are available for the Sonowal Kachari, very little is known about the actual numerical strength or the broad habitat of the Thengal Kachari for whom and in whose name the autonomous council has been created. According to Dr. B. K. Gohain, the State's Home Commissioner who is closely engaged in the issue, the estimated population of Thengal Kachari is `about 3.5 lakh', a figure that is also cited as the estimated `total population of the council area' which of course will also include many people who are not Thengal Kachari. Kula Das, a Communist Party of India (CPI) leader from Titabor closely associated with the movement for the creation of the TKAC, suggests that the figure is closer to `about 2.5 lakh', which too seems to be a gross over-estimate. These figures have to be set against the Final Population Totals of the 2001 Census that have been published. These figures show that the total Scheduled Tribe population of Jorhat district (which includes Majuli island, predominantly inhabited by the Mising) and Golaghat district, the broad habitat of the Thengal Kachari, is 2,17,054, a figure that includes not merely the very large number of Mising but also substantial numbers of Sonowal Kachari and Deori. According to Dr. Mohammed Taher, the highly regarded geographer and demographer of the State, the total population of the Thengal Kachari is unlikely to be very much over 10,000, probably closer to the population of the Deori which, according to the 1991, Census was 35,839 and which may have now reached about 50,000.

No wonder, therefore, that the community does not even figure in any published records and government publications. Inquiries at the Tribal Research Institute at Guwahati, a structure under the Government of Assam, which has published several monographs on the Plains Tribes of Assam, revealed that the institute had not published any material on the Thengal Kachari, not even the slightest of an article. Indeed, Tribes of Assam Plains (1980), published by the Director, Welfare of plains tribes and Backward Classes, Government of Assam, does not even consider Thengal Kachari (`Thengals of Upper Assam') as a tribal people. According to the Peoples of India volume on Assam, "although they [Thengal Kachari] are a Scheduled Tribe of Assam, nevertheless they have not been shown separately in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Assam".

In other words, a community never enumerated separately and never finding even a mention in all the literature on the tribal people of the State, including literature published by the Government of Assam, about whose numbers or habitat little is known, has within a few weeks of the formation of a `Demand Committee' for the formation of an autonomous council found this demand conceded. The alacrity, not to speak of democratic response to popular demand, is astounding, given the history of violent agitations that have marked the grudging concession in respect of even the most legitimate of demands.

However, these anomalies have to be seen in the context of the acknowledged social reality in Assam - that tribal and caste identities in Assam are marked by a certain elasticity defying the rigid stratifications in the rest of the country. The reason for the Thengal Kachari not even finding a mention in the official classification of the tribal communities of the State and getting little more than a passing mention in ethnological studies could be that historically, their identity has been marked by such elasticity, as indeed is the case with several other tribal people. Such plasticity and fluidity is part of the survival strategy of any small community living in the midst of a people more numerous, more powerful.

A passage from the book referred to above (Tribes of Assam Plains, 1980) is worth quoting because it also highlights other problems related to the enumeration and population of the plains tribes, including the tea garden tribes.

In the plains of Assam it is very difficult to gauge the exact population of the Tribals (sic) because of very many artificial constraints. A sizable population representing a number of tribes, the dominant section of which live in the adjoining hills, is not treated as tribal in the plains. Again, a great number of plains tribals have not been recorded as tribal because they have accepted Hinduism, though the acceptance of Christianity has not been regarded as a bar. The bar against Hinduised tribals is also not uniformly applied. For example, the Hinduised Sonowals of Upper Assam are tribals while the Hinduised Thengals of Upper Assam and the Saraniyas of Lower Assam are not, though the social customs and mode of living of all these tribes are identical. Owing to inaccessibility of their habitat, too, a considerable number of tribal population has been left out of the census. And the most disquieting phenomenon is that approximately five lakhs (1971 Census figures) of Oraon, Munda, Santhal and other such tribal people, whose forefathers had been brought to Assam during the last century in connection with tea cultivation have been missing from the list of tribals.

The Hinduisation of a tribal community has not always been the determining factor in its retaining or losing its tribal status. The Dimasa Kachari in the North Cachar Hills district, predominantly still Hindu, continue to be recognised unambiguously as a hill tribe and the Sonowal Kachari, a people even more Hinduised inhabiting some districts of Upper Assam, also are recognised as a plains tribe, the same has not been the case with the Hinduised Saraniya Kachari, a community inhabiting parts of Middle and Lower Assam.

The standard explanation for the exclusion of the Saraniya Kachari from the list of tribal communities is that the people going under that tribal appellation became Hinduised by taking `saran', a process of detribalisation involving the acceptance of the prescriptive demands of caste Hindu society as prevailed in rural Assam, including abjuring of forbidden food and drink, and become a part of the caste Hindu hierarchy, albeit at a very low level now classed as `Other Backward Classes (OBC). This historic process, described by several ethnographers (the classic account is in the Assam volume of the 1891 Census by Edward Gait), has more or less ceased; there is instead a drive now for retribalisation.

The most telling manifestation of this process of retribalisation, if not in actual practice, at least in political terms, is the ongoing agitation with deadlines announced and extended for recognition as a Scheduled Tribe by six OBC communities of the State: the Koch Rajbongshi to which stream most of the Saraniya Kacharis belong, the Tai Ahom, who ruled Assam during medieval times, the Moran, the Mottock, the Chutiya and the Adivasi, the appellation now preferred by tea garden labour and ex-tea garden labour. As against these demands one has to set the certain opposition from the existing Scheduled Tribes against making any concession on such demands. The Bodo Kachari, despite securing recognition as a `Sixth Schedule tribe' and so qualifying to be a Scheduled Tribe in the hill districts, has till now not secured such recognition in Karbi Anglong.

GIVEN these anomalies, is there a `story behind the story', an `agenda within an agenda', in the creation of the TKAC with such speed and promptitude, and with virtually no debate?

At the most obvious level, these initiatives are cynically seen by the Opposition (which boycotted the Assembly on the day the Bill was passed) as so much of pre-election distribution of fairly minor kind of patronage. After all, said Hiten Goswami, the Chief Whip of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Titabor, the `homeland and heartland' of the TKAC, is also the constituency of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

This is, however, too facile an explanation; and even if correct, is not relevant. The more immediate problems precipitated by such ad hoc measures is further intensification of the bitterness that is already deeply entrenched among and between various plains tribal communities in Assam. Elections to three of the autonomous councils (Mising, Rabha and Tiwa) are to be held before the end of the year. This means that in every village that has been included in one or other of these autonomous councils, the identity of those who do belong to the respective communities has to be ascertained. This explains the generalised demand, common to all the three autonomous council areas, for exclusion or inclusion of villages from their autonomous council areas on the grounds that such villages are inhabited by the `other' or by their own people. Indeed, the problem might touch individual villages and households as well. Kula Das was rather more exercised about the problem of identifying and locating Thengal Kachari people in the villages that are included in the TKAC area than the lack of clarity about the Thengal Kachari population. Officially, the TKAC will cover `264 Thengal Kachari Villages' which few agree approximates to the reality on the ground. But even if this figure were correct, these `264 Thengal Kachari villages' have non-Thengal populations as well as who should be identified first before electoral rolls are prepared and elections are held.

Such sheer ad hocism, with little thought given to the ground reality, has been a constant in this and similar initiatives, relating to the ongoing assertions of `ethno-nationalism' (to use a really ugly phrase) that range from demands for reclassification as a Scheduled Tribe or restoration of such a status from communities that believe that historically they had belonged to such a stream to demands for autonomy to straightforward secessionist struggles. A whole range of such struggles is going on in virtually every part of the northeastern region.

This is not new. Such dynamism and flux is inherent in any social situation. What is new is the quick-fire solutions produced with a flourish, an exercise in legerdemain as it were. The strange story of the TKAC provides a most salutary and striking instance of this new fast-food style politics, picking out chat-pat solutions out of a hat to any and every problem, without even considering whether such a process of mechanical autonomisation and the consequent inescapable atomisation of Assam is the only way out of the more fundamental predicament that is facing Assam. This is the real purport and moral of this tale.