The widespread violence during the 36-hour bandh on Wednesday-Thursday called by the united forum of the six ethnic communities demanding scheduled tribe (ST) status needs to be taken very seriously by the Assam government now. The shutdown may have skirted Guwahati and capital Dispur, but things were very different elsewhere in the State. Bandh supporters stoned passenger vehicles and set some on fire, vandalized shopping malls and petrol pumps, attacked jourlists and intimidated common people. In Bongaigaon, even a car carrying a pregnt woman for hospital check-up was damaged by goons. There were clashes at several places between bandh supporters and tribal activists, while the police reportedly stood by as hapless onlookers. This is the outcome when political parties run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on sensitive issues like reservation. Whether it is the AGP, the Congress or the BJP, all have flirted with the ST status issue with their eyes on votes. The previous Tarun Gogoi government spoke with a forked tongue when it espoused ST status for the six communities, provided it did not eat into the benefits being enjoyed by the current scheduled tribes! But of course the current STs fear that their share in the pie will decline if more groups jostle with them for benefits advanced under the constitution. Political representation in the assembly, autonomous councils and other bodies will be a particularly charged question, greatly sharpening the divide. The coordition committee of tribal organizations in the State (CCTOA) recently announced a phased agitation from November to oppose the Centre’s move on ST status. The suspicion is that activists of the ‘Jagosthiya Oikya Manch’, spearheading the ST status demand for the six communities, went on a violent spree during the bandh to show their muscle and the mayhem they are capable of. There is a very real possibility of more such competitive displays of violence in the coming days by groups ranged on opposite sides of the ST divide.
With the stakes getting higher in this impending confrontation between indigenous communities, the State law and order machinery needs to be on its toes with clear directives from the top to go after those who disturb the public peace. We have seen the kind of violence Jat activists demanding OBC status unleashed across Harya early this year, targeting non-Jats for the first time and destroying public property to the tune of over Rs 30,000 crore. The issue had been long festering with successive governments in Harya having their own take about what constitutes backwardness, which again was at odds with the criteria set by the tiol Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). The Jat demand had already failed judicial scrutiny with the Supreme Court striking down their their Central OBC status last year. With the Jats now going for further political mobilization, Harya’s BJP government as well as the NDA government at the Centre are again bending over backwards to keep the community happy and wean it away from the Congress and Indian tiol Lok Dal (INLD) influences. In Assam, the demand for ST status by the six ethnic communities goes back a long way, occasiolly proceeding one step forward and two steps back. The Central government in May this year set up a committee to recommend the modalities for completing the process. According to the Union Home Ministry, the panel will also seek to protect the interests of existing scheduled tribes while framing a mechanism to ensure fairness of reservations within the six communities and related security considerations. But what must always be kept in mind is that modalities determining tribal characteristics is a serious, technical exercise involving Central and State governments, the Registrar General of India (RGI) and the tiol Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Inclusion into SC/ST/OBC lists must also stand rigorous court scrutiny. This is not an issue that can be settled in political campaign trails and voting machines, or on the streets by brute force. The bandh hooliganism by activists of the ‘Jagosthiya Oikya Manch’ needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The State government should now have a zero-tolerance policy against the organizers of such bandh violence. It is also high time for Dispur to bring out of cold storage the bill tabled earlier in the Assembly to effectively implement the Supreme Court’s ruling against bandh culture.