The demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status by six ethnic communities in Assam and vehement opposition to it by tribal groups is complicating the political scerio in the State going for Assembly elections early in 2016. With the NDA government displaying an urgency to address the demand unitedly put up by the Ahom, Mottock, Moran, Chutia, Koch Rajbongshi and tea tribe communities, a meeting has been called between the Registrar General of India (RGI) and representatives of these six communities on August 6 in New Delhi. In an apparent bid to apply counter-pressure, the ‘Coordition Committee of the Tribal Organisations of Assam’ held a day-long semir in New Delhi recently in which 19 tribal organisations representing 56 tribal groups participated. At least six resolutions were adopted at the end of the semir even as the tribals’ coordition committee threatened to move the Supreme Court if the Centre goes ahead with its move to grant ST status to the six communities.
Apart from deciding to file a writ petition in the apex court that the Central government’s reported move will be a violation of the Constitution, since the six communities in question do not have a any of the six characteristics deemed necessary to be identified as tribal. Significantly, the tribal organisations also mulled over forging a political alliance to fight electorally in around 30 seats in the State where tribal voters are in majority. Meanwhile, upping the ante in Guwahati, the united platform of the six ethnic communities warned the BJP of political repercussions in elections, even as its representatives targeted the tribal organisations for opposing their ST status demand. Threatening in turn to knock at the doors of the Supreme Court, leaders of the All Assam Tai Ahom Students Union (ATASU) and the All Assam Koch Rajbongshi Students Union (AKRASU-B) argued that it is high time to review the ST status of several tribal groups, which should have been regularly reviewed after every ten years. Questioning in particular the ST status enjoyed by the Bodo tribe, these leaders pointed out that a territorial council with considerable autonomy is being administered by the Bodos.
The drawing of battle lines between the six ethnic communities on one hand and tribal communities on the other — bears ominous portents for the State in the coming days. There has already been much muddying of waters over the definition of ‘Assamese’ as to who qualifies for the benefit of constitutiol safeguards under the Assam accord, when ironically, successive governments at the Centre and Assam have done their best to bury it! Now, indigenous peoples in the State are gearing up for a fresh round of conflict, for which political parties have provided much ammunition. The task of identifying a community for ST status should have been left to competent hands like the RGI. Whether there is any qualitative difference in the general condition of tribes like the Rabhas, Misings or Sonowal Kacharis with those of Mottocks and Morans, the inconsistencies in the parameters for classifying them, the strong case of highly backward tea tribes — are all questions that need very clear policies and guidelines to be resolved by competent authorities. A Bodo or Ahom or Koch Rajbongshi leader may argue vociferously on behalf of their respective communities seeking ST status, but that will merely raise temperatures, rather than shedding light on the complex issue.
The issue about granting ST status to the six communities kept political pots boiling in the ten years the Congress was at power at the Centre from 2004-14, while it has been ruling Assam for the last 14 years continuously. Instead of taking a clear and firm stand, the Congress sent out conflicting sigls, thereby putting all the communities into confusion. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi too ostensibly lent his support to the demand for ST status by the six communities, publicly speaking about Assam turning into a ‘tribal State’ in the not-too-distant future. The BJP then got into the act before the 2014 elections, promising ST status to the six communities within six months of coming to power. After one year and immersed neck-deep in the complexities of the problem, it finds its hands tied, which comes as no surprise. Union minister Sarbanda Sonowal has now assured that the six communities will be accommodated in the ST list without compromising the interests of the tribal communities already figuring in the list. But he has been silent about the way the NDA government proposes to go about it. Reservation, whether for seats in educatiol institutions or government jobs or for contesting from reserved constituencies, is too complicated a matter to be swept under vague statements.