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Controversy over defining the 'Indigenous' people of Assam!


Sentinel Digital Desk

By J P Rajkhowa

In my column published last Sunday, I had dwelt on the controversy over defining the "Assamese" people, under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 15 August 2015 and had suggested therein that, in place of the word 'Assamese', it would be more realistic to use the word "indigenous" for the purpose of granting 'Constitutiol Safeguards'. I also attempted to define or describe the 'indigenous' people as those who origilly belonged to or grew up in Assam of yester years or those who can be called as the 'tives' of the State, drawing the mes from the list of Tribes described by MahapurusSrimantaSankardeva(15th- 16th centuries), in his writings, including the 'professiol' Castes.

Sankardeva also additiolly described some existing tribes as 'impure' tribes, i.e., those who were outside the fold of his 'eka saran am dharma' or neo- Vaisvism. These 'impure' people became 'pure', once they joined the 'dharma' of Sankardeva. "They are the Kiratas, Kacharis, the Khasis, the Garos, the Miris, the Yavas, the Kankas, the Gowals, the Asamas or Ahoms, the Malikas, the Rajakas, the Turuks, the Kuvacas, the Mlecas and the Candalas. In this list the terms 'Kuvacas' and 'Kachari' are synonymous, and both together are meant to include the Kacharis and others of the Mongoloid group. The word 'Turuk' refers to the Musalmans, 'Yava' remains a little vague. Madhab Deva in his writings refers to the 'Bhotas' (Bhutiyas) also. A clan of the Bhutiyas, 'GelengBhota' also had its abode in the country. There were also the 'Kayasthas', to which belonged many Vaisva leaders, including Sankardeva and Madhabdeva. There were the 'Bar- kalitas' and 'Kalitas' and there was a country of Kalitas, 'Kalita- desa' to the north of the hills occupied by the Abors (Adi) and the Hill Miris (Misings) [presently in Aruchal Pradesh]. The country also had 'Daivajs' (astrologers), who are also known as 'Gaks'.[Sankardeva: His Life, Preaching & Practices, Second edition, PP 17-18, Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa]. It may be mentioned that, till India's independence year 1947, the territories of the State of Assam extended practically to the entire Northeast, and that way practically all the tribes of the present States of the Northeast, were also the tives of Assam.

The controversy over defining or describing the word "Assamese" remaining unsolved, now there appears to be a general consensus for substituting this 'hot' word by the word "Indigenous" in Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, but then, a fresh controversy has started on defining the word "Indigenous". Representatives of twenty six organizations of different tive communities and tribes, including the AASU, in a recent decision taken unimously, have given a very liberal definition of ''indigenous people'', though there are others outside the group, which have their own views on the issue. According to the unimous decision of AASU and others, all the people, irrespective of religion and language, whose mes were found in the tiol Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951 and their descendants are to be called 'indigenous Assamese' or 'indigenous' people of Assam and they must be given "Constitutiol Safeguards". These 26 organizations have also demanded that, in the current Session of the Assam Legislative Assembly (ALA), a fil decision should be taken on this unresolved Issue. The AASU president, Sankar Prasad Rai, in a statement to the media, expresses the hope that, the present Speaker of the ALA, who has made an initiative to ascertain views of different stake- holders, would take positive steps and pave the way for granting of 'Constitutiol Safeguards' to the 'indigenous' people of Assam.

Immediately after the announcement of the afore- stated consensual decision of the 26 organizations, we find that, the AAMSU (All Assam Muslim Students' Union) has 'rejected' the decision and also condemned it, without elaborating on their grounds of 'objection' and without giving their own definition of the word 'indigenous'. Everyone in Assam knows well that, AAMSU has always been advocating the cause of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, including those who entered Assam, even after 24th March, 1971- the cut- off date under the Assam Accord. It was the AAMSU which went on Assam Bandh, accompanied by violent protest demonstration in areas domited by immigrant Muslims, against the repeal of the notorious IM (D & T) Act, 1983 by the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India, by its historic Judgment dated 12 July, 2015. It was again the same AAMSU which created violent incidents, in protest against the upgrading of the NRC under pilot project at Barpeta circle, following which, the entire process was stalled by the 'panicky' Torun Gogoi government of Assam. Observers feel that, the latest objection by the AAMSU could have been raised, in order to create fresh complications in the on- going process of NRC- upgradation. AAMSU has also opposed the demand for hundred per cent reservation of seats for the indigenous people, in the ALA and all municipal and local bodies, so that the illegal Bangladeshis or their descendants, supporters etc. cannot continue as ''king makers'' in Assam, which was also taken adverse note of even by the Hon'bleGauhati High Court.

AsomSahityaSabha (not AsomiyaSahityaSabha) was once given the responsibility by the Assam Government to work out a universally acceptable definition of the ''Assamese'' but failed to make any recommendation on the same, for reasons not known to us. Now the present president of the Sabha has rightly stated in public, that, it is not the responsibility of the Sabha to give a definition, and that, it's the State Government, which should shoulder this responsibility. But, the president, though purportedly, not on behalf of the Sabha, has given his own definition of ''Assamese", which includes all the people entered and settled in Assam, from Bangladesh, Chi, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Afghanistan etc. and had adopted 'Assamese' as first, second or even third language. This is a dangerous definition, with the potential to immensely harm the indigenous or tive people of Assam, speaking Assamese and tribal languages / dialects etc., and has rightly been condemned by BoroSahityaSabha, members of the intelligentsia and other ethnic organizations.

The All Assam Garia- Maria Parishad (a body of Assamese Muslims), in opposition to the stand taken by AAMSU, has, in a Memorandum submitted to the Secretary of ALA, communicated about its acceptance of the 'liberal' definition of ''indigenous'' people given by the 26 Organizations. It also stated in the Memorandum, that, all the people who lived in Assam prior to the Treaty of Iandabu(1826) and their descendants are the 'sons of the soil'- the indigenous people of Assam. There is sound logic for this definition, which has many advocates to support, though there could be groups to oppose this as well.Meanwhile, a meeting was held on March 20 last between the Speaker of ALA, ShriPrabGogoi and representatives of 12 SahityaSabhas of Assam, representing the ethnic languages of 12 ethnic communities, where a consensus was arrived for identifying themselves as ''Assamese indigenous people'' instead of 'Assamese', with main focus on the word ''indigenous''. The Speaker has reportedly convened a meeting with various Sabhas, ethnic and student organizations on March 29 to deliberate further on the issue of definition of 'Assamese'. These are certainly welcome developments, at the initiative of the Speaker, though it seems, the controversy now hovers round defining 'Assamese', 'Assamese indigenous people' and 'indigenous people of Assam'.

We may also take note of the United tions Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of 13 September 2007, which was voted in the General Assembly by 144 countries in favour, including India, with 4 votes against it (United States, Cada, Australia and New Zeland) and 11 abstentions including Bangladesh.The Declaration containing 46 Articles, elaborate the rights of indigenous / aborigil / tive peoples- both collective as well as individual, e.g. rights to culture, traditions, own institutions, identity, language, employment, health, education, protection and conservation of their lands, territories, resources etc. besides full and effective participation in all matters that concern them and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own vision of economic development. While indigenous people are not defined, they are called indigenous / aborigils / tives to a particular region or country or area. A global List has also been (unofficially!) prepared, which, in respect of India includes all the recognized Scheduled Tribes declared under the Constitution, and in respect of Assam, it is observed, that the List includes all the ethnic Tribes, excluding the six ethnic groups (Koch Rajbangshis, Ahoms, Chutia, Moran. Muttok and ChahJajatis or Tea Tribes), which have been agitating for long to grant them 'Scheduled Tribe' Status.

Filly, we may leave it to the wisdom of the ALA to decide on the definition of 'Assamese' /'Indigenous'/ 'tive' / 'Assamese Indigenous' peoples of Assam, which, in our firm view must not include the Bangladeshi / Pakistani and other immigrants from abroad, as well as the migrants from rest of India, entered and settled in Assam, as first, second or third home and seeking their fortunes in Assam through trade, employment, setting up business / industrial enterprise etc.

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