A demand, a promise

Granting of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities of Assam is a long-pending issue that affects a sizeable section of the state population. Every major political party has not only extended support to this demand, but has also promised to get it done whenever they come power, and the BJP is no exception. It had made this promise in clear terms twice in recent years – first during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, and then during the run-up to the State Assembly election in 2016, thus getting an overwhelming support of people of these communities on voting day on both occasions. Last Tuesday however, Union tribal affairs minister Jual Oram was quoted as having said at a press conference in New Delhi that these communities would have to wait for at least 40 years to see their demand fulfilled. This statement attributed to the Union minister rightfully triggered off sharp and strong reactions in Assam, with organisations representing these six communities staging protests and condemning the minister’s reported remark. No sooner had this news of the reported remark attributed to minister Oram spread, protestors even burnt his effigies and blocked roads – a popular trend that however disrupts life and curtails rights of common people – while opposition political parties like the Congress began hitting out at the BJP for its alleged “betrayal” of the people. It took three days for the Union minister to tweet that the demand for ST status by the six communities – Moran, Matak, Tai-Ahom, tea community, Koch-Rajbongshi and Chutia – was under active consideration of the Centre. “Scheduling of six Community and others of Assam are under active consideration of the Union Govt. Some media has misquoted my press meet,” – this was what Union minister Oram exactly tweeted. The issue is very sensitive – both among people of those communities which are demanding this status, as well as among those opposed to it. Thus a person of the Union minister’s stature and position should do his or her homework while facing such questions, so that any careless or casual utterance does not trigger of unwanted reactions. There is a strong view that the demand for granting ST status to six more communities of Assam has links to Clause 6 of the Assam Accord which refers to granting Constitutional safeguard to the Assamese (read “indigenous”) people. There were both demands and proposals in the past for declaring the whole of Assam as a tribal state, with the proponents of this theory claiming that it would in the process protect the indigenous communities from the onslaught of the Bangladeshi migrants. It is also a fact that those communities which are currently enjoying ST status are naturally threatened, with their apprehension being that inclusion of more communities in the list meaning sharing the cake among more people. The Government of India had on June 15, 1999 (as further amended on 25.6.2002) approved a set of modalities for deciding claims for inclusion in, exclusion from and other modifications in Orders specifying lists of STs. Accordingly, only such proposals, which satisfy the following procedure in given sequence are considered for inclusion: (i) Recommendation by concerned State Government / UT Administration with full justification; (ii) Concurrence of Registrar General of India (RGI); and (iii) Concurrence of National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST). The Government of India had in February 2014 subsequently also set up a Task Force to examine the existing criteria and procedure. The Task Force in its report submitted to the Ministry has recommended, inter-alia, for revision of criteria and procedure for scheduling of tribes as STs. The recommendations of the Task Force were examined and accordingly the proposal for streamlining of communities as STs was circulated to States/UTs. According to an answer to a question in Rajya Sabha on March 27, 2017, the Government of India has received views/comments from all States/UTs except a few States/UTs and that the proposals sent by the Government of Assam for granting ST status to the six communities was referred to the Registrar General of India. Meanwhile the Government of Assam on Friday said it has been taking “decisive steps” for granting ST status to six communities of the state and that the matter has been pursued with the Central government on a regular basis. It also said that the State and Central governments have also held several rounds of talks with representatives of these communities and that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has also participated in discussions. The State government has also said that subsequently, a modality committee has also been constituted by the Central government to prepare the roadmap for granting ST status to these communities. Both the Central and State governments, it said, have endeavoured to advance the progress on a positive note. With the next Lok Sabha election not very far away, it is going to be a litmus test for the Centre.