Assam’s Latest Tribal Headache

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Upper Assam faces a new rebellion by a small ethnic group seeking a special status, reports Ratnadip Choudhury

Alarm bells Morans staging a protest in Delhi in December 2011
Alarm bells Morans staging a protest in Delhi in December 2011, Photo: AFP

AN ARTICLE in an English daily in Assam has created quite a flutter. According to it, during a meeting in a remote village on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, around 100 Moran youth from upper Assam decided to take up arms protesting the state and the Centre’s apathy towards their longstanding demand of according Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the community.

The Morans — an ethnic community based primarily in the upper Assam districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivsagar — have been clamouring for ST status for some time. Protests had been staged earlier during the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls but the stir had never reached such a point. On 18 January, five organisations of the community — the All Assam Moran Students’ Union (AAMSU), Asom Moran Sabha (AMS), Sadou Moran Kala Sanskriti Bikas Kendra (SMKSBK), Moran Jatiya Mahila Parishad (MJMP) and Moran Jatiya Karmachari Saikhik Bikas Mancha (MJKSBM) — gave the call to launch an indefinite mass movement against the state and the Centre and settle for no less than ST status for the community. “We will intensify our agitation and New Delhi and Dispur will have to pay later if they do not respond,” warned Jyotimoni Baruah, general secretary of AAMSU at the gathering in Tinsukia.

In a state plagued by extremism, this development is worrying not only for Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, but also the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Youth from the Moran and Motok communities of upper Assam have formed the majority of ULFA recruitments. “In the days to follow, we might see an uprising from the community,” says Dibrugarh-based journalist Ripunjoy Das. “If the Morans form an ethnic armed outfit, upper Assam might see violence again.” Tuhin Saikia, a resident of Doomdooma, a Moran-populated area echoes these fears. “Upper Assam has tea and oil, but both industries suffered because of three decades of insurgency. Things were finally getting better. If the Morans take up arms, it will get volatile again,” he says.

Moran and Motok youths have formed the majority of ULFA recruitments

Even as the peace talks between the Centre and ULFA’s pro-talk faction led by Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa move forward at a snail’s pace, the anti-talks faction of ULFA led by commander-in-chief Paresh Barua has been recruiting fresh cadres from the Moran heartland. The call to form a Moran rebel outfit is bad news for the elusive rebel leader.

Morans are also irked with media reports suggesting the government’s willingness to accord ST status to tea tribes, a traditional Congress votebank. Elders in the Moran community have apparently given a ‘go-ahead’ to the young brigade to form a rebel outfit on ethnic lines like the Bodos, sending alarm signals to the ULFA. “Our commander- in-chief has asked Jiban Moran, our top leader, to pacify those who have decided to take up arms. Our leadership fears that if the Morans wage a separate rebellion, ULFA will suffer in terms of manpower,” says an ULFA operative.

Jiban Moran is getting student activist-turned- ULFA cadre Rahendra Moran to talk to the youth, but the feedback has not been positive. A highly placed military intelligence source says 25 Morans have already started training.

However, the Morans will not have it easy. Not all ST groups in Assam like the idea of ST status for them. “The government should not take any decision that will adversely affect the STs of the state,” says LN Pangging, president of Janajati Nagrik Manch. The tribal groups’ platform had slammed the Moran community for the December protest in Delhi. On its part, the state government is apprehensive. The Morans might set a precedent that could provoke smaller ethnic groups like Motoks, Chutias, Tai-Ahoms and Koch Rajbonshis to give a similar call to arms.

Jiban Moran is getting student activist-turned- ULFA cadre Rahendra Moran to talk to the youth, but the feedback has not been positive. A highly placed military intelligence source says 25 Morans have already started training.

However, the Morans will not have it easy. Not all ST groups in Assam like the idea of ST status for them. “The government should not take any decision that will adversely affect the STs of the state,” says LN Pangging, president of Janajati Nagrik Manch. The tribal groups’ platform had slammed the Moran community for the December protest in Delhi. On its part, the state government is apprehensive. The Morans might set a precedent that could provoke smaller ethnic groups like Motoks, Chutias, Tai-Ahoms and Koch Rajbonshis to give a similar call to arms.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. 
ratnadip@tehelka.com

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Special Correspondent

A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.

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