Identity politics fans a new fire in Assam

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Rage of denial Protesters burn an effigy of PM Manmohan Singh on 6 December
Rage of denial Protesters burn an effigy of PM Manmohan Singh on 6 December Photo: UB Photos

EVEN BEFORE the embers of the July- August ethnic violence between Muslims and Bodos could die down, identity politics is threatening to engulf Assam once again. This time, the contending parties are six indigenous communities — Koch-Rajbongshis, Tai Ahoms, Morans, Muttocks, Chutias and the tea tribes (Adivasis) — who have come out on the streets against the Registrar General of India’s (RGI) decision to deny them scheduled tribe (ST) status.

On 5 December, the RGI informed a delegation of Koch-Rajbongshi leaders that none of the communities “fulfilled the criteria” and hence they could not be deemed STs. This has not gone down well with the communities, all of whom blame the ruling Congress government for having dangled the carrot of ST status for over a decade and using them as a votebank.

“The RGI told us that the Koch-Rajbongshis do not have their own language and cultural data,” says Biswajit Ray, chairman of Chilarai Sena, an organisation of the Koch-Rajbongshis. “Morans, Muttocks, Chutias and Ahoms too do not fulfill any criteria. Only the tea tribes meet the norms, but they are migrant labourers from Jharkhand and Odisha, and not originally from Assam. All communities see this as a betrayal, since the Congress has been assuring us of the ST status for a decade now.”

This anger at the Tarun Gogoi government is already reaching fever pitch, with bandhs, dharnas and protests being called all over the state. A 120-hour bandh was recently called in lower Assam, the region that saw violence in August, when clashes between Bodos and Muslims left over a 100 dead and displaced another 5 lakh.

“In 1996, the Koch-Rajbongshis were accorded ST status under an ordinance, but after a year, the status was revoked,” says Ray. “We will continue to protest in a democratic manner, but if any Koch-Rajbongshi youth takes up arms the government will be to blame,” he warns.

These desperate bids for self-assertion of a tribal identity are showing signs of snowballing into a big problem. Already, intelligence sources say that the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), an armed Koch-Rajbongshi faction, is regrouping in lower Assam with active support from the Paresh Barua-led anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

The Koch-Rajbongshis are not the only ones feeling short-changed. The Tai Ahoms, one of the oldest communities of Assam, want the hengdang, a scimitar, to be declared the “national weapon” and allowed to be carried in public. The Ahom Royal Society (ARS), another influential body, has demanded that Assam be declared a “tribal state”.

The RGI had conducted five surveys on all six communities following a request by the state government. All five surveys found the communities ineligible.

The criteria that need to be fulfilled by a community for it to be accorded ST status are: (i) a primitive way of life and habitation in remote and less easily accessible areas; (ii) a distinctive culture; (iii) shyness of contact with the community at large; (iv) geographical isolation; and (v) a general backwardness in all respects. Interestingly, apart from the tea tribes, the other five communities already fall under the category of other backward classes (OBC).

With panchayat polls in the state slated for early 2013, this could not have come at a worse time for Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. “All six communities will go to Delhi with our grievances. If we don’t get a positive response, we will launch a mass movement and bring everything to a standstill,” warns Jyotimoni Moran, adviser of the All Moran Students’ Union. The tea and oil-rich districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar in upper Assam would face the brunt of the Moran rage. Caught on the wrong foot, Gogoi has tried to soothe frayed tempers. “No one has said that the demand for ST status has been rejected for good,” he said.

Also piggybacking on this demand is the inherent problem of the politics of numbers. With more than 30 percent of the 126-member state Assembly coming from upper Assam, ST status would mean delimitation of seats to accommodate reserved category candidates. If that were to happen, the political fortunes of many would be on the downswing.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
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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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