With 23 Scheduled Tribes, Assam has the most number of tribal autonomous councils in India. With the second phase of polling behind us, the burning issues of the autonomous council and its people remain unaddressed even regional opposition is slowly giving way to mainstream politics. We took a deep dive into the history and issues of the Rabha Autonomous Council, a body constituted by Assam Government in 1995, Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and Dima Hasao Autonomous Council, both protected by Schedule 6 of Indian Constitution.

Win-Win Situation  

Dudhnoi falls under the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council. Dipak Kumar Rabha, the incumbent MLA from Dudhnoi seat in Goalpara district, is hopeful of a formidable win against the rival BJP leader, Shyamjit Rabha supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and organisations from Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC) in Assam. While there is no official statement from BJP on why Dipak Rabha, the incumbent MLA did not get a ticket from the party, his supporters claim that BJP is just testing waters. BJP gave the ticket to Shyamjit Rabha, a relatively new face after consulting with Jautha Sangram Samity, an umbrella organisation of 34 small outfits and All Rabha Students’ Union.

Although the Rabha Hasong Council Act and Rabha Accord was signed in 1995, the Rabhas, a Tibeto-Burman community concentrated in the South Kamrup and Goalpara region, never found any protection like Dimasas, Bodos and Karbis under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution. 

Until 2013, previous Congress and Asom Gana Parishad governments delayed the election, after which the Congress decided to impose the Panchayati Raj system even in the council areas. 

Congress wanted to reach out to 250-odd non-Rabha villages which did not go down well with the community and all the Rabha organisations. On February 12, 2013, 12 people were shot dead by Central forces in two smaller towns, Krishnai and Mornoi – with the death toll going up to 24 in the next few days.   

Tapan Rabha Hato, a member of the RHAC member and a close confidante of Dipak Rabha, the MLA, says that politics in the autonomous council prevented Rabha from securing a BJP ticket. Dipak Rabha is contesting independently from the Dudhnoi seat. “Tankeshwar Rabha is an authoritarian figure. He has been taking undemocratic decisions from the time he was elected as the Chief Executive Member (CEM) in 2019,” Hato alleged. The disgruntled RHAC member added that the CEM was involved in anti-BJP activities, which eroded the party’s support during the 2019 RHAC elections. In 2019, the BJP supported by Rabha Hasong Jautha Sangram Samiti, an umbrella organisation of 34 small outfits, aimed at securing the rights of Rabha tribe won 34 out of 36 seats in RHAC while the Asom Gana Parishad and Congress (I) won one seat each. Incidentally, the incumbent MLA, Dipak Rabha won more than 25000 votes defeating the nearest Congress rival with the Dudhnoi residents voting 87.73 per cent. 

In 2021, ahead of the elections, the scenario has completely changed. Hato claims that Tankeshwar Rabha sidelined Dipak Rabha as he became more and more popular. Rabha is already in talks with Senior Assam Minister and BJP leader, Himanta Biswa Sarma. “We have apprised Dr Sarma about the situation here in Dudhnoi seat. We are confident now that if Dipak Rabha is elected to power, he will be asked to join BJP,” claimed Hato, the RHAC member. 

On the other hand, Rajib Rabha, a close confidante of CEM Tankeshwar Rabha said that Dipak Rabha does not have any popular support anymore. “Deepak Rabha and his camp have gone against the will of the Jautha Sangram Samiti and ARSU. Both the organisations are the main constituents of Rabha’s political identity. If you are not supported by these organisations, there is no point of contesting these elections,” Rabha added. Incidentally, according to all the Rabha leaders, both Jautha Sangram Samiti or ARSU are apolitical organisations.  

ARSU President Nripen Khanda, who believes that all the 34 constituent outfits of ARSU are rooting for the present BJP candidate Shyamjit Rabha, said that the issues of Rabha remain unaddressed by the state or the central government if these apolitical outfits do not put their weight behind these candidates. “We continue to support the Students Unions in their protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. However, after much deliberations and discussions, we chose Shyamjit Rabha as our candidate. In this case, even apolitical outfits weighed in,” said Khanda.  

Dipak Rabha’s camp has however accused that ARSU and Jautha Sangram Samiti has been completely co-opted by Tankeshwar Rabha. “On one hand, Tankeshwar Rabha, Shyamjit Rabha has been addressing ARSU cadres and Jautha Sangram Samiti in various meetings. So much for saying that these are apolitical organisations. On the other hand, families of 24 martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the Rabha cause live in penury. They were given Rs 1 lakh as compensation,” said Hato. Incidentally, since the first council elections took place in which Tankeshwar Rabha was elected as CEM in 2013, later when Dipak Rabha was elected as the MLA in 2016, both ARSU and Jautha Sangram Samiti offered their support for BJP. 

In this battle between two camps, several locals feel that the issue of protection under Sixth schedule has been completely lost. “So many people died for the autonomy of the tribe. Even then, there are no constitutional safeguards for Rabha Council,” said Arun Rabha, a young entrepreneur from Krishnai. Incidentally, autonomy under the Sixth schedule, which translates into a lot more power for the tribal council, has been promised by both the camps. 

However, according to Nripen Khanda, the ARSU President, Congress had formed a committee for the implementation of the sixth schedule after the 2013 violence. “Congress promised that they would implement the sixth schedule if elected to power in 2016. The Congress government did not win elections. The BJP government scrapped the committee formed by the Congress government and instituted a new committee for the implementation of the Sixth schedule. The Assam government has sent the proposal to New Delhi. The Centre has assured that after elections they will look into the implementation of the sixth schedule,” added Khanda.

Crime and Punishment

At Haflong in Dima Hasao district, an autonomous council under the Sixth schedule, Sojesh Thaosen, the President of Dima Hasao Youth Congress is furious as the region prepares for the Assam State Assembly polls. Thaosen accompanied by Kome Kemprai and Bapojith Langthasa, two youth congress leaders were visiting Dikrengma village under Dehangi Police Station, 50 kilometres North of Haflong town. As they stepped out of the village, Sanjit Nunisa, the Personal Assistant of Chief Executive Member, Debolal Garlossa, accompanied by 23 others suddenly attacked the three leaders. 

“It has been more than 10 days, Assam Police is yet to take any action against the accused person. We would have been lynched by the mob led by Sanjit Nunisa,” Thaosen told Eastmojo. While Nunisa was not available for comment, CEM, Debolal Garlossa said that Thaosen is making a false case against his people ahead of the Assam Assembly Polls with the intent of seeking political mileage. Garlossa was the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel faction) before surrendering in a rally in presence of Former Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi in 2009. During the peak of DHD’s bloody insurgency, Garlossa was accused of brutally murdering former CEM, Purnendu Langthasa and Council member, Nindu Langthasa. Garlossa was similarly accused of murdering an Assam Police Constable, Habibur Rahman after an extortion attempt. 

While cases are still ongoing in Gauhati High Court, Garlossa managed to surrender and then gain power in the council. For the Haflong seat, it will be his cousin sister, Nandita Garlossa contesting on a BJP ticket. Among many promises, Assam BJP along with BJP leaders and allies from Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao autonomous council areas have been constantly demanding implementation of article 244(a) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees statehood to autonomous councils. While Central BJP leadership is yet to announce a final decision, locally Garlossa and other BJP leaders have assured people in the Haflong that an autonomous state within Assam with its council, legislature and more powers 

Way back in 1969, Congress inserted Article 244 (a) following the largescale movements across Northeastern India by communities seeking larger autonomy. On Tuesday, All India Congress Committee (AICC) President, Rahul Gandhi announced that article 244 (a) will be implemented for all the autonomous councils under Schedule 6 of the constitution. 

Senior Journalist and commentator, Surya Thaosen said that Gandhi’s announcement has created a Congress wave in Dima Hasao. “Under the present BJP rule, crimes have increased in Dima Hasao. People are sick of criminal activities and corruption. They want change. Congress (I) has respected the statehood demand of the people. Hence, people are confident that Nirmal Langthasa who is contesting on a Congress ticket will deliver their promise,” said Thaosen. 

Erosion of Autonomy

In the neighbouring Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, there is strong resentment against the Assam government’s growing interference in the business of the council. “Apart from lack of implementation of article 244(a) and massive corruption, deliberate erosion of the autonomy of hill council on various fronts,” said Holiram Terang, former State Cabinet minister and a member of Autonomous State Demand Committee, a political organisation which has mobilised people of Karbi Anglong and erstwhile Cachar districts for over four decades. 

Terang cited the example of the education department. “As per the MoU of 1995, Council can legislate and execute various laws related to 14 subjects which include higher education. Using various measures of Central Government such Staff Inspection Unit (SIU) that decides the salary of the personnel employed by the Council or Programme Implementation Unit (PIU) which decides on plans for the autonomous council from Dispur, Assam government is weakening the autonomy of Karbi Anglong,” added Terang. The former minister also stated that despite several representations to Assam’s Education Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) continues to be conducted by the Assam Government instead of the Autonomous Council. 

Although legislative and executive powers have been extended to 30 to 40 odd departments in both Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong autonomous council, these departments can enact laws for only 14 to 15 subjects. “For instance, the subject of water is shared by Public health, irrigation, power etc. However there is no correlation between these departments,” said Terang. 

Tuliram Ronghang, the CEM of Karbi Anglong is, however confident BJP will win all four seats. Ronghang has been regularly meeting State BJP to push for the autonomous state as a poll promise. “In the last six months, we have provided jobs to over 2500 youths. This has been possible only with the BJP government in power,” said Ronghang addressing a press meet recently. 

In Bodoland, after the United Peoples Party Liberal (UPPL) and a BJP swept the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) elections, Hagrama Mohilary, the Bodo Peoples’ Front Supremo, emerged as a Pan-Assamese leader. For the first time, in different areas of Assam such as Dhemaji or Jonai, where there are practically no Bodo population, Mohilary was seen campaigning for Congress candidates. Similarly, Promod Boro, BJP’s new ally in Bodoland campaigned for BJP across the state. 

Bodo Peoples’ Front (BPF) led by Hagrama Mohilary switched sides and came into an understanding with the Congress-led alliance. The party had emerged from a prolonged struggle to create a home for Bodo people, a Tibeto-Mongoloid tribe mostly concentrated across the length of the North bank of Brahmaputra. Hagrama led an armed struggle with his outfit, Bodoland Liberation Tigers, against the Indian government till 2003 when NDA 1 led by former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed a new accord paving the way for the Bodoland Territorial Council.  

As Hagrama became the Chief Executive Officer of the newly-formed Bodoland Territorial Council in 2003 after an election, All Bodo Students’ Union, another powerful organisation from the region, soon renewed their demand for a separate state under Indian Union. In 2020, Amit Shah, Union Home Minister, brought a new record to cull the demand for statehood by giving more powers and more independence to the existing Bodoland Territorial Council. The new accord is considered historic with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a separatist outfit laying down their arms before the government. 

ABSU led by Pramod Boro, a students’ leader became the president of United Peoples Party Liberal, a considerably new outfit in the political landscape of Bodoland, ahead of the BTC polls. As Mohilary-led BPF could not come into an agreement for seat-sharing with BJP ahead of BTC polls in December 2020, BJP found UPPL as the new ally. Despite having three ministers in the State Cabinet, Mohilary on February 27 announced that he would join the Mahajot. BPF continues to remain as the single largest party in BTC and holds a fair share of the votes from Bodoland in both State Assembly as well as BTC. BPF joining hands with Congress-led alliance which includes AIUDF has brought two opposites together as Bodos and Bengali Muslims have shared a violent past in previous decades.

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