There seems to be an uneasy calm in Assam. Even though the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was allowed to die a natural death — it will lapse on June 3 after the term of the present Lok Sabha ends — a few other legislations could ignite embers of separatism in a strategically sensitive region like the Northeast of India.
On February, while all eyes were on the contentious Citizenship Bill which, however, could not be tabled and passed in the Rajya Sabha, the din surrounding it completely overshadowed a few other legislations that are bound to have direct implications for Assam and the Northeast India, such as the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Amendment) Bill, 2019.
The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill grants Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities of Assam — Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Moran, Matak and 36 different Adivasi groups clubbed together as ‘Tea Tribes’. The Bill proposes to include these communities in Para II of Part II of the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 which refers to the areas in Assam including the four Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) but excluding the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and West Karbi Anglong under the jurisdiction of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) and Dima Hasao district under the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council (DHAC).
Currently, 14 tribes enjoy ST status in the ‘plain areas’ of Assam — Barmans in Cachar, Boro, Deori, Hojai, Kachari, Sonowal, Lalung, Mech, Mising, Rabha, Dimasa, Singpho, Khamti and Garo.
The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Amendment) Bill, 2019, on the other hand, hands over more powers to the tribal autonomous councils in the region. Both of these two Bills remain pending for now.
The Rajya Sabha could only pass the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Third Amendment) Bill, 2019. Introduced on February 11, the Bill modifies the list of STs in Arunachal Pradesh and contains names of 18 communities and their ‘synonyms’.
Coming back to Assam, let’s look at some numbers. As per some estimates, the six communities that would be granted ST status make up for about 27% of Assam’s population of 3.1 crore. If they indeed get the ST tag, they will take the total tribal population to 40% of the total population in the state.
But the issue lies elsewhere. While PM Narendra Modi has tried to assuage underlying fears by saying that the granting of ST status to the six communities was a step to safeguard the interests of the indigenous people, not too many from the existing tribal population seem to buy that claim.
Leaders of the existing tribal communities fear that they would lose reservation rights. They also feel that the grant of ST status to these communities will eat into their educational and employment opportunities. They fear that they will be deprived of representation in the Panchayati Raj institutions, urban bodies, municipalities and higher government set-ups.
There is also a lack of clarity on the constitutional rights that the new communities will enjoy. This has irked not just the existing tribes but also the six new communities that are proposed to be included in the ST list.
As per an Assam government notification issued on January 13 on the constitution of a five-member Group of Ministers to recommend measures for protection of rights of existing tribes as well as the benefits to be extended to the proposed communities, the six new communities would be clubbed under a new ST category.
Currently, Assam has two categories of STs — ST (Plains) and ST (Hills). While the existing 14 ST communities fall in the ST (Plains) category, there are several tribes that enjoy the ST (hills) status in the two autonomous hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. They are Chakma, Dimasa, Garo, Hajong, Hmar, Khasi, Jaintia, Synteng, Pnar, War, Bhoi, Lyngngam and any of the 37 Kuki tribes.
The creation of a new ST category has not gone down well with leaders of the proposed six communities to be included in the ST list. They have threatened to launch agitation if the government fails to clarify its stand on the issue.
Then there are the Adivasi communities. Several leaders have protested against the exclusion of over 70 Adivasi communities from the purview of the Bill. Currently, only 36 communities find place in the proposed ‘Tea Tribes’ category in the new ST list.
On the other hand, some leaders of the existing ST communities in Assam say that the category of ‘Tea Tribes’ that has been proposed in the new ST list is not a community as such, but a group of individuals.
Recently, Janaklal Basumatary, president of the Bodoland Janajati Suraksha Mancha (BJSM), said that there was no community as ‘Koch Rajbongshi’. While Koch and Rajbongshi are notified separately as Scheduled Castes (SC) in neighbouring West Bengal, they are listed as Other Backward Classes (OBC) in Assam. “Only to claim ST in Assam, the Rajbongshis added Koch and became Koch Rajbongshi from the 1980s,” Basumatary had said.
In BTAD, some Bodo leaders suggest that if the new communities are included in Part II of the ST list of Assam, then the ST list for BTC should be listed separately as Para III. They also suggest that Article 330 and 332 should be amended to ensure that the existing seats in Lok Sabha and in the state assembly reserved for STs are not kept for the new communities.
At present, while 16 seats are reserved for STs in the 126-member Assam assembly, two are reserved for existing tribes in the 14 Lok Sabha seats of the state.
There is an old saying that goes: “If you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing none.” The government needs to tread cautiously. Even a small anomaly or deviation in expanding the ST list can lead to ethnic clashes in a region where territory-based identity movements have always taken prominence.
(The author is the executive editor of EastMojo. Views expressed are his own)