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Assam Elections: Row Over ST Status of 6 Tribes a Challenge for BJP in 1st Phase

The areas that are going to vote in the first phase of elections comprise upper and North Assam, where at least five of the six tribes form a considerable proportion of population.
Assam elections

Promises are made to be broken — the adage apparently goes perfectly in sync with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at both the Centre and poll-bound Assam. The long-standing demand for scheduled tribe (ST) status by six tribal groups in the state remains hanging in balance while the state goes for the first phase of polls on March 27.

The areas that are going to vote in the first phase of elections comprise upper and North Assam, where at least five of the six tribes form a considerable proportion of population. The tribes demanding the ST status are — Tai Ahoms, Mataks, Morans, Chutias, Adivasis and Koch-Rajbongshis.

The BJP's incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi had reportedly promised to give ST status to these six tribes nearly seven years ago during his pre-poll campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The tribes were ecstatic as they thought the saffron brigade would not follow Congress’s dillydallying attitude on the issue, and that’s why they voted for the BJP in the state as well, in 2016.

Then, after repeated agitations and memorandums, the central government finally approved the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019, on January 8, 2019, and the BJP-led central government introduced the Bill at the Rajya Sabha (RS) the next day, January 9. However, the existing scheduled tribes began protesting against the Bill on January 11 the same year, fearing that the amended Bill would 'eliminate the genuine tribal people', by including the six new communities.

The Bill intended to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950, by inserting 41 entries for granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities in Assam. As a result the existing ST groups formed an organisation called the Coordination Committee of Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA) to mount further pressure on the government. Ever since, the Centre has been cautious of its actions and the ST status thus remains a promise to be kept hanging.

Now, when the state polls are due within a few days and much water has flown through the mighty Brahmaputra, the six tribes feel deprived of their dues — albeit some of their leaders have joined the BJP ranks by now, such as former All Moran Students’ Union President Arunjyoti Moran, who joined the saffron party and launched a huge campaign in a bid to get a BJP ticket for the Digboi Assembly seat, but the BJP fielded another candidate. Currently, he is in a bit of soup, along with his tribe.

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Kajal Gohain, former general secretary of the All Assam Matak Sanmilan, and former All Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association (AATSA) general secretary Paban Bedia are two other key leaders who also joined the BJP following Moran's footstep. In a complex backdrop such as this, a natural question arises: have the six tribe people bowed before the BJP government. The answer is a big NO, as some of the tribal groups NewsClick spoke with revealed.

Tai Ahoms: We Want an Agreement Before the Polls

Talking about their demands, All Assam Tai Ahom Students’ Union (AATASU) Tinsukia District Secretary Nayan Buragohain said, "They (the BJP government) made false promises. Whenever there are polls in the offing, they make false promises only to win the elections. This time, however, we need to say that whichever party wants to form the government, and whenever they want to talk with us about the ST status issue, we are not going to seat and talk with them inside their AC rooms. They have to come to us on a public podium where there will be a huge Ahom gathering, and they will have to announce that all six tribes will be granted the ST status.”

He added, “Not only this but they also have to make an agreement with us, or else, we will consider their promises to be false again." Buragohain and his brigade of Tinsukia chapter of AATASU had recently, on February 24, also held a three-hour-long sit-in protest in front of the district's deputy commissioner's office, demanding ST status and protesting against the government’s apathy. 

While elections are due in a week's time, there is still no sign of any agreement from the government side. NewsClick visited Bor Laipuli village in Tinsukia district, where Ahoms are a majority. Villagers such as AATASU Bor Laipuli president Tirtha Buragohain, said, "People ask, since Tai Ahoms ruled Assam, that the Ahom Kingdom was formed by us, then why should we seek the ST status. Our community may have formed the Ahom Kingdom, but we need to safeguard our lands, and Assam is in a sorry state where we have a lot of problems such as unemployment and Tai Ahoms are no exceptions in this regard. These are the reasons why we are seeking the ST status along with the other five tribes. We are not seeking the status for the reservation of seats in educational institutions or high ranks and offices. So ours is a lawful demand."

Punam Buragohain, who holds the village AATASU general secretary position, said, "The incumbent government keeps on making simply promises not to be kept, that too, only before polls. They are saying there will be developments in villages, all houses will be made pucca, there will be latrines in every household, now look at houses here. Most of the houses are still made of bamboo here."

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Gunaprabha Saikia, 50, from Bor Laipuli, has six daughters and a son. Standing in front of her decrepit bamboo house, Saikia said she never got the benefits of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY), although she is entitled to. Her only son, Ranjan Saikia, 25, has received education up to the 12th standard, and yet he has no job but to work, ironically enough, as a helping hand of a bricklayer to build pucca houses, while he himself has none. PMAY-Grameen requires one either to have a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card, or to be from a ST community. Saikia has a BPL card, but does not have ST status.

Interestingly, Bor Laipuli is the ancestral home of Lurinjyoti Gogoi, president of the newly formed Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), a political outfit born out of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, and supported by the All Assam Students’ Union and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, two powerful students’ outfits. Some of the villagers said the AATASU was going in favour of the AJP or Raijor Dal (formed by peasant leader Akhil Gogoi) at different constituencies, as is evident in its official Facebook page too.

CHUTIA COMMUNITY: WE WILL ENSURE BJP’S DEFEAT IF NOT GRANTED ST STATUS

Although the Chutia community has a large population across districts in Assam, even in the marooned Bengali-dominated Barak valley, where there are at least 8,000 Chutia people, many of them have changed their surnames from Chutia to Saikia, Bora or Chetia.

Gangadhar Saikia of the Barekuri village adjacent to Makum town of Tinsukia district, said, "Although we Chutias are a majority in 18 legislative Assembly constituencies, we are still deprived of the ST status because we are seen merely as voters. As long as that continues, we may not get our due status as STs. We are the second largest community in 10 constituencies, such as in Dhakuakhana, where we cannot field our own candidate who can raise our voice — just because we are not STs, while the constituency is reserved for ST candidates. It's the same at Jonai and Majuli constituencies as well."

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"Despite being one of the largest communities in Assam, we do not represent proportionately in the ranks and offices such as IPS (Indian Police Service), ACS (Assam Civil Services). We live mostly in villages, where we are facing multiple problems, such as unemployment, lack of pucca houses or roads, proper drinking water, or electricity all the times," added Saikia, a 24-year-old unemployed graduate.

Talking about the government apathy toward the community's demand for ST status, Saikia said, "The Congress government had given us a development council merely as a lolly pop. So we sought an autonomous council with Sadiya as its headquarters from the BJP government, but they also didn't respond to our demand for either the autonomous council or the ST status.”

“We thought the BJP government would grant us the ST status as well as other due benefits, but they are yet to deliver anything at all. During the run-up to the LS polls in 2019, PM Narendra Modi came to Assam and assured us of granting the ST status, but they backed out from the promise made by the PM himself. We were stunned by the BJP national president J.P. Nadda's claim that their government had granted ST status to the six tribes, while they didn’t even have expressed any willingness to grant us the ST status,” he added.

He went on to highlight the government’s neglect by saying, “On November 9, 2020, there was a meeting led by Himanta Biswa Sarma, and they were supposed to submit a report on the ST status to the central government’s cabinet committee. However, the Assam Government is yet to submit the report. They simply don't want to give us the ST status."

"We ensured defeat of then Congress Minister Ranee Naraha in 2014 as she had thrown away an application seeking ST status by the Chutia Students' Union, and we will ensure BJP's defeat too, in the same manner. This is our ultimatum to Assam's BJP government," added an angry Saikia.

ADIVASIS: WE FEEL EMOTIONALLY BLACKMAILED BY BJP

Expressing anguish over the pending ST status of Adivasis, All Assam Adivasi Students' Union president Stephen Lakra said, "Whether the other communities (demanding ST status) get it or not, we cannot comment on that. But the Adivasis, they have all the tribal characteristics, and if you see the technicality of the ST status, what is enshrined in the Constitution of India — as to who will be regarded as the scheduled tribes, they fulfil all the criteria. So we need not be mapped on any new scale, and that's why the ST status for the Adivasis should not have been delayed, by whichever government is in power, Congress or BJP.”

Also read: Assam Elections: Adivasis Question BJP Over Unfulfilled Promises

“The BJP has played with the emotions and sentiments of the Adivasis. They said once they come to power, they will declare the Adivasis as scheduled tribes. That is why our people voted for the BJP, but we feel that we are being emotionally blackmailed. That's why, in these elections, we are talking against the BJP," he added.

MORANS: NOT SEEKING VERBAL PROMISES OF GRANTING ST STATUS

Although sources are saying that a percentage of the Morans may vote for the BJP in the first phase of polls due on March 27 as one of the Moran leaders, Arunjyoti Moran, is now a spokesperson of the state BJP, the trend may change as it is evident that they are also not happy with the ST status still pending.

"The government had promised enough, but I don't think they have fulfilled all the promises. Patta (government-issued land deed) for land is an important issue in Assam, and although many Morans have got pattas, here in the Barekuri village, I haven’t seen anyone getting any land patta so far. I think the government is trying its best to grant ST status as well," said Kamaleswar Chetia, Assistant Cultural Secretary of Asom Moran Sabha, slightly defending the BJP government. Another villager sitting next to Chetia, Pradip Gohain, at the doorstep of his bamboo house, said he had applied multiple times for a pucca house during both the Congress and BJP governments, but to no avail.

Even while defending the BJP government, Chetia also added that the Morans were "not seeking any verbal promise to grant them the ST status," and although they "were hopeful about the government moves so far, but they were not 100% sure that the promises will be fulfilled."

NewsClick approached members of the Matak community for their comment, but despite expressing anguish over the ST status row, the community leaders said they were reluctant to comment on the issue. On condition of anonymity, a public intellectual from the community, however, said that some of the six community leaders actually want the ST status issue to keep alive for the sake of doing politics.

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Meanwhile, the Koch-Rajbongshis, living mostly in Bodoland and its nearby areas, are apparently confused whether to vote for the incumbent BJP. The Koch-Rajbongshi National Convention (KRNC) reportedly stated they would support the BJP and the United People's Party Liberal (UPPL) coalition in the Bodoland polls in December 2020. Union Home Minister Amit Shah met Greater Coochbehar People's Association Chief Ananta Ray on February 11, and reportedly "discussed matters related to the welfare of the Koch-Rajbongshi community."

Ironically, per history, the Koch-Rajbongshis were the first to demand for the ST status in Assam back in 1968, from among the six tribes now demanding the status.

As the state goes for the first round of polls by the end of this week on March 27, despite differences of opinions, not one of the above tribes seem to be completely happy as none of the six tribes have got their due ST status so far. In this backdrop, all is not well with the BJP, especially when the saffron party-led government of Assam is faced with a strong anti-incumbency wave across regions in the state.

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