|“The Adivasis of Assam are deprived of their Constitutional Rights and the benefits of ST Status (billions and trillions worth of rupees) ONLY because of politics of Assam. And the ONLY WAY, and the MOST EFFECTIVE WAY to get the ST Status is through a powerful democratic mass movement and protests.”
I. The Past and the Present of the ST Status of Assam Adivasis
1. Constitutional Rights to ST Status
The original Constitution, Chapter XVI (Article 330-341) has three-pronged special provisions to improve the situation of SCs and STs – as i) Protective Arrangements to enforce equality and provide punitive measures for transgressions, ii) Affirmative action (Reservation) to provide positive preferential treatment in allotment of jobs and access to higher education, and iii) Development to provide for resources and benefits. All these provisions are meant to bridge the gap in social and economic condition and to accelerate the integration of the SCs and STs with mainstream society. Except Andaman and northeast India (particularly Assam) Adivasis all over India enjoy these constitutional Rights. Therefore Assam government has been doing great injustice to the Adivasis.
2. The Movement for ST Demand by Assam Adivasis
During the British rule the Adivasi of Assam were given ST Status under "depressed classes". Four seats were reserved in the house of Provincial Council of Assam, and in 1934-1947, the four elected members were Santa Kumar Ahir (Silchar), P.M. Sarwan (Chabua), Chatra Gopal Karmakar, and A.K. Chanda. But in the year 1950 the Adivasis were de-scheduled. The then Congress Chief Minister Late Gopinath Bordoloi opposed the scheduling of the Adivasis of Assam on the logic that it would disturb the political scenario of Assam. In simple language it simply means that the ruling class were/are afraid to lose their rajniti gaddi (political power) by granting ST status to the Adivasis. As a result 50 years deprived of ST Status Adivasis of Assam are the most neglected, exploited and underdeveloped community in the whole of Northeast India, although they contribute enormously for the economic development and political stability of the region.
3. Adivasi Organizations of Assam and their roles in ST Movement
3.1. Adivasi Council of Assam (ACA): - ACA was formed under the leadership of Mr. Francis Hans and I.S. Ekka after Mr. Jaipal Singh’s visit to Assam in 1955-58. It is the first Adivasi organization in Assam which started the movement for ST demand in an organized way. To press for this demand they submitted memoranda to the Government and met the then P. M. Mrs. Indira Gandhi. It was through their strong lobbying that the nine Adivasi tribes were about to be enlisted in the ST List in 1987 under the Chief Minister P. K. Mahanta. But due to opposition from ‘tea tribe’ related organizations and individuals the process was hampered on the argument that entire ‘tea tribe’ should be recognized as ST and not just the nine tribes.
3.2. All Assam Tea Tribes Students Association of Assam (AATTSAA): - AATTSAA evolved from Chotanagpur Students’ Union (formed in 1974). For AATTSAA ST was never the main focus. In its 20 points Charter of Demands in 1988-89, ST was one of the demands, but when the Association signed an Accord with Prafulla Kumar Mahanta ST issue did not even feature in the Accord.
3.3. All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA):- AASAA from its formation on 2nd July, 1996 under the leadership of Mr. Justin Lakra and Mr. Joseph Minj, ST demand has been its top most priority in its many memoranda, Mahasabhas’ resolutions and democratic movements at state and national level. To press the demand for ST status many mass rallies were organized, altogether 16 AASAA leaders and members have sacrificed their lives. On 25th July, 2003 in the Paneri incident 8 AASAA members (Nathaniel Munda, Dambu Hasa Purty, Sanika Sawansi, Joseph Barla, Mangra Gowala, Basdeo Gowala, Jiten Tanti, and Arun Tanti) were shot dead and many other injured and crippled for life. On 24th November, 2007, during the Mass rally for ST demand which ended up as Beltola Tragedy hundreds of helpless AASAA members (boys and girls) were brutally beaten, Laxmi Uron was stripped naked and chased in public. Hundreds of AASAA members were put behind the bars while carrying out democratic protest in support of ST demand.
3.4. Other Adivasi Organizations
There are other Adivasi organizations like - Adivasi Sewa Samity (ASS), Adivasi Sahitya Sabha (ASS) and other Sahitya Sabhas related to the major adivasi tribals like Kharias, Mundas, Santhalis, Uraons/Kuruxs, Saoras, Adivasi NGOs, All Adivasi Women’s Association of Assam (AAWAA), All Assam Santali Students’ Union (AASSU) Adivasi Cobra Militants of Assam (ACMA), Birsa Commando Force (BCF), Adivasi National Liberation of Assam (ANLA), Adivasi Peoples’ Army (APA), Adivasi Dragon Fighters (ADF) – for whom ST has been a forefront and priority issue.
4. Interaction between governments and organizations in Pre-AASAA Period
During this period (before the formation of AASAA) basically government and media and for all practical purposes the Adivasis were thought to be included in the terms ‘tea and ex-tea garden tribes’ (Sah jonojati and praton sah jonojati). Hence any letter of recommendation sent from the government of Assam to the central government for the recognition of ST Status it was always done under the above derogative name. Now it becomes very clear that this very approach in such recommendations is clearly designed by the government of Assam to deprive the Adivasis of Assam from getting ST Status because constitutionally it is impossible to get ST Status under such unconstitutional names. This deceiving approach further complicated and delayed the process. The fact that the Assam government de-scheduled the Adivasis in 1950 and branded them as ‘tea and ex-tea tribes’ reveal government’s grand design of destroying the tribal identity of the Adivasis and deprive them of their ST Status.
4.1. Steps by Assam Govt. on the Scheduling of Adivasis
Under periodic pressures from some Adivasi Organizations in the pre-AASAA period the Assam Government raised the following steps on the Scheduling of Adivais with the Central Government. Shri Prithibi Majhi (the then speaker of Assam Assembly) through a letter no.LADS96/08 dated 06/01/96 appealed to remove the area restriction. The other letters dealt with fresh inclusion of Adivasis in the ST List. Shri Prithibi Majhi with the help of Adivasi Council prepared a list of 97 communities under names ‘Tea & Ex-Tea Tribes’. The Assam Assembly had passed a resolution to grant ST status to the ‘tea tribes’ along with the six other communities on 5th August, 2004. The letters failed to convince the Central Government and the Registrar General of India (RGI) for the following reasons.
a) The letters failed to present the Adivasis as STs and the 5 major characteristics of tribals (Primitive traits, Distinctive culture, Shyness of contact with the community at large, Geographical isolation, Backwardness) required to be recognized as ST were missing.
b) The letters presented Tea & Ex-Tea tribes to be included in the ST list. The RGI rejected the term “Tea tribe”, being unconstitutional.
c) The above list of 97 communities was very confusing and misleading. The letters appealed to include the SCs as STs, which is constitutionally unacceptable.
d) Some letters requested to include Adivasis and Tea tribes in the same plane as the communities like Ahom, koch Rajbansishis, Moran, Motok etc. which is unacceptable for the RGI.
4.2. Central Government’s Response through the RGI
The ST Issue of the Adivais of Assam was also raised in the parliament but due to lack of proper justification, RGI rejected the proposal due to the following reasons. 1) Government of Assam was not in favour of inclusion of Adivasis in the ST List. In 1978 the Ministry of Home Affairs recommended 14 tribes of Tea garden labour community (the major adivasi tribes) but the Assam Government had disagreed and said that the migrant labour were better off than the local tribals. 2) RGI stated that Adivasis have lost their Tribal characteristics. 3) There will be a drastic change in the political scenario of Assam for around 1 crore population i.e. 50% of the Assam population will be ST resulting in Scheduled State. The ruling class will be sent out of power. 4) ‘Tea Tribe’ term is unconstitutional and no way can be included under ST or SC list. 5) RGI has not received any ethnographic Report on the Adivasis of Assam.
5. Interaction between governments and organizations in AASAA Period
In the period that followed the formation of AASAA with series of agitation programmes demanding the government to stop branding the Adivasis as ‘tea tribes’, Assam Government, media and also others begun to progressively recognize the Adivasis as ‘adivasis’. This gave the Adivasis a sense of self-pride and identity appropriate and dear to them, and thus they further started re-asserting their tribal identity. This period also saw the birth of a number of organizations with ‘Adviasi’ identity like Adivasi Sahitya Sabha (ASS) and other Sahitya Sabhas (related to the major adivasi tribals like Kharias, Mundas, Santhalis, Uraons/Kuruxs, Saoras etc), Adivasi NGOs, All Adivasi Women’s Association of Assam (AAWAA), All Assam Santali Students’ Union (AASSU) Adivasi Cobra Militants of Assam (ACMA), Birsa Commando Force (BCF), Adivasi National Liberation of Assam (ANLA), Adivasi Peoples’ Army (APA), Adivasi Dragon Fighters (ADF) etc. Some literatures like Ghariaya Goith, Adivasi Awaz, Ulgulan, and literatures produced by AASAA and other adivasi movements (pamphlets, memoranda, souvenirs, press releases etc) played vital roles in asserting this ‘adivasi/tribal identity which was almost on the verge of being destroyed by the government’s high-handedness and the vested interest of a few other individuals and organizations.
5.1. Submission of Ethnographic Reports on Adivasi Tribes
During this period the recommendations from the Assam Government was sent with some recognition of the ‘adivasi tribal identity’. For example the Assam Assembly passed a resolution to grant ST status to Adivasis on 8th April 2005, including the name ‘Adivasis’ after the Tea and Ex-tea Garden Tribes’ name. In the post-Beltola Tragedy period (24th Nov., 2007) a considerable number of organizations submitted memoranda to the Assam and central government demanding that the Adivasis of Assam be granted ST Status. After Mr. Jsoseph Toppo became the honorable MP of Tezpur constituency, Assam, in 2009 he demanded the ST Status to Adivasis in parliament a number of times. Through a letter addressed to the Prime Minister of India (Shir Manmohan Sigh) dated Nov. 24th, 2010, no. (011-23094787 /23093781), he demanded urgently and immediately that the Adivasis of Assam are granted ST Status.
Towards the end of 2011 in a tripartite talk between some representatives of Assam and central government and Adivasi organizations in preparation for granting ST Status a resolution was passed that the Adivasis should not be called ‘tea and ex-tea tribes’ any more. Due to heavy pressures from the above adivasi organizations this year central government in turn pressurized the Assam government to form Expert Committee to prepare separate and distinct Ethnographic Reports of the tribes and castes of the tea garden community of Assam. Accordingly in August 2011, an Expert Committee was formed consisting of Dr. S. B. Pando Mr. Chunuram Hembrom and Mr. Ganesh Kurmi, who prepared the required ethnographic reports and submitted to the central government via the Assam Government. In order to help the above committee a Monitoring Committee of the heads of the Adivasi organization was formed on 11 September 2011, consisting of Mr. Kanu Murmu (the convener), Rev. Pradeep Kawah, Mr. Rupsing Gorh,
Mr. Rupnath Bhumij, Mr. Stephen Ekka, Mr. Wilfred Topno and Mr. Rajkumar Toppo. In order to pressurize the government a common platform of Adivasi organizations by name ‘National Convention’ with its president Mr. Romanus Horo was also formed and it has been playing an important role in this collective bargaining.
The Monitoring Committee along with AASAA and ST Demand Committee organized two workshops (first Nov. 3 - 6 and second Nov 27-30), 2011, at DBSS, Tezpur. Prior to that DBSS organized a Consultation on Adivasi Issues on 12 and 13 February, 2011, also included the ST Issues, on which a paper was present by Mr. Wilfred Topno, the president of Adivasi Sahitya Sabha, and the issue was debated and a number of resolutions and remedies were worked out to get ST Status within a couple of years. Mr. Topno suggested 3 pronged strategies for this:- 1) Democratic ways of demanding ST Status through mass participation in the form of rallies, dharnas, memoranda etc. 2) Follow up the Government departments on Scheduling like Ministry of Social Justice, Ministry of W.P.T and the Assam Institute of Research for Tribals and Scheduled Castes, Prepare Ethnography on each adivasi tribe. 3) Advocacy at national level politics. Bring Adivasi MPs together and ensure a ST Bill to be passed in the parliament.
II. ST Issues in AAV 2020
1. PRESENT STATUS of Assam Adivasis on ST Issues
In various AAV 2020 workshops the following emerged. On the PRESENT STATUS of Adivasis on ST Issue AAV Workshops underlined the above mentioned fact that Adivasis of Assam are deprived of their constitutional rights and benefits of ST Status only because of political reason; and that due to heavy pressure by Adivasi organizations and individuals government now is bound to take some steps. Therefore it is important to intensify our demand for ST through more organized mass democratic protests.
2. The VISION STATEMENTS on ST Issue
The VISION STATEMENTS (which is unanimously agreed by all participants of all AAV 2020 workshops) that Adivasis visualizes to be STs much before 2020.
3. The Visions of Adivasi Thinkers on ST Issue
In the survey organized though the questionnaires (AAV 2020 INDIVIDUAL FORMATS) committed adivasi thinkers and respondents have suggested some very practical measures and remedies to realize our ST Demand: i) ‘that Adivasis elect appropriate MLAs, and MPs who will strongly fight for ST in Assembly and parliament’, ii) ‘Adivasis of villages and TEs should be mobilized and empowered to join effectively in the mass democratic protests for ST Demand’, and iii) ‘teach the common adivasis the rules of politics, the meaning and benefits of ST Status.
III. AVV 2020 envisions of getting ST Status for Adivasis by 2012
The above discussion has made is crystal clear that the Adivasis of Assam have constitutional rights to get ST status as their counter-parts enjoy this status in other parts of India. The Assam Adivasis are deprived of this constitutional right (ST Status) and the benefits (worth trillions of rupees) attached to it only because of political reasons. In fact the Adivasis of Assam should demand the restitution and compensation in retrospection of all the benefits that they have been deprived for more than 50 years. Therefore the solution to this problem is only political one. It simply means that the ONLY WAY and the MOST EFFECTIVELY WAY to get ST Status for the Adivasis of Assam is through powerful mass democratic protests (involving every Adivasi of every village and TE). The present situation is that - although the Central government would like to grant ST Status to the Adivasis of Assam but there are groups (like Tribal Sangh, and ‘tea tribe’ related organizations and individuals with vested interests who oppose to the idea that Adivasis of Assam get ST Status). Such groups are guided by narrow-mindedness and parochialism but AAV 2020 along with all adivasi organizations believe and propagate the idea that the true and the sustainable development of Assam and Northeast India depends on the development of the most backward communities like the Adivasis who have been substantially contributing towards the development of the state (Assam) and the region (northeast) since the British time.