Debating India

ASSAM

Reinventing identities

M.S. PRABHAKARA

Wednesday 2 June 2004, by PRABHAKARA*M.S.

in Guwahati

This essay discusses the proliferation of a particular kind of political mobilisation in Assam by smaller and smaller groups, mostly tribal communities, to demarcate an exclusivist territory and political space for themselves, to the exclusion of the others living in that space. Related to this is the mobilisation through agitation and other well-tested methods by those who fear such exclusion, the `non-tribal’ people historically sharing the same social and political space, for securing recognition as Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) to pre-empt such possible exclusion. The sub-text of this approach is the perception that the S.Ts, as a denomination and as a people, have become privileged.

Thus the continuing process of reinvention of themselves by various communities, tribal and non-tribal, by seeking a change of official status - the S.Ts. seeking territorial councils and the non-S.Ts seeking reclassification as S.T., as part of a strategy of political survival and advancement. The ad hoc response of the state and the political establishment, which are unable to cope with this phenomenon, is to be all things to all and flow with the tide, exemplified in its most extreme form in the call by the Communist Party of India (CPI) for Assam to be declared a `Scheduled Tribe State’.

The essay tries to situate some of the ongoing incidents of violence in the State in the context of the more generalised process at work.

ON the morning of March 19, 2004, an armed gang, believed to belong to the anti-talk faction of the `United People’s Democratic Solidarity’ (none of the four terms bespeaking any of the recorded or claimed words and deeds of the organisation), which operates in the Karbi Anglong district with the stated objective of attaining a political territory for the Karbi, a `hill tribe’ of Assam, entirely free of all non-Karbi population, raided a Kuki-inhabited village and killed six Kukis. The Kukis are also a recognised `hill tribe’ though without a defined territory.

The apparent reason for the hostility of the organisation, which represents an extreme and exclusivist form of Karbi nationalist assertion, towards the Kukis is that the latter, despite being not `indigenous’ to the district, have been agitating for the constitution of a separate Regional Council under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. There is an across-the-board consensus among the Karbis that a concession in this regard would be just the thin end of a wedge, that its logical denouement would be the creation of a political territory for the Kukis in what is seen as the `historic homeland’ of the Karbis.

Four days later, on the night of March 23-24, another gang of armed persons, supposedly belonging to an outfit called the Kuki Revolutionary Army, raided three Karbi-inhabited villages in what was clearly a retaliatory action and killed, according to reports, around 30 persons. The approximation in respect of the numbers of those killed is both typical and unavoidable, for the incidents took place in areas difficult to gain access to; and most of the reports of the incidents are based on police briefings in Guwahati. Some scepticism about the outfit named in connection with the killings, too, would be in order given the fact that there are several active and moribund `militant’ groups whose names include the words, Kuki, Revolutionary, Army, and several other synonyms, in one or other combination.

Subsequent incidents of violence in the district, not directly involving clearly identifiable groups, have become subsumed under the term `poll-related violence’, ignored and forgotten.

Another locale, other issues. A month later, on April 23, three activists of the All Rabha Students Union (the Rabhas are numerically the fourth largest of the plains tribes of Assam), part of and indeed the driving force and the striking arm of an organisation called the Rabha Hashong (Rabhaland) Sixth Schedule Demand Committee, were lynched by a mob of traders in Krishnai bazaar, about 100 kilometres west of Guwahati in Goalpara district, when they were trying to "peacefully enforce" a bandh. The demand for the creation of a Rabha homeland is related to the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), a territorial and political unit of the Bodos under the Sixth Schedule through an amendment of the Constitution in February 2003. (The provisions of the Sixth Schedule were, before the amendment, applicable only to hill tribes.) Since then, there has been a revival and upsurge of autonomist assertion among other plains tribal communities; and three of these, the Mising, the Rabha and the Tiwa, who have `Autonomous Councils’, are carrying on various forms of agitation to secure their upgradation, with a clear political content, as `Territorial Councils’ under the Sixth Schedule.

The killings in Karbi Anglong, the latest in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence involving as perpetrators and victims a people relatively marginal to the concerns and anxieties of the people of the Brahmaputra Valley, the core area of Assam, have not noticeably bestirred the administration. Krishnai is a different case. The town, just a little over a 100 km from Guwahati on NH 37, is an important trading centre. The population, as in any other part of the State, is a heterogeneous mix of caste, tribe, religion, language and `ethnicity’. The Rabhas are part of this mix; the potential Rabha Hashong would include parts of Goalpara district. This mix, once romantically viewed as a true reflection of the mosaic culture of the State and the harmony it represents, is now a tinderbox. The relative prosperity and vibrancy of trading centres such as Krishnai on highways dominated by traders of indigenous, immigrant and refugee stock does contrast with the sense of deprivation and rejection nursed by the rather larger body of a more heterogeneous mix in what is not even the hinterland but a mere extension of the bazaar. The bandh was called by the Rabha Hashong Committee against the arrest of its organising secretary. Although the violence has abated and the recovery of stray bodies in dribs and drabs has stopped, the situation is far from normal because of its all-too-obvious `communal’ dimension.

The State does not appear to be involved in such incidents of violence directly, although there are routine accusations that the State itself is encouraging this or that group as part of its broader strategy of crushing militancy. The fact is, the State does not seem to have the information and resources or even the will to use the minimum amount of force to forestall or stop such violence.

Such incidents of violence, and many more of their kind that do not even get reported, are not always related casually, not even when they appear to be so as in the ongoing violence in Karbi Anglong. But the agitations and the accompanying violence do bear another kind of a causal link to the demonstrable success of the Bodoland agitation. They all seem to be related in rather complex ways to the accord over the creation of the BTC.

Some of these, like the mobilisation of the Koch Rajbongshi, now classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC), are expressions of protest against the very creation of the BTC. Others, like the mobilisation for the attainment of a Rabha homeland, are following the successful example set by the Bodo autonomy movement.

The S.T. population figures of the 2001 Census have not yet been released; only provisional totals are available. The Census enumerates 14 hill tribes; 12 of these are tribes whose settlements go back to the days of undivided Assam and include pockets of Khasi, Jaintia, and related tribes, Garo, Naga and a clutch of Kuki and related tribes - the most numerous and significant component outside the eight plains tribes and two hill tribes. The total Kuki population in the 1991 Census was 21,883, the highest after the Karbi and the Dimasa. At present, Kuki political organisations claim they number about 40,000. Not included in the list are other communities, such as the Adivasis and the Nepalis, who too have demands relating to identity and autonomy. Incidentally, every people, tribal and non-tribal, claim that they are under-enumerated.

Almost every one of these groups has demands arising out of anxieties about its identity and aspirations for autonomy. Every one of these demands also impinges and encroaches on similar anxieties of others occupying broadly the same political space and, more important, sharing the same socio-economic and cultural space as well, forcing them on a path of shifting confrontation and collaboration with the `other’.

The terrain of struggle is full of pitfalls and holds false promises. Yet, ethnic mobilisation is a flourishing industry in the region. It covers a whole range of agitational methods, from petitioning to insurgency. Money procured by extortion and threats, with which the region is flush, easily buys weapons. A few incidents of militant action and well-planted media reports have the required demonstration effect. Indeed, most of these groups are very well informed about how the media works and have excellent and articulate spokespersons. Some of them also run their own websites.

But what do expressions like political space mean in reality in a context where the dividing lines between insurgency and plain criminality are blurred, where organisations claiming to represent people numbering in some cases in tens of thousands or even less, seek greater political autonomy and recognition of an identity; ranging from regional councils and territorial councils to Sixth Schedule provisions and beyond, into the realms of sovereignty and independence?

Perhaps the most elemental form of this contestation in this context is the demand by people not recognised as an S.T. for such a recognition, partly with a view to undercutting those already enumerated as S.Ts and partly under the dangerously reactionary ideological assumption that the very classification of a people as an S.T. makes them privileged. Nothing illustrates the marginalisation of the political process and the surrender to the mob than the way such demands are gathering momentum. What else can one make of the proposal of the CPI in Assam that the best way to meet these demands is to declare the whole of Assam a tribal State, as if highly complex issues of social change with far-reaching implications for the people of the State and the region can be sorted out by trickery and legerdemain.

For instance, the creation of the BTC has led to the emergence of an organisation called the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samithi (united ethnic people’s struggle committee), an ad hoc alliance of about 20 non-Bodo organisations in the BTC area, including some of the non-Bodo tribal people that are opposed to the very creation of the BTC. One of the important constituents of the SJSS, the Koch Rajbongshi, a people historically belonging to the same stock as the Bodos but now a caste-Hindu community classed as an OBC, are demanding to be recognised as an S.T., perhaps enabling them to return to their original fold as it were as `Ur-Rajbongshi’. The Bodos naturally see such demands as an intolerable provocation and an encroachment on their political space secured after a hard struggle.

Others making such demands are the Adivasis, the new name adopted by the tea garden labour and ex-tea garden labour communities. Their cause, however, is rather more legitimate, for these communities are recognised as S.Ts in the lands from which their ancestors were brought, areas broadly in the present Jharkhand and its peripheries. However, as things exist, they lost this status once they migrated out of their original habitats, very much along the lines of the exclusionary locational provisions that govern the recognition of a people as hill tribes and plains tribes, not to the more relevant social and economic denominators that should govern such recognition.

FOLLOWING the first accord on the Bodoland issue, which gave birth to the failed experiment of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (February 1993), the State government under Hiteswar Saikia created, in the course of a few months in late 1995, three other corresponding Autonomous Councils for the Mising, the Rabha and the Lalung (Tiwa). When these accords were made, both the government and the organisations claiming to represent the three tribes knew full well that the BAC experiment was not working; that instead, it had enabled the emergence of newer forms of militancy upping the ante. The inspiration and the model are clear: the success of the leadership of the Bodoland movement in using the political space provided by the BAC to carry on the agitation for yet another decade calculatedly combining militancy and negotiations to secure what they consider as more substantial political concessions in the form of the BTC, but which may still turn out to be a chimera.

Perhaps a more realistic understanding of such demands is provided by the controversies surrounding the existing Autonomous Councils. The Sadou Assam Tiwa Sanmilan (the All-Assam Tiwa Association), a body with rather more legitimacy than the Tiwa Autonomous Council, has made the most serious allegations of rank corruption against the TAC and has called for its dissolution. Among the allegations made are the increase of the members of the TAC (Member of the Legislative Assembly) from the original 30 to 41 and of the Council’s Executive Members (Minister) from the original three to eight, the more-than-fourfold increase in the salaries of the executive members and the Chief Executive Member (Chief Minister), and the creation of new posts of Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Deputy Executive Member and so on. So routine are such allegations and so inured have the people become to such things that there has been no reaction of any kind to these charges.

To no one’s surprise, in the eight years since the creation of these Autonomous Councils, the territory of none of the autonomous councils has been demarcated. And yet, every one of these councils is seeking the same kind of renegotiated upgradation of its structures into Autonomous Territorial Councils as was done in the case of the BAC.

Consider, for instance, the case of the Deori, a plains tribe whose habitat is dispersed on both banks of the Brahmaputra in Upper Assam. The total population of the tribes in 1991 was 35,839. The figures are disputed, but even allowing for a 100 per cent increase, the Deori population would still be just over 70,000. They do not have at present even an Autonomous Council. And yet, organisations claiming to speak on behalf of this small and dispersed population demand the creation of a Deori Autonomous Territorial Council.

There is also an element of contrived construction in such demands. Generations of the closest interaction with the Assamese people, language and culture has blurred many elements of uniqueness of these communities. Thus, the recent deliberations of the Tiwa Sahitya Sabha were apparently conducted almost entirely in Assamese; and yet, the political content of Tiwa autonomist mobilisation in which the TSS has a major role, is the distancing of the Tiwa from the Assamese.

Such demands, in the view of those raising them, are both legitimate and attainable, maybe with a show of force, now that the Bodos, the largest of the plains tribes of the State, have secured the BTC. The amendment, against which there have been some protests from the dominant tribes in the two hill districts, was necessary because the Sixth Schedule as originally envisaged and legislated limited its applicability only to the hill tribes of Assam. Yet others, like the clashes in Karbi Anglong, are related to the fears of the Karbi people that the Sixth Schedule, once considered a protective provision, contains seeds of potential diminution of the Karbi political space.

They are also pointers to an increasingly generalised and particularised phenomenon of agitation and violence going beyond ethnic violence, that catch-all argument stopper. Such coercive violence is being mobilised by the numerous tribal and non-tribal people to press for, and attain, an increasingly exclusivist definition and demarcation of a political space for themselves, that by definition would exclude the often subjectively perceived and arbitrarily determined `other’. Nothing illustrates this process of exclusion of so extreme a kind as to blend into rank murder than the incidents in the two hill districts over the last year and a half marked by generalised massacres involving almost all the people of the districts, both as perpetrators and as victims.

THE Karbis, earlier known as the Mikir, are the predominant population of the Karbi Anglong district. The Dimasas are the majority in the North Cachar Hills district, though their position vis-a-vis the other people inhabiting the district has never been so clearly dominant as has been with the Karbis in Karbi Anglong.

These two are autonomous districts, enjoying this status from the very beginning of the Constitution. There is a long-standing agitation in both the districts for their elevation to an autonomous state (but with the existing District Councils intact), under the provisions of Article 244-A. This article was incorporated in the Constitution in 1969 as the 28th amendment, to enable the creation of Meghalaya as an autonomous State within Assam - the first step in the progressive dismemberment of the once composite State of Assam. Article 244-A became an anachronistic anomaly just over a year later when the short-lived experiment failed and the autonomous State was reconstituted as the full-fledged State of Meghalaya in January 1972. However, Article 244-A has not been repealed.

The Sixth Schedule provisions, described as "a Constitution within a Constitution", are unique. (The discussion below is limited to Assam though the Sixth Schedule provisions continue to cover Meghalaya barring the municipal area of Shillong; the Chhimtuipui district of Mizoram, inhabited by the Chakmas, the Lakhers and the Pawis; and were extended in 1984 to the Tripura Tribal Areas District to enable the creation of tribal area autonomous district councils.) Their origins go back to the very beginnings of the conquest and annexation of Assam (1826) when the colonial government had to chart a policy to negotiate the links with the people living on the periphery of its latest acquisitions. When the new territory was constituted in 1874 into a separate province of Assam, provision was made to administer certain parts of these new acquisitions and conquests under the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874, the mother of all subsequent provisions that were to culminate in the Sixth Schedule. Over a century and a quarter of their evolution, these provisions have covered areas identified and demarcated at various times as "backward tracts", "excluded territories", "partially excluded territories", not to speak of areas marked in old maps as "unadministered territories".

The paternalistic rationale for such exclusion from the common run of administration was that the people inhabiting these areas, being very backward, needed special protective provisions as much against any arbitrary exercise of power by the lower minions of the colonial bureaucracy as against the rapacity of the materially more resourceful plains people. The areas identified in the 1874 Act, after many boundary and territorial modifications over nearly a century and the reorganisation of Assam (in 1969) and later the northeastern region (in 1971), evolved into the present full-fledged States of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.

However, similar protective provisions were not provided to other people scheduled as backward, now part of the larger S.T. community in the State but not living in the scheduled districts. Thus arose the distinction between the hill tribes, the community into which those living in the areas included in the 1874 Act evolved; and the plains tribes, that is, people as backward as those demarcated in the Scheduled District areas, in many cases even more backward, but who by virtue of their locational proximity to the materially more advanced and more resourceful people in the plains, were presumed to have already entered into a social contract of acculturation and gradual assimilation with these relatively more advanced people in their environment, evolving in course of time into one or other of the numerous castes of Hindu society.

What such a perception has consistently ignored is an obvious fact, which defies all theories of location-linked development: Plains, in Assam as anywhere else in the world, are not all plains; and similarly, hills are not all hills. And as absurd as the linking of such classification with a people’s altitudinal location are the exclusionary and exclusive features of their status as S.T linked to their location. Put simply, a plains tribesperson, were he or she to move into the hills, would lose the S.T. status, and vice versa. This strange provision, and the anomaly in respect of the status of the Adivasis take on stranger forms in implementation and practice.

Both the Karbi and the Dimasa, as indeed the Kuki, are hill tribes, although it is only the Karbis and the Dimasas who inhabit a clearly demarcated territory, sharing it with others who are less numerous. However, the Kukis, although one of the hill tribes, are considered to be so by the dominant populations in the two hill districts of Assam only by courtesy, for they are not considered an indigenous tribe.

Historically one of the greatest migrating people, their identity as a hill tribe is simply a carry-over of the recognition and acknowledgement they had in a very different geographical and political Assam of colonial ethnographic studies. Without any well-defined territory demarcating their inhabitation, they are spread in small pockets principally in the two hill districts of the State, in Manipur and Mizoram, and also in Nagaland where they are conflated with the Zeliang, the last a curious abridgement of another portmanteau nomenclature, Zeliangrong, formed out of three Naga tribes of Manipur: Zemei, Liangmei and Rongmei. In fact, the word Kuki itself is a bit of an inclusive expression. Official descriptions, as in Census reports, always refer to "any Kuki tribe", of which 37 sub-tribes have been identified by Census enumerators in Manipur.

Not considered an indigenous tribe and, unlike the Karbi and the Dimasa, both hill tribes, and the nine plains tribes who (in theory) inhabit the plains of Assam, the Kuki have no territory in Assam to call their own, not even a very small administrative unit where they are the predominant population, and from where they can launch an agitation for a "territorial recognition". The accord over the establishment of a Kuki regional council in Karbi Anglong signed in December 2000 by the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), then a united political movement and a party in Karbi Anglong and in office in Diphu, marked the first formal acknowledgement of the desire and right of the Kuki people to have their own political space. The accord has, however, not been implemented because of the radically changed political situation in the district, most significantly the split in the ASDC and the emergence of the UPDS, which too has split, and the return of the Congress(I) to political office in the State and the district.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic 1: RITU RAJ KONWAR ; Members of All Dimasa Students’ Union (ADSU) staging a dharna in Guwahati against the atrocities on Dimasas residing in the North Cachar Hill district of Assam by the underground Hmar People’s Convention.

Pic 2: RITU RAJ KONWAR ; Karbi women in their traditional dress.

Pic 3: RITU RAJ KONWAR ; A young Rabha woman.

Pic 4: RITU RAJ KONWAR ; The Missing tribal people celebrating Spring Paddy Planting Festival, locally known as All-Aye-Lvgang, in Guwahati.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

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