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A Question of Identity: Adivasi Militancy in Assam

The brutal assault in Guwahati last month on adivasi demonstrators pressing their demand for scheduled tribe status, which provoked a sense of outrage among conscious sections of the people, has exposed the real state of well-being in Assam particularly of the underprivileged millions.


A Question of Identity: Adivasi Militancy in Assam

Hiren Gohain

The brutal assault in Guwahati last month on adivasi demonstrators pressing their demand for scheduled tribe status, which provoked a sense of outrage among conscious sections of the people, has exposed the real state of wellbeing in Assam particularly of the underprivileged millions.

Hiren Gohain ( is a well known writer, literary theorist and social critic, who lives in Assam.

Economic & Political Weekly december 8, 2007

n November 25, the day following savage assaults on adivasi agitators by residents and small traders of a road where houses and shops were vandalised and cars and scooters broken into smithereens by a section of the agitators on the rampage, the nine o’clock news of the NDTV channel declared flatly that it was a clear case of age-old enmity between the Assamese and the adivasis whom the former despised as “coolies”. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Adivasis of western and central Assam districts from which thousands of processionists had converged in a spot 300 metres from the heavily guarded capital-complex of Dispur, live in isolated villages mired in poverty and squalor forgotten by the rest of Assam, particularly by the state government, and in tea-gardens owned by Marwaris, Sindhis, Punjabis, foreign multinationals and Indian big business houses. They have little contact with the Assamese. During colonial times the British had lured them in lakhs from Chhotanagpur, Bengal presidency, even Andhra, and forced them into a terrible state of servitude marked by low wages, restriction on free movement, denial of right to education and near total absence of medical care. Following independence, the Pharisaical humanitarianism of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), sheltering behind the

Assam Plantation Labour Act, modelled on a central act, left the labour force to the tender mercies of the garden management. Even when epidemics raged, district administration could not intervene to rush medical supplies to areas under law-abiding management. The management took necessary care to preserve this vast army of cheap labour unspoilt by modern temptations.

Only a handful had got away from this vast prison-house and their education and integration into mainstream society have left them isolated from their compatriots. A few have joined politics and have been induced into becoming stooges of ruling parties, particularly the Congress. Some youth leaders are close to such tribal bosses in big national parties, and sometimes they follow instructions of such bosses though their public posture may be one of anti-government militancy. The other segment of adivasis consists of descendants of participants of the great Santhal rebellion of the late 19th century, forcibly transferred to Assam and settled in the fringes of lush large forests that once marked Goalpara district before the rapacity of India shiners and military generals, with recondite notions of security, devastated the forests. Their livelihood


in jeopardy, they were further harried by the offensives of Bodo militants that came to consider them intruders after an interval of 100 years.

The All Assam Adivasi Students’ Association along with Assam Tea Tribal Students’ Association (strong in Sibsagar, Dibrugarh and Laximpur districts of upper Assam) have been agitating for years demanding recognition of tea tribals and adivasis as scheduled tribes. In West Bengal they already enjoy that status. The state Congress leaders periodically promise to gift them the status of ST, but apparently fail to muster political will to fulfil that demand. They are accused of sending ambiguous and half-hearted proposals to the centre. Considering their numbers, some five million on some counts, fulfilment of the demand might have far-reaching consequences like reducing Assamese legislators to a minority in the assembly. At the same time there is little hope it will make much difference to the lives of the vast majority of such tribals. The newspapers have recently given graphic details on poverty and want suffered by common people of a territory under the Sixth Schedule whose chief executive presented his wife on his marriage anniversary with a car costing Rs 35,00,000, while lakhs still labour under severe economic and social distress.

Scheduled Tribe Status

According to a recent note from the Registrar General of India the question had been raised and considered a number of times since 1961. The Scheduled Tribes Commission (1961), the Lokur Committee (1965), the Joint Parliamentary Committee of 1967, the union cabinet note prepared by the home ministry in 1978, the Advisory Committee on list of scheduled tribes in 1994, had all denied the ST status to tea garden tribes, on the ground that these tribes do not show the homogeneity, the isolation, primitive traits (lost because of adoption into a more advanced economic system), and general backwardness that qualify a community for inclusion in the list of STs under Article 342. The latest response from the Registrar General is that some relatively homogeneous groups among this population may be considered for inclusion under this list if the state government agrees. But given the rigid nature of the criteria the state government has no option other than to waffle about the matter.

However, the matter is of political, not anthropological interest. A certain segment of population has remained at the very bottom of the social ladder, thanks to the constraints of the plantation economy and the inability of those outside teagardens to take advantage of a developmentprocess that takes no account of their social and cultural “backwardness”. They have been far outstripped by other communities similarly categorised as they lacked familiarity with the requirements of development. As is the case in all capitalist societies, such communities tend to get left behind unless the state resolves to come to their assistance with planned affirmative action. And the only affirmative action they can expect under the constitution is advantages and opportunities granted to those with ST status. But even that is available to a handful of educated and conscious people among them.

Somehow the failure of the instrument to provide incentive and relief to the vast majority has not sunk into their consciousness, and under leadership of the educated minority movement for gaining the ST status has developed into a militant phase, particularly after the persecution by Bodos who were bent on being the only scheduled tribe in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District. The stop gap, improvised and provisional character of most government measures to allay tribal unrest have complicated and aggravated matters. And now there is an armed group calling itself the Adivasi Cobra Force (the influence of the cable TV on the naming is interesting. Another name in a different troubled region is “Black Widow”!) vowing to pay the price of autonomy in blood, presumably of others.

The Agitation

On November 24 some 3,000 adivasi men, women and youths gathered near Dispur capital-complex in order to press their demand for ST status. They had bows and arrows, bamboo poles with sharpened ends, the odd axe and machete, all cultural symbols according to the youthful leaders and opportunist Assamese

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sycophants who should know better. In fact this practice of carrying primitive arms in political processions is a recent innovation, and the same people do not go to feasts and festivals with such cultural symbols. Many thought it was just a lark, including a visit to the zoo and other entertainments of the city. Some women carried babies and small children in their arms and by their side.

A small police contingent oblivious of the lurking danger accompanied them. Then some city youths on motorcycles and a police van returning from duty tried to pass through the procession, without the waiting customary for such vehicles on similar occasions. Infuriated, the tribals attacked nearby shops, smashed cars parked on the roadside, threw stones into private residences. The leadership was busy at that time in organising an impromptu meeting at some distance with the larger section of the processionists. They could not control the unruly elements, and obviously had no influence upon some sections of agitationists. There is no doubt that the procession had been infiltrated by elements who sought trouble. Besides the failure of the police and other security forces who were within call at that distance (some 300 metres from the gates of the capital-complex) to intervene at the proper moment with adequate strength and tactics, most certainly led to the later tragedy. Whether the delay of one hour and more to arrive on the scene of trouble had been deliberate is a subject now of hot dispute between the government and its critics.

Atrocities against Fleeing Tribals

A strong police force and battalions of CRPF appeared on the scene after an hour and half and started mercilessly and indiscriminately beating up both troublemakers and innocent rallyists, who fled in panic in small groups into alleys and bylanes. The disgruntled owners of damaged property waylaid them there and attacked them. But the atrocities seem to have been committed by certain lumpen elements common to all cities. They resembled the ones in Bihar who had recently beaten to death some petty thieves.

They would surround a fleeing tribal, four against one, and bludgeon him with

Economic & Political Weekly december 8, 2007

iron rod, wooden blocks, bamboo staves until he collapsed bleeding profusely. Women were chased, some molested, and one was notoriously stripped and made to run for dear life. More allegations of rape have now surfaced, but one is not sure whether even goons would dare rape women in streets in broad daylight. And all this took place under the very eyes of the police, who apparently approved of the goings-on as some kind of rough justice. This appears to be the actual result of intensive courses on human rights imparted to policemen and women.

So far only a few low-ranking police officers have been suspended, the district magistrate (DC) and the SP have been transferred. But the powerful bosses of police and security forces have not been touched, and no one has tendered resignation among political bigwigs, though they bore primary responsibility for criminal negligence. The attitude of the authorities can be seen in the fact that about a thousand adivasi processionists were herded into a clearing and forced to sit on their haunches holding their ears with their hands. “Serves them right” was the general attitude, though a handful of policemen and policewomen did try to protect adivasi victims from the rage of the mob.

One hundred and fifty-nine injured processionists, almost all with head injuries were taken to Gauhati Medical College hospital. Another 120 were taken to the Mahendramohan Choudhuri civil hospital. As ill-luck would have it, junior doctors were on strike. The young health minister did visit the hospitals and assured the victims of proper care. Other members of the cabinet lay low. The chief minister, who holds the home portfolio, gave orders but did not care to visit the trouble spot. He also put in an appearance at the hospital but failed to mollify the distressed and enraged victims.

The Aftermath

The next day Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and adivasi leaders from Jharkhand visited the hospitals and made inflammatory statements against the Congress government of the state. They complained that many injured victims have been taken away to their homes with first aid even when their condition warranted more care.

The TV footage would seem to bear out the truth of such complaints. Meanwhile cable TV channels spread a gross lie all over India. Pictures of savage assault by the Assamese mob were broadcast as proof of long-standing enmity between Assamese and adivasis, whereas it had actually been a case of mob frenzy incited by agents provocateurs. The Assamese like other Indians elsewhere have not been particularly caring and charitable to the adivasis, and our democracy does not teach such elementary lessons in citizenship. We all leave it to NGOs and dogooders. But there is no evidence that they nurse any strong hatred and scorn against the adivasis. The majority of Assamese do not know much about the adivasi demand for ST status, to say nothing of opposing it. Meanwhile in Jharkhand there have been demonstrations against the Assamese and student leaders there have issued a fatwa against participation of Assam in the forthcoming national games in Ranchi. What devious and rascally political leaders dare not do in Assam and in Jharkhand, they get it done by proxy through student and youth leaders.

Sense of Outrage

Civil society in Assam has reacted with shame and rage to the incident. Meetings have been held where government inaction and suspected collusion have been condemned and proper care of the injured and punishment of the guilty demanded with one voice. Students of Cotton College helped organise a citizens’ meeting, to their eternal credit, considering the incessant propaganda for brutish careerism by the India shiners’. The Gauhati University teachers also met to denounce the barbarities. Statements in support of the victims and against the failure of police and

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administration are pouring into the press from different corners of Assam.

Rallies, processions and vigils have spontaneously expressed the sense of outrage of the conscious sections of society. This has alerted the Assamese of dangers implicit in the situation. But if it has mollified adivasi youth leaders somewhat, who have not so far spewed anti-Assamese venom, one does not know to what extent it has persuaded the much less conscious and uneducated adivasi men and women in different parts of the state. During the all-Assam bandh that followed adivasi bandh supporters were in a foul temper and attacked anyone who opposed the bandh. One person was killed and several injured.

Mischief at Work

An odd feature of the situation is that a section of traders has thought it necessary to keep their shops open in the face of adivasi wrath and general public sentiment against atrocities on tribals. Some mischief seems to be at work. Tensions are kept alive. Tribal youths and students have also come out often in battle array, with bows and arrows, lathis and axes. Certain pro-tribal Assamese leaders flatter them by saying that is part of tribal culture. What utter nonsense! Adivasis congregate for feasts and festivals and visit fairs and open markets (hats) without such cultural ornaments. Why then should they come to political demonstrations with such arms? To the best of my knowledge they started coming out with such arms after their settlements were raided and many massacred by Bodo militants in the 1990s and the state police and the army failed to protect them. But there is no reason whatsoever to brandish such weapons in political rallies. Such preparations are bound to arouse excitement and false confidence, often leading to vandalism on property of those who have nothing to do with the condition of the tribals.

The adivasis have been neglected by the state. Only special measures, like the campaign against poverty, can win their hearts. Few of them have a notion of the workings of modern democracy and its institutions. There is only a burning sense of betrayal and deception by the privileged and powerful.

Some 32 people who had come to the rally still remain untraced. The adivasi leaders claim more than 12 have lost their lives, but the government has suppressed the fact. The state government is adamant that only one has died in the hospital and has challenged the adivasi leaders to produce proof. Some more time must elapse before one can claim certainty about such things. But there is no doubt that, like some other episodes, for instance, the Nellie massacre, the incident has exposed, like an open sore, the real state of well-being of the people in Assam, particularly its underprivileged millions.

Rana Nayar ( teaches English at Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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