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Adivasi Struggle in Assam

The adivasi struggle for scheduled tribe status in Assam is part of a wider struggle of identity assertion - a search for cultural roots and heritage.


Adivasi Struggle in Assam

Udayon Misra

administrative failure. Also at play seemed to be a certain mindset which views the tea garden workers as inferior human beings. The state government in a delayed damage control exercise has or-

The adivasi struggle for scheduled tribe status in Assam is part of a wider struggle of identity assertion – a search for cultural roots and heritage.

hat happened on the fateful day of November 24 on the streets of Guwahati not only brought into sharp focus the changing power equations of the state but also revealed certain fault lines in a society that has prided itself on its liberal foundations and tolerant lifestyle. The merciless manner in which the adivasis were beaten up in full glare of an unresponsive public in retaliation for acts of vandalism committed by a section of the demonstrators, brought unto surface certain inbuilt prejudices and assumptions of mainstream Assamese society towards the marginalised and peripheral sections.

While it is true that the violence which climaxed with the stripping of the adivasi girl needs to be seen against the overall climate of brutalisation that has set in throughout the country, the happenings cannot be seen without certain grave connotations which went with them. Although it would be wrong to view the three criminals who assaulted and stripped the girl as being representative of the Assamese ethos and society, the act is being seen by many as an ultimate expression of the inbuilt prejudice and class hatred which mark the approach of a sizeable section of the Assamese middle class towards the tea garden tribes. However, one redeeming aspect of the shameful episode was the sharp reaction of an otherwise moribund civil society.

For once, civil society in the state acted with alacrity and condemned the incident with one voice, while at the same time asserting that the November 24 incidents should not be viewed as an Assameseadivasi clash. No amount of outrage seems to be sufficient right now to heal the divide that has set in between the adivasis and the Assamese because of this one incident. On that day, Guwahati saw a total collapse of the administration and the chief minister, who is also in charge of the home portfolio, had admitted that his administration failed in its duty. But there seems to have been more to it than mere dered a CBI enquiry into the incidents and has transferred some senior police officials. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe may eventually be able to go into some of the reasons behind the violence and fix responsibility for the administrative failure.

Problematic Coexistence

Inbuilt prejudices and perceptions about the tea labour community are still very much extant among the influential sections of Assamese society. Yet it cannot be denied that in all these years, ever since the first batches of indentured labour were brought into Assam in the 1860s from present-day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, there has not been any major clash involving the tea labour community and their immediate Assamese neighbours. But the absence of tension between the two was also quite often due to the fact that interaction between the two communities was quite marginal, with the management actively preventing tea workers from mixing with the local population. This is true with many gardens even today. Thus, for the average Assamese the community of tea garden workers has remained very much the “other”, and it is only in recent years that there has been a noticeable change in perception about the adivasis and their significant contribution not only towards Assam’s economy but also to Assamese literature and culture.

All the prejudice and social divide notwithstanding, there seems to be a conscious effort by organisations like the Asom Sahitya Sabha to make the adivasis feel that they are major components of the still emerging Assamese nationality. That a substantial section of the adivasi community too consider themselves as part of the Assamese nationality is reflected in writings of adivasi intellectuals who have had their education in Assamese. It is significant that barely a week after the Guwahati incident, the All Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (AATTSA) leaders asserted their Assamese credentials at a


Economic & Political Weekly december 22, 2007


joint meet with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). At the same meeting the AASU declared that one single incident would not be able to “disrupt the nationbuilding process” in the region, implying thereby that the adivasis are an integral part of the Assamese community. Not all would agree with the view of Assameseadivasi writer Ganesh Chandra Kurmi that the “tea tribes are today fully assimilated into the Assamese national mainstream”. Nevertheless, despite all the hindrances in the form of social prejudices and limited interaction, it must be said that the process of coming together of the two communities is an ongoing one.

No Tangible Improvement

In this context it needs to be recalled that during British rule the tea garden tribes were forced to lead an isolated existence and even the winds of the national struggle were not allowed to reach the tea gardens of Assam. Though there are several instances of tea workers going on strike during the concluding years of colonial rule, it was only after independence that the first stirrings of change took place with the beginnings of trade union activity and the subsequent introduction of some degree of social legislation under the initiative of then Congress leaders like Omeo Kumar Das. While these new provisions did bring some succour to the lives of the tea workers, successive state governments have failed to bring about any tangible improvement in the quality of life of these people. The present pitiable condition of the tea worker can be gauged from the fact that many of the provisions of legislations such as the Assam Tea Plantation Act of 1951 and the Assam Plantation Rules of 1956 are yet to be implemented in most of the tea gardens of the state.

Following the Guwahati incidents, almost all the major political parties have been vying with each other to prove their support for the adivasi demand for scheduled tribe (ST) status. It is obvious that with the panchayat elections round the corner, none of these parties would like to alienate the tea workers who have always been a major deciding force in battles of the ballot. In about 124 of the 800 zilla parishad and in 700 out of the 2,200 gram panchayat seats, the adivasis hold a clear sway over others. For decades, the Congress, with the help of its INTUCled Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS), had reaped huge electoral benefits out of its adivasi vote bank in the hundreds of tea gardens of Assam. But in recent years there has been much erosion in the Congress’ vote bank with other parties making inroads and adivasi student and youth organisations like the All Assam Adivasi Students Association (AAASA) and the AATTSA taking over the leadership.

Complex Demography

Given the complex demographic pattern of the state and the refusal on the part of the existing ST communities to extend the privilege to the adivasis and the five other communities, it is uncertain whether the support for ST status offered by the different political parties would eventually lead to legislation to grant the adivasis their ST status. There are 23 STs in the state, of which 14 are hill tribes and nine are plains tribes. It is an anomaly that those who have been accorded ST status in the hills lose their status if they settle in the plains and vice versa. This territory specific classification seems to defy all logic and is clearly a hangover of colonial ethnography. For instance, the Karbi ceases to be a ST outside Karbi Anglong and a Bodo cannot claim scheduled status in Karbi Anglong. The adivasis are classified as other backward classes (OBCs) in the central list which refers to them as “tea garden labourers and tea garden tribes and ex-tea garden labour and ex-tea garden tribes” and they are divided into 96 ethnic groups. The total ST population of the state in the last census was 3.3 million and if one were to add some 2.5 to 3 million tea garden and ex tea garden labour, then the latter would come to constitute around 50 per cent of the total ST population, thereby making it the largest single group. This would bring about a major change in the existing power equations of the state and is bound to be resisted by those communities which are now listed as STs. At present out of the 126 assembly seats, 22 are reserved for STs and scheduled castes; in about a dozen seats adivasi candidates win, while in about 36 constituencies minority voters

Krishna Raj Memorial Scholarships 2007-08

Sameeksha Trust, publishers of EPW, announces the award of the second annual Krishna Raj Memorial Scholarships, which have been constituted in memory of the weekly’s distinguished editor of 35 years (1969-2004).

The trust has established three sets of scholarships at different levels of education – at a school, undergraduate college and postgraduate institution. The scholarships have been designed for award in either the educational institutions Krishna Raj attended or in the city (Mumbai) where he spent all his professional life.

NSSKPT High School, Ottapalam, Kerala

Four scholarships, for two girls and two boys, in the IXth and Xth standard, have been awarded in the school where Krishna Raj studied for a few years and of which he always had fond memories. The scholarships cover tuition fees, uniforms, books and special coaching. In 2007-08, the scholarships have been awarded to Sarika P A, Sreejith P S (IXth standard) and P S Sudheesh and K Sruthi (Xth standard).

SNDT College for Women, Mumbai

Two scholarships have been awarded to adivasi students in the social sciences stream of the BA course. The scholarship covers tuition and examination fees and boarding and lodging expenses in the college hostel. In 2007-08 the scholarships have been awarded to Ruke Veena Vijayanand (first year BA Geography) and Sneha Ramesh Yadav (second year BA Economics).

Delhi School of Economics

The “Krishna Raj Summer Programme” was carried out in May-June 2007 under the guidance of the Centre for Development Economics at the Delhi School of Economics. The aim of the programme is to enable students from Delhi colleges/universities to participate in field surveys and related activities around issues that have social relevance. In 2007 students from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University conducted a survey of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The survey, undertaken in collaboration with the Institute for Human Development, Ranchi, focused mainly on Ranchi and Surguja districts. Nearly 50 NREGA worksites, located in half as many Gram Panchayats, were covered.


are the deciding factor. But if the adivasis secure scheduled status, then there is the possibility that an additional 26 constituencies will become reserved.

Opposition to Recognition

The state government has tried to work out of the impasse by suggesting an extension of the ST list by reducing the percentage of quota for the OBCs. But this has not impressed those communities which are enjoying ST status because such a move would open up constituencies presently reserved for the STs to the adivasis, apart from encroaching upon the employment and education sector. The most vocal in its opposition has been the Bodo Peoples’ Progressive Front (BPPF) which is the ruling party in the Bodoland Territory Autonomous Area (BTAD) and shares power with the Congress in the state. The Bodo leadership has been maintaining that the adivasis are migrants and cannot claim to be indigenous to the region. The BPPF has warned that if the adivasis are given ST status then it would revive the demand for a separate Bodoland outside Assam. Thirty of the 40 seats in the Bodoland Territorial Council are reserved for STs and the BPPF has made it clear that it “would not allow any new community to enjoy the political rights enjoyed by the existing tribal people in the council”.

The All Assam Tribal Sangha which is an umbrella body representing the ST communities of the state, has also opposed the move saying that neither the adivasis nor the five other communities claiming scheduled status, – the taiahom, moran, muttuck, chutiya, and koch-rajbanshi – fulfil the requisites laid down for qualifying as a ST. This has pushed the state government into a virtually impossible situation. If it does not support the adivasi demand, then it stands to lose its traditional vote bank and this could have a disastrous effect on panchayat and assembly polls. On the other hand, if it does try to push through the adivasis’ demand for scheduled status, then it stands to lose the support of its coalition partner, the BPPF. As a final way out of the impasse, the state government is now offering to give the six communities demanding ST status all the facilities which the STs enjoy minus political empowerment.

Economic & Political Weekly december 22, 2007

How far this will be acceptable to the adivasis and the five other communities remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, realising that the speedy attainment of their demand is fraught with difficulties, the adivasi leadership is trying to win over the support of the regional forces. The AASU has already expressed its support for the adivasi demand and at a joint meeting of the student bodies, the AAASA and the AATSA emphasised the need to live in peace and amity with the other communities. The main thrust of the joint AASU-AAASA-AATSA meeting was against the present state government and the Congress leadership which is being accused of betraying the interests of the tea garden and ex-tea garden workers. The AAASA-AATSA led combine is trying to build up a joint front with the AASU because it knows that the demand for ST status could eventually lead to a state of confrontation with the Bodos and other tribal communities. Barely a decade ago there were severe clashes between adivasis and Bodos which left scores killed and hundreds injured, while over a lakh of people were uprooted from their homes.. It however remains to be seen if the attempt by AAASA and AATSA will bring in quick results, for some of the units of these student/youth bodies have already expressed their unwillingness to enter into a joint programme with the AASU. Moreover, militant outfits like the Adivasi Cobra Force, the Birsa Comando Force which played a major role during the Bodo-adivasi clashes, have now begun to increase their influence among the adivasis. This could further complicate the situation.

Growth of Militancy

Given these complexities, there is every possibility of the built-in adivasi anger and frustration being channelised into militant lines. In this context it needs to be noted that apart from history of strikes for improved wages or against oppressive policies of the management from the 1920s onwards, the tea garden workers have seldom been organised to participate in mass democratic struggles. For instance, the vast majority of tea garden workers were kept out of the freedom struggle and except for instances like the Chargola exodus in Cachar, the tea estates of the state were virtually untouched by the civil disobedience or Quit India movements. Even during the post independence period, the tea workers have led a more or less insulated existence and did not have the opportunity to participate in popular democratic protest movements. Hence, it is only natural that during mass protests by adivasis, there would always be the danger of some sections indulging in violence. This is exactly what happened during the Guwahati rally.

Not that there has not been trade union activity in the tea gardens. Apart from the INTUC-led ACMS which is easily the largest body, other political parties also have their unions in most of the gardens. But the activities of these unions have mostly been confined to immediate economic demands and there has been little attempt over the years to give an ideological orientation to adivasi politics. It is only in recent years that under the influence of the educated sections of adivasi youth a new dimension is being added to adivasi politics which, not being satisfied merely with short-term economic demands and the narrow groove of vote banks, is trying to relate itself to the broader issues concerning all segments of the adivasi community.

The struggle for scheduled status must, therefore, be seen as part of a wider struggle of identity assertion by the adivasis – a search for their cultural roots and heritage. Of the 96 different groups which make up the adivasi population of the state, quite a few have organised themselves on their own tribe platforms. Therefore, it would be interesting to see as to how far the present struggle led by the student/youth organisations would be able to bring together the different groups with a common agenda of struggle. And, this struggle for political empowerment would get its impetus only if it is accompanied by an agenda which would address the immediate socio-economic issues facing the adivasis of Assam.

The deplorable state of health and sanitation in the overwhelming majority of the tea gardens of the state, the wide scale illiteracy and unemployment, the abnormally high rate of malnutrition and


female mortality, the high incidence of diseases like tuberculosis and the almost total lack of social security measures are some of the aspects which would have to be addressed by the youth leadership. Every year water borne diseases claim hundreds of adivasi lives and this year alone more than 200 died in the upper Assam tea gardens, prompting the state health minister to say that first information reports (FIRs) would be lodged for culpable murder against the errant management of these gardens. It needs no underlining the fact that the tea garden workers are among the most neglected sections of society, their regular wages and other attendant “privileges” notwithstanding. Worse is the fate of the ex-tea garden workers who have settled mostly in and around the tea gardens.

The present upsurge seems to be the beginning of a wider struggle for securing the rights and dignity of a people who have suffered some of the worst forms of degradation and who still continue to work in an atmosphere reminiscent of the colonial days. It is a measure of their growing maturity that within a week of the Guwahati incident the adivasi youth leadership succeeded in stopping acts of violence carried out against Assamese villagers in certain adivasi dominated areas in upper Assam and made it clear that the destiny of the adivasi community cannot be seen as separate from that of Assam and her people.

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