Now that the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Bill has subsided, it is time to take a hard look at the socioeconomic and political fallout from yet another major decision of the Central Government, namely, to grant Scheduled Tribe or ST status to six large communities in Assam presently in the Other Backward Classes category. Those are tea tribes comprising mainly Adivasis of the Chhotanagpur region covering Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bengal, Bihar and even parts of Andhra, who were brought to Assam in the 19th century to work in the tea plantations under condition, which RC Dutt termed “slave laws” in his classic Economic History of India; Ahoms, who ruled Assam from the 13th century till the British take over and Koch Rajbanshi, a group sharing a common identity with Koch Rajbanshis of North Bengal.
The movement for a Kamtapur state comprising parts of North Bengal and West Assam inhabited by this group is a related issue and three other groups of the Brahmaputra valley — Moran, Motock and Sutiya. The position of the tea tribes has always been anomalous because as the list of the Scheduled Tribes is state-specific and not being natives of Assam, the Santhal, Munda and Oraon tribals working in Assam tea gardens are not listed in the Assam schedule of tribes.
In the 1980s the tea tribes were placed in the category of “More Backward Classes”, which really didn’t make any difference. The Ahoms, residing mainly in upper Assam, are integral to the composite Assamese speaking community.
The Ahoms — a branch of the Shan tribe of Thailand, they ruled much of the Brahmaputra valley without break for about 700 years and the Ahom dynasty is regarded as the longest by historians — lost their position after the British take over in 1826 . This was because Ahom feudalism, unlike in other regions of India, was not rooted in the wealth generated from ownership of large estates and rents extracted from actual tillers but in the administrative positions in the Ahom state its elite held, which they lost following the British decision to extend the Bengal administrative system once the Brahmaputra valley was made a part of Bengal Presidency. Further, vast tracts were taken over for grant on nominal fee to the companies, mostly British-owned, for tea plantations and exploration of oil, mining and agricultural lands, and they were directly settled with the farmers, which marginalised the position of the erstwhile Ahom elite.
There is no precise estimate of these six groups since data doesn’t really capture the ethno-lingual details of persons enumerated from the 1951 to 2011 Census. As a result, an estimated figure of 1.50 crore as the total population of these six groups is being projected in the media over and above 3.8 million existing tribals (under the Scheduled Tribes — Plains and Hills categories) of Assam’s total population of 3.12 crore as per the 2011 Census. This will make Assam a tribal majority state. The constitutional and administrative implications of this declaration are many and complex. First, Article 19(5) of the Constitution enjoins the state to make laws for the protection of the interests of the Scheduled Tribes. Of these ‘interests’, the most important are the land rights and especially the rights of tribal forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act 2006.
Another complex issue is the fact that the areas inhabited presently by these six groups are general areas outside the Sixth Schedule areas of Bodoland, Karbi Anglong and Dimahasao districts and the tribal belt and blocs created under Chapter 10 of the Assam Land Revenue Regulations 1886, which was incorporated after Independence to protect land rights of the plains tribes such as the Bodos and prevent alienation of tribal lands.
It may be recalled that in the colonial period the areas inhabited by the “Plains tribes” were not placed in the category of either “Excluded” or “Partially Excluded” like the hill areas of Assam and hence those tribes didn’t enjoy any protection of their land rights.
Thus inclusion of the six groups in the ST Plains category will necessitate a revision of this chapter for which a settlement operation to create a new set of tribal belts and blocs, preparation of land record of rights covering these groups will have to be carried out to put in place a revamped and vastly expanded tribal land administration. This will be a complex and time consuming task as over the years, transactions in the areas inhabited by these six groups must have created overlapping of lands owned by these groups and others sharing the same landmass, water bodies and “commons”, which would make it well-nigh impossible to create a compact “Tribal belts and blocs”.
State job reservations and reservation of seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly for the new ST groups will be highly contentious and even intractable as the Bodos and Hill tribes have already started agitations against the central move as a vastly expanded ST population, caused by adding far advanced landowning and established groups like the Koch Rajbanshis, is certain to drastically reduce their prospects of getting jobs under the central and state services.
The other explosive issue is the statutory requirement to reserve Assembly constituencies for the Scheduled Tribes due to massive increase in proportion of ST population in a large number of constituencies especially in upper Assam where these “New tribes” are concentrated.
Presently in the Assam Legislative Assembly of 126 members, 16 and eight seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes and scheduled castes respectively, which will change dramatically as and when the delimitation commission realigns the constituencies duly taking into account the increase in the tribal population. This will result in a tectonic shift of power by strategically positioning the tea labour community, Ahoms and four other ethnic groups in state politics, the full impact of which will be seen only when the Assembly is restructured.
The impact of the decision is already being felt in the region as the Meiteis of Manipur have revived their old demand for recognition as a ST, which the Central Government will now find hard to deny as they, much like the Ahoms of Assam and the Tripuris of Tripura, ruled their lands for centuries. There is, thus, no doubt that when fully implemented the decision to grant ST status will be a game changer in Assam politics as it might even be seen as a step to implement Clause 6(c) of the Assam Accord of 1985 to protect the identity of the Assamese people.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India)