The People Left Behind in Assam

Linguistic Map of Assam - courtesy Sagir Ahmed

2012 and 2014 were two years that brought bad memories about ethnic violence of the Bodoland regions of Assam. In both these cases, there was direct conflict between the Bodo tribal factions of the National Democratic Front for Bodoland and the Muslims in the region, leading to severe violence. Issues of victimization and the unfairness of the rehabilitation politics have plagued the discussion. However, for those who have followed Assam politics and culture, this was neither the first conflict, nor is it expected to be the last one. In 2007, there were raids made by Bodo guerilla groups on Adivasi populations of Assam, flaring up the Faultline further.
In the first part of the series, there was discussion on the language-ethnicity faultlines that have caused much friction in Assam and had touched upon the various concerns on cultural concerns, with some socio-economic aspects causing the crisis. The piece was mostly centered on the Assam-Bengali conflict; however, there are several other ethnicities that Assam has housed. As senior advocate Upamanyu Hazarika informed in a documentary, there are 115 of India’s 500 distinct ethnicities housed in the state. It would therefore be unfair to exclude their concerns from a candid discussion on Assam. Doing some research, a depressing picture emerges. A state that was the sixth richest state in India in 1947 is today far behind on all social and economic indicators compared to the rest of India. The situation is especially acute for the tribal populations of Assam – however, as we examine the term itself, one notices how the faultlines emerged at the time very clearly, and still efforts to address them have been at best half-hearted, which I examine in this second part.
Ethnic Diversity of Assam – a mini-India
Assam is very much a cultural melting point. In some ways, it almost seems like a mini-India in some ways.  Just profiling some of the communities gives one a strong picture of the quaintness of the diversity.
As Guptajit Pathak noted in a paper, the Deori, which means Home of God, live in the places of Sadia Jorhat, Majuli, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Dhemaji, Jonai, Gogamukh, Silapothar, Bihpuria, Lakhimpur, Narayanpur, Gohpur etc. in Assam and are also present in Jaydam hill, Mahadevpur of Lohit District, Chusipol of Chuglung District of Arunachal Pradesh in India. The Deoris prefer to introduce themselves as “Jimsaya”, the meaning of which is partly as – “Ji means water “No” means “Man”, “Cha” means “Sun” and “Ya” means “Moon”, since they believe that they are born from the moon, the sun and the water.
Similarly, Dibyajoyti Das had noted how the Mishings, officially recorded as “Miri” in the list of scheduled Tribe of India under the Constitution order 1950, are originally a hill tribe of the Himalayan region of North East India, with the the first group probably entering the upper region of Assam valley between 13th and 14th century A.D. Further, the tribe is believed to be the second largest tribal community of the state. Mishing women are popularly known for their weaving skills and the Mishing chador-mekhela of different colours and designs are always accepted with great admiration among the non Mishing communities of Assam.
Creating Confusion with Definitions
On 10 January 2019, the Government of India had introduced a Bill in Parliament for declaring six communities — Adivasi (Tea Tribes), Chutia, Koch-Rajbongshi, Matak, Moran and Tai-Ahom — Scheduled Tribes after approval from the Registrar-General of India and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. This was following long standing demands and representations made at all levels for decades by the representatives from the communities in Assam. However, the plan has always been opposed by the recognised tribes divided into the Scheduled Tribe (Hills) and the Scheduled Tribe (Plains). They say most of these communities are educationally, politically and financially more advanced than them, besides outnumbering them. One has to get back to the pages of history again to gain context to these contestations. Reading upon the history of Assam, one sees the fact that Chutia, Koch and Ahom were all rulers at some stage in the history of the region, and so were some of the other. The answer however, doesn’t end there. To quote S E Gait –
…a line of Chutiya kings ruled the country east of the Subansiri and the Disang, with the exception of a strip to the south and south-east, where small Bodo tribes enjoyed a precarious independence. Further west, there was a Kachari kingdom, on the south bank of the Brahmaputra, which probably extended at least half-way across Nowgong district.
Further, the Koch-Rajbongshi, who had ruled the regions between Assam and Bengal from the late 15th century onwards, is another category that comes out, though as per Gait again:
In Assam proper it is the name of a Hindu caste into which are received the converts to Hinduism from the ranks of the Kachari, Lalung, Mikir and other tribes, and as the process of conversion is still continuing, the number of persons described as Koch is increasing rapidly.
The questions certainly demand introspection on who is a tribal in Assam and what problem the hill and plain tribal peculiarity poses. Dr. S K Chaube in 1973 had talked about the anomalies created from 1935 onwards in the classifications of tribes in Assam, much of which has caused the present mess. In 1935, classification of the tribals had been undertaken as part of the administrative reforms of the Government of India Act, there were provisions made to identify excluded areas, where no reforms would be allowed, and the Central as well as Provincial Legislature were banned from enacting any laws for these areas. Further, proposals for expenditure in these areas would not need any approvals from the Legislature, and these regions were exempt from scrutiny not wholly excluded from the applicability of any Act of the Provincial Legislature. But here also this would be determined by the Governor in Council and the Governor of the Province. As a consequence, there emerged a political category of Plain Tribes, since these tribes were particularly seen as people on the edge of mainstream Assamese Hindu society but not fully integrated into it. Subsequently, in 1947 the Bordoloi committee, headed by the Premier of Assam Gopinath Bordoloi, ended up listing several tribes on the lines of hill tribes and plain tribes. As per an answer given by a Minister of the government of Assam last year, the following are given scheduled tribe status in Assam:
Dimasa, Kachari
Khasi, Jaintia, Shantong, Panor, War, Bhoi, Lyngngam
Any Kuki Tribes including: –
Biate, Biete (ii) Changsan (iii) Changloi (iv) Doungel (v) Gamalhou (vi) Gangte (vii) Hanneng (viii) Haokip Haupit (ix) Guite (x) Haolai (xi) Hongma (xii) Hongsungh (xiii) Hrangkhwal Rongkhol (xiv) Jonglo (xv) Khawchung (xvi) Khawath lang, Khothalong (xvii) Kholhau (xviii) Khelma (xix) Kipgen (xx) Kuki (xxi) Lengthang (xxii) Lhanguin (xxiii) Lhoujen (xxiv) Lhouvum (xxv) Lupheng (xxvi) Misao (xxvii) Mangjel (xxviii) Riang (xxix) Sairhom (xxx) Selnam (xxxi) Singson (xxxii) Sitlhon (xxxiii) Sukte (xxxiv) Thado (xxxv) Thomgagon (xxxvi) Ulbah (xxxvii) Vaiphei
Man (Tai Speaking)
Any Mizo (Lushai) Tribes
Any Naga Tribes
Boro, Borokachari
Kachari, Sonowal
Miri (Miching)

(Excluding the Autonomous Districts and Including the BTC)

Instead of having simplified things, the chaotic measure still remains. A tribal who did not belong to the specific zone did not qualify for benefits of any kind, and lost his listing status.

The Adivasi Problem – Bad Goes to Worse
At that time, the Bordoloi committee conveniently left out the Adivasis from the listing. This was kind of ironic, since the Tea Tribes as they were called had been declared as Scheduled Tribes in their own states of origins. Of course, a deeper examination tends to reveal a redux of the native-outsider discourse playing itself out.
As Ashmita Sharma and Saqib Khan have shown, the Adviasis came into Assam from the tribal regions of central and eastern India. Initially people from the Bodo-Kachari tribes were recruited by the British government to work in the tea plantations and as coolies. As the tribal groups preferred cultivating their own lands and were unwilling to do wage labour and were unwilling to work on plantations or as coolies, the British procured labourers from the Adivasi regions of Eastern and Central India such as Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh through sardars and individual agents. As per Sharma and Khan,
The workers were recruited under two systems: the arkatti system and the sardari system. While the arkattis were hired as coolie recruiters to perform the function of recruitment on behalf of the private recruiting agencies, the sardars were employees from the plantations who were hired for recruiting labourers from their native villages. After recruitment, the sardars accompanied the workers to the gardens, worked alongside them and sometimes also served as field supervisors of the lowest rank in the power hierarchy in Assam plantations.
The Adivasis, including both tea garden and ex-tea garden workers, comprise nearly 20 per cent of Assam’s total population. However, their socio-economic condition is certainly among the worst. Adivasis are still considered outsiders, with statements claiming that the Adivasis in the state do not possess any tribal characteristics. Sharma and Khan note:
basis of this opposition lies in the apprehension that the entry of new communities within the domain of ‘tribal’ would deprive the already-recognised and socio-economically marginalised ethnic communities of Assam of the constitutional safeguards designated only for genuine ‘tribals’.
All political parties in the state have time and again promised to give them Adivasi status. However, these promises are yet to see the light of day. In the meantime, the socio-economic condition of the Adivasis remains poor. Mostly restricted to the tea gardens, it is believed that the exploitation has some level of state patronage, since if their lot improves, there would be no one left to pick the tea or work as coolies. Access to decent healthcare and reasonable quality education remain a pipe dream. Even in the tea gardens, there is massive exploitation of the Adivasis – they are paid lower than the minimum guaranteed wages, and are literally forced to work beyond their physical limits.

The Bodo Problem – Swept Under the Carpet
Bodos have been the biggest opponent of the inclusions. The Bodo concerns have been very clear – their interests cannot be compromised; and the government should be clear if it is a state level or a national level policy. The suspicions of the Bodos may be countered with time; however, the grievances of the people have never been given reason to fade away, which one can trace back to the genesis of the Bodo movement in the 1920s.
As pointed out by Shashi Bhushan Kumar, Socio-religious reformer Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma was instrumental in bringing about transformation of Bodo society in the early 1920s. Under his leadership, the Assam Kochari Youth Association (AKYA) and the Goalpara District Boro Association (GDBA) submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1928 in Shillong for reservation of seats in the state legislature and government services for the tribal communities of Assam. This in turn was, as Kumar pointed out, was selectively codified in the Government of India Act, 1935 and in this Act, the separate electorate for the plains was granted. In the post-independence era, the formation of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha (BSS) in November 1952 to unite all the Bodo groups of language and devise a standard Bodo language among the Bodo tribes that also acts as a literary language for all tribes. Subsequent to this, when the Assam movement started in 1979, the Bodos had in fact taken a contrary position, but the tensions came to a peak when the ABSU under Upendra Nath Brahma [ABSU (UB)] failed to bring in the other plains tribes for a new government, and the ABSU eventually revived its 1960 demand for Bodoland for the plain tribes. This was followed by the militant era where Bodo Security Force and National Democratic Front of Bodoland emerged to fight the Indian state. Only with the creation of the territorial council eventually came about, bringing a fragile peace to cut a long story short.
Sadly, not much can be believed to have changed for the Bodos on the ground.  It is well accepted now that the Bodos have been unable to improve their socio-economic conditions and educational status. Bodos are generally dependent on agriculture; however, as Shrabanti Maity has noted, 40 percent of the Bodos are landless labourers. Further, poor economic conditions and illiteracy have also meant that healthcare awareness is also very poor among the Bodos. Maity had diagnosed specific issues in her study on the Bodos of Udalgiri district in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) – unemployment, lack of infrastructure and transportation facilities, educational and vocational training facilities, fighting intoxicant abuse rampant, and most importantly,  a “Land Reform” policy, with full political cooperation.

There are No Winners in The Zero-Sum Game
Tribals in general alongside the Adivasis have been the biggest socio-economic victims of the strife of Assam, with no silver lining necessarily in sight. In a study done on the tribal farmers of Tinsukia district, where agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for the overwhelming majority of the tribal population in the district, Deka et al saw very depressing results. No efforts had been put in by the government to improve the ground situation. Access to mechanization and irrigation alongside the provision of pesticide and fertilizer for the farmers are a challenge. Again, the suggestions came back to the point of pitiful infrastructure, provide more training to the farmers and to undertake efforts to check the exploitation of tribals. Moreover, steps to ensure that the tribal farmers can avail the crop loan and crop insurance facilities are needed.
Even when it comes to forest goods, which they have a right to, things have only recently changed. Das et al have noted that with increased level of awareness after the project, respondents were seen to be involved more in different activities through community resources for their direct and indirect benefits. It can also be stated that because of intervention of NERCORMP(North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project for upland areas), forest dwelling population from both the districts had increased their income from community/reserved forest areas in terms of collection as major forest products, minor forest products, cultivated forest products and value-added forest products. However, it has taken nearly two decades from when it started in 1999, supported by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government of the time.

There is an Ongoing Cultural Crisis as Well
Culturally too the tribals have not necessarily fared well. In fact, the tribal culture and languages within Assam has been the biggest casualty of the Assamese-Bengali fight within Assam. Compounded by a reactive poor language policy within the state, all tribals and the Adivasis have suffered. Link languages have just not emerged as per some observers. Tribal languages too have, despite support from the state government at various occasions, have seen a general neglect. For instance, despite having significant support at one point, as Pathak noted, and Deori Sahitya Sabha doing everything possible to develop the language, the number of speakers has become notably less. The Language is alive and is used only by the Debongiya Deoris the other two Classes Tengapaania and Borgoyan sepak in Assamese rather that speaking in Deori.
Similarly, Ch. Sarajubala Devi noted that while the Karbi community prefers Karbi language as one of the subject, funding for Karbi medium schools has remained an issue even with a government policy in place. Even children face problems, given the challenge of switching from one medium of instruction to another. As Devi noted:
People are aware of the problems in switching to either Assamese or English in the higher classes after Primary education, children though practically supposed to be conceptually clearer in mother tongue converting the concept in the school language needs lots of support and encouragement from the teacher concerned.
The Mising Agom Kebang, the literary organisation of Mising, is working for the introduction of Mising in Upper Primary level. The organisation is trying to open Mising medium schools at present; the efforts are yet to reap rewards. Only a handful of people are keen on this project and so the sustainability question in case of Mising is quite obvious.

 There is a desperate need to regain focus within Assam. Cultural concerns of those who matter right now are essential, and a large number of problems faced by the Tribes and Adivasis of Assam need to be addressed head on without getting distracted. The Sixth Schedule Area identification which the Assam Accord had promised, and which the governments have promised to implement, is just one step – much more is needed to address the problems of these communities. Linking it to the CAA is a dangerously facetious argument, since the problems of the Tribes are NOT because of refugees. Illegal migrants, zero attention to infrastructure, and brinkmanship from the major sides have essentially created a vacuum of governance. Efforts to address the socio-economic concerns have been sadly missing for the longest time possible. Filling this vacuum will definitely lead to assuaging concerned people across the board. Trust deficit has to be bridged by the Assamese and Bengalis. Responsibility towards these communities is even greater, given how they identify themselves so intrinsically with Assam.

·         Shashi Bhushan Kumar: The Bodo (Boro) Problems in Assam: Searching Remedies, Indian Journal of Public Administration, Vol LXII No 3 July-September 2016
·         Dr S K Chaube, Plains Tribals in Assam, North Eastern Affairs, Annual 1973
·         Deka et al, Socio-Economic Status of Tribal Farmers of Tinsukia District of Assam: A Case Study, Int.J.Curr.Microbiol.App.Sci (2017) 6(9): 2244-2248
·         Guptajit Pathak, Tribal Identity and Societal Formation:Reflection on Socio-economic Paradigm of Women Among the Deori Community in Assam, Criterion: An International Journal In English ISSN: 0976-8165
·         Dr. Ch. Sarajubala Devi, Tribal/Minority Languages in Education: A Case of Karbi and Mising of Assam, Language in India ISSN 1930-2940 Vol. 18:5 May 2018
·         Ashmita Sharma and Saqib Khan, The paradox of indigeneity: Adivasi struggle for ST status in Assam, Contributions to Indian Sociology 52, 2 (2018): 186–211
·         Dibyajyoti Das, Reflections on Burte-Dobur: A traditional practice among the Mishings of Sadiya, Assam, International Journal of Academic Research and Development, Volume 3; Issue 2; March 2018; Page No. 1443-1445
·         Shrabanti Maity, Multidimensional Poverty Status of Bodo Tribes Of Udalguri District, Bodoland, Assam, Journal Of Economic Development Volume 43, Number 1, March 2018
·         Das et al, Forest based livelihood pattern of tribal communities in Assam, India, Journal of Hill Agriculture 8(4): 455-461, October – December, 2017


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