To avoid Manipur-like conflict, Assam govt defers ST status to six ethnic groups

The joint forum of six communities has held several protests in the state; however, the government has been delaying and is keeping things unsettled, fearing a larger opposition from other tribes

Representative image (Photo: IANS)
Representative image (Photo: IANS)


Despite the assurance from the government, the long-pending demand of six ethnic groups in Assam - the tea tribes, Chutia, Koch-Rajbongshi, Matak, Moran, and Tai-Ahom - to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to them is yet to be fulfilled.

The joint forum of six communities has already held several protests in the state; however, the government has been delaying and is keeping things unsettled, fearing a larger opposition from other tribes, who have expressed displeasure over new entrants to their fold.

The six ethnic groups are currently identified as OBCs in the state.

At an event in Assam soon after his victory in the 2014 general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to realise the six communities' long-held demand. He also criticised the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for doing little for them during its 15 years in power.

However, it took the Modi government five years to take a position on the issue in January 2019, during a period of intense public outrage in Assam over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

A bill to incorporate the six communities in the ST category was introduced in Rajya Sabha by then Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Jual Oram. For reasons that are best known to the BJP in power, the same was not put to a vote and allowed to expire.

In order to establish autonomous councils for the Koch-Rajbongshis, the Morans, and the Mataks in multi-ethnic Assam, the state legislative assembly enacted three pieces of legislation in 2020. The BJP government was instantly accused by the opposition of choosing a "divide-and-rule policy" with regard to the six communities vying for ST recognition.

Additionally, it was perceived as yet another effort by the BJP to win back the support of these communities ahead of the 2021 assembly elections.

Communities that meet the five requirements for ST classification - evidence of primitive features, distinctive culture, geographic isolation, reluctance to interact with the population at large, and backwardness - are those that also meet the central government's standards.

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) published a report in 2019 that stated: "After careful consideration, the NCST concludes that the above six communities possess characteristics of Scheduled Tribes and qualify to be included in the list of STs of Assam."

The proposal to confer ST status on the six communities of Assam has already received clearance from both the Registrar General of India and the Anthropological Survey of India.

Although the six ethnic groups believe that they have a justified demand for inclusion in the ST category, the government is hesitant due to opposition from other nine tribal communities - Mising, Bodo, Karbi, Kuki, Dimasa, Deori, Tiwa, Sonowal Kachari, and Rava - residing in Assam.

The privileges that these nine ethnic communities are entitled to under Article 46 of the Constitution would be shared by the six OBC communities that have been eyeing ST status. Interestingly, people from the unreserved category have opposed the demand for the six ethnic communities' inclusion on the ST list as well, since it would result in fewer seats in the assembly and parliament as the number of seats for the reserved category may increase.

The government never wants an unrest in Assam that may lead to a Manipur-like situation, especially as the state experienced several high-voltage agitations, including a wide-scale stir on the CAA issue. This is the reason why the demands of six ethnic communities have been kept on hold.

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