North East Echoes: How long can Himanta Biswa Sarma ignore tribal sensibilities?

Is this the beginning of the homogenisation project where the tribes are expected to give up their cultural rights & choice of food? Are they not citizens of Assam, asks Patricia Mukhim

Representative image
Representative image

Patricia Mukhim

In a recent interview with a national TV channel, Assam’s Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma argued vehemently in favour of restrictions on cattle slaughter and sale in Assam. He asserted that no one in Assam is against the ban on cattle slaughter and sale– not the Hindus nor the Muslims, since not a single article has appeared on the issue in any of the newspapers in Assam and the North East.

Is this then the beginning of the homogenisation project where the tribes are expected to give up their cultural rights and choice of food? Assam has a huge tribal population -- Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas et al who are inveterate beef eaters. Are they no longer considered citizens of Assam that only Hindus and Muslims should be insistently mentioned?

Biswa Sarma is emerging as the most vociferous patron of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the North East. And that’s because he is seen as a politician who delivers. That’s one of the reasons for his popularity. He has the energy, which most politicians lack, to ensure that projects are implemented within a given deadline. During the pandemic he led from the front. Others envied Assam for having a health minister who was available 24x7 and attended to the needs of healthcare workers and those who contracted Covid.

The ban on cow slaughter however misses the point that not all cows are milch cattle. Some are reared especially for beef. For tribals, beef is the only protein that’s easily available and absorbed since it has been part of their diet for centuries.

Other protein yielding food such as legumes, fish, sea food, eggs are mostly unaffordable. Half a kilogram of beef can be part of a diet of a family of five for two meals. The typical tribal menu is to boil beef and throw in other vegetables and garnishing. The soup itself provides as much nutrient as the meat does.

What merits discussion is the complete annihilation of the tribal voice in Assam, where the first inhabitants were the Bodos. History is a grim reminder that the caste Hindu Assamese came in from the North and Eastern India to settle down in Assam. No wonder they hang on to their Brahminical roots.

Historians like Udayan Misra have pointed to the mingling and assimilation of Indo-Aryans and Austro-Mongoloid peoples to make the Assam of today. Misra in his paper, ‘Immigration and Identity Transformation in Assam’ says that what is today called the Assamese or Asomiya community is related to the process of Aryanisation as well as the rise and consolidation of Ahom rule in the Brahmaputra valley. The facts that the Ahom Kings adopted the Hindu faith, Vaishnavism took roots in Assam and a section of tribes too became Hindus do not mean that Assam is a Hindu state. Far from it, there are people for whom the tribal identity is still uppermost and who follow their indigenous faith.

It is in the light of such diversities that a Bill which seeks to infringe on the eating habits of people and homogenizing their diet appears like an infringement into their rights as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. If beef is an important part of the diet of a tribal family and they derive their nutrition from it, can the state take away their right to that food? Does the Right to Life not come in here?

Biswa Sarma quotes Gandhi saying that the Father of the Nation asked for cattle protection. But arguably Gandhi might not have an in-depth knowledge of the cultural and food choices of the tribals.

During Gandhi’s time the idea of India did not encapsulate the North Eastern states. The Khasi states then had not even signed the Instrument of Accession to the Indian state and were independent principalities. The Nagas were forcibly integrated into the Indian Union. The Rajahs of Manipur and Tripura acceded into India.

To ride roughshod over the feelings or a large majority who are unorganised and have no agency to state their case is poor leadership. To ride on the chariot of political victory and treat it as a mandate from the people that a leader can now take all decisions on their behalf and there is no need to consult minority groups, is paving the ground for a mighty fall.

The tribal population of Assam that have lost their voice for now are sure to recover that voice sooner than later, when not just beef is banned but when their cultural rights are also trampled upon simply because they are in a minority.

It is a sad fact of history that those who forget it are condemned to repeat it.

(The writer is a distinguished editor and writer based in Shillong. Views are personal.)

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