The former Chief Executive Member of the Bodo Territorial Council of Assam, Hagrama Mahilary, in its administration in alliance with the BJP, recently spoke in a much chastened tone without his usual ebullience appealing to all regional parties to unite.
BJP had ditched him after a full-term alliance with his BPF party in the recent election, with the pack of BJP leaders led by Himanta Biswa Sarma now hurling charges of corruption and incompetence at him. The BJP has now teamed up with another Bodo group led by young Bodo leader Pramod Bodo (UPPL) who appeared disgusted with Hagrama's wayward record. It is clear that BJP did little to rein in Hagrama during their alliance but concentrated on creating pockets of influence in the mixed population of BTC.
This is the design behind BJP's micromanagement: mega-expansion and marginalisation of its partners. Earlier on, in the nineteen nineties, we had seen the powerful Republican Party of the Dalits put in the shade by the BJP in Maharashtra. Diverse other tribal organisations in Assam like the TMPK and the Gana Shakti of the next biggest tribe the MISING, led by charismatic leaders like Ranoj Pegu and Bhuban Pegu, have suffered the same fate. No other party in India is working to achieve the kind of hegemony that BJP seeks. Hunger for power is the bait that leads tribal leaders to this kind of entrapment, though there is no doubt that their original intention had been upliftment of the entire community.
What usually befuddles observers from mainland India, in Assam, is the proliferation and intensity of ethnic politics. There are scores of ethnic communities which British colonial rulers dubbed as 'tribes' because of their exclusive linguistic, cultural and 'racial' identity. ('Race' was an important concern for them.)
Some of them were actually in the process of getting assimilated to the more populous and economically better-off Assamese society through the institution of Vaishnavite sattra or monastery. (That also meant a change in the economic life, from shifting agriculture to settled, wet-rice cultivation).
But that had to be through a place in the Brahmanical Hindu caste system, usually lower down the scale. However there was scope for progress upwards through abandonment of tribal mores and acquisition of acceptable Hindu ones. 'Tribal' addiction to pork and rice-wine used to be the stumbling blocks to such assimilation, which the Assamese generally patronisingly regarded as the hallmark of 'civilization'!
It must be said however that such assimilation usually also meant an improvement in their standard of life and passion for education.
However socio-economic changes since independence and spread of modern education and ideas, especially during the last few decades, are rapidly turning things on their head. Some Upper-caste upper-class Assamese Hindus in towns have developed a taste for pork and wine and 'tribals' no longer yearn for the prestige of supposed benefits of 'civilization' in that sense. 'Ethnic food of Northeast ' has become quite a trendy thing.
Instead, there has been growing unrest over decades against ugly social prejudice and lack of scope for advancement. There were movements for tribal uplift and freedom from social constraints even before independence, organised by the Tribal League led by charismatic leaders from hills and plains. During the fateful years of the movement for independence ending in partition, the Assamese society was panic-stricken that owing to the colonial British policy of promoting massive migration of Muslim population from Bengal, Assam might get hustled into the incipient Pakistan, and some tribal leaders thought likewise. Assamese leaders of the Congress entered into an alliance with tribal leaders to oppose that danger.
But tribal leaders soon came to feel after independence that they had been traduced and a swelling tide of opposition to alleged Assamese double-dealing and oppression saw the rise of Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA). It is a complicated story with many twists and turns and the curious reader is referred to this author's STRUGGLE IN A TIME-WARP (Bhabani Books, Guwahati 2019) for a potted history of those developments over six decades. It must also be emphasised that Assam's development has in some respects been significantly different from that of mainland India and even eminent scholars sometimes miss the mark. For example a recent online article finds the sole clue to the meagre land-holdings of the majority of the farmers in Assam to Amalendu Guha's observation in his magisterial MEDIEVAL AND COLONIAL ASSAM that the literate Assamese middle-class who were not only better-off but also better adapted to the colonial regime of law and documents got possession of the land of rural peasants through such an advantage and practically turned them into their tenants.
There were actually other factors equally important that led to this outcome. First, though the British imposed taxation through money very few Assamese peasants then were accustomed to raising crops for the market and so had scant access to cash. Default in payment of land-revenue forced them to mortgage and eventually lose their land to middle-class urban gentry who became absentee landlords. However what mattered most for the tribal population was that the introduction of annual payment of revenue to agents of the government resulted in their classification as landless migratory peasants who had been accustomed to shifting cultivation over a wide area. The colonial land-revenue system depended on settled permanent agriculture with revenue calculated on the basis of the size of permanent holdings. Even then as the tribals roamed seasonally over an extensive area practising shifting cultivation, they were not considered 'owners of land' but were allowed by His Majesty's Government to hold land temporarily on payment of a piddly sum. Actually they held no pattas and were reduced to landless peasants. This unfair and ruinous system progressively impoverished them and the expansion of market forces after independence increased their misery. And it is their grinding poverty that provided the fuel for flaming protest movements and agitation under a rising tribal middle-class leadership. The tribal middle-class in the early phase of tribal awakening did much to arouse tribal self-esteem, promote cultural regeneration and stare down haughty middle-class Assamese sense of superiority.
Various tribes united under this banner, but they were too distinct from one another to meld into one single tribal identity as some of the pioneering leaders had dreamt. The largest were the Bodos who now have an autonomous region within Assam for themselves. In many departments the BTC has complete freedom from oversight of the state government. But truth to tell, the grant of autonomy has been a blessing as well as a curse. The entire area under BTC comprising five districts of Assam has a mixed population and such has been the case for more than a century, though there has been migration of new communities too. Bodo youths thought it has been illicit transfer of their land that has led to this unpalatable situation.
When the liberal Assamese Congressman Gopi Nath Bardoloi as Chairman of a drafting sub-committee introduced the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution it had been a remarkable constitutional innovation far ahead of the kind of protection indigenous Americans enjoy in the United States.But in the case of the Fifth Schedule, meant to protect the identity and advance the interest of tribes in the plains, the Assamese members of the Constituent Assembly fought hard to keep Assam out of its jurisdiction. In lieu of that the Assam Legislative Assembly passed an act reserving a considerable area of land for people of tribal origin as 'tribal belts and blocks'. This has become the Xth chapter of the Land Revenue Manual of Assam. However in subsequent times the state government used its discretionary powers to de-reserve a significant amount of such land to settle refugees,rehabilitate flood-and-erosion victims and establish industrial projects like paper-mills and textile mills. These decisions taken without consent of tribal people have caused simmering resentment as the tribal small farmers sank into ever-growing debt and informal bondage.
The peaceful democratic though impassioned agitations for redress and then autonomy were brutally suppressed by successive state governments,and things lumbered towards a fierce demand for separation. Leadership passed from seasoned leaders to fiery youths burning with a sense of injustice and resentment at Assamese domination.
Meanwhile the Assam Anti-foreigner Movement had taken place and taught tribal youths the tactics of militancy. Eventually it rolled over into armed struggle,and the major section of armed militants targeted hapless non-tribals in areas claimed by Bodos as their own.
It is an unpleasant fact shunned to the backyard of mainland Indian consciousness that the Central government in Delhi also promoted tribal separatism and autonomy to take the wind out of militant Assamese nationalism, particularly during the rise of the secessionist ULFA. Several armed tribal outfits took shelter in the jungles following that trail and created much mayhem until all natives bitterly rued the roiling run-away unrest and chaos.
Congress came to power after a political exile of two decades under the late Torun Gogoi for an unbroken spell of fifteen years and his efforts at restoring peace and normalcy consisted mainly of granting satellite autonomy to various ethnic groups without hard territorial jurisdiction, as well as overcoming violent militancy through a deluge of festivals and heedless merry-making. These achieved and indeed exceeded their aims as younger generations of such groups have become largely disinclined to hard productive labour. TV channels with their alluring advertisements also played their part to conjure an hyper-real world to get lost. The countryside now is prey to drug mafias and a thriving black market in various primary resources.The tribal leadership in satellite autonomous administrations got access to unexpected bonanzas in the form of funds for various schemes and in no time forgot the misery of their many poorer compatriots. The well-meant innovation has become a blind alley. Unemployment and concealed poverty have surged in the whole state, and the BJP government in the state has deliberately created hapless 'beneficiaries' by lakhs. Rice made available at two - three rupees has made agriculture dispensable and businessmen from outside are gobbling up the land,the only insurance of the indigenous people for the future. Meanwhile the middle-class of such ethnic groups as were late entrants to Hindu society are enchanted by prospects of such unearned income and are asserting their exclusiveness as distinct tribes! Various caste-groups are following suit with demands for reservation in jobs and education and hoping to snatch autonomy before it is too late. Indeed Brahmins appear to be the only caste-group left who are yet to stake their claim to tribal status. Not all hope is lost however as some of them have boldly aired the theory that they are descendants of an Aryan community quite different from their North Indian brethren. Reaction to such centrifugal tendencies also at times leads to infatuation with homogeneity propounded by saffron groups.
Such an environment is fertile soil for 'micro-management' of the type mentioned above.In the end such a process might make for the hegemonic 'Hindu Rashtra' that would fatten giant corporates and dispel the mirage of autonomy.At least that is what those in the driver's seat seem to be aiming at.