Image Courtesy: sentinelassam.com
On Thursday protesters in Assam blocked National Highway 37 in Chabua after discovering that six tribes from Assam were not included in the revised list of Scheduled Tribes (ST) released by the Centre.
The Sentinel reports that in a cabinet meeting on Thursday, the Union Council of Ministers decided to update the ST list. They included 17 tribes and five sub-tribes from five states – Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. But the list left out six tribes from Assam – Tai Ahom, Moran, Matak, Chutias, Koch Rajbonshis and Tea Tribes.
The Economic Times reports that the exclusion led to protests and demonstrations across Assam. In Shibsagar, effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma were burnt.
As SabrangIndia had reported previously, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had It is noteworthy that the BJP government had promised to grant them Scheduled Tribes (ST) status in not one, but two successive state assembly election manifestos. But it has failed to walk the talk. The grant of ST status allows members certain social benefits such as reservations and exemptions, which these six communities do not enjoy at present.
At present there are 17 tribal belts and 30 blocks spread across Tinsukia, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Morigaon, Lakhimpur, Kamrup, Kamrup (metro), Goalpara, Dhemaji, Darrang, Bongaigaon and the four Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) districts in Assam. Tai-Ahom, Moran, Matak and Chutia people have been declared protected groups in the Sadiya tribal belt of Upper Assam.
In September 2020, instead of granting these communities ST status, the Assam State Assembly passed three bills to create autonomous councils for Moran, Matak, and Koch-Rajbongshis. Then, on July 10, 2021, the government of Assam announced the creation of a new department to address the concerns of the state’s indigenous communities. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the formation of the Department of Indigenous Faith and Culture and told media persons, “We have a lot of tribes like Rabha, Boro, Mising, Moran and Matak. They have their own faith, customs, rituals and culture. This rich heritage needs to be preserved and promoted.” He had further clarified, “This independent department will do that, not build roads and houses, for which we have the Department for Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes (DWPTBC).” Therefore, concerns of only two of the six tribes were addressed partially by the announcement.
In the run up to the assembly elections in Assam in March 2022, SabrangIndia had reported how Adivasi groups led by All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) had questioned the BJP as to why it had failed to grant ST status to tea tribes.
Tea tribes are those members of Adivasi and tribal communities who were brought to Assam by the British to work in tea estates. The ancestors of modern-day tea tribals hail from present day UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Before independence, they were made to work in 160 tea estates across Assam. Many of them continued to work in the tea estates even after Independence.
While these tribes came under the ST category in their home states after Independence, the families left in Assam came to be known as “tea tribes”. They were excluded from reservation due to their non-indigenous status in the state. Nowadays, there are over 8 lakh tea estate workers employed in 803 tea estates in Assam belonging to Tea Tribes, and the total population of the Tea Tribes is estimated to be more than 65 lakhs. These Santhal, Kurukh, Munda, Gond, Kol and Tantis tribes have been demanding an ST status in Assam for many years.
There has also been opposition to the grant of tribal status to these communities. The Indigenous Lawyers’ Association of India (ILAI) had approached the Assam government and claimed that granting ST status to these six communities, who they do not consider tribal communities, would destroy the concept of what is a tribal community. The ILAI had further claimed that including these communities in the list of the STs would be a violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which India is a signatory. As per the UN Declaration, prior and informed consent of indigenous people has to be sought before implementing any decision or legislative measure related to them. ILAI also said that this would impact political representation from Gram Sabha to the Lok Sabha of the existing STs of Assam.