Centre puts ST status for six Assam communities on the fast track
- Six indigenous Assamese tribes have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status for a long time
- The Centre has now fast-tracked the process, setting a 31 May deadline for its committee to deliver a report
- The communities hope the protection offered by ST status will reduce the effect of Bangladeshi immigrants on Assamese society
- The number of Assembly seats reserved for STs will go up from 16 to 80-plus out of a total of 126
- The PM\'s promise, and the delay in implementing it
- What are the likely side-effects of this move?
The Centre has expedited the process to grant Scheduled Tribe status to six indigenous communities in Assam considered crucial to protect the Northeastern frontier state from the demographic onslaught from Bangladesh.
Government sources informed that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is monitoring the matter, and had issued a directive for the formation of a committee in early February, after the file was received from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
Following the order, a committee headed by the special secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and comprising the registrar general, two joint secretaries, a director and the government's representative for peace talks with rebel outfits in Assam has been constituted.
Its mandate is to "suggest the modalities for the required reservation, of shifting the existing reservation for these communities from OBC to ST, protecting the interests of existing tribes and a mechanism to ensure fairness of reservation within these six communities and related security considerations".
An order issued by the MHA further said that a report will be compiled by 31 May. The special secretary has also written to the Assam government, soliciting its views on the subject, and a suggestion to nominate a representative as a member of the committee.
The reception from the communities
The six communities are the Ahom, Moran, Matak, tea tribe, Chutia and Koch-Rajbonshi. While the first three groups inhabit the districts of upper (eastern) Assam, Koch-Rajbonshis are concentrated in the western region of the state. Tea tribes are scattered all over, but the majority are to be found in the eastern zone.
"We welcome the decision of the government to keep May 31 as the deadline for finalising the modality of the entire process. A meeting is expected to be held soon with officials of the Home Ministry in this regard," said Arun Jyoti Moran, president of the All Moran Students' Union.
A meeting convened in Guwahati on 15 May by the Chay Janagosthi Maha Sanmilan, which comprises representatives from these communities, endorsed the suggestion for the creation of a five-member expert committee to compile a report to be submitted to the government.
It also decided to create a broader platform, with representation from all genuine tribes in the state. The conclave will also remind the government not to include the affluent sections from the tea tribes in the Scheduled Tribe category.
The unabated influx from Bangladesh had compelled many organisations and individuals to make a case for including these communities in the ST category in the past two decades. The Congress government in the state and the pro-talks ULFA faction had also argued in favour of the demand.
Alarm bells started ringing after the results of the previous Assembly polls in the state, which enabled the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to win 18 seats. The AIUDF, led by perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, is viewed by the ethnic Assamese communities as a party sustaining on the support of illegal immigrants.
At a rally in Guwahati ahead of the general elections in 2014, now-Prime Minister Narendra Modi had committed that the demand would be met and all hurdles cleared at the earliest possible.
The NDA government's failure to act in time drew flak, and allegations that the Prime Minister's commitment was not meant to be fulfilled. There were also attempts by the Congress to make it a poll issue weeks before the recent elections in Assam.
The government and local organisations in Assam are of the view that there would be ample safeguards against Bangladeshi immigrants once these six communities are given the status.
Currently, 16 constituencies are reserved for STs and eight for SCs out of a total of 126 seats in the assembly. It is estimated that more than 80 seats would come under the reserved category for Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes after these six groups are included in the category.
After completion of the long official procedure, there will be delimitation of Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies in Assam, and seats reserved for the indigenous communities. Immigrants and people of doubtful origin would be barred from contesting elections.
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An official revealed that the move to include the groups in the ST category is part of a larger exercise by the government to assess the viability of granting Scheduled Tribe status to more communities in the Northeast.
"The demand of the Lisus in Arunachal Pradesh's Changlang district, and some other groups in the Northeast are also being examined. It is difficult to specify a timeframe, since each case is unique, with a different background," an official claimed, adding that on top of the agenda for the government is the "long-standing" demand from Assam, which is also linked to the security of the region.
Voices of protest
The government's favourable stance appears to have been well-received by the indigenous communities in Assam.
But voices of protests have also been heard, especially from marginalised tribal groups, who feel that providing reservation to the new groups would deprive them of the preferential treatment from the government.
Once the tag is conferred to the six groups, the possibility of more groups demanding the same status cannot be ruled out in the region.
An organisation in Assam representing a section of the Kalita community has also begun demanding the Scheduled Tribe status, although it is among the most socially-advanced groups in the state.