Elections 2019: Assam Tribes Want ST Status, But Not in Lieu of CAB
April 11, 2019
In the first phase of elections to the Lok Sabha, five seats from upper Assam will go to polls on April 11. Assam witnessed a wave of shutdowns and agitations throughout the course of the past year against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB)-2016, which was the ruling BJP’s bid to give citizenship to refugees from neighbouring nations, excluding Muslim refugees. The BJP got the Bill passed in the Lok Sabha but the party refrained from tabling it in the Rajya Sabha amid a wave of protests against the Bill in the North-East, including Assam.
Facing anger over CAB in Assam, the BJP tried to woo voters in the state with another bill to give special status of Scheduled Tribes (ST) to six tribes in the state. Had the decision been implemented — the Tai Ahom, Tea, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Moran and Matak tribes would have benefited the most, and the state would have turned to tribal majority one. The tribes are, however, apparently reluctant to let the CAB passed as a bargain for ST status. The BJP did not table either of the bills in the Rajya Sabha as it does not have majority there. The party, however, has pledged to implement both the bills in its election manifesto. Now, the next big question is, whether they are going to vote for BJP in this background.
CAB seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians coming as refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan after 6 years of stay in India, amending the current 12 years’ requirement. The Bill proposes to give these people citizenship even if they do not have proper documentation or after their visas expire.
"We Don't Believe in Give-And-Take Policy"
At least five of the tribes live in upper Assam. The Tai Ahom community is one of the most prominent groups in Assam and have been demanding ST status for a long time. They opposed the CAB fearing an alleged influx of Bangladeshis in the state. The community is having majority population in upper Assam and the Brahmaputra river's northern bank districts of Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur and Dhemaji.
Milan Buragohain, joint secretary of the All Assam Tai Ahom Students' Union, told this correspondent, "Look, right from the beginning when we started our movement for ST status, the Congress party had ruled in both in the state and the centre, but they didn’t do anything. Now, when this BJP government came to power, they also didn't put any substantial effort towards this issue. Yes, they brought a Bill in the Parliament, but they didn’t get it passed. That’s why we are saying that until we get full ST status, we won't believe them. We don't believe in this effort to table a bill either. So in the coming polls, which start on April 11, we are asking all Tai Ahom folks to go against the BJP government because they didn't fulfil our demand for ST status."
While Milan has a clear stand against the BJP, David Chetia, president of the All Assam Matak Yuba Chatra Sanmilan, said his organisation had called upon the Matak community for conscience voting in the coming polls. Expressing anguish over the delay in fulfilling the promise to grant ST status to the Matak community and against the CAB issue, Chetia said, "CAB is a different issue altogether. It's a threat for the entire state, a threat to the people of Assam, to the economy of Assam, and to the culture of Assam. We are against CAB, and our movement against CAB will continue too. Now that the BJP government has said they would bring the CAB again, we will also resume our movement. Their pre-condition that they will bring CAB, and only then we will be given ST status, will not be accepted. We don’t believe in this give-and-take policy. If the BJP is thinking we will vote for them, and then they will give us ST status, they are wrong. We met Rahul Gandhi too, and he also gave us commitment. It doesn't matter who comes to power; our demands have to be met. That's why we've asked the Matak community to give a conscience vote."
Morans are one of the oldest tribes living in Assam. They are mostly concentrated in the upper Assam zone. Speaking on the community's stand on the CAB and ST status issues, All Moran Students' Union President Arunjyoti Moran said, "We have been demanding ST status for a long time now. The last Congress government didn't take any step on the issue; then there have been several meetings with the current BJP government too, including Prime Minister Modi. A modality committee was formed, but as the modality committee didn't file its report on time, it didn't happen. We are unhappy now because the BJP government failed to fulfill the promise due to which they got so many seats in Assam. Had there been a good alternative party here in Assam, we would've directly voted for it. We are not much interested in this election."
Tea tribes are also angry over the BJP’s non-fulfilment of the daily wage issue, while they do not seem to be much bothered about ST status during this poll season. The Koch Rajbongshis are demanding a separate state as well, in addition to special status, none of which have been fulfilled. The Chutia community is also in a dilemma over whether to vote for the BJP again, according to a source who wanted to remain anonymous. In such a scenario, although the ruling BJP had received a huge mandate in Assam in the previous Parliamentary elections in 2014, this time it seems the ruling party's fate depends mostly on people's conscience, and people do not seem to be happy.
First published in Newsclick.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.