Guwahati: “Meri izzat chali gayi us din (I lost my honour that day),” said Laxmi Orang as she remembered the darkest day of her life when she, a 16-year-old then, was stripped naked on the streets of Beltola in Guwahati while participating in a rally demanding Scheduled Tribe status for the Adivasis/tea tribe communities of the state.
On November 24, 2007, Laxmi was forcibly disrobed, thrashed and paraded naked by an unruly mob as the rally she was participating turned violent.
Over 10 years and hundreds of protests later, today, neither the perpetrators of the crime have been brought to justice nor has her community of over 60 lakh tea garden workers has been recognised as a Scheduled Tribe (ST).
Laxmi said, “Every government, be it the Congress or BJP, has cheated us. Every time before the election, the political parties rant about granting ST status to the Adivasi community of the state and after winning the polls, they forget us.”
Promises of granting ST status to the community was once again tossed by the ruling BJP recently.
In January, Union home minister Rajnath Singh made an announcement that a bill to declare six communities in Assam as ST will be introduced in Parliament soon.
The Union Cabinet has approved the proposal and a bill to this effect will be brought soon.
The communities that are proposed to be extended the ST status include Koch Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Chutiya, Matak, Moran and some 36 Adivasi tea tribes residing in the state. The timing of the announcement, however, was questioned by many.
“Before he became the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, during one of his election rallies in Assam, had promised the status to the six communities who form a major vote bank in the state. Now when his term is almost coming to an end and he is eyeing the PM seat again, the government came up with the same promises again. If their intentions were honest, the ST status would have been granted by now,” Laxmi said.
During a poll campaign in Assam in April in 2014, Modi had said that if brought to power, his government would grant ST status to the six communities in Assam within six months. “This government (UPA) in power for the past 10 years in Delhi can’t give you ST status. Ask the PM, he will not respond to your cause. They have no commitment to people,” he had said then.
For Laxmi, the promise of granting ST status to her community has been a ‘tried-and-tested poll issue’.
Laxmi, who is now actively involved in empowering Adivasi women, has yet again decided to renew her movement demanding ST status and has decided to hit the streets from February 12.
In a recent letter to the Prime Minister’s Office, she wrote, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi says ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’. Aren’t Adivasi women betis (daughters) of the state?”
The All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) assistant secretary Rajen Orang said, “Laxmi is a living example of oppression, injustice and the sorry state of the Adivasi people in the state. The previous Congress government in the state played politics over the issue for 15 years and when the BJP came up with fresh promises of granting ST status within six months’ time if voted to power, the community people easily fell for it. However, even the BJP has made a fool of us.”
The Adivasi community people were first brought to the state by the British from central India’s Chhotanagpur plateau for tea cultivation during the early 19th Century.
Since then the community is the backbone of the state’s famous tea industry. According to the 2011 Census, the community constituted about 20% of the state’s population residing across several districts of western, central and upper Assam.
Ironically, Adivasi communities across the states fall under the ST bracket. However, these groups are deprived of the same in Assam on the ground that the list of STs is accorded for each state or Union Territory and is valid only within that particular jurisdiction. The list of ST community is usually state-specific and a community declared as ST in one state, does not necessarily receive the same recognition in other states.
“Without the ST status, the Adivasi communities in Assam are highly vulnerable. While they do not enjoy rights as forest dwellers like other tribal groups, Adivasis have been a constant victim of evictions and other harassment from various local groups, militant outfits and even government agencies,” said Santosh Lakra, a lawyer.
Over 1,400 Adivasi families living in Ripu-Chirang forests in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts (bordering Bhutan), were evicted in 2010.
In December 2014, a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) militant group gunned down 67 settlers from the community in Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts alleging that they were infiltrating in their areas and police spies.
The long-term denial and violence against the communities has also resulted in hundreds of Adivasi youth in the state taking up arms.
In the early 2000s, the state witnessed an upsurge of five such groups — the All Adivasi National Liberation Army, Adivasi Cobra Militant Army, Birsa Commando Force, Santhal Tiger Force and Adivasi People’s Army.
However, these groups laid down their arms in 2012 when erstwhile home minister P Chidambaram had promised to grant ST status to their communities.
Birsing Munda, former commander-in-chief of the Birsa Commando Force, said, “Both Delhi and Dispur cheated us. If the government doesn’t grant ST status to us soon, we will be compelled to rethink our strategy.”
Last year in March, train services of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) were disrupted by Adivasi groups following which the Centre held a discussion with representatives of the tea workers’ communities in New Delhi. However, the meeting reportedly ‘failed’.
Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal recently said the matter of granting ST status to six communities of the state, including the tea tribe, would be finalised soon.
He said both the Centre and state governments have taken effective steps to accord ST status to these communities to protect the interests of the indigenous communities and the unique identity of the state.
However, the Coordination Committee of Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA), a conglomeration of several tribal groups of the state, opposed the government move saying that granting of ST status to the six communities, including the Adivasis, will severely affect the growth and reservation of existing ST communities of the state.
The conglomeration had also recently called for an Assam bandh which evoked a mix response.
Responding to the objection of the existing tribal groups, Sonowal has said ST status would be granted to these six communities without affecting the rights and privileges of the existing tribal communities.
Laxmi now feared the state government might come out with provisions which may restrict the communities from enjoying complete benefits under the ST status.
“Adivasi communities from across the country have been enjoying ST status with all the facilities and reservation available under it. We too are not going to compromise for anything less than that. If the government is planning to grant us ST status with limited benefits of reservation and rights, the Adivasi people are not going to accept it. Only an ‘absolute’ ST status can take away some pain from my life and do justice to my lifelong struggle,” she said.
Meanwhile, a group of Adivasi youths with the support of several other community leaders has floated a new political party — the Adivasi National Party Assam (ANPA) on January 29 in Biswanath district of the state.
“The community has been betrayed by all political parties who have treated us only as a vote bank. This political party will be the voice of the community and take this fight for our legitimate right to the next level. We welcome everyone from all other communities to join us in this movement,” said Biren Mirdha, working president of ANPA.
Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.