The first job that the officials at the Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park of Assam need to do on the morning of September 2 is change the signboard at the entrance gate as the state government has decided to do away with the name of Rajiv Gandhi and the park will now be officially recognised as Orang National Park, taking cognizance of the demands of Adivasi and tea tribes communities.
Speaking exclusively to News18, Gaurav Gogoi, Congress Member of Parliament from Assam, called the move “disrespectful”. “It is not just about Assam but what we have witnessed all over the country. It is utter disrespect for the prime ministers of the country who came from the Congress party, right from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi; we have seen how Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his supporters have constantly undermined the contribution of these leaders… PM Modi must not forget that all these former PMs have laid down their lives for the country.”
Located on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River in the Darrang and Sonitpur districts of Assam, the Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park covers an area of 78.80 sq km. It was declared a National Park on April 13, 1999. Orang is also known as mini Kaziranga because of its similar landscape of marshes, streams and grasslands. Like Kaziranga, it is also inhabited by the one-horned rhinoceros. According to the last census, the park is home to around 24 Royal Bengal Tigers and over 100 rhinos.
“It’s good that we shall have similar names for the Tiger Reserve and the National Park. The tiger reserve has always been Orang. Now we have to change the signboard, the letter heads and other insignia that bear the name of Rajiv Gandhi. However, besides the name change, the park deserves better infrastructure and exposure” says Pradipt Baruah, Divisional Forest Officer, Mangaldoi.
Orang National Park is the oldest forest reserve in the state. It was named a wildlife sanctuary in 1985 and declared a national park in 1999. In August 2005, the Congress government headed by Tarun Gogoi had decided to rename Orang National Park after the late Prime Minister on the 61st birth anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi.
In 1992, people living in the vicinity of the Orang National Park fiercely resisted the then Hiteswar Saikia government’s attempt to rename the wildlife sanctuary. The names of various national parks and forest reserves in Assam are inextricably linked to local cultures and attaching names of political personalities only takes away the local identity were the arguments. The only rhino sanctuary on the North Bank of the Brahmaputra was, until 1900, a large village inhabited by a tribe called Orang. Residents abandoned the area when water-borne diseases, mainly black fever, started taking a toll on the population.
The national park is named after the Oraon people, who are inhabitants of Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. Most of population are tea garden workers for centuries. According to the 2011 census, there are 73,437 Oraon people in Assam.
“We have only respected the sentiments of the adivasis and the tea tribe which made the request to the honourable chief minister of Assam to have this nomenclature changed 48 hours ago…In that particular meeting, even tall leaders of the Congress party, including former union minister Pawan Singh Gotowar, were present and they appreciated the decision” says Ashok Singhal, Urban Development Minister, Assam.
“They can do all the name change, history change but cannot wipe away the contributions of Rajiv Gandhi as the architect of future India. The computer and mobile phones that the BJP is using today to further their agenda of rewriting history was made available to them through the IT Revolution brought about by Rajiv Gandhi. Nobody can wipe away Rajjv Gandhi’s contribution towards women empowerment at grassroots through 33% reservation in panchayats, his encouragement of youth to engage in political decision making by reducing the age of voting from 21 to 18 years.
“Can we wipe away the contributions of Rajiv Gandhi towards bringing peace to Assam through Assam Accord? Can we deny that he made an elected Congress government of late Hiteswar Saikia resign to make way for AGP to contest elections and form government? That was Rajiv Gandhi who believed in listening to regional aspirations of the Assamese people. But today’s BJP would not understand such kind of politics,” countered Bobeeta Sharma, APPC Media in-charge.
In a major boost to tiger conservation in northeast India, and Assam in particular, Orang National Park was declared a tiger reserve, making it the fourth of its kind in the state and 49th in the country.
However, surrounded by villages on three sides, the borders of the park have turned hard, says Mubina Akhtar, wildlife activist ad columnist.
“I am happy with the decision. The national park should be the identity of the place and its people. Kaziranga, Manas, Dibru Saikhowa are all names of place or rivers and that should be the practice. However, more than the name, I feel that as the park is burdened by human habitation on three sides, the natural corridors of the animals are blocked and the government should take immediate steps to add buffer zones in the sides. This is the only connection to Kaziranga through Burasapori range. This allows cross breeding which is essential for the tiger population,” added Akhtar.