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The Adivasi Question In Assam

By Moirangthem Prakash

17 December 2007

It is unfortunate that the Adivasi student body went on a rampage while rallying to press for inclusion of Santal Adivasis and other tea tribes in the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Assam on November 24, 2007. Equally condemnable is the brutal retaliation of local residents who attacked the rallyists, leading to the killing of one person and injury of more than 250 people. Even greater was the shameful act in which the retaliators publicly stripped one of the female protestors.

However, this is not the first incident of attacking outsiders in the state. We have repeatedly witnessed the killing of Hindi speaking migrants over the last few years. In the light of this continuing violence, and particularly the recent clash, we could observe an emerging issue – the conflict between Adivasis and Scheduled Tribes (ST).

It seems to be strange to hear of an Adivasis Vs Tribals conflict. But the conflict does exist in Assam. The word 'Adivasi' denotes tribes in other parts of the country, but not in the Northeast. Tribes in the region are better known as Scheduled Tribes (ST). Even if two nomenclatures are given for a single group, why are there conflicts between them? Because these are not merely two names identifying a single community; these are two different communities in Assam.

STs are the indigenous tribes of the state, while Adivasis are the tribes from other states who are currently residing in the state. They came from the regions of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa a long time back and have been working as labourers in the tea gardens. Adivasis, including tea tribe communities, are not Scheduled Tribes in Assam and they have been demanding such status for a long time.

STs of the state, no doubt, are against the Adivasis' demand of ST status. Not only the inclusion of Adivasis in the list of ST will reduce their share, they consider themselves under threat from the Adivasis (as well as other migrants from Bihar and Bengal) in the last few decades on economic, social and ethnic grounds. The violent manner in which the local residents retaliated to the adivasi rallyists is partly a reflection of their hostility against the 'outsider' Adivasis.

Although the Adivasis were brought to work in tea gardens initially, as there were acute shortages of labour supply, they are no more in need today as the number of unemployed local residents have increased tremendously in the last couple of decades. Another important aspect is that these migrant labourers are ready to work at a minimal wages, having no other options, while the local Assamese demand higher wages. When a local Assamese labourer demands fifty rupees, migrant labourers are ready to work even at twenty rupees. For this obvious reason, employers prefer migrant labourers and Adivasis. Thus, local Assamese find it difficult to get jobs and in turn blame the migrants.

Not only creating a tough competitive environment for getting job in the state, the outsiders are also seen as threatening the identity of the sons of the soil. Many have settled in the state and their increasing number is alarming the ethnic groups. Particularly in Assam and other parts of Northeast, the original inhabitants are outnumbered by outsiders. Assames and Tripuris are effectively minorities in their own states and the same is going to witnessed soon in Manipur and Meghalaya also, creating the region a fertile dumping ground for overpopulated mainland India. Thus, conflict starts with economic causes and transforms into ethnic and communal ones.

But, for the Adivasis, demanding ST status is not unreasonable. They have been staying there for many years, and neither in their home states nor in their resident state are they obtaining the advantages of STs. Keeping in mind the precarious living conditions of Adivasis, both the governments of home and resident states need to consider it seriously while not neglecting the interest of the indigenous tribes of the resident state.

The writer is a researcher at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi

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