BTC experiment faces the acid test of expansion of the ST list in Assam
Speculations are rife over a report to be submitted on October 15 by an expert committee constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs on inclusion of six communities of Assam- Koch-Rajbongshis, Tai-Ahoms, Morans, Mataks, Adivasis and the Chutiyas in the list of Scheduled Tribes. However, the complexities of the problem explain why it has no easy answer and warrant an innovative approach to fine balance the aspirations fuelled by identity movements with socio-political realities.
The issue of inclusion of six communities in the list of Scheduled Tribes has posed a critical question on the fate of the Bodoland experiment of extending the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the India Constitution to the plains of Assam and creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
Prior to creation of the BTC, the autonomous councils under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule were created only in the hill areas of Assam and Tripura and in the two hill states Meghalaya Mizoram.
The Bodoland experiment is often showcased by Delhi and Dispur as an effective Constitutional mechanism to address the complex problems arising out of the territory-linked identity movements for ethno nationalist and ethno-cultural assertions.
This experiment led to creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council in 2003 under amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule granting the Bodos, the right to enjoy autnomy of self governance in a demarcated territory 8,795-square km demarcated territory known as the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) and comprising of four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. The official website of BTC bodoland.in states that the Scheduled Tribes, ( Bodos, Rabhas, the Garos and the Saranias) account for about 52 per cent in BTAD and the Bodos account for 90 per cent of them. Total population in BTAD is about 32 lakh (2011 Census).
Assam has three territorial councils under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule in which the three scheduled tribes- Bodos, the Karbis and the Dimasas enjoy autonomy to govern administration in the earmarked territories. These three autonomous councils are – the Bodoland Territorial Council, the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council. Besides, there are six satellite autonomous councils for six other schedule tribes of the state - the Misings, the Tiwas, the Rabhas, the Thengal Kacharis, the Sonowal Kacharis and the Deoris.
Nomenclatures of these autonomous councils notwithstanding, there is no provision for reservations of council seats for the majority tribe, and the council acts guarantee all Scheduled Tribes of these areas enjoy equal political rights. This means, the Koch-Rajbongshis and the Adivasis in BTAD areas will be eligible to contest BTC elections and get elected to the council body once they are included in the ST list along with four other communities.
The BTC model was articulated by Delhi and Dispur to draw the curtains on a six-year long vigorous and revived movement by Bodo groups demanding creation of a separate state. The Memorandum of Settlement by the underground leaders of erstwhile armed group Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) with Delhi and Dispur in 2003 paved the way for creation of the BTC.
The BTC has 46 seats of which 30 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, five for non-tribal communities, five open for all communities and the remaining six members are nominated by the Governor having same rights and privileges as other members, including voting rights, from amongst the un-represented communities of the BTAD, of which at least two shall be women.
Article 332(6) of the Constitution was amended for maintaining status-quo in representation of scheduled tribes and non-scheduled tribes from the BTAD in the state assembly as it was at the time of signing of the Bodo Accord in 2003. Hence, granting of ST status to the six communities will not automatically change the existing representation in the state assembly from BTAD areas until and unless fresh Constitutional amendments are made .
The act also provides that the Bodoland Territorial Council within its areas shall have power to make laws with respect to 40 subjects, provided that nothing in such laws shall extinguish or modify the existing rights and privileges of any citizen in respect of his land at the date of commencement of this Act; and
Extension of the provisions of the Sixth Schedule from the hills to the plains also fuelled hopes among some other existing ST groups in the state to have their own homeland in the form of territorial councils that will replace the existing satellite autonomous councils to ensure their self-rule in a demarcated and well defined territory. Organisations of the Rabhas, Tiwas and the Misings have been clamouring for more autonomy under the provisions of Sixth Schedule and creation of territorial councils to replace the existing satellite autonomous councils.
More than the worry that the social benefits would have to be shared with the six communities clamouring for ST status, the existing ST groups are more worried over likely loss of the political space currently enjoyed by them.
The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which is now in power at the Centre and in the state, is in catch-22 situation. It is under pressure to keep its poll promise of granting ST status to the six communities. With most political parties supporting the demand for inclusion of these six communities in the ST list, the BJP cannot afford to keep the issue pending for long. On the other hand, it was the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee which signed the peace accord with the erstwhile BLT while Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government was at the helm in the state. Former BLT chief turned BTC Chief Hagrama Mahilary –led Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) is also a partner in the present BJP-led coalition government in the state headed by Sarbananda Sonowal.
The Coordination Committee of Tribal Organisations of Assam, a banner organisation of ten organisations of exisitng Scheduled tribes in the state, have opposed ST status to the six communities on the ground that existing ST communities would be wiped out in elected bodies and in the competition for reserved quotas for education and government jobs. Assam currently has nine ST communities –Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, Rabhas, Tiwas, Misings, Sonowals, Hajongs, Garos and Deoris.
Leaders of the six communities which are eagerly awaiting the inclsuion in ST list, however, reject the apprehension expressed by the CCTOA and pointed out that the expansion of the ST list would not affect the interests of existing ST groups, and, instead it will only increase in ST quota in the state as a major section of the population currently enjoying the 27 per cent OBC quota will become ST. Besides, expansion of the ST list will lead to reservation of more seats in the state assembly and in the Lok Sabha for indigenous people, they add.
If the power equilibrium is offset in BTC by expansion of the ST list in Assam, then the demand for Bodo statehood is likely to get fresh momentum. On the other hand, denial of the Koch-Rajbangshis the ST status, for which they have been agitating for decades, is likely lead to the revival of the demand for Kamatapur state. Territories of demanded Bodoland and Kamatapur states overlap with each other.
Such political complexities have posed huge challenge before the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government in the state. All eyes are now on the report to be submitted by the expert committee as it is expected to shape the future politics in the state and more particularly in BTAD areas.