||Ethnic Fratricide and the Autonomous Councils of Assam
August 01, 2013 | Navaneeta Deori Web Exclusives
, Fratricide, Bodoland
Assam is idyllically located as an entry point to Northeast India. It has a blend of population belonging from diverse cultures and beliefs. However troubled relations have emerged between different communities (tribes and non-tribes) of the region which have been exacerbated by various militant activities. A majority of the ethnic groups/ tribes resides in the three autonomous councils of Assam. These autonomous councils fall under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and have been vested with a special provision to self administer. But self-governance under the autonomous councils has not fulfilled the aims and aspirations of its people. Often there are ethnic conflicts in these areas and there is constant struggle for self-determination initiated by various militant groups. There were more than 30 insurgent groups active in Assam, each trying to preserve and assert their tribal identity. In 2011 and 2012 almost all the major militant outfits have laid down arms and some of them are involved in peace talks with the Central government and the Assam government. Nevertheless other militant outfits are not only active in the Autonomous Councils but also creating disturbances in rest of Assam.
In undivided Assam, most of the hilly regions inhabited by tribal population fell under Article 244 (2) of Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The provisions brought a process of decentralisation which enables the tribal population to have separate laws for the governance and administration of these areas. This provision also allows them to preserve their distinct identity, history, customary practices and traditional beliefs. Gradually states like Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh was formed after territorially separating from Assam. The twin hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao remained under the state of Assam with exclusive politico-administrative powers under the Sixth Schedule provisions of the Indian Constitution.
These areas do not have a homogeneous culture which is the root cause of conflicts between them.
Within the common political boundary of Assam there are manifold communities with varied ethnic backgrounds. Though the Assamese language is widely spoken by the people who can be largely termed as non –tribals, there are tribal communities residing in the state. They are the Bodos of western Assam, Dimasas of North Cachar Hills, Karbis of Karbi Anlong and other tribes are Miris, Tiwas, Kacharis, Deoris, Rabhas, etc who reside in the plains and hills of Assam making the state a multi-ethnic society. Earlier they were the sub branch/part of the Assamese ethnicity. Though most of them have shared common history of rulers and tribulations from invaders, they have still managed to preserve their customs and traditions. Since each of these tribal groups have their own distinctive ethnic identity, it is with this attribute that they assert the cultural differences with the Assamese speaking community who they perceive to be a part of the larger Indian society.
It is perplexing to understand as to why the tribal groups are asserting their self-identity in recent times. Perhaps some assumptions can be made in this regard. The gradual shift from being a part of the Assamese society to assertion of one’s own identity comes from the fact that majority lived in penury with no assistance from the state government. They believed that this negligence on the part of the government was because they were distinct from the mainstream Assamese people and they were excluded from the developmental processes. However it’s a fact that much of these autonomous councils have failed to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people. According to the Annual Health Survey, 2011, conducted by the Government of India in 284 districts of eight states including Assam, the highest Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in the country was in Kokrajhar, at 76. Moreover in last six decades Assam itself is going through rapid demographic transformation with lakhs of infiltrators coming from across the border, occupying the lands of the tribal and non-tribal people. Hence, different communities have expressed their dissent through movements that can be broadly characterised as ethno-nationalistic, demanding for greater political autonomy or complete secession. Hence Assam an integral part of the north east is no exception. It has its own share of conflicts which are protracted and complex. From anti-foreign agitations to demand for a separate state by dominant tribal communities, conflict has been regular phenomenon of post-independence politics of the region. Ethnic conflicts and cleansing among the communities of Bodos -Santhal, Assamese-Bengali people, Dimasa-Zeme Nagas, Kuki-Karbis in last two decades have aggravated acts of political violence and internal displacement of thousands of people.
The Bodo community of western Assam, the largest tribal community of the region, attained an autonomous council for themselves in 2003. Yet they have been demanding for greater autonomy i.e. to have a separate state called ‘Bodoland’. The Bodo population who reside in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), in fact have a mixed population consisting of tribal and non-tribal people. It is paradoxical that even though these areas are given special constitutional powers for integration among tribes yet there exist internal feuds within the communities due to ideological differences in context to their aspirations for their communities.
Over all, in present day Assam there are three Autonomous Councils, the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC), North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (renamed as Dima Hasao Autonomous Council) (DHAC) and the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD). These Councils have special provisions under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The political autonomy was provided to these regions in order to have a territorial identity for safeguarding their tribal rights, custom and traditions. However due to absence of homogeneity of tribes, the majority tribes overpower the minority tribes resulting into ethnic clashes. This remains an inevitable fact since the Autonomous councils are named after the majority tribe residing there. Hence the minority tribes, on the basis of their historical origin, assert their identity through coercive ways, since the majority tribes constantly resort to ethnic cleansing to demonstrate their control and authority over the region. From early 1990s onwards, insurgency in the Autonomous Councils has become a regular feature with sporadic ethnic violence resulting in bloodshed and hatred among the ethnic groups.
The Autonomous Councils of Assam:
The federal character of the Indian state becomes apparent with the provisions of autonomy given to a group of people on the basis of preserving the ethnic identities and ‘preservation of traditional authority (Barbora 2002:1288)’. These are called as Autonomous District Councils (ADC) which have less power than states but more than local governments; they are intended to incorporate their predominantly tribal populations, as communities, into the Indian state (Stuligross1999: 498). As such the tribe in India, as recognised by the state machinery for the purpose of special protection on grounds of social justice, is basically a politico-administrative category and generally devoid of the classical consideration of sociology, anthropology and economics (Dutta 1993: 1). While formulating these provisions of providing territorial autonomy, the policy makers considered the basic characteristics that they were all indigenous groups coming under the larger community what is termed as the Scheduled Tribes (ST) under the Indian Constitution. But their cultural diversity was not taken into consideration. Hence in the coming years such administrative and territorial autonomy led to discontent among the minority tribal and non tribal groups. Moreover other discrepancies in governance and differences among the ethnic groups led to unrest in these regions.
Among the tribal populations of Assam the Bodos consist of more than 40 % of the Scheduled Tribes population, residing mostly in the Brahmaputra valley. Amalendu Guha comments that on the basis of the Census of 1881, in the late 19th century the Bodos formed one third of the indigenous population of the Brahmaputra valley (Dutta1993: 2). They now reside in majority in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Councils (BTAD) consisting of four districts namely Baksha, Kokrajhar, Chirang and Udalguri with a total population of 36,37567 (Report of the Expert Committee 2006: 28). The BTAD is included under the constitutional provision of the Sixth Schedule with the objective of bringing about economic development and also preserve the land rights and cultural identity of the Bodos. According to Sanjib Baruah, there are certain challenges in creating a separate homeland for the Bodos. The Bodos who are demanding significant portion of the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, comprise of 1.1 million or 11.5 percent of the total population, hence some of the areas cannot be turned easily into Bodoland.
In November 1951, a new district, the United Mikir and North Cacher Hills was formed and in 1970, they were divided into two districts called the Mikir Hills district and the North Cachar Hills district. In 1976 the Mikir hills district was renamed as Karbi Anglong. In 1986, the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), spearheaded the movement for a separate state that led in 1995 to a memorandum of understanding with the Assam Government that granted greater powers to the hill councils in both districts as per the Constitution’s sixth schedule (Elusive Identities 2005: 5351).The North Cachar Hills, is an autonomous district located on the north of Karbi-Anglong, neighbouring the district of Nagaon, a part of Manipur and Nagaland. On 1 April 2010, the state government of Assam renamed North Cachar Hills district as Dima Hasao District (Dutta2012: 74). The district is a melting pot of various ethnic groups, an amalgamation of several cultures and religions. The Dimasa consist of 58.46% of the total population and the other tribes belong from the Zeme Nagas, Kukis, Hmars, Karbis, Bietes, Jaintias, Hrangkhols, Khelmas, Viapheis etc. The Kukis are in majority in the Singhason Hill area and the Hmars population is scattered around the Cachar and the North Cachar Hills district.
In the last couple of decades there have been several incidents of violence between different ethnic groups and communities claiming for land and territory. The Karbi and the Dimasa militant groups aimed for socio-cultural and economic upliftment and also greater political autonomy/separate state to administer their region. They also demand that the non tribal population residing in the area after 1951 should evict their land and resources. One of the major reasons of conflict among the militant groups of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills is that the aims and aspirations which they have are common to each other. Since they share the same territorial area, their demand for a separate state for their ethnic group jeopardises the other ethnic groups. Hence a Karbi state or a Dimaraji (dimasa kingdom), will obviously be at the risk of the other ethnic groups and communities. The Karbis demand for a separate state includes areas beyond the Karbi Anglong district - they also want to include the Karbi-dominated areas of Assam (Nagaon, Morigaon and Kamrup districts) and Meghalaya (Ri-bhoi district). The Dimasa militant group on the other hand demands for the creation of Dimaraji Kingdom, comprising of the Dimasa dominated areas of the North Cachar Hills, Karbi Anglong, parts of Nagaon and parts of Dimapur. The idea to have a separate homeland for these communities has resulted into forced migrations of other minority groups and fierce competition for land and resources. Moreover ethnic clashes between the two major ethnic groups the Karbis and the Dimasas have created a lot of bloodshed and hatred for each other.
The ethnic violence initiated by the insurgent groups is not limited to the autonomous councils but their activity is widespread in the region. On 17 May 2012, an umbrella body of 47 Bodo civil society organisations staged a protest for formation of a separate state of Bodoland and have also submitted a memorandum to Assam Governor Mr. J.B. Patnaik. Since the movement for separate Bodoland is being re-launched again there have been recent reports of agitation by the non-Bodos against the proposed Bodoland, it is likely that in near future more violence may erupt between the Bodos and non-Bodos, disrupting normal lives of these regions. Moreover the past ethnic cleansing had done by the Bodo militants and the fratricidal clashes in the BTAD area have created a sense of insecurity for the people.