Sword of Constitution (ST) Amendment Bill, 2019 hangs over Sarbananda Sonowal as Assam CM walks tightrope over expansion of Scheduled Tribe list

The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 tabled by the Narendra Modi government in the Rajya Sabha on 9 January that seeks to expand the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Assam is hanging like the Sword of Damocles over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal.

Lack of clarity on constitutional rights to be enjoyed by the communities after the expansion of the list has aggrieved the existing ST groups as well as the six communities proposed to be included. Slightest mistake in handling the issue has the potential to expose deep ethnic faultlines created by territory-linked identity movements in the northeastern state.

Six communities — Koch-Rajbongshi, Maran, Matak, Chutiya, Tai Ahom and Adivasis/Tea tribes have been demanding ST status for long while organisations of existing ST communities have been maintaining that they are not opposed to granting ST status to the six communities, but it should not affect the constitutional rights and reservations enjoyed by the existing ST groups.

The bill tabled by the Modi government proposes to include Koch-Rajbongshi, Maran, Matak, Chutiya, Tai Ahom and 36 Adivasi/Tea Tribe communities in paragraph II of Part II of the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 which refers to the areas in Assam including Bodoland Territorial Area District under Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and excluding hill districts of Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglog districts under the jurisdiction of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) and Dima Hasao district under Dima Hasao Autonomous Council( DHAC). The bill states that decision to include the new communities in the ST list "on the basis of recommendation of the State of Assam."

A day after the bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha on the last day of the Winter Session, the lone Bodoland People's Front (BPF) member in the House, Biswajit Daimary dashed a list of suggestions to the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh for protection of the existing ST communities.

Daimary suggested that if the proposed new tribes are included in Part II of the Scheduled Tribes list of Assam then the ST list for BTC should be listed separately as Para III. He also suggested that Article 330 and 332 should be amended to ensure that the existing seats in the Lok Sabha and in state assembly reserved for ST are not reserved for the new tribes. In the 126-member Assam Assembly 16 seats are reserved for STs. Of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the state 2 are reserved for ST.

On 11 January, the Coordination Committee for Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA) called for an Assam Bandh to protest the bill which affected normal life different areas. A BPF delegation led by its chief Hagrama Mahilary also called on the Union Home Minister on January 12 and urged him to ensure that constitutional rights enjoyed by the existing STs in the BTC are not extended to the new ST groups.

Sword of Constitution (ST) Amendment Bill, 2019 hangs over Sarbananda Sonowal as Assam CM walks tightrope over expansion of Scheduled Tribe listRajnath Singh assured the Bodo leaders that this decision to grant ST status to the six communities "will be implemented only after ensuring that the political and employment related privileges and rights of the existing tribes in Assam are fully protected. Necessary modalities for this will be worked out by the State Government in consultation with all the stakeholders."

Rajnath told the Lok Sabha that the Union government had waived the requirement of Cabinet approval for moving the bill in parliament and added that "full safeguards will be provided to protect the interests, rights and privileges of existing Scheduled Tribes of Assam."

On 14 January, the Assam government constituted a five-member Group of Ministers to be headed by Finance, Health and Public Works Department Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to recommend measures for protection of rights of existing ST groups as well as the benefits to be extended to the proposed ST communities. The committee has been asked to 1) determine quantum of reservation for six communities in the states, 2) suggest revised quantum of reservation of OBC after creation of a new ST category in Assam; 3) suggest measures ensuring full safeguard to protect the interests, rights and privileges of the existing Scheduled Tribes.

The notification on constitution of the GoM issued by the Sonowal government on 13 January indicated that the six communities would be clubbed under a new ST category. Assam currently has two categories of STs — ST (Plains) who enjoys reservation in plains areas and ST (Hills) who enjoy reservations in the three hill districts — Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.

However, the constitution of the GoM after tabling the bill in the Rajya Sabha has not gone down well with the organisations of the six communities and they have demanded the Modi government to demonstrate its sincerity on granting ST status to the six communities by passing the bill in both the Houses of parliament during the budget session. Some of these organisations have expressed reservation over clubbing the six communities in a new ST category and threatened to launch agitation if the government fails to clarify its position.

Constitution of the GoM has added to the confusion if the six communities that would come into the ST fold would enjoy the same constitutional rights of contesting and getting elected from the seats kept reserved for STs in the autonomous council, Assam Assembly and in the Lok Sabha as the bill tabled in the Rajya Sabha has not specifically says anything on distinguishing the new and the existing ST communities.

A 12-hour Assam Bandh called by the Adivasi Jatiyo Mahasabha on 18 January to protest exclusion of over 70 Adivasi communities in Assam from the purview of the bill and supported by organisations representing the six communities- affected normal life in different parts of Assam. Adivasi Jatiyo Mahasabha, the All Assam Tea Tribe Students' Association and other organisations have flayed both the Central and the state government for including only 36 of the total 108 Adivasi/Tea Tribe communities in Assam in the bill. These organisations have asked the government to desist from playing "divisive politics" and warned that the ruling BJP would have to face tough challenge if all the 108 Adivasi/Tea Tribe communities were not granted the ST status.

After the Asom Gana Parishad walked out of the BJP-led ruling coalition to protest the Citizenship ( Amendment) Bill, 2019, the Sonowal government has now become dependent on the support of the 12 legislators of the BPF as the BJP is short of three seats of the magic number of 64 in the House of 126-member Assam Assembly.

The three autonomous councils — BTC, KAAC and DHAC are under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution which enjoy Legislative, Administrative and Financial autonomy in respect of the subjects delegated to these council.

Assam also has six autonomous councils created under acts passed by the Assam Assembly —  three created in 1995- Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC), Mising Autonomous Council (MAC), Tiwa Autonomous Council (TAC), and three created in 2005 — Deori Autonomous Council(DAC), Sonowal Kachari Autonomous Council (SKAC) and Thengal Kachari Autonomous Council (TKAC).

Even though the nomenclature of these autonomous councils is after the majority Scheduled Tribe community in the jurisdictions under these councils, other ST communities can also enjoy the political rights such as contesting and getting elected to the autonomous council bodies as seats are reserved in these councils for Scheduled Tribes.

BTC has 40 seats - 30 reserved for ST, 5 reserved for non-ST and 5 seats are open. Elections to the BTC is due in 2020.

RHAC, MAC and TAC have 36 seats each — 21 reserved for ST, for 4 reserved for ST women, 2 unreserved women and 9 unreserved seats. SKAC has 26 seats — 15 reserved for ST, 5 reserved for ST women, 5 unreserved, one reserved for general category, TKAC has 22 seats — 18 reserved for ST, 3 reserved for ST women, one reserved for general category, DAC has 18 seats — 14 reserved for ST, 3 reserved for ST women, one for general category.

Each of these six autonomous councils under state acts has Core and Satellite Areas. The Satellite Areas consists of non-contiguous cluster of villages predominantly inhabited by Scheduled Tribes population having 50 per cent and above as a whole in the cluster and not necessarily in the individual villages. It defines the "Core Areas" to be the compact and contiguous areas predominantly inhabited by Scheduled Tribes population having 50 per cent and above as a whole in the area and not necessarily in the individual villages.

Among the six new communities proposed to be granted ST status, Koch Rajbnoghsis and the Adivasis have significant population in BTAD. The GoM constituted by Sonowal government faces a daunting task to prevent bitter memories of a series violent ethnic conflict triggered by miscreants among Bodo and Adivasi communities in the past is not revived over the ST issue and disturb fragile peace in BTAD areas. A series of ethnic conflicts in 1996, 1998 and in 2014 led to displacement of lakhs of Bodo and Adivasi people and claimed several hundred lives but the two communities have been living in harmony leaving behind such bitter past.

BTAD covers an area of 8970 km and has total population of 31,55,359 ( 2011 Census). ST population in BTAD is 8,77,044 and the Bodos account for 90 per cent of the total ST population. BTC evolved as New Delhi, Dispur and Bodo organisations experimented different power and governance sharing models over the past more than three decades since the Bodos launched movement for creation of separate state of Bodoland. All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) has revived its statehood demand and claims that BTC has failed to fulfil the aspiration of the Bodo people. On the other hand, organisations of Koch Rajbongshis including the All Koch Rajbonghshi Studets Union (AKRSU) have been demanding creation of separate Kamatapur state and ST status to Koch Rajbongshis. Territories of demanded Bodoland State and Kamatapur state overlap.

In a bid to counter growing opposition against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in the state, the BJP-led coalition government claimed that the ST status to the six communities and Constitutional Safeguard under clause 6 of Assam Accord would make Assam "an invincible fort of indigenous people."

However, the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill triggering discontentment among both the existing ST communities and the new communities proposed, Sonowal has no option but to keeping walking the tightrope to keep everyone happy.

The author is a senior journalist and editor of NEZINE

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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 12:50:09 IST

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