On July 3, many parts of Assam were shut down because of a 12-hour Assam bandh called by groups claiming to represent six communities living in the state. The groups – Moran, Muttock, Koch Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Sutia and the Adivasi or tea tribes – have been demanding that they be accorded Scheduled Tribes status. Slogans of “No ST, no rest” marked the bandh in various parts of the state.

The six communities hope to benefit from the advantages of reservation in education and government employment that their classification as Scheduled Tribes will bring them.

Theirs is not a new demand, but one that gained momentum after Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged it during a rally in Bongaigaon, in the run up to the 2014 general elections. Modi had then also held an informal meeting with representatives of these six communities at the governor’s residence in Assam’s capital Guwahati, where he is said to have expressed his support for the demand.

Hitesh Barman, the president of the All Koch Rajbongshi Students’ Union, an organisation that represents the Koch Rajbongshi community, was one of the people who attended the meeting. “He told us categorically that if the BJP came to power and if he became prime minister, the government would grant us ST [Scheduled Tribe] status within 100 days,” claimed Barman.

Broken promises?

Much water has flown down the Brahmaputra since. Most significantly, the BJP came to power in Assam in 2016, ousting the Congress. In the run-up to the Assembly elections, the saffron party again threw its weight behind the demand. In its vision document, the party stated that if elected it would work in “close co-operation with the central government towards providing ST [Scheduled Tribe] status to the six communities of Assam in a strict time bound manner”.

Over a year after the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the government in Assam, the demand remains unfulfilled. Enraged leaders of the six communities now say that they feel that the BJP took them for a ride in order to advance its own political interests in the state.

“They should just say if they don’t want to do it,” said Barman. “We have held enough meetings, tolerated enough delay already. We could do without this uncertainty.”

Barman added that the Janagosti Oikya Mancha, an umbrella body of the various organisations representing the six communities, planned to organise a statewide rail and economic blockade on July 11. “If they do not listen even then, we will call for an indefinite Assam bandh,” he said. “We are done with meetings now.”

A slew of meetings

Over the past two years, the Janagosti Oikya Mancha has held a series of meetings with Union ministers and bureaucrats in connection with the issue. The first ever official meeting after the Modi government came to power took place on August 6, 2015, at the official residence of Assam’s current Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was then Union minister for sports and youth affairs. The meeting was attended by Union Minister for Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram. Not much came out of it.

The next meeting took place on February 29, 2016, a few months before the Assembly elections in Assam, as the BJP stepped up its campaigning in the state. Attended by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh among others, the meeting led to the formation of a committee under a home ministry official Mahesh Kumar Singla. The committee was to “recommend the modalities for granting of Scheduled Tribe status” to the six tribes, a move that the Janagosti Oikya Mancha viewed as a step in the right direction. The committee was supposed to submit its report by the end of May that year.

The deadline came and went, but there was no sign of the report. By then, the BJP had emerged victorious in the Assam Assembly elections, and Sonowal had been sworn in as chief minister. According to a post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 49% of the population of the six communities demanding Scheduled Tribe status voted for the BJP, significantly eating into the Congress’ vote share. During the 2011 Assembly elections, the corresponding number was 33%.

On June 23, 2016, another meeting followed, where the Singla committee asked for more time, claiming that the change in guard in the state government resulted in a delay. The community representatives relented, extending the deadline by another three months.

The committee missed the deadline yet again, and the Janagosti Oikya Mancha took to the streets. In October, it called for a 36-hour Assam bandh, bringing the state to a grinding halt.

It was on April 24 that the two parties again sat down for a meeting in Delhi. Its attendees claim that tensions ran high in the meeting. Chief Minister Sonowal was criticised for not attending it even though he was in the national capital. Kiren Rijiju, the Union minister of state for home affairs assured the delegation from Assam that the report would be ready by June 30.

The report still remains elusive. “We waited patiently till June 30,” said Barman. “Now we are done.”

Arunjyoti Moran, president of the All Assam Moran Students Union, which represents the Moran community, blamed the state government for the delay. “It is very clear that the state government is not playing its part,” he alleged.

The spokesperson of the BJP’s Assam unit defended the delay, saying that the government did not have a “magic wand”. “The Congress sat on it [the issue] for years,” he said. “But we have been consistently engaging with the stakeholders. The government, both at the Centre and the state, is committed to it.”

Complex calculations

However, the delay may not just be a case of bureaucratic snarl. A senior BJP leader from Assam, who did not want to be identified, said that the matter was more complex than it appeared. “There are a lot of technical issues,” he said. “For instance, consider the tea tribes – which comprise so many communities. There is no problem according ST [Scheduled Tribe] status to the Orangs, but it is much more complicated for, say, the Ghatowars.”

In Assam, as many as 96 communities, including the Orangs and Ghatowars, are classified as tea tribes.

Also at stake are other political calculations. The state’s other Scheduled Tribes have expressed their reservations about any more communities being included in the Scheduled Tribe list.

Aditya Khaklari of the Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organisations of Assam, an umbrella group of organisations representing Scheduled Tribes in the state, said that the demand was “nothing but a conspiracy to destroy the existing tribals”.

Said Khaklari: “Most of these communities are fairly advanced, and if some of them are economically backward, they already enjoy benefits under the OBC [Other Backward Classes] quota. If they are given ST [Scheduled Tribe] status, Assam’s original STs will be overwhelmed and nowhere.”

All the six communities demanding Scheduled Tribe status are currently included in the Other Backward Classes list. The Muttock, Moran and Sutiya communities are exclusive to upper Assam. The Koch Rajbongshis are considered a Scheduled Tribe in Meghalaya and a Scheduled Caste in West Bengal. The Tai Ahoms are found in small numbers in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, but they are not in the state’s list of Scheduled Tribes.

Arunjyoti Moran of the All Assam Moran Students Union alleged that the opposition by groups representing existing Scheduled Tribes was “politically engineered by the state government”. Shortly after our first meeting in August 2015, we had a meeting with all tribal organisations of the state, and they expressed no reservations. So where is it coming from now?”

However, if these six communities are included in the state’s Scheduled Tribes list, it will impact more than just the existing tribes in the list. Political analysts feel it will change the state’s political character for good.

According to the 2011 Census, Assam’s population is 31 million (3.1 crore). Currently, the tribal population of the state is estimated to be around four million (40 lakh), accounting for little less than 13% of the state’s total population. If and when these six communities are extended Scheduled Tribe status, the state’s tribal population is expected to balloon to over 50% of the total population.

If this happens, the number of Assembly seats reserved for tribals in the 126-seat state legislature will increase considerably. This, analysts predict, may lead to parties like the Muslim-centric All India United Democratic Front, perceived to gain its political currency largely from the allegedly immigrant Muslim migrants, being rendered insignificant.

The illegal immigrant angle

Those who support the demand of these six communities have often argued that such a situation would go a long way in dealing with the problem of illegal immigration into Assam from Bangladesh, as it would disenfranchise alleged illegal immigrants for all practical purposes. The areas where the six communities live, particularly in lower Assam, overlap with areas where Bengali-speaking Muslims live. They are viewed with suspicion as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The new reserved constituencies would undercut the votes of the Bengali-speaking Muslims, it is argued.

Illegal immigration has long been a major electoral issue in Assam. Assam is currently in the process of counting its population and updating its National Register of Citizens in a bid to detect illegal immigrants.

Political scientist Sanjib Baruah said that the current set of demands were the result of the government’s failure to implement the 1985 Assam Accord, according to which those who came to the state after midnight on March 24, 1971, do not qualify for citizenship. The main purpose of the Accord was to detect illegal migrants, delete their name from the voters’ list and then deport them. The issue of illegal immigrants in Assam is one of the United Liberation Front of Assam’s pet peeves too. Morans and Muttocks formed a large part of its cadre, so there is the disillusionment among people of these communities too, he said.

But Baruah cautioned against a solution that involved “opportunistic political engineering”. Increasing the total number of reserved seats in the Assam Assembly will effectively exclude a large segment of Assam’s population from political representation, he warned.