Assam and Manipur have something in common ahead of the first phase of Lok Sabha election on April 11 — the demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for some dominant communities.
The Centre’s decision to grant ST status to six communities in Assam coincided with the move to get the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed in Parliament in January. The anger over the latter somewhat overshadowed the reaction to the former in the State, although some groups doubted the BJP’s intention.
After a brief lull, the ST status issue has resurfaced with both the BJP and the Congress claiming to be more sincere to the cause.
The six communities — Adivasi, Chutia, Koch-Rajbongshi, Matak, Moran, and Tai-Ahom — are currently in the OBC list. Together, they form a sizeable chunk of voters in at least nine of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha constituencies.
“ST status is a Congress brainchild. It was taken forward on our recommendation, but the BJP cheated the six communities with no clarity on how they will be accommodated beyond the existing quota,” State Congress president Ripun Bora said.
Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who heads a panel for settling the ST issue, said only the BJP can be true to the promise. “We have cleared the deck with the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes giving the nod to the proposal. We shall take it to a logical conclusion if voted back to power,” he said.
Mr. Sarma and Mr. Bora have been campaigning extensively for their respective parties.
Tribal groups, however, fear that the six communities – three of them used to rule large swathes of Assam and beyond until the advent of the British in the 1820s – would take away a major chunk of benefits if granted the ST status. The Coordination Committee of Tribal Organisations has asked the voters to be wary of any party that backs the move.
Hagrama Mohilary, chief of BJP’s ruling ally Bodoland People’s Front, said his party has no problem with the ST status issue. “We support it,” he said. His party is dominated by the Bodos, the largest plains tribe of the Northeast.
Meitei as tribe?
The demand for ST status for the Meitei community has gained currency in Inner Manipur, one of two Lok Sabha constituencies in the State where voting is scheduled for April 18, since the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee imposed a 30-hour shutdown across Imphal Valley to drive home the point.
Apart from a few Scheduled Castes, the largely Hindu Meiteis belong to the general category. They dominate the Imphal Valley that covers less than 20% of Manipur’s total land.
The State’s former Chief Secretary and Congress candidate O. Nabakishore Singh said the Meiteis deserve the ST status, which many feel would pave the way for safeguards that the Constitution provides to tribal-dominated areas of Manipur – the hills around Imphal Valley.
“We cannot ignore the people’s sentiments, as the Meiteis are becoming a minority. Even if not ST status, we are supporting constitutional protection for landownership and greater political representation,” BJP candidate R.K. Ranjan told The Hindu.
The United Tribal People Council of Manipur, however, sees in the push for ST status for Meiteis a design that could push Nagas, Kukis and other tribes to the brink. “Meiteis are one of the most advanced communities in the Northeast and do not qualify to be tribals,” the council’s president S. Azar said.