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Are Assam government’s new policies regarding indigenous people and Gorkhas an eyewash?

Six indigenous communities still denied Scheduled Tribe status, 85,000 Gorkhas excluded from NRC; verbal assurances not enough

Deborah Grey 12 Jul 2021

CommunitiesImage Courtesy:in.news.yahoo.com

On July 10, the government of Assam announced the creation of a new department to address the concerns of the state’s indigenous communities. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the formation of the Department of Indigenous Faith and Culture and told media persons, “We have a lot of tribes like Rabha, Boro, Mising, Moran and Matak. They have their own faith, customs, rituals and culture. This rich heritage needs to be preserved and promoted. This independent department will do that, not build roads and houses, for which we have the Department for Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes (DWPTBC).”

Now, what is interesting here is that he mentions two specific communities here: Moran and Matak. These two are part of six indigenous communities in Assam demanding a Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. The other four are Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia and Tea Tribes. It is noteworthy that the BJP government had promised to grant them Scheduled Tribes (ST) status in not one, but two successive state assembly election manifestos. But it has failed to walk the talk. The grant of ST status allows members certain social benefits such as reservations and exemptions, which these six communities do not enjoy at present.

The ST Conundrum

In the run up to the assembly elections in Assam this year, SabrangIndia had reported how in March, Adivasi groups led by All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) had questioned the BJP as to why it had failed to grant ST status to tea tribes.

If we step back a bit, even in September last year, instead of granting these communities ST status, the Assam State Assembly passed three bills to create autonomous councils for Moran, Matak, and Koch-Rajbongshis. In fact, the controversy grew when other indigenous groups demanded that ST status not be granted to these six communities.

The Indigenous Lawyers’ Association of India (ILAI) approached the Assam government saying granting of ST status to these six communities, who they do not consider tribal communities would destroy the concept of what is a tribal community. ILAI president Dilip Kanti Chakma was quoted by The Hindu as saying, “There are communities among the six who have never been considered as tribes by any government or anthropological study and they do not possess any characteristics that tribal people do. Hence, the Assam government’s proposed inclusion of some socio-economically advanced and populous communities in the list of STs is mala fide and it shall eliminate the very concept of ‘tribals’ in India.”

The ILAI had further claimed that including these communities in the list of the STs would be a violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which India is a signatory. As per the UN Declaration, prior and informed consent of indigenous people has to be sought before implementing any decision or legislative measure related to them. ILAI also said that this would impact political representation from Gram Sabha to the Lok Sabha of the existing STs of Assam.

Now, it appears that the Himanta Biswa Sarma government has found a way to bypass the ST demand and yet come across as addressing the needs of these communities. Meanwhile, Tai-Ahom, Moran, Matak and Chutia people have also been declared protected groups in the Sadiya tribal belt of Upper Assam. At present there are 17 tribal belts and 30 blocks spread across Tinsukia, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Morigaon, Lakhimpur, Kamrup, Kamrup (metro), Goalpara, Dhemaji, Darrang, Bongaigaon and the four Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) districts in Assam.

But all these measures still keep these communities out of the purview of ST status. And given how the new department will only look at preserving and promoting culture and heritage, what happens to the demand for social benefits and entitlements? Is the newly floated Department of Indigenous Faith and Culture just an eyewash?

Gorkhas, a protected group

Meanwhile, Sarma is also attempting to placate Gorkhas in his state. At present nearly 25 lakh Gorkhas call Assam their home. But the measures to address their concerns appear to be woefully inadequate.

On July 8, 2021, Education and welfare of plain tribes and backward classes (non-BTC) minister Ranoj Pegu announced the state government’s decision to declare Gorkhas living in tribal belts such as the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) a protected class. He told The Telegraph, “Under the provisions of chapter X of Assam Land and Revenue Regulation, 1886, the cabinet has approved to include Gorkhas as a protected class in the tribal belts and blocks in the districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri who are residing there before 2003, that is, when the districts came under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.” Gorkhas have also been declared a protected group in the Sadiya tribal belt of Upper Assam.

Now, the move is commendable to the extent that it makes it possible for the nearly 1.65 lakh Gorkhas living in the BTR to buy, sell and transfer land. But the benefits are only applicable across the four districts that comprise BTR.

It is noteworthy that nearly 85,000 Gorkhas had been excluded from the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) published in Assam on August 31, 2019.

SabrangIndia had previously reported how in September, 2019, the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangha (BGP) that claims to represent over 10.5 million members of the Gorkha community across 22 Indian states, announced that they have decided to boycott the process laid down for people left out of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The organisation’s president Sukhman Moktan explained, “The NRC guidelines say the Gorkhas whose citizenship has been challenged need to go to the Foreigners’ Tribunals despite a notification of exemption by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). This is an attempt of a few vested interests within the system to disrespect Indian Gorkhas who are actually original inhabitants as is proved by our historically and mythologically recorded presence since centuries.” He added, “The Gorkhas of Assam will not go to the Foreigners’ Tribunals to prove their citizenship, as being tried in such tribunals is an insult to their identity as Indians. We can file defamation cases against the system of challenging the citizenship of gorkhas and Nepali-speaking people.”

When the final draft of the NRC was published on July 30, 2018, over 1 lakh Gorkhas were left out. The number came down slightly in the final NRC published on August 31, 2019 when approximately 85,000 Gurkhas were excluded. The BGP estimates that out of the 25 lakh Gorkhas residing in Assam over 22,000 people have also been arbitrarily marked D Voter, thus disenfranchising them.

Gorkhas are Nepali speaking Indians. There is great diversity even within the community and each sub-group has its own language from either the Tibeto-Burman or Indo-Aryan language families. The Gorkha community is known for their valour and excellence in the battlefield, traits that led to the creation of the Gorkha Regiment by the British back in 1815. The regiment later became a part of the army of independent India and today there are 39 battalions serving under 7 Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army.

In March 2021, when Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi from Assam, asked the Minister of Home Affairs whether the Government is aware of the exclusion of Gorkhas from the NRC, the MHA used its characteristic flair in using bureaucratic non-responses to say, “Separate list of exclusion of Gorkhas has not been published.” It also said, “Any person not satisfied with the outcome of the decisions of claims and objections leading to publication of final NRC may prefer an appeal before the Foreigners Tribunal constituted under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964 within a period of one hundred and twenty days from the date of such order. On the disposal of appeal by the tribunals the names shall be included or deleted, as the case may be, in the NRC.” Another non-answer.

Related:

Growing disaffection for BJP among Adivasis, ethnic minorities in Assam?
Gorkhas to boycott FTs, say citizenship trial an insult to their Indian identity

Are Assam government’s new policies regarding indigenous people and Gorkhas an eyewash?

Six indigenous communities still denied Scheduled Tribe status, 85,000 Gorkhas excluded from NRC; verbal assurances not enough

CommunitiesImage Courtesy:in.news.yahoo.com

On July 10, the government of Assam announced the creation of a new department to address the concerns of the state’s indigenous communities. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the formation of the Department of Indigenous Faith and Culture and told media persons, “We have a lot of tribes like Rabha, Boro, Mising, Moran and Matak. They have their own faith, customs, rituals and culture. This rich heritage needs to be preserved and promoted. This independent department will do that, not build roads and houses, for which we have the Department for Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes (DWPTBC).”

Now, what is interesting here is that he mentions two specific communities here: Moran and Matak. These two are part of six indigenous communities in Assam demanding a Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. The other four are Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia and Tea Tribes. It is noteworthy that the BJP government had promised to grant them Scheduled Tribes (ST) status in not one, but two successive state assembly election manifestos. But it has failed to walk the talk. The grant of ST status allows members certain social benefits such as reservations and exemptions, which these six communities do not enjoy at present.

The ST Conundrum

In the run up to the assembly elections in Assam this year, SabrangIndia had reported how in March, Adivasi groups led by All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) had questioned the BJP as to why it had failed to grant ST status to tea tribes.

If we step back a bit, even in September last year, instead of granting these communities ST status, the Assam State Assembly passed three bills to create autonomous councils for Moran, Matak, and Koch-Rajbongshis. In fact, the controversy grew when other indigenous groups demanded that ST status not be granted to these six communities.

The Indigenous Lawyers’ Association of India (ILAI) approached the Assam government saying granting of ST status to these six communities, who they do not consider tribal communities would destroy the concept of what is a tribal community. ILAI president Dilip Kanti Chakma was quoted by The Hindu as saying, “There are communities among the six who have never been considered as tribes by any government or anthropological study and they do not possess any characteristics that tribal people do. Hence, the Assam government’s proposed inclusion of some socio-economically advanced and populous communities in the list of STs is mala fide and it shall eliminate the very concept of ‘tribals’ in India.”

The ILAI had further claimed that including these communities in the list of the STs would be a violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which India is a signatory. As per the UN Declaration, prior and informed consent of indigenous people has to be sought before implementing any decision or legislative measure related to them. ILAI also said that this would impact political representation from Gram Sabha to the Lok Sabha of the existing STs of Assam.

Now, it appears that the Himanta Biswa Sarma government has found a way to bypass the ST demand and yet come across as addressing the needs of these communities. Meanwhile, Tai-Ahom, Moran, Matak and Chutia people have also been declared protected groups in the Sadiya tribal belt of Upper Assam. At present there are 17 tribal belts and 30 blocks spread across Tinsukia, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Morigaon, Lakhimpur, Kamrup, Kamrup (metro), Goalpara, Dhemaji, Darrang, Bongaigaon and the four Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) districts in Assam.

But all these measures still keep these communities out of the purview of ST status. And given how the new department will only look at preserving and promoting culture and heritage, what happens to the demand for social benefits and entitlements? Is the newly floated Department of Indigenous Faith and Culture just an eyewash?

Gorkhas, a protected group

Meanwhile, Sarma is also attempting to placate Gorkhas in his state. At present nearly 25 lakh Gorkhas call Assam their home. But the measures to address their concerns appear to be woefully inadequate.

On July 8, 2021, Education and welfare of plain tribes and backward classes (non-BTC) minister Ranoj Pegu announced the state government’s decision to declare Gorkhas living in tribal belts such as the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) a protected class. He told The Telegraph, “Under the provisions of chapter X of Assam Land and Revenue Regulation, 1886, the cabinet has approved to include Gorkhas as a protected class in the tribal belts and blocks in the districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri who are residing there before 2003, that is, when the districts came under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.” Gorkhas have also been declared a protected group in the Sadiya tribal belt of Upper Assam.

Now, the move is commendable to the extent that it makes it possible for the nearly 1.65 lakh Gorkhas living in the BTR to buy, sell and transfer land. But the benefits are only applicable across the four districts that comprise BTR.

It is noteworthy that nearly 85,000 Gorkhas had been excluded from the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) published in Assam on August 31, 2019.

SabrangIndia had previously reported how in September, 2019, the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangha (BGP) that claims to represent over 10.5 million members of the Gorkha community across 22 Indian states, announced that they have decided to boycott the process laid down for people left out of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The organisation’s president Sukhman Moktan explained, “The NRC guidelines say the Gorkhas whose citizenship has been challenged need to go to the Foreigners’ Tribunals despite a notification of exemption by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). This is an attempt of a few vested interests within the system to disrespect Indian Gorkhas who are actually original inhabitants as is proved by our historically and mythologically recorded presence since centuries.” He added, “The Gorkhas of Assam will not go to the Foreigners’ Tribunals to prove their citizenship, as being tried in such tribunals is an insult to their identity as Indians. We can file defamation cases against the system of challenging the citizenship of gorkhas and Nepali-speaking people.”

When the final draft of the NRC was published on July 30, 2018, over 1 lakh Gorkhas were left out. The number came down slightly in the final NRC published on August 31, 2019 when approximately 85,000 Gurkhas were excluded. The BGP estimates that out of the 25 lakh Gorkhas residing in Assam over 22,000 people have also been arbitrarily marked D Voter, thus disenfranchising them.

Gorkhas are Nepali speaking Indians. There is great diversity even within the community and each sub-group has its own language from either the Tibeto-Burman or Indo-Aryan language families. The Gorkha community is known for their valour and excellence in the battlefield, traits that led to the creation of the Gorkha Regiment by the British back in 1815. The regiment later became a part of the army of independent India and today there are 39 battalions serving under 7 Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army.

In March 2021, when Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi from Assam, asked the Minister of Home Affairs whether the Government is aware of the exclusion of Gorkhas from the NRC, the MHA used its characteristic flair in using bureaucratic non-responses to say, “Separate list of exclusion of Gorkhas has not been published.” It also said, “Any person not satisfied with the outcome of the decisions of claims and objections leading to publication of final NRC may prefer an appeal before the Foreigners Tribunal constituted under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964 within a period of one hundred and twenty days from the date of such order. On the disposal of appeal by the tribunals the names shall be included or deleted, as the case may be, in the NRC.” Another non-answer.

Related:

Growing disaffection for BJP among Adivasis, ethnic minorities in Assam?
Gorkhas to boycott FTs, say citizenship trial an insult to their Indian identity

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