Tea workers’ never-ending fight to get tribal identity

An agitation held in Guwahati recently demanding Scheduled Tribe status for the tea tribes in Assam.

Lalit Orang, 22, looked confident inside Halmira tea estate in eastern Assam’s Golaghat district. This commerce graduate — one among the few graduates in the tea estate worker communities, however, was sceptical about cracking a government job. “It’s difficult for us to get a government job without reservation. That’s why, we have been demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to avail the reservation. If my grandfather had not come from Jharkhand, we would have done better there. Our relatives there are getting jobs and seats in good universities under ST quota,” Orang told DH.

“I am thinking of taking admission to MCom. Let’s see what happens. I don’t understand one thing: if our forefathers are identified as ST in Jharkhand and Odisha, why are we not given the same status in Assam?” asked Lalit.

These tea tribes’ fight for the tribal identity is long and grows louder before every election. They were brought here more than 150-years ago by the British to grow tea and lay railway lines. The parties in power, too, take a step or two towards fulfilling the long demand of nearly 60 lakh people, who are referred to as ‘tea tribes or Adivasis’.

This time is no different. Anticipating a strong outcry against BJP’s failure to meet its promise in according ST status to the tea tribes and five other ethnic
communities, the Central government introduced a Bill in the Parliament last month but did not move ahead to pass it as the ‘lawful’ STs were opposing the move.

“This is a ploy ahead of the Lok Sabha elections and nothing else. Political parties don’t want us to study in better institutions. They want us to lag behind and remain as their vote banks forever,” said Nabajyoti Tanti, a joint secretary of Golaghat district unit of All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA).

“BJP has offered free rice and sugar before the Lok Sabha election just for votes. Congress provided rice at Rs 3 per kg before the 2016 Assembly elections. We don’t need such sops. We want the ST status, land rights and better daily wage so that we can lead a life of dignity,” he said.

AASAA and several organisations under the banner of Adivasi Convention Committee have stepped up agitation for the ST status, as the parties gear up for the Lok Sabha polls. “We voted for Asom Gana Parishad, Congress and BJP in 2014 and 2016. We got only promises,” Deben Orang, general secretary of the association, said.

Orang said, Adivasis decide the fate of leaders in two of 14 Lok Sabha constituencies in Assam and have a sizeable number of voters in three others. There are two MPs belonging to the community at
present. They have eight MLAs now and are dominant factors in at least 36 of the 126 Assembly constituencies in Assam, he said.

Rebel groups

The government’s alleged failure to punish those responsible for the killings of the ‘Adivasis’ by militant groups or
other tribes prompted a group of Adivasi youths to take up arms and form Birsa Commando Force, a militant group, on June 30, 1996. That was soon after nearly 1,500 Adivasis were killed in a riot by suspected miscreants belonging to the Bodo community in western Assam’s Kokrajhar district.

After years of ‘violence for justice’ and to ‘protect the community’, the five rebel groups laid down arms in 2012 in Guwahati before the then union home minister P Chidambaram. They agreed to bid farewell to arms on two conditions: ST status and rehabilitation of nearly 650 cadres. “We have been cheated with the promise of resolving our demands through talks. We held a few rounds of talks with the Centre but nothing has happened. The boys are paid only a monthly stipend (Rs 6,000 now), their cases have not been withdrawn yet and no step has been taken for their rehabilitation.

Many boys are getting disillusioned and what if they resort to violence again?” said Birsing Munda, the ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Birsa Commando Force, one of the Adivasi outfits in the ceasefire. “We don’t want to be referred as tea tribes. We should be identified as Adivasis, like our forefathers in Jharkhand and Odisha,” Munda said. The Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam, Adivasi People’s Army, All Adivasi National Liberation Army and the Santhal Tiger Force are the other outfits who are also in the ceasefire.

Most ‘tea tribes’ speak Sadri and Santhali but they have to study in Assamese and English medium schools. The fear of losing their language and cultural identity has led the literary body of the community to set up schools in their own language without government support. Adivasi Sahitya Sabha, a literary body of the communities, has also supported the agitation for ST status and steps to protect and promote the language and culture of the community.

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Tea workers’ never-ending fight to get tribal identity

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