The Manmohan Singh government’s decision to carve Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh has given fresh impetus to statehood demands across India but nowhere has the effect been more divisive than in eastern India. At least four ethnic groups have begun to press their claims for separate States to be carved out of Assam. The Bodos, the Karbi, Dimasas and Koch-Rajbongshis are up in arms in support of their respective demands. But the simple fact is that these cries for statehood are not only ill-advised but also untenable and impractical. For one, the territories being demanded by the different groups in pursuit of their own ethnically, homogeneous provinces actually overlap with one another. Besides, Assam’s own territorial issues with more than one of its neighbouring States remain unresolved. Third, these conflicting and often competing political aspirations make for a toxic cauldron, predicated as they are on the dangerous assumption that it is not possible or desirable to create multi-ethnic or multicultural provinces in which the rights of ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities are constitutionally guaranteed and administratively ensured.
Whatever the trigger, the present unrest highlights the urgent need for administrative systems that can help meet regional, developmental and identity aspirations. This can be done by strengthening the autonomous, administrative divisions in Assam established on the basis of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Currently, these are the Bodoland Territorial Council, the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and the Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council. In addition, there are six notified tribal autonomous councils where the territory has not been specified. One of the sticking points with regard to the latter group relates to dual authority owing to the simultaneous existence of panchayati raj structures. This needs to be addressed suitably. The experience in Tripura over the past decade and more has shown that the implementation of appropriate autonomy packages could prove to be an effective salve, and an aid to development. As in Tripura, the functioning of democratic processes at grass-roots level ought to be ensured in Assam. The sensitive handling of grievances over funding, and the protection that needs to be extended over issues of language, culture and land are essential. Powers and functions consistent with local customs, traditions and needs have to be conferred on tribal autonomous systems. The fair and practical long-term solution to the turbulence in the region lies along this path. But at the end of the day, as Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has repeatedly said, Assam and its people should “live together” by making peace among themselves.