The Congress’s tactical errors on the Telangana announcement and an ill-prepared State government have allowed full play to the multitude of separatist movements in Assam

The Congress Working Committee’s decision to create Telangana has set off seismic activity on the political front, not least in Andhra Pradesh — tremors which are rocking many parts of the country. These are generating new fissures, opening old debates and scouring unhealed wounds. Battlefronts are being created along ethnic, regional and linguistic lines and the amalgam of old and renewed demands appears almost unsolvable, especially in the north-eastern States, already fragmented, ethnically complex and driven by deep discord among groups and mistrust of Delhi.

In restive Assam, especially, the Telangana factor and two other reasons have sharpened divisions and deepened mistrust. One was the Centre’s refusal to include six ethnic groups on the Scheduled Tribes list, saying the groups did not meet requirements of the ST criteria. The other is that for several months now, there has been a major tussle between Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who won a third term to office last year, and his one-time close aide, Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Senior officials say that despite the Congress’s large mandate, the administration’s response to politically sensitive issues is slow. Dissidents have been camping in New Delhi and have met with the party’s central leadership seeking a change; this has not helped governance at a time of political stress.

Complex groupings

The groups seeking ST status reacted swiftly to the Centre’s rejection by calling bandhs and protests, accusing both the State and Central governments of bad faith and warning of major agitations. A quick look at the alienated groups shows the difficulty in moving forward with any quick fixes or even a well-meaning middle-path approach in a State with a demography as complex as Assam and a region as diverse as the North-East.

In this case, those wanting to join the ST list include the Tai-Ahoms, a group that ruled Assam for six centuries before the advent of the British (Mr. Gogoi and several prominent Assamese are Ahoms); the Morans; the Muttocks (its most prominent leader is Paresh Barua, the elusive chief of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA); the Koch Rajbongshis(since the Rajbongshis already fall under the Other Backward Classes category, the government would have to go through a complex process of denotification and then ‘scheduling’ them as a tribe); the Sutiya (also spelt as Cutiya); and finally the amalgam of tea plantation groups broadly known as the tea tribes, who are descendants of migrants transported from central India by the British over 150 years ago to work in the British and Indian tea estates. They include communities which are recognised as Scheduled Tribes in other States — the Santhal and Oraon to name just two. So, the Centre’s denial flies in the face of not onlycommon sense but also constitutional and legal rigour.

The criteria fixed over 50 years ago to accept or deny ST status to different groups cannot be regarded as written in stone. Access to education, communications and opportunity has brought change, but this is limited to the elite; many remain in conditions of social backwardness and poverty.

Post-Telangana announcement, most movements seeking separate States in Assam were quick off the mark with bandhs, crippling normal life in most districts. However, the powerful All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) has sought to reduce public hardship by resorting to hunger strikes. But are such campaigns sustainable?

Non-inclusive process

While announcing the decision to break up Andhra Pradesh, the Congress made three fundamental errors: first, it did not consult or even informally warn others — even those with whom they were in discussions — in places like the North-East that this was coming; it could have tactfully promised to hold discussions with them in the future, which could have reduced the sting of the announcement. Second, New Delhi, as is wont, kept the State governments completely out of the loop, catching them flat-footed and vulnerable to attack. Third, it appears that no thought has been given to possible constitutional changes that would deal with issues facing the North-East and other parts of the country. An over-reliance on Article 3 of the Constitution which enables the Centre to dismember or create States is not good.

While the Centre has gained a breather by calling the protesting groups to Delhi for discussions in September, this will not be enough. Adopting the usual tactics of negotiated delay will not work. Certainly talk to individual groups but separately call for brainstorming among the region’s top thinkers, scholars, researchers, writers, independent field organisations and creative minds. Perhaps through such a process, which must be truly representative, something truly sustainable, long-term and acceptable to all sides will emerge. Could it be a new mini-Constitution within the Constitution?

The issues are far deeper than the Centre can handle on its own: it needs to put its cards on the table, while recognising the failure of consent manufactured by shotgun marriages and short-term agreements. Such ‘consent’ can never go far enough and will always alienate those shut out of the process.

(The writer is director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and founder of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) in the North-East.)

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