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The Scheduled Tribes of Assam
— Deben Pegu
The tribal communities of Assam, popularly known as ‘Sons of the Soil’, covers 15.64 per cent of the total population of Assam. The Scheduled Tribe population, as per 2001 census report is 33,85.700 as against the total population of 2,33,38,000 of the State.

The Constitution order of 1950 was amended in 1976 wherein the Scheduled Tribes of Assam were re-categorised as Scheduled Tribes (Hills) and Scheduled Tribes (Plains). According to the amendment, the Scheduled Tribes (Hills) are those tribes who are indigenous to the two Autonomous Hill Districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar. They are Karbi, Kuki, Dimasa, Garo, Hajong, Mizo, Khasi, Jaintia, Hmar, Lokers, Powis, Man (Tai speaking), Chakma, Syntheng Panar, Syntheng, War, Bhoi, Lyngngam and Naga tribe.Recognition of these tribes as Scheduled Tribes is limited to the two Autonomous Hill districts only.

The indigenous tribes of the plains districts of Assam are recognised as Scheduled Tribes (Plains and their recognition is limited to the plains districts only. They are: Bodo, Mising, Rabha, Sonowal, Lalung (Tiwa), Deori, Thengal (Mech), Hojai and Borman. By a subsequent amendment order, the Singphos and Khamtis have been recognised as Scheduled Tribes (Plains) and likewise three hill Scheduled Tribes, namely Garo, Hajong and Dimasas have also been recognised as Plains Tribes, but the Bodos living in the hill districts and Karbis living in the plains districts in large numbers are not recognised as Scheduled Tribes in the respective places. As a consequence the Census data on the population of Scheduled Tribes does not reflect the correct figures. If these categories of tribes are counted the actual tribal population of the State may exceed 20 per cent of the State population.

The tribal communities of Assam have their individual languages, cultural traits, rites and rituals. For centuries the tribal communities have been sharing ethnicity and language with Assamese mainstream. Their cultures and ways of life have interacted and overlapped with the culture of the mainstream over many many years. Assamese language has become the lingua franca amongst different ethnic groups of the Brahmaputra Valley. Likewise in the Barak Valley where Bengali is predominant, the Bengali language and culture have influenced the tribes residing there. Basically all the ethnic tribes of Assam were Hindus–worshippers of various deities. Vaishnavism as propagated by the great saint Srimanta Shankardev has substantially influenced the tribesmen of Assam. But of late a large number of tribesmen have embraced Christianity. The rate of conversion has accelerated in the recent past.

Most of the tribesmen in Assam are agriculturists. But in recent times, due to insufficient land in their possession, greater number of the tribesmen are hardly capable of maintaining their subsistence level. Relevantly it is worthy to mention that majority of the tribesmen were living in primitive condition till middle of the wentieth century, due to which they could not protect their self interests. Consequent upon breakthrough in economical, educational and other social firmaments coupled with unabated influx of immigrants into the tribal inhabited areas, the poor and illiterate tribals being unable to stand the test of existence compelled to sell off their age old parental lands to illegal migrants. Taking such conditions of the tribal communities into account, district authority of Nagaon had for the first time in 1916 initiated a protective measure. To protect from undesirable impact of large number of land hungry immigrants, the Nagaon district authority had delimited certain tribal inhabited areas as closed to immigrants which was known as “line system”. Subsequently the system was extended to other tribal inhabited areas of the State. But the system did not succeed as some sections of the people opposed the system.

The line system was ultimately treated with contempt. In place of the ‘line system’, the government of Assam, in the name of ‘Grow More Crops’ had introduced a scheme known as “Development Scheme” in 1941. For implementation of the scheme cultivators were brought in from erstwhile East Bengal and settled in the tribal inhabited places. Since then countless numbers of immigrants have been flowing into the State freely in a steady stream.

Subsequently in 1945, the Government of Assam had adopted a resolution to protect the tribal people in areas predominantly inhabited by them against influx. On the basis of that resolution, after the independence of the nation, the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation, 1886, was amended in December 1947. In the amended Regulation, provision for creation of protected tribal belts and blocks and restriction of transfer of land in such protected areas were added. Since then as many as 17 belts and 30 blocks were created in the plains districts of Assam covering 85,80,842 bighas of land. But no successive State governments have cared to implement the provisions of the protected belts and blocks. As a result the protected belts and blocks have converted to the pleasure ground for the land hungry illegal migrants. Eventually the ever increasing illegal migrants have outnumbered the tribal people in most of the tribal belts and blocks. Many social and political thinkers disgracefully heaved a sigh of sorrow that the illegal migrants have been given more liberty in respect of settlement and other developmental spheres than the ethnic tribes by the successive State governments for the sake of vote bank politics. It is an irony of fate for primitive classes of tribesmen that instead of evicting the unauthorised illegal migrants, the ethnic tribes are continuously evicted from the protected belts and blocks in a calculated process. As a result the primitive tribes are now roaming about like Gypsies in search of new settlement and livelihood. According to those social and political thinkers the facts of abolition of the ‘line system’ and the subsequent introduction of the “Grow More” programme coupled with the non-implementation of the provisions of the law relating to tribal belts and blocks are the roots of the foreign national problem in the State.

With the object of fulfilling economic, educational and linguistic aspirations, preservation of land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the respective tribes and speeding up infrastructure development in their areas, autonomous councils have been created. The two districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar were granted autonomy as far back as in 1952 under Article 244(2) read with Sixth Scheduled of the Constitution of India. In the same way the Bodol and Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) comprising four plains districts was also granted autonomy in 2003.

Autonomous Councils for Mising, Rabha and Tiwa were created in 1995 and for Sonowal, Deori and Thengal were created in 2005. All these 6 Autonomous Councils are not under 6th Schedule of the Constitution, but these were created by legislating statute for the respective tribes in the State Assembly.

The capability of achieving the object for which the Autonmous Councils under the 6th Scheduled of the Constitution were created is a different issue. Election to these councils is held regularly in a democratic way. But in case of the Autonomous Councils created under State statutes, no election has been held since inception of these councils. Consequent upon constitution of interim councils in the name of managing the affairs of these autonomous councils by appointing party cadres of the ruling party of their choice with vested interests, no development work has taken place in reality over the years. There are constant allegation from some sections of the respective tribes that these Autonomous Councils are of no use for the tribal masses, but have been used by the members of the Interim Council as mere instruments for misappropriating Central funds meant for uplift of the poor tribal people.

Considering the present state of affairs, the workings of all the tribal institutions through which the tribal development programmes are carried out should be reviewed thoroughly with involvement of the people concerned. If the State as well as the Central Government acknowledge the defeat in the implementation of the provisions for protection of tribal belts and blocks due to the tremendous flow of illegal migrants, the law relating to protected belts and blocks should be repealed. In place of that law the government should look for some alternative for protection of the endangered tribes. The Tribal Autonomous Councils should be constituted democratically through election to avoid ad-hocism. In case of failure, all the State Acts in respect of tribal autonomy should be repealed and status quo should be maintained.