Assam is simmering with sectarian tension and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi wants us to believe that everything is shipshape. The day a 36-hour strike was called by tribals under the flagship of the All Adivasi Students Association — triggered by the vehement and violent reaction to Saturday’s protest march demanding Scheduled Tribe status for the state’s tribals — Mr Gogoi stated that there was “no social divide” in Assam. That there indeed is a serrated division between adivasis and the rest of Assamese society was made chillingly clear with images showing a woman being dragged on the streets of Guwahati and other tribal members being literally trampled upon by members of a mob. The chain reaction that has followed since Saturday continues with little signs of ending. The fact that the highly visible police reportedly looked on when the ‘front-lash’ against tribals took place during the weekend explains the violent backlash by the adivasis that has followed since.
Tribals form about 6 per cent of Assam’s total population, totalling about a million adivasis spread mainly across the state’s tea-growing areas. The tribals’ demand that the government recognise them as a separate group is addressed to an administration that has traditionally seen adivasis as a secure vote-bank. So it isn’t the Gogoi government’s antipathy against the community that has resulted in this disaffection, but its apathy. There is no doubt that tribals, who overwhelmingly form the workforce in the tea gardens, have at best been marginalised and at worst been kept at the bottom of the socio-economic heap. In a polity where correcting such ‘anomalies’ means taking recourse to the ‘quick and visible virtues’ that community-based reservation schemes provide, it was only natural that the adivasis would demand ST status. But the violence that the angered and humiliated community has resorted to provides grist to the mill of the very people who put them down.
In such an arena, political parties with their own agendas are quick to feed on the dissent. The outrage has come to the attention of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, in a state where the adivasi movement is engaged in the political mainstream. Before the situation in Assam, that has been festering for decades, spins totally out of control, it would be imperative that the government first recognises a social divide and then corrects it in an inclusive rather than a quick-fix (and, therefore, risking another backlash) way.