Politicians in Assam are at their wits' end trying to woo voters belonging to the reservation-seeking tea garden workers' community ahead of the staggered panchayat elections that begin on December 31.
Influential tea workers' groups like the All Adivasi Students' Association of Assam (AASAA) and the All Assam Tea Tribe Students' Association (AATTSA) have clamped a ban on the entry of politicians across party lines in areas dominated by the community.
The political class in the state of 26 million people has drawn the ire of this community, which decides or influences the poll verdict in 20 of Assam's 126 assembly constituencies, for not pushing their demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the Adivasis and the tea tribes in the state.
"We shall not allow politicians to campaign during the panchayat polls," Justin Lakra, leader of the AASAA, said.
The ruling Congress, that has been a favourite party of choice among the tea workers' community, too has been flayed by these groups for not doing enough to ensure ST status that would bring them reservation in jobs and educational institutions like their kinfolk in states like Jharkhand.
The Congress-led state government, however, has gone all out to convince the community that it was in favour of doing everything it can to improve their socio-economic status.
"The Congress wants that the Adivasis, along with five other communities in Assam, should get ST status. We are in fact backing their demand and are in favour of working towards the overall uplift of the Adivasis and other communities," senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also an Assam government spokesman, told IANS.
All of a sudden, political parties have started fielding more candidates belonging to the tea workers' communities for the coming panchayat polls. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that already has some penetration in the tea garden areas, has fielded 21 candidates belonging to the tea workers' community in the eastern Jorhat district alone.
Assam has 800 tea gardens, producing more than 50 per cent of India's total tea production of around 900 million kg.
The Adivasis and other tea workers had migrated to Assam more than 150 years ago when the British brought them here to work in plantations from present day Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Chattisgarh.
The central government has rejected the community's plea for ST status saying they were not indigenous to Assam and had lost their tribal characteristics after their migration to a new area.
The tea workers have rejected this argument and are bent on leading a sustained agitation to force the government to concede their demand, leading to a volatile situation in Assam ahead of the rural polls.