A decisive moment in the Mahabharata was Draupadi’s ‘cheer-haran’. Her humiliation led to the Kurukshetra war. On Saturday, November 24, a Kurukshetra of sorts preceded a ‘cheer-haran’ on
the streets of Guwahati, the hub of a region where women are considered more equal than their counterparts elsewhere in India — unless sporadically branded as witches. The victim was a young adivasi woman being called ‘Chameli’ after the heroine of a 1970s Assamese movie about a tea estate-owner’s romance with the daughter of a plantation labourer.
Local resident Bhogiram Barman was no Lord Krishna, but he did offer his shirt to the terrified Chameli running naked on a blood-splattered street while locals clicked away
on their mobile phone cameras. Forty-eight hours later, the police unmasked three youths who had stripped the woman. Chameli had apparently been punished for the vandalism her tribespeople allegedly resorted to while demanding Scheduled Tribe status during a rally organised by the All Assam Adivasi Students’ Association (AASAA).
Tarun Gogoi’s Congress-led coalition government promptly went into damage control mode, having earlier insinuated that the AASAA had started the fight. The government apologised for the ‘barbarity’ and promised Rs 1 lakh as compensation for the trauma that Chameli underwent. Meanwhile, the police unmasked the three perpetrators while cable operators were asked to block news channels that aired Chameli’s ‘cheer-haran’. But the damage had already been done.
The Chameli incident is decisive for Assam’s multi-ethnic Mahabharata that has ‘tea politics’ as one of its major sub-plots. Saturday’s street-fight was the outcome of a mindset that treats member of the ‘tea tribe’ as outcastes, as an unwanted legacy of British planters’ policy of ‘importing’ tribal labourers from the Chhotanagpur plateau. In Planter-Raj to Swaraj, historian Amalendu Guha underscores how the ethnic card that’s played in Assam’s regional politics today is a colonial legacy. “Imperialism encouraged ethnicity to play a decisive role... Assam’s miseries followed from a system of colonialism,” he wrote. Political scientist Sanjib Baruah, in India Against Itself, writes how “the ethnic Assamese upper classes have accorded them [adivasis] low status” though historically “their inclination to speak Assamese and adopt Assamese ways has made them model immigrants”.
The 3.5 km Beltola-Dispur stretch that turned into a battlezone on Saturday is ‘upper class’ territory. Many of Assam’s top politicians, including Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, bureaucrats, technocrats, police officials and businessmen live here. And as the opposition parties have alleged, the police and city administration were more concerned about protecting the property of these VIPS than restoring order on the streets.
“Apart from depriving the adivasis, the government now has set a price for letting the modesty of a woman be violated. This is unacceptable,” says AASAA president Justin Lakra, adding that the “war has just begun”. CDs of Chameli are already being distributed for the purpose of a ‘bigger war’. The threat of renewed agitation was aimed at Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who stated in Parliament that adivasis of Assam are ineligible for ST status “as they have tended to lose their tribal characteristics in the new surroundings”.
Countering Patil was Assam Labour Minister and veteran ‘tea tribe’ leader Prithibi Majhi. “Adivasis of Tripura are considered STs despite having been settled from central India. There’s no reason why adivasis of Assam cannot be granted the status. We are sending a fresh proposal to Delhi for the inclusion of Assam’s adivasis in the ST (Plains) list.” Majhi recounted how the Aman Rai Pradhani panel had recommended in 1995 the inclusion of the adivasis in the ST list. “No government in Assam ever opposed this recommendation except in 1996 when it was pointed out that a tribe associated with an industry could not technically be considered for ST status.” But granting ST status to the adivasis is easier said than done. There are five other communities with a similar demand.
Tribal organisations like AASAA know that no political party can ignore them for long. After all, the 60 lakh-strong community comprises nearly 20 per cent of the state’s population and decides the fate of 28 out of the 126 assembly constituencies. Along with migrant Muslims, the ‘tea tribes’ have traditionally been a potent vote-bank for the Congress. After the Assam agitation of 1979-1985, however, other parties, such as the Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP and the CPI(M-L) have made inroads into this community. So have militant outfits such as the NSCN (Isak-Muivah), which allegedly backs the Adivasi National Liberation Army for ‘greater designs’ on areas of Assam bordering Nagaland.
But one thing has been confirmed after Saturday’s violence: there is a divide between the adivasis and non-adivasis in Assam. The authorities can ignore this division only at the region’s peril.