‘In Assam, upper-caste dominance is apparent in every sphere of society’

The early Assamese nationalist leaders fervently exhorted the immigrant population to adopt the Assamese language. The historical link of the Assamese language to Sanskrit also elicited a sense of superiority among its practitioners by ‘othering’ the non-Aryan local indigenes as primitive and inferior, says Uttam Bathari

Assam is in the middle of yet another assembly election. In an email interview with FORWARD Press, Uttam Bathari, who belongs to the Dimasa tribe and teaches History of Medieval and Modern Assam in Gauhati University, lays out the complex ground realities and historical injustices that the governments of the past have overlooked: 

Assam would be one of the most socially, ethnically diverse states in the country. Do you feel that, for example, when you are on a university campus or in a government office in Guwahati? Do you see the state-level politics of Assam being representative of its diversity? Does the public discourse reflect that diversity? 

Diversity and its celebration in India begins and ends in rhetoric, and does not get translated into action. For instance, in spite of the linguistic diversity, there is a constant push for Hindi as the national language. Another discriminatory example is the Eight Schedule of the Constitution that recognizes only about a couple of dozen languages. On the other hand, hundreds of languages are languishing due to lack of support and facing threat of extinction. 

Assam indeed is the most socially, ethnically diverse state in the country. However diversity in public spaces in Assam is rather seen in the form of “absence”. The much-talked-about diversity does not actually get reflected in real sense. I would like to cite the university where I work at present, as an example. Gauhati University is a state university and accordingly follows the state reservation policy both in admissions and recruitments. Since the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population in the state is spread across the plains and hills, reservation for the STs has been subcategorized thus: out of the total 12 per cent reservation, 7 per cent is accorded to the plains and 5 per cent to the hills. Almost every year, seats in different courses remain unfilled, particularly in case of the hills quota. Ditto in the case of recruitment. In my knowledge, there are only four faculty members and one other staff member in the university from the hill communities. Most of the reserved faculty positions go unfilled. Of course, it is not the fault of the university when the reserved seats go unfilled due to lack of eligible candidates. But it is symptomatic of the inadequate state attention to the development of education among the backward communities. The Government of Assam in the last five years has set up many institutions in the nook and corner of the state, but hardly any in the hill areas, particularly in Dima Hasao district. 

The situation is no different in other public institutions and government departments. Thousands of reserved posts in various government departments are lying unfilled. Like with Hindi at the Centre, there is a constant push for Assamese language in the state. The recent move of the state government to make Assamese compulsory in state public services is a debilitating blow to the hill communities and would further their marginalization in government jobs. 

Barring a small section of the Assamese mainstream, the tribal communities are considered merely adjunct. Hence, the much-talked-about diversity of the state is rather conspicuously absent in public space.

Uttam Bathari

Have the various communities managed to raise up leaders? Are the leaders belonging to the various communities doing a good job of representing their communities? 

The leadership question is as complex as the inter-ethnic relationship and is reflective of the asymmetrical power relations in the state. From the beginning, the caste Hindu Assamese have been providing political and intellectual leadership, with the ethnic minorities receiving only facile representation. The first challenge to the caste Hindu Assamese leadership came in the 1960s from the tribal communities, which led to the reorganization of Assam in 1970. The Karbis and Dimasas exercised their choice to remain with Assam instead of joining the newly formed state of Meghalaya in return for the transfer of more developmental power to the autonomous council and a promise of autonomous statehood enshrined in Article 244 (A) of the Constitution. This arrangement however did not last long and in the 1980s a massive democratic movement, under the banner of the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), began in the hills with a demand for implementation of Article 244 (A) and creation of an autonomous state. Around the same time, Assam witnessed a massive movement for the creation of a separate state of Bodoland, a new turn to earlier demands for creation of a separate state of Udayachal for tribal groups inhabiting the north bank of the Brahmaputra. Similarly, several other ethnic minority groups have risen up and managed to get certain political concessions. Some others are still taking to the streets with political demands that they feel are the most important and relevant for their existence as distinct ethnic groups. These demands range from the creation of an autonomous council to extension of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and to recognition as a Scheduled Tribe. 

Most of these political movements are either preceded by or contemporaneous with constructive work in the field of language, literature and culture. For instance, the movement for separate Bodoland was preceded by the script movement. After a prolonged armed struggle and fratricidal conflict, the Bodo movement resulted in the creation of the separate administrative unit of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD, recently renamed as the Bodoland Territorial Region or BTR) under the Sixth Schedule, a first instance where the schedule has been extended beyond the hills to the plains, thereby raising hope for its extension to other communities like the Mishings, Rabhas, etc. The Karbi-Dimasa autonomy movement resulted in the transfer of more developmental power to the autonomous councils and took a militant turn. 

Success and failure of the leadership of the marginal communities in carving out distinctive political spaces and concessions in Assam must be considered in the context of asymmetrical power relations that weigh in favour of Assamese-speaking caste Hindus. With control over almost every institution of the state, they play a dominant role in determining the political fate of the state. Any actionable programme of ethnic tribal minorities is largely inhibited by the complex population distribution that denies any scope for enclavisation barring a few pockets in the state. On the other hand, lack of economic opportunity in the face of recurring onslaught of flood in the plains of Assam, lack of market access, etc makes one dependent on the state allocation. Even the autonomous councils are dependent on the state allocation due to lack of any agency for independent revenue generation. This economic dependence makes them very often prey to predatory state designs. 

However, it is also important to note that it would be wrong to read the relationship of the Assamese with other marginal groups as always antagonistic. There are occasions of cooperation, too. An example is the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) . Even though the Sixth Schedule areas have been exempted from the Act’s operation, the hills people of Assam did protest in solidarity with the people of the plains. Thus the relationship of the Assamese and other ethnic groups is rather in a contextual flux between competition, cooperation and negotiation.

A 2019 photo of tribal organizations protesting in Kokrajhar, Assam, against the proposed inclusion of six more communities among the Scheduled Tribes

What would be the Dimasa perspective(s) on the CAA?

Two of the largest Dimasa-inhabited areas, that is Dima Hasao district, Karbi Anglong East and West, are administered under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and these areas have been kept out of the CAA. But this does not mean that Dimasa people are not concerned about it. Dimasa is one of the communities worst affected by migration since the colonial period. There are a sizable number of non-tribals in these areas. For instance the Bengali-speaking population constitute the second largest voters in the Haflong assembly constituency. Similarly, the Assamese and Bengali speakers constitute the third and fourth largest communities in the Diphu constituency. As such, they are very much aware of the implications of the CAA in the neighbouring plains district, which is bound to impact their own areas in the long run. Contrary to the belief propagated by the government, that the CAA will curb migration (of Muslims), they see the law sanctioning and thus increasing the migration (of Hindus).

What are the kinds of social, cultural realities that get swept under the din of elections? 

Usually, Assam is considered free from casteism. This is not the case in reality. The liberal and syncretic ideals of 15th-16th century Neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti saint Sankardeva got diluted in the later stages and many brahmanical traits made inroads into Assamese society. Thus the upper-caste dominance is apparent in every sphere of society. Though many would deny the presence of caste in its ugliest form as witnessed elsewhere in India, nevertheless, caste discrimination is a reality in Assam. 

Besides this, communal discord, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, is another malaise that gets fed massively in the electioneering process. Communally charged provocative statements have however failed to make much impact in this election. Credit for this is due to the general public and a section of civil society that has been constantly engaged in creating awareness about issues. 

The shrinking cultural and linguistic space of the ethnic minorities is another issue that ought to be redressed. However, political parties are seen to be following a policy of appeasement. The proposed extension of the ST list by including six ethnic groups such as Ahom, Koch-Rajbongshi, Morans, Tea Communities, etc is one example. Scheduling of these six communities would adversely impact the groups already under this category. The Tea Communities, Koch-Rajbongshi and Ahom are numerically higher compared to other groups. Outside of caste Hindu society, Ahoms are the most advanced group in the state and their scheduling would practically block the benefits enjoyed by the existing groups. In 1995, an ordinance was issued by the Government of India declaring the Koch-Rajbongshis as ST. In that particular year, only a few from the existing Scheduled Tribe (Plains) or ST(P) category got admission in Cotton College, Guwahati. Thus one may imagine the impact on the existing ST groups as result of inclusion of these six new groups. 

What is your idea of historically informed social justice specific to Assam? What are the issues pertaining to social justice in Assam? Are they being addressed? 

Since the beginning, articulation of the Assamese nationalism/identity has been premised on language. The early Assamese nationalist leaders fervently exhorted the immigrant population to adopt the Assamese language. The historical link of the Assamese language to Sanskrit also elicited a sense of superiority among its practitioners by “othering” the non-Aryan local indigenes as primitive and inferior. This, together with preferential treatment accorded to the Assamese language over other languages in the state alienated the other ethnic groups, leading to the redrawing of the political map in the region in 1971. The articulation of separate political homelands, however, did not end there. Apart from the communities like the Bodos, Karbis and Dimasas, there are also others like the Rabha, Sonowal Kachari and Mishing ethnic tribes, demanding extension of the Sixth Schedule which would ensure rights over their land and other political rights. As mentioned above, several other communities are demanding their inclusion among the Scheduled Tribes. Among them, the Tea Communities are the mostly exploited and backward groups. 

The problem of diversity of groups is exacerbated by the complex demographic pattern. Any effort at making space for a community affects another group or other groups. Under this situation, the question of social justice indeed poses a challenge. To me, one entry point would be to stop pushing for the Assamese language and begin making a conscious effort in linguistic and cultural empowerment of the ethnic minorities. This would instil a sense of confidence among these groups with a positive impact on dynamics of interethnic relations in the state. 

Recently, the Government of Assam, after decades of mobilization, has set up a separate directorate for Bodo and other indigenous languages. This is, though very late, a positive step towards inclusivity. 

A 2017 photo shows Koch-Rajbongshi women holding a demonstration in Guwahati demanding ST status

Elsewhere in India, Dalitbahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi) unity is seen as key to bring about social justice. How viable is such a unity in Assam? 

The need for such unity is beyond any doubt. Among the ST groups, there are some sort of ethnic alliances, though not free from conflicts of interests. For instance, the hill tribes are opposed to the inclusion of Bodo communities living in the hill districts among Scheduled Tribes (Hills) or ST(H). There is of course cooperation among these groups on other issues. For example, the recently created Directorate of Bodo and other Tribal Languages is the result of sustained collective effort by different tribal groups and their literary bodies.

However, the viability of extending such an alliance to all the groups is a big challenge in a state like Assam. Because, among these various groups, there exists a huge gap in terms of empowerment. For instance, STs are more organized than the Scheduled Caste (SCs). On the other hand, the groups belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and More Other Backward Classes (MOBC) are more advanced in all respects than the STs. For example, Ahoms, who are an OBC, were the most dominant among the pre-colonial polities and brought the entire Brahmaputra valley under a single political formation. They migrated to the Brahmaputra Valley in the 13th century from northern Burma and ethnically belong to the Tai-Shan groups. Subsequently, they converted into Hinduism and adopted the Assamese language. They are the most advanced group after the upper castes and politically the most influential. The SC group in the state is the most disadvantaged group numerically (7.15 per cent of the state’s population according to the 2011 Census)  and otherwise.  

At this moment, the biggest impediment to such unity in Assam is the ongoing demand for scheduling of six communities as STs. Most of them belong to the OBC groups and are much stronger numerically and otherwise. On the other hand, the Tea Communities which include about 96 groups like Munda, Oraon, Gond, Bhumij, Santhal, etc, though numerically large, about 18.5 per cent of the total population in the state, are also the most backward and exploited. Understandably, existing ST groups are strongly opposed to the adding of these other groups to the schedule. Even the proposal of increasing the percentage of reservation has not allayed the apprehensions of the existing ST groups, as they would forever be deprived from jobs and other opportunities at the national level. 

In spite of this, there seems to be certain consensus among these groups over the issue of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord that talks of ensuring political and cultural rights to all the indigenes. Therefore, as said above, contestation and cooperation of the communities in Assam keeps changing over time depending on issues and contexts. 


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