Union government approves granting of ST status to 6 OBC communities in Assam

The decision will turn Assam into a tribal dominated state.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced today that the union cabinet has approved the demand of six communities in Assam to be granted Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. He said that the government has adopted a draft bill for the same, which will be tabled by the Tribal Affairs minister in the parliament during the current session.

On 7th January 2019, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) accepted the proposal of the Assam government to award ST status to six communities in the state. The Koch Rajbongshi, Sutiya, Moran, Matak, Tai Ahom and Tea Tribes are listed as OBCs at present, and they are demanding ST status for a long time. Following the clearance from NCST, the union government decided to go ahead with the next step in granting the ST status.

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP had promised the six communities that if it comes to power, it will take steps in granting ST status to them. After BJP won the elections and formed the government, they had started the process of the same. After BJP formed the state government in Assam in 2016, the home ministry had formed a committee to recommend the modalities to grant the ST status.

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Although the government had planned to grant the ST status before Assam elections in 2016, they could not do that due to the complexities involved. For example, the tea tribe does not refer to a single tribal, it consists of as many as 96 communities working in tea gardens. There was also opposition from the existing communities in the ST category, launching counter-agitations against the proposal. They felt that inclusion of new communities in ST category will hamper the existing Scheduled Tribes. Due to these reasons, the proposal got delayed. The delay had also prompted the six communities to re-start their agitations in support of their demand.

While clearing the proposal, NCST has asked the state government to revise the quantum of reservation for OBCs and STs, so that the interests of the existing STs can be protected. It is expected that the reservation for OBCs will be reduced while the same for STs will be increased, to accommodate the new communities under ST category.

Among the six communities, the Koch Rajbongshis have been the most vocal in the demand, and they are also demanding a separate state for them named Kamatapur, comprising the adjoining parts of Assam and West Bengal. Most people of this community are located in the districts of western Assam. The people of Sutiya, Moran, Matak, Tai Ahom communities are mostly concentrated in Eastern Assam. While the people of Tea Tribes are scattered across the state in various tea estates, which includes Santhals and other communities traditionally working in tea gardens.

Among the six, three communities were rulers in the state in past. The Tai-Ahoms ruled over the Ahom Kingdom for 600 years in Assam, while the rulers of the Kamata kingdom belonged to Koch Rajbongshi community, known as the Koch dynasty. The Sutiya kingdom was located on eastern Assam, and lasted almost 500 years.

Granting the Scheduled Tribe status to the six communities will mean that more than 50 percent population in the state will be tribal, making Assam a tribal dominated state. It will also increase the number of assembly constituencies reserved for ST candidates. At present, 16 out of 126 seats are reserved for 126, which may increase considerably after the expansion of ST category. This will also have an impact on the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the state. One of the fears about rising number of Bengali Muslims from the neighbouring country is that they will gain political power by electing their own representatives. The areas where most Bengali Muslims live overlap with the area dominated by the six communities. When assembly seats in that places will be reserved for STs, that fear will go away in that places.

After the hostilities BJP is facing in Assam due to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, this announcement is expected to bring some relief to the party and the government in the state. The support of these communities will be crucial in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

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