With days to go before an expert committee submits its report to the home ministry on granting Scheduled Tribe status to six OBC communities in Assam, all communities in the state are wondering how it will affect the existing distribution of quotas. Groups that already enjoy ST status, in particular, fear that the addition of more communities in the same bracket will slice away the benefits they currently enjoy within their 15 per cent. The OBC groups hoping to get ST status, on the other hand, expect that the quota for STs will be raised to go with the higher number of groups.
The expert committee, which will submit its report on October 15, has consulted both sides. Headed by Mahesh Kumar Singla, special secretary (internal security) in the home ministry, it was constituted on March 1. Its last meeting with representatives of the six Assam communities was on September; it has also consulted those opposed to the demand.
The demand of the six communities – Ahom, Koch-Rajbangshi, Moran, Matak, Chutiya, and Adivasi (tea tribes) – has the backing not only of the BJP and its ally the BJP but also of the opposition Congress. All three parties have expressed their support for the last three assembly and Lok Sabha elections).
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On the opposing side is a group of 10 other organisations representing the existing ST communities. “The proposal of the Government of India to grant Scheduled Tribe status to six advanced and populous OBC communities of Assam… is a conspiracy to destroy/exterminate the existing Scheduled Tribes of Assam,” they said in a joint memorandum to the Singla Committee last week.
The 10 organisations have formed a Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA), including the All Assam Tribal Sangha, the All Assam Tribal Youth League, and student unions and groups representing the individual tribes. The communities that currently enjoy ST status in Assam include Bodo, Rabha, Tiwa, Karbi, Dimasa, Mising, Sonowal, Hajong, Garo and Deuri.
About the six communities demanding ST status, the CCTOA said, “These six communities are educationally and economically advanced and more in number, and there is no way the existing ST communities can compete with these advanced groups. Once they get ST status, the existing communities will be simply wiped out in elected bodies as well as from education and jobs.” It would also usurp the land rights of the existing ST communities, it said.
The CCTOA cited a precedent in its memorandum to the expert committee. In 1996, the Centre had granted ST status to the Koch-Rajbangshi community for six months, the CCTOA said. adding that the community took away the majority share of the ST quota in college admissions within that short span. The Koch-Rajbangshis in 1996 took away 33 of 42 MBBS seats reserved for STs, 17 of 21 BE seats, all eight BAMS seats, and 35 of 45 BSc seats. Moreover, the CCTOA said, the Registrar General of India had rejected the demand of the six communities eight times between 1981 and 2006, the CCTOA said.
Leaders of the six communities, on the other hand, said their getting ST status would not affect the existing ST communities. “A major chunk of the 27 per cent OBC will become ST, which should ideally increase the ST quota from the existing 15 per cent to 39-40 per cent,” said Biswajit Rai, chief adviser of All Koch-Rajbangshi Students Union. “This clearly means it will not disturb the existing ST communities.”
Rai said granting them ST status would also increase the ST share in the population of Assam, which in turn would help reserve more assembly, Lok Sabha and other seats for indigenous communities. “The Assam Accord of 1985 had envisaged provisions for Constitutional safeguard of the indigenous people of Assam against the migrants, and granting us ST status will only make that easier,” Rai said.
Hiteswar Barman, another prominent Koch-Rajbangshi leader, said granting ST status would be much better than the government’s move to grant citizenship to Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh. “While Muslim migrants have already caused a major demographic problem, all indigenous communities of Assam are unanimous in their fear that granting citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis will reduce them to minority. But once the six communities are given ST status, it will pave the way for declaring Assam a tribal-majority state,” Barman said.