As anger builds in the state over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, seen as a threat to its culture, the Assam government on Saturday announced a slew of measures to protect the interests of the indigenous people of the state, including giving them rights so that their land is not sold to “infiltrators”, and safeguarding of Assamese language and culture.
“In the coming Assembly session, the government will bring in two new laws. First one will be for securing land rights of indigenous people. The outlines of the law were discussed in the Cabinet today… After we bring the law, an indigenous person can sell his/her land to an indigenous person only, not to anyone else,” Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said at a press conference Saturday.
The second law, he said, will be regarding preserving land surrounding the heritage sites of Assam, including the Vaishnavite monasteries known as Xatras, preventing any kind of illegal occupation or sale of it.
Question: Who is an indigenous?
While the Sonowal government hopes to contain anger over the CAA with the measures announced Saturday, the definition of ‘indigenous’ people of the state is fraught with risk. A committee set up to determine this as part of implementation of an Assam Accord clause is dealing with contesting cut-off dates.
With the definition of ‘indigenous’ person a contentious matter, the minister said they are waiting for a committee set up to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. “Otherwise, we have readied a definition of our own… The basic motto of the law is that an indigenous can sell land to an indigenous — a Himanta Biswa Sarma can sell to a Chandan Brahma but a Himanta Biswa Sarma cannot sell to an infiltrator, whether he has come in 1951 or 1971… not even if he has come in 1941. That means our land will be preserved for our people,” Sarma said.
He said the state government has asked the Centre to “suitably amend” Article 345 of the Constitution “to make Assamese state language”. “Assamese will be a compulsory subject in all English, Hindi and Bengali schools (up to class 10). However, this provision will not be applicable in BTAD, hills districts and Barak Valley (dominated by Bengali speakers).”
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) December 21, 2019
Sarma added that the state government will also ask the Centre that tribal autonomous councils of Mising, Rabha, Sonowal Kachari, Thengal Kachari, Deori and Tiwa communities get “constitutional status” so that that they can receive Central grants.
Clause 6 of the Assam Accord says, “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of Assamese people.”
Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has said a high-level committee will soon come out with suggestions on how to implement Clause 6. As of now, the committee is meeting stakeholders to reach a consensus on the definition of indigenous people, amidst various contesting cut-off years. Several stakeholders agree that 1951 should be taken as the cutoff for defining indigenous people eligible for the proposed safeguards.
“As of now, there are restrictions in purchase of land in certain tribal blocks and belts, wherein certain groups of persons identified as resident of areas can buy or sell land amongst themselves. But the Clause 6 implementation committee will define who is an ‘indigenous person of Assam’ and then, after the new land policy comes into force, only an ‘indigenous’ person can sell or buy land in the state,” a government official said.
The announcement comes months after the state cabinet approved the New Land Policy, 2019, saying it paved the way for protection of land rights of “indigenous people” of Assam. Since Independence, Assam has had four land policies — in 1958, 1968, 1972 and 1989.
Like the 2019 policy, the 1989 policy too said land may be made available to landless “indigenous” people — but didn’t define the same.
Sarma also announced a new autonomous council known as “Kamtapur autonomous council”, carving out areas of “old Goalpara district” but excluding areas falling in the BTAD and Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council.
Moreover, Sarma announced a series of developmental schemes for the tea community such as increase in wages, reservation of seats in colleges and universities for them, as well as schemes for certain tribal communities.
Sarma said the Cabinet also resolved Saturday that the Bodo peace accord be concluded expeditiously.