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CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE

Tribal tussle

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The violent clashes in western Assam left 13 people dead.

After the Bodo agitation, it is now the turn of the small Rabha tribe to assert its identity.

Assam is in turmoil again and at the centre is yet another tribal group, the Rabhas, agitating to protect its tribal identity. It was barely seven months ago that the biggest tribal group in the state, the Bodos, went on an ethnic cleansing drive against Bengali-speaking Muslims. Rabhas, a much smaller group, went on a rampage last Tuesday in western Assam.

The anger of the Rabhas, who constitute only nine per cent of the state's tribal population, was waiting to erupt. Their aspiration for identity and autonomy had to wait while the Bodos marched ahead - from attaining autonomy under the Constitution to being partners to the state government.

The Rabha agitation could be just a drop in the boiling cauldron of tribal aspirations in the state. The Bodos, Karbis and Dimasa are the only three tribal groups in the state which have attained autonomy to an extent but are demanding more in form of separate state. There are the Mishings (17. 8 per cent), Mikir (10. 7 per cent), Kachari (7. 1 per cent) and Lalung (5. 2 per cent) now waiting to fulfil their identity aspirations.

On February 12, armed with machetes, spears and petrol bombs, Rabha men, women and children stepped out of their homes to stop the state government from holding panchayat elections in areas that they claim fall within the autonomous council area - three zila parishads in Kamrup district and eight zila parishads in Goalpara district. Mayhem followed. The Rabhas burnt down schools which housed polling stations and set village after village on fire. Thirteen tribals were killed in police firing at different locations. Almost the same time as the Bodos, an autonomous council called Rabha-Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC), was constituted in 1995 for the Rabhas with its head quarter at Dudhnai town. But the Rabha-Hasong autonomy is still not guaranteed by the Sixth Schedule. And the election to the Rabha-Hasong autonomous council has also not been held since its formation in 1995.

The Rabhas' contention is that the memorandum contained a provision, which stipulates that the provision of the Assam Panchayat Act, 1994 and the Assam Municipal Act 1994 shall not be applicable to villages included in the autonomous council areas. The state government announced that the election to the Rabha-Hasong council area would be held by April 30. The panchayat elections in the area were scheduled for February 12, which got the Rabhas confused. They thought their area was out of panchayat jurisdiction because the memorandum had assured that, and believed the government was violating its own promise by holding the rural polls. "Unless the RHAC polls are conducted, the panchayat polls should not be held in the RHAC area, " says Tankeswar Rabha, president of All Rabha Students Union.

Senior advocate of Gauhati High Court, Bhaskar Dev Konwar points out that nonterritorial bodies like the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Councils are yet to be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
"Moreover, the government is yet to identify the areas to be included in the RHAC. This coupled with the fact that that there is no demarcation of responsibility between the panchayat bodies to be elected and the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council has led to a volatile situation in the areas dominated by the Rabha Hasong, " he says.

Chief minister Tarun Gogoi, however, remained firm on holding panchayat election in this troubled area. Soon after the incident Gogoi said, "The violent incidents were most unfortunate. The government has to hold panchayat elections in the Rabha Hasong areas as it considers this to be its constitutional duty. The government has promised elections to the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council once the panchayat elections are over. "

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