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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 15:19 GMT
Ethnic showdown looms in Assam
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Violence against Adivasis in Guwahati in November
Adivasi demands have created renewed tension in Assam (Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)
Organisations representing Bodo and Adivasi tribes people in India's troubled north-eastern state of Assam are heading towards a showdown.

They have both been threatening the state's beleaguered coalition government with "dire consequences" unless it addresses their differing political interests.

"The Assam government is caught in a nutcracker," says analyst Samir Das of Calcutta University.

"Balancing the rival interests will not be easy because the Bodos and the Adivasis have a recent history of considerable violence."

The Adivasis ("sons of the soil") are descendants of central Indian tribes people brought to Assam by the British to work in the tea gardens.

Violent agitation

Five political and students groups representing them have threatened to start road and rail blockades across Assam and in the neighbouring states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar from 17 December unless the community is recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in Assam.

Map

Two of these five groups are armed and operate underground. They have warned that the issue may jeopardise recent ceasefire agreements with the Assam government.

Scheduled Tribe recognition would bring these communities better access to education and employment.

"This has been a long standing demand for us, but the Assam government has been dragging its feet. We are determined to achieve Scheduled Tribe status this time," said Justin Lakra of the All Assam Adivasi Students Association (AAASA).

The situation resembles a second class compartment in an Indian train... They don't want to share the pie
Assam analyst Samir Das

But the Bodos, one of Assam's most populous tribes who already have Scheduled Tribe status as well as considerable autonomy in western districts of the state, have threatened violent protests if the Adivasis are conferred with the same status.

Assam's Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has already said his government will strongly recommend that the Adivasis are granted their request.

The issue turned violent in the state's capital, Guwahati, last month.

In the Beltola area of the city, two Adivasis were killed and more than 250 injured by locals acting with tacit police support.

Separate state

One Adivasi girl was even stripped and chased through the streets in full view of television cameras.

Bodo rebels relax in their camp
The Scheduled Tribe issue could put the Bodos back on a war footing

The locals were upset because the Adivasis had smashed their shops and vehicles during protests earlier in the day.

India's central government has also promised to give sympathetic consideration to the Adivasi demand - not the least because they constitute nearly 20% of Assam's electorate and have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Mr Gogoi's Congress party.

But at the moment, Congress does not enjoy a clear majority in the Assam legislative assembly and depends for survival on the support given to it by the Bodoland People's Progressive Front (Hangrama faction).

On Friday, a meeting of six Bodo political and student groups in the western town of Kokrajhar threatened to resume their campaign for a separate state if the Adivasis were granted recognition as Scheduled Tribe.

'Fulfil aspirations'

"We have strongly opposed any move to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the Adivasis who have migrated to Assam.

"The government should not try to compensate the Adivasis for what had happened in Beltola by granting them Scheduled Tribe status, diluting the rights of the indigenous tribal people of the state," Daorao Dekhreb Narzary, a former Bodo student leader, said after the meeting.

Policeman during violence against Adivasis in Guwahati last month
Assam has seen recent protests (Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)

The groups attending Friday's meeting might not be as powerful as some of their leaders believe, but analysts say that they do have the support of the Bodoland People's Progressive Front (BPPF) that controls the Bodoland autonomous territorial council in western Assam.

"The situation resembles a second class compartment in an Indian train. Those who have got in with some effort will always try to block others from entering the compartment so that they can stretch out a bit. They don't want to share the pie," says analyst Samir Das.

Meanwhile, Mr Gogoi says his government wants to "fulfil the aspirations of all communities in Assam".

But he admits dealing with an "either-me-or-him situation" is not easy.

His party needs the political support of the Bodo party to survive in power for a full five-year term. But it also needs to appease the Adivasis to win a future election in the state.

The two groups themselves have made little effort to reconcile their differences, and much of the animosity so obvious between them during a bloody internecine feud in western Assam during 1996-2001 still lingers.

More than 800 people died and a quarter of a million people were left homeless.



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