About 80% of Indian tribal people are located in Central India and are popularly called ‘Adivasi’. In certain parts like Northeast India, it is a term used for the tea-garden communities only. In Assam, which has roughly about 3.9 million tribal population, other ethnic groups like the Bodos, Karbis, Mishings, Koch-Rajbonshis, Deoris, etc are not referred to as so. The Adivasis in Assam were ‘transferred’ from the Chotta Nagpur Plateau in Central India, loosely covering the areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Bihar, and West Bengal, to work as coolies or labourers in the tea gardens.
This mass migration was actually effectuated by the British government to meet the expectations of the labour-intensive tea industry here which began in the 1830s. Most of the tribals who were recruited as labourers were brought here through coercion and fraudulent means under the aegis of the Transport of Native Labourers Act (No. III) of 1863 of Bengal (later amended in 1865, 1870 and 1873).
If we are to believe Lord Curzon’s speeches on the labour-contract system established by the British, it talks about penal laws that were created to legalise indenture contracts that “will benefit the planter and not the coolie”.
Today, Adivasis constitute close to 20% of the population in a state with 31.1 million people, which is something politicians keep well in mind during elections. Usually, that’s the only time Adivasi issues are spoken of chest-thumpingly by them. Post-polls, we all know what happens: too many promises, under-delivery of the same.
It is undeniable that the growth of the tea industry in Assam is not possible without the presence of the Adivasi community. Assam is the world’s largest tea-growing state, ranked as the largest producer of tea in India and second in the world. Quality-wise too, the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre (GTAC) recently made news for fetching the highest price for tea to be obtained in any auction centre across the world with one kilo rated sold out for ₹70, 501 per kilogram, breaking its own record twice within 24 hours.
But at the same time, these communities in Assam today face social exclusion and denial of the constitutional privileges which many of their tribal counterparts in the rest of India don’t. In Assam, the Adivasi communities are not scheduled in the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST) and are only recognised as Other Backward Classes (OBC).
For a tribe in India to be listed as Scheduled Tribes, they have to fit into the politico-legal definition as stated in the Constitution and not necessarily in the anthropological sense of the term. But often due to certain lapses, including mistakes by government officials, many tribal communities are left out of the Scheduled Tribes list in India and today cannot benefit from the system designed to give them special privileges in order to undo years of exploitation.
The Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (ATTSA) and the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) are protesting for all 112 tea tribes present in Assam to be given ST status and land rights. However, the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) differs in opinion. It supports the state government in their bid to include only 36 tea tribes because the others are already listed as SC and OBC communities.
Lakshmi Orang, was sixteen-years-old when she was stripped naked on the streets of Beltola while participating in a rally demanding the ST status for Adivasis in Assam. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised in a 2014 poll campaign that if brought to power, he would grant the status with six months. On his failure to deliver the promise, she wrote to the Prime Minister asking, “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’. Aren’t Adivasi women betis (daughters) of the state?” Today for the Adivasis in Assam, she is an icon of the Adivasi struggle against social injustices of displacement.
However, all Adivasi struggles are not as peaceful. Many extremist groups have flourished because Adivasi youth today are fed-up with the political games played with them. “Both Delhi and Dispur cheated us,” said Birsingh Munda former Commander-in-Chief of Birsa Commando Force. If ST status is not granted soon, they have said that they will rethink their decision to lay down arms.
The revolutionary freedom fighter Birsa Munda of Jharkhand, who is the only tribal leader to have his portrait hung in the Indian Parliament Museum and inspired all Adivasis to fight against the ‘dikus‘ or ‘outsiders’, would find it hard to believe that his fellow Adivasis today are considered outsiders within India, and that they are fighting for an identity they always had– that of being indigenous tribal people of India.
For a nation that consumes the highest amount of tea in the world, most consumers are perhaps unaware of the movement that Adivasis in Assam are going through daily to obtain their rights. Even our Prime Minister who allegedly sold Assam tea once to make a living and had promised the tea tribe communities their rights has fallen short on his assurances.
One can only wait and wonder if, and when, that become a reality–that the Adivasis of Assam will be recognised for their true, tribal identity and be given constitutional privileges as has been given to all other tribes of India.