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Government must think of regional autonomy, not
'ethnic councils'


wasbir Hussain
Executive director,
centre for development and peace studies

Now, it is the turn of the Rabhas in western Assam to be restive. They are angry because they do not want Panchayat elections to be held before the elections to the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC) slated for April 30. The State Government maintains that is not possible because the process for holding the Panchayat polls got rolling quite sometime back with the issue of the notification and so on.

The All Rabha Students’ Union (ARSU), the key organization leading the Rabha Hasong Joint Movement Forum, wants the Council polls in all the 779 villages within the Council’s jurisdiction, but the Garos and other non–Rabha groups do not want the Council polls held in 382 villages where the Rabhas are in a minority. On the surface, this is the dispute that is currently rocking parts of Goalpara and Kamrup districts ahead of the Panchayat polls.

If this dispute has arisen today, it is because of the Government’s flawed policy in trying to fulfill the aspirations of tribal communities on ethnic lines. As one has seen in the case of the disturbances in the Rabha Council areas, the minority Garos and others do not seem to accept the arrangement of having to stay under a Council whose nomenclature suggests it is meant for the majority Rabhas. Therefore, the question whether there is merit in granting regional autonomy in the days ahead and not succumb to pressures from a particular ethnic group and grant autonomy on ethnic lines.

Before we look at this question a little more closely, let me remind everyone that the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council came into being with a notification in 1995, but this is for the first time that elections to the Council are going to be held! For the past 17 years, the Council has been run by the State Government in an ad hoc manner by nominating community leaders at will. This means that a section of Rabha leaders may have developed vested interest with the manner in which the Council is being run so far. Now, the hold of these leaders, assuming there were some, are bound to be tested because elections on party lines have been announced for the first time. If anybody is hoping no elections will be held in view of the current disturbances, they might be proved wrong this time unless of course things go out of hand.

Two years ago, there was violent feuding between the Garos and the Rabhas on the Assam–Meghalaya border, and this was nothing but the result of the silent battle for territorial supremacy that has been on for sometime now. Directly or indirectly, this battle is the result of the government’s policy of appeasement of ethnic groups in Assam or elsewhere in the North–east. At least ten people were killed on that occasion, several injured and close to a thousand houses belonging to both communities have been torched in Assam and Meghalaya in a fortnight of rioting. And, of course, around 40,000 people were displaced from their homes, the majority in Assam.

The unfolding situation in Goalpara district, a Rabha stronghold, bears stark similarity to the situation in the Bodo heartland after the first Bodo accord was signed in the nineties. That accord, called the Bodoland Autonomous Council accord, had left the boundary question open. Later, a loose formula was devised by the government and the then Bodo agitation leadership. It said any village with a 50 per cent Bodo population would come to be included into the Council. This triggered off an ethnic cleansing, with Bodo miscreants targeting non–Bodos in a bid to alter the demography, particularly in the villages where the Bodos were in a minority. The Bodos wanted to be part of the Bodo Council.

It is high time the government takes a re–look at its policy of dealing with the ethnic groups in the North–east. The clamour for autonomy, the desire to retain their distinct identity and the hope that power to their own would raise the living condition of its people had led to agitations in the seventies that culminated in Assam’s reorganization and creation of new states. That has not satisfied the ethnic groups because they had realized that there was still no decentralization of power. Demands and agitation by more and more ethnic groups led to the creation of autonomous councils on ethnic lines. And, this has escalated matters with every ethnic group demanding autonomy. The corruption indulged in by leaders of several autonomous councils perhaps led many to clamour for autonomy and make a quick buck. I am not generalizing the allegation or perception.

The solution perhaps lies in providing regional autonomy, autonomy to an area, rather than to an ethnic group. This can work wonders, and help prevents flare–ups like the one in Goalpara. Regional autonomy, and not autonomy on ethnic lines, could well hold the key to a harmonious cohabitation of ethnicities in Assam or the Northeast. (courtesy: The Sentinel)