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Rabha students protest rural poll notice

Dhubri, Dec. 18: Two panchayat offices, at Dhanubhanga and Kalyanpur, were set on fire by unidentified persons and the All Rabha Students’ Union (Arsu) burnt effigies of chief minister Tarun Gogoi and others in Goalpara district today.

The Arsu activists also burnt the effigies of Rajib Lochan Pegu, minister of state for welfare of plains tribes and other backward classes and Assam state election commissioner Biren Dutta on NH62 at Damra under Dudhnoi police station, a day after dates for panchayat elections in Assam were announced.

The Arsu and its wings, including the Sixth Schedule Demand Committee, have been demanding election to the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council for a long time and opposing panchayat election all along. The government has not conducted elections to the autonomous council since its formation in 1995. Arsu leaders said according to the agreement with the state government, the elected members of the council should decide on the panchayat election.

Sources in Arsu said the state government had constituted the council in 1995 with 779 villages and formed an ad hoc body to protect the political rights and uplift the socio-economic condition of the Rabhas and Hasongs living in Goalpara and parts of Kamrup district. The notification about formation of the council stated that election would be held within six months from the day of formation of the ad hoc body. Though 17 years have elapsed, no election has been held.

Only last month, on November 23, Gauhati High Court had asked Dispur to hold the election within six months, in response to a PIL filed by Arsu president Tonkeswar Rabha.

Earlier this year, on June 12, the high court had asked the government to show cause for the 17-year delay in response to a writ petition filed by the community’s leaders.

The court had also passed a verdict on February 11 last year in response to a writ petition (WP (C)/5545/2005) filed by Arsu in 2005, stating that there was no legal complication in holding election to the council.

The Arsu president told this correspondent today, “We have been opposing panchayat election and that we will continue to do so till the council election is held. We have called a joint meeting of 34 organisations tomorrow to chalk out our next move.”

Asked who could be involved in the arson, he alleged that setting the panchayat offices on fire was a conspiracy of the state government to malign Arsu, indicating that they could be accused since they were opposing the election.

Goalpara additional superintendent of police Sushanta Biswa Sarma said the police suspected some Rabha people were involved in torching the panchayat offices. “We are keeping a watch on the situation. The panchayat election has already been declared and those opposing it will be held,” he added.

The state government had to postpone the panchayat poll in 2008 following vehement protests.

On January 2 that year, seven activists of Non-Rabha Co-ordination Forum and Non-Tribal Protection Forum had died when police opened fire to control protesters who turned violent while demonstrating against partial panchayat election in front of Lakhipur police station in Goalpara district.

The two organisations were protesting against the government's decision not to hold panchayat polls in areas administered by the Rabha-Hasong Autonomous Council.

The polls were not being held in these areas as Rabha groups had opposed the election in the council area and the government had accepted their demand.