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Tea tag blurs ST status: Adivasis

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OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT   |   Published 01.02.12, 12:00 AM

Guwahati, Jan. 31: The Assam Adivasi Peace Movement, which has been representing the militant All Adivasi National Liberation Army, today said the community had lost out on the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status and related-benefits for having been branded as either tea tribes or ex-tea tribes.

“My brother enjoys ST status in Jharkhand while I don’t in Assam because we are seen as belonging to the tea tribes or ex-tea tribes. It is nothing but politics. But we want to clarify that we have a distinct identity and that has to be acknowledged,” the movement’s vice-president Lebanus Minz said. Its president, Samuel Heranj, was equally blunt. “Just because our families worked in the tea gardens we cannot be said to be belonging to the tea tribes. What would have happened had we worked in a banana or mango or chilli plantation?” he asked.

The duo’s remarks assume significance as these come before the February 5 executive meeting of the Assam Adivasi Peace Movement at Sarupathar to finalise the agenda for the talks between AANLA and Dispur.

It also reflected the widening divide between the Adivasi groups struggling for ST status and organisations and leaders representing the tea community. AANLA had laid down arms on January 24 along with four other Adivasi groups, all of which sought ST status and extension of the Adivasi Development Council to cover the entire state.

“We had requested Dispur to lift the area restriction for the Adivasi council but chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who appeared eager to solve our problems, said the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) had been objecting (to the demand for extension of council areas). This shows how we are losing out,” Minz said.

Pallav Lochan Das, Congress legislator and former president of the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association, admitted to the objection by the ACMS but gave a different reason for it.

“Extension of the Adivasi Council, now restricted to the Sixth Schedule areas, will be a lot of duplication like one person availing benefits under the council and the existing Tea Tribes welfare department. For example, Adivasi Council chairman Kanu Murmu and senior tea community leader Prithibi Majhi are both Santhals. Can they avail of benefits under the department as well as the council? How can we check this?” Das said, but his response indicated that the road to the ST for the communities, Adivasis or tea tribe, got complicated.

As many as six communities have been seeking ST status but the prospects of the Adivasis securing the tag first appear to be the brightest but this tea/Adivasi division could only delay the process.

Heranj said there would be no problem if the non-tribals who came from Orissa or Bengal or Bihar or South India were accommodated in the SC list. “But Adivasis should be treated on a par in all the states,” he said.

Das said the ethnography report submitted to Dispur had seen 97 tribes and sub-tribes apply individually because of their distinct identity for the ST status under tea community/Adivasi.

“Let the Centre take a call on who should get what,” he observed.

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