Friday, September 3, 2010

Stepsons of Assam

( An old article but came across it on the net. Posting it so that I remember I wrote thus also. May be I should search for my many other old articles before they fade from my memory.)

(The article was published on 16th October 2003 in the Telegraph under the title “If pricked do we not bleed” with some editions. And as Stepsons of Assam in

Date: September 14th

Time: Around 9:00 pm

Location: Chungajaan MV

Background: A sweeping victory in a football match

Mood: Of jubilation

Role Players:

1. A group of about 40 young jubilant Adivasis constituting of the players and their supporters

2. Men of 9th Assam Police Battalion manning Chungajaan MV Border Outpost, Golaghat

The night was still young and so were the boys who had won a football match a little earlier in the evening. A jubilant group of players and their supporters. Singing songs of victory, making hullabaloo of cheers. They were coming back, returning to their village after a winning performance in the football field.

When they were stopped by the 9th Assam Police Battalion none had dreamt of what had followed, for nowhere, in no books of law it is written that one cannot celebrate victory.

The policemen who had celebrated the Raising Day of 9th Assam Police Battalion were still continuing with their feasting (read boozing) and were now looking for some “masti”.

What followed was a grim scene straight from a Hindi potboiler.

They stopped the group on the road. Talks and enquires followed. They, then, took one of the boys Gabriel Kerketta (14 years) in the camp. The rest were asked to disperse. But, of course, the anxious group waited on the road. Sometime later, two policemen holding Gabriel brought him outside. He dropped unconscious. He had been badly assaulted.

Seeing this, the Adivasi boys become agitated and started breaking the bamboo fencing. This was enough for the police to put a gruesome display of their power. They fired at the group. Two got bullet injury.
The intervention of the CRPF controlled the situation who also took the wounded to the hospital. But one of the boys Jeevan Barla (15years) succumbed to his death on the way to the hospital while the other Kaustan Minz (20year) was still in the hospital recovering. Gabriel Kerketta who had been assaulted was also in the hospital at the time of writing this article.

Much later in the night, shaken by their own action and by the dread of consequences the battalion police collected some stones and 3 arrows and implanted them to make an alibi for their brutal action.

It may be mentioned that there were no trace of stones and arrows when the CRPF had reached the place and definitely no major altercation say the hangers on.

Date: July 25th

Location: Paneri, Mangaldoi

Background: A bandh called by the All Adivasi Students Association of Assam

Outcome: A clash between the police and the supporters of the bandh in which the police open fired killing 8 Adivasis and injuring a few more. An unscrupulous role of some youths ( from another tribal community) to start the clash was also reported by the witnesses.

Two incidents of killing by the men in khakhi in less than two months. And while they may take the excuse of “trying to restore law and order during a bandh” in the Paneri killings, they have no excuse, real or perceived, in the killing at Chungajaan MV, Golaghat.

Two questions come to the mind.

1. Are the police in Assam going the Bihar way? Yielding power without responsibility? Is accountability of actions, a respect for human life mere words of morality which they teach in the Training Centre (if they still do)?

2. Why such incidents happen only with the Adivasis in Assam? Incidents like this never (at least in the recent times) or seldom involve other communities. This in no way is desirable, but the question is do Adivasis make easy prey for atrocities and negligence? Is it so easy to get away with anything done to them because they are still not considered equal citizens of this land?

At this point let me also remind that more than 80,000 Adivasis are still languishing in the relief camps after the massacre of May 1996 in the Kokrajhar district. As per the report in one of the dailies of Assam, the people are living in inhuman conditions and not much has been done to rehabilitate them. It is an appalling fact that there are mere 5 tubewells for the 15000 people at Balagaon, 5 for the 4484 inmates at Daosori and 32 for the 32000 people at Kachugeron and 41tubewells are provided (many by the Lutheran World Service) for the 24649 people at Sapkata. Subhuman conditions and want of medicines and doctors has increased the mortality rate in the relief camps. Schools for the children in the camps etc are far fetched dreams.

The Adivasis with the other members of tea picking community had been living in Assam since 1839, the time when they had immigrated to Assam from the Chotanagpur Plateau, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

Having seen the face of poverty in their states of origin, they had been easily lured by the promises of light work and high pay, housing and medical care. But what they became after reaching the tea gardens of Assam was “the wretched and downtrodden slave population” from where there was no scope to return.

But that was 1839. And now its 2003. Much water had flowed down the Brahmaputra. Unbelievable developments have taken place in this land since then. But the community which lagged much behind with only very insignificant mass scale progress is that of the Adivasis.

The Plantation Labour Act, 1951 which has been operative in Assam from April 1956 is not properly implemented till date and the various labour welfare measures exists only on the papers.

The English planters were interested in having permanent labour families rather than individual workers and paid little heed to the education of the children of the workers. This trend continued even when they were replaced by the Indians resulting in mass illiteracy. The community shows the poorest percentage of adult as well as child education in the state. There are very few representatives of the Adivasis of Assam in the government jobs.

Sexual abuse of the women workers by their employers, supervisors and even co-workers is not uncommon.

Another major problem that the community is facing is lack of pattas – the legal document of land possession. For years the Adivasis have been living in this land but had never tried to establish their rightful ownership to it. Whatever land they occupy are sans the pattas making them susceptible to land alienation.

They had been engaged in a job that no one seeks to do and because of their tendency to live in a ghetto like environment, there had been no confrontation on any sensitive issue till the last few years. Perhaps for these reasons they had never been considered a threat either culturally or politically or economically. These very facts had also been the root cause of the near zero development works for the Adivasis. They had been living a life of misery and isolation, denied of their basic human rights. And what is the most paradoxical fact is this that the community which belongs to the Schedule Tribe category in their states of origin is yet to be recognized as ST in Assam.

The recession in the tea industry has worsened their already poor plight. They are being forced to lead a hand to mouth existence. News of starvation and also about some women folk taking to prostitution to keep the fire burning has also been reported. Instead of recognizing and understanding their plight, their desire to maintain their identity, their rights to the basics and their dreams to see a better and dignified future for themselves further atrocities like the Chungajaan killing are hurled at them. Such incidents leave nothing but embittered souls and fragmented spirits.

Times are changing. An Adivasi of today no longer wants to be a silent victim. Years of their mute cries had not been heard, but now awareness and education is slowly penetrating the otherwise meek and marginalized community. The Adivasis are organizing and want to be noticed for good. And while many a times they have taken extreme measures to vent their pent up feelings, have not resorted to more acceptable way of protests due to lack of money and ignorance of legal matters or perhaps because they either do not have or cannot trust anyone to advise them on such matters, or they know that the corrupt system of today favours the haves than the haves not, what is required is a change in the mindset of the people about them. An understanding and empathy for them. This cannot take place overnight. It requires an effort and time but before that a will. By being silent spectators of such brutalities we in a way become collaborators to such act.

At the same time let me also say that a change in the mindset of Adivasis about themselves is also needed. Such incidents definitely generate rage. But rage needs to be accompanied by restrain and sensitivity. Let not rage rise to the level of hysteria where no matter how genuine it loses its worth to create a constructive impact nor let it descend to a stage of self-pity. For self-pity curbs resilience and courage. There are flaws in the society but one cannot and in a way should not try to overthrow it. Reformation is what is needed.

As the crusader of equality, Dr B R Ambedkar said we must realize that emancipation and empowerment of the Dalits (Adivasis in this case), however slow and partial, lies in the pursuit of academic excellence and efficiency of high order in every pursuits. This also extends to the way the Adivasis exercise their democratic rights, for the efficacy of their leaders in decision making whether in or out of government, matters for their future.

Date: 29th September

Bloodshed after bonus backlash.

Seven tea garden labourers were killed and over 15 injured in Khobang TE of Tinsukia district when police opened fire on a mob protesting non-payment of bonus at the rate they wanted.

Doesn’t this sound like the alarm bell which should not be neglected?

As an afterthought let me also add that real emancipation, perhaps, means it should not matter to an Adivasi that he is an Adivasi- for in a resurgent India, one has no reason to flaunt that tag or to suppress it. One has to become what we had always aspired to be- just normal people who are neither aggressive nor apologetic about their identity. But this utopia is a long way away. And when this is no choice, I would rather be the former than the latter.

( Changes since then have taken place....many worse, soul-terrifying incidents too have taken place, some emancipation in miniscule areas have also taken place.....but while hope still floats, the cry is most of the time muted. Much and much has to change to a smile.)

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