By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
On February 12, 2013, at least 20 persons were killed in Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC) areas in Goalpara District, Assam, as violence engulfed the region during the third and final phase of Panchayat (village Self-Governing body) elections in Assam. While 13 people died as a result of Police firing, when violent mobs comprising the Rabha people attacked polling centres and polling teams in RHAC areas, another seven were killed in clashes between Rabha and non-Rabha groups on the same day.
Chief Minister (CM) Tarun Gogoi, however, put total fatalities at 19, adding that about 70 persons, including 30 Policemen, were injured, while over a 100 houses were burnt during the violence. Till February 17, 2013, over 17, 949 people had taken shelter in 20 relief camps as the violence triggered an exodus of people from villages in the affected area. The Army was deployed to help Police and Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) maintain order in the region.
The first phase of Panchayat polls held on January 30, 2013, in the Districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Sivasagar, Golaghat, parts of Nagaon, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, variously recorded between 65 and 70 per cent voting. The second phase of polls, on February 6, 2013, in the Districts of Sonitpur, Darrang, Nalbari, Barpeta, Kamrup (Metro), parts of Kamrup (Rural), Bongaigaon and parts of Dibrugarh and Morigaon, recorded 65 per cent voting. Both phases passed off peacefully, with the exception of a few minor incidents. Elections for the Districts of Goalpara, parts of Kamrup (rural), Dhubri, parts of Nagaon, Morigaon, Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, were conducted in the third phase on February 12, 2013, and recorded 75 per cent polling.
Violence in the RHAC region started as the Rabha Hasong Joint Movement Committee (RHJMC), an umbrella organisation of 34 Rabha groups, opposed the polls. The RHJMC had been demanding RHAC polls before Panchayat elections in the RHAC areas. Incidents of arson in RHAC areas were engineered on January 24, 2013, during a 72-hour bandh (general shutdown) called by RHJMC. Then, on February 3, 2013, unidentified miscreants set ablaze an All Rabha Student’s Union (ARSU) office at Kalyanpur, amidst a nine-day ‘civil disobedience’ movement called by the RHJMC.
Road blockades were enforced and more violent incidents of arson occurred during the 36-hour Janata (peoples’) curfew ‘imposed’ by the RHJMC from February 11, 2013, preventing poll officials from entering the RHAC areas.
Meanwhile, on February 13, 2013, CM Gogoi, who also holds the Home portfolio, conceded that “there were some lapses and we had no prior information.”
Interestingly, a news report dated September 4, 2012, had stated that the Central Government, following the July-September 2012 Bodo-Muslim clashes, sent at least two advisories to the State Government indicating that the State might face trouble in RHAC areas, as the Rabhas have been demanding elections to the RHAC. The report quoted an unnamed senior Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) official as stating, “Rabhas want elections to the Council and Garos want panchayat elections and are opposed to the autonomous council. The focus is now shifted to the south bank of Brahmaputra and we have told this to the State Government.”
Clashes between Garos, Bengali-speaking Muslims and Rabhas had been reported in 2010-2011 as well. The Rabhas, who constitute just over a fifth of the population in Goalpara, where almost 60 per cent of the population is Muslim, are up against the combined strength of the Garos and Muslims, who are on the same side. In December 2010, the ARSU enforced a blockade of National Highway 37 in Goalpara District, demanding Sixth Schedule status for RHAC. On January 3, 2011, the Garo National Council of Assam responded by calling a 12-hour bandh in Goalpara District, and 30 Rabha houses in Mendipathar in East Garo Hills District were reportedly set ablaze. The ensuing clashes left 12 persons dead and 50,000 displaced. Before this, in 2008, at least nine people were killed in Police firing when an All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)-backed movement demanded Panchayat polls in the Lakhipur area of Goalpara District, a disputed area, which falls under the RHAC. Panchayat polls had to be suspended in RHAC areas following the violence.
In 2007 and 2009, ARSU had submitted memoranda to Gogoi, demanding the inclusion of the RHAC into the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and seeking exemption from Panchayat elections in the RHAC area. ARSU had also urged the Government to conduct RHAC election immediately.
Interestingly, on February 14, 2013, the State Government admitted its inability to exclude RHAC areas from the Panchayat Act. The Chief Minister’s Office issued a statement signed by the CM’s press adviser, Bharat Chandra Narah, stating, “Clause 5 of the Rabha Hasong Accord signed between the Government of Assam and the All Rabha Students Union and the Rabha Hasong Demand Committee on March 10, 1995, at Dispur, was unconstitutional because the State Government had no jurisdiction to exclude Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council areas from the purview of the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India under Article 244M.” The statement further observed that though Clause 5 existed in the Accord, it was not included when the State Legislative Assembly passed the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council Act in 1995 to give legality to the Accord. On February 13, 2013, Chief Minister Gogoi had termed the Rabha Accord “faulty”.
The State Government had established the RHAC, Head Quartered at Dudhnoi, on March 10, 1995, with 779 villages in its jurisdiction, and had formed an ad hoc body to protect the political rights and uplift the socio-economic condition of the Rabha and Hasong people living in Goalpara and parts of the then undivided Kamrup District. There are 36 General Council constituencies – 17 in Kamrup (Rural) District and 19 in Goalpara District – under the RHAC. The total number of village constituencies under RHAC is 360. The RHAC however continues to have problems regarding its territorial jurisdiction even after 17 years since its inception in 1995, and not a single Council election has been held, despite the agreement to hold elections within six months of the Accord.
Agitated Rabha groups finally got some relief when the Gauhati High Court, in response to a PIL filed by ARSU President Tonkeswar Rabha, directed the State Government, on November 23, 2012, to hold polls to the RHAC within six months. On January 18, 2013, following the Court order, the State Election Commission, announced that elections to the 360 village council constituencies would take place on April 30, 2013. This did not satisfy the Rabhas, RHAC elections to be held before panchayat polls. On February 11, 2011, in another case, the Court observed, further, that there were no legal complications in holding elections to the Council.
The problem is compounded by the fact that non-Rabha organisations oppose RHAC elections without proper delimitation of non-Rabha villages. The fresh delimitation of 36 RHAC constituencies is yet to be done in accordance with a 2008 notification for ‘exclusion and inclusion of villages’. Garo National Council-Assam President Benedict Areng consequently argues that Garo and various non-tribal groups had opted for the exclusion of their villages from RHAC in 2008. In Kamrup (rural) District, there are 81 Garo villages and in Goalpara, another 272, together accounting for a population of over 200,000, Areng claimed. Chandan Keshav, Advisor to the Non-Tribal Security Forum (NTSF) further asserted that there were 217 non-tribal villages with a population of about 350,000, which had been included in the RHAC area. Further, Non-Rabha groups wanted immediate panchayat elections in villages within the RHAC areas, in direct conflict with the stand adopted by Rabha groups.
Other Autonomous Council areas for Scheduled Tribes (Plains) have also experienced similar contradictions. Assam has Autonomous Councils for six Scheduled Tribe (Plains) communities – Tiwa, Rabha, Mishing, Sonowal-Kachari, Thengal-Kachari and Deuri — in addition to two Autonomous District Councils (Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao) for 14 Scheduled (Hill) Tribes and a separate Autonomous Council comprising four Districts for the Bodo tribe. While the two District Councils have been in existence for over 50 years under the Sixth Schedule, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) covering four Districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang was created in 2003 following an amendment to the Sixth Schedule. Significantly, the BTC areas have experienced repeated cycles of violence, killings and mass displacement, the most recent of which occurred in 2012, claiming 109 lives. This is despite the fact that the BTC has a clearly-demarcated (though contested) geographical area, while the remaining six autonomous councils only identify specific villages, and not any contiguous territory, as their jurisdictions.
The working of the State Autonomous Council was scrutinised by an expert committee constituted by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj in 2006. The report, Planning for Sixth Schedule Areas, and evaluating areas not covered by Parts IX and IX-A of the Constitution, stated:
An examination of the functioning of these councils shows a picture of confusion. The Panchayati Raj system continues to exist in these areas, as there is no constitutional basis for their removal. These areas are not exempt from Panchayati Raj in the same manner as other areas such as Nagaland and hill areas of Manipur have been exempted. The problem of institutional overlap in such areas is thus further compounded by the formation of these councils. There are three authorities operating in parallel in these areas, namely, the Council, the State departmental system and the Panchayati Raj system. These issues must be urgently solved so that there is only one single authority.
The inherent contradictions within the RHAC set-up have widened existing faultlines, and the imposition of panchayat elections in RHAC areas without addressing these incongruities has provoked the current cycle of bloodshed.
The Southern bank of Brahmaputra in Western Assam, dominated by the Rabha-Hasong tribe in the two western Districts of Goalpara and Kamrup (Rural), has now added to the BTC areas on the North Bank of the river, where the Bodos hold sway, to create a widening theatre of ethnic conflict in Assam.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management