Assam's Rabha Tribe is Fighting to Save Its Land and Identity

The BJP-led state government’s move to incorporate the Rabha land into the Guwahati metropolitan area will plunge 350 tribal villages into an identity crisis.

If the last vestiges of India’s natural forest cover and biodiversity hot spots remain intact in some pockets of the Northeast border areas, it is thanks to the tribal communities’ protection. A recent visit to the Rabha – a tribal community residing in the Assam valley – provided a glimpse into the struggles they face in doing so.

The Rabha areas of Assam are administered by the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, created in 1995 by an ordinance of the Assam government. Ceded after 18 years of Rabha struggle, it saw 24 people lose their lives. The council’s first election was held in 2013. It gave the Rabha locals governing rights and an increased annual budget. However, this failed to satisfy them because key control over home, external and financial powers remained in the hands of the Assamese ruling class.

“The Assam government only gives us grants and doles. We want power, as given under the 6th Schedule of the constitution, to manage our own affairs,” said Ramakanta Rabha, deputy chairman of the council. In recent months, agitation and unrest has exploded in these areas, provoked by a surreptitiously enacted legislation passed in the state assembly in October 2017 – the ASCRDA Act.

Protesters carrying a banner against the imposition of the ASCRDA Act on the Rabha community.

The Act incorporated the Rabha areas under the Assam State Capital Region Development Authority, subsuming them into the Guwahati metropolitan area. This pries open these fertile agricultural tracts to the corporate depredations of industrialisation.

The Rabha say their land, forests and underground resources, which they have long protected, now stand threatened. Unfolding here is the BJP government’s machination to ‘legally’ grab control of the tribal areas of the Northeast for exploitative development. The Rabha believe that their very survival is at stake.

During a visit in June 2018, we drove through verdant landscapes – emerald paddy fields surrounded by thatch and bamboo houses encircled by forests. In today’s land-starved Assam, barely 40 kms from Guwahati, this enclave is still vibrantly intact, for the Rabha have tenaciously held onto their land and forest spaces.

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Taking a tea break at Loharghat, a village where the All Rabha Students Union (ARSU) has its office, we encountered an unusual sight.

The entire village was watching the FIFA World Cup on television in the office. During the less intense moments of the match, however, some serious business was at hand as a village durbar of sorts was underway.

Two young lads – Nayan Rabha and Pinku Das, 23-year-olds, unemployed, high school drop-outs – had been caught felling 20 ancient sal trees in the reserves. Sold to a non-local contractor at Rs 1,000 per cubic feet, the easy money of Rs 20,000 earned was used to meet long-held desires – purchase of a mobile phone and gifts for their small children.

The case lodged by ARSU against them was now being decided by the village headman. The relatives of the two boys also trooped in to plead for their kin, in what appeared to be a time-honoured practice of ensuring justice. The idea was not to punish, but rather to get them to make reparations and understand what they did wrong. The verdict directed them to plant and nurture 20 new trees in place of the ones they destroyed.

Rabha pineapple seller in the local market

Jamini Rabha, a village elder, said, “Our people have not had to work hard. Even without cultivating, things grow here. Nobody remains hungry. But the need to educate two or three children, meet health needs, requires cash. Some villages came out of poverty when educated members went to work in the city, managed to buy land and meet the needs of the family. Overall, however, education has not given villagers skills, knowledge and confidence. Children drop out by class 8 and end up doing daily wage labour or selling firewood. Middlemen from Kolkata provide ‘easy money’ for quality timber. Our youth destroy the forests, not caring what remains after they die”.

The Rabha land is filled with flowers and fruit trees. The markets brim with several species of bananas, the juiciest and sweetest mangoes, pineapple, oranges, passion fruit, papaya, guava and sweet lime. Other local produce includes lemons and chilly, along with a variety of wild vegetables and leafy greens, areca nuts and fragrant varieties of indigenous rice – all organically grown.

The tribal villagers know the value of an organic crop. Cash crop cultivation – betel nut, rice, palm oil – is, however, depleting local food self-sufficiency, forcing market purchase.

This area is also rich in sand and stone quarries. The forests, bordering the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, witnessed a dense growth of Himalayan sal and different species of teak trees. Though coming under the jurisdiction of the Assam Forest Department, they have flourished because of the efforts of indigenous residents.

These natural forests and tribal lands have varying patterns of ownership. The hill tribes are covered by the 6th Schedule of the constitution which makes individuals and communities the owners of the land, forests and resources. Separate protection for plains tribals in the Assam valley saw the creation of tribal belts and blocks which prevented land transfer to non-tribal, but was never implemented.

Today, 60% of tribal land is occupied by non-tribal people. Land alienation and ‘Assamisation’ (denying the tribal their distinct identity) has invited conflict and violence for decades.

Cultural cohesion, a smaller population and sufficient land holding have, so far, protected the Rabha community from the ravages suffered by larger tribal groups such as the Bodo. Nevertheless, Goalpara district has seen an inflow of Bengali Muslim migrants who are believed to be long-term settlers. Their increasing population is having an impact on the landholding and survival of the Rabha.

Women members of the Rabha community sitting during a protest.

Meanwhile, the BJP-led Assam government’s clandestine move to incorporate the Rabha areas into the Guwahati metropolitan area will plunge 350 tribal villages into an identity crisis. Recent months have seen massive protests led by the Rabha Hasong Joint Movement Committee, consisting of 34 organisations representing 18 indigenous communities.

“We will not allow this to happen under any circumstance because the very survival of the Rabha people is entirely dependent on their land and agriculture,” says All Rabha Students Union President, Ramen Singh Rabha. “This Act is a hoax to grab protected land in the tribal blocks and belts from the indigenous people. It will harm the uniqueness of the tribal region and the lifestyle of the indigenous communities residing on the southern banks of the Brahmaputra,” he says.

All images by Rupa Chinai.

Rupa Chinai is an Independent Journalist based in Mumbai and authored the recently published book ‘Understanding India’s Northeast – A Reporter’s Journal’.

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