Saturday, December 8, 2007

An act of

The stripping of an Adivasi girl at a recent rally in Assam both shamed and outraged the country. But even as the distraught victim and her family are yet to come to terms with what struck them, political parties and ethnic groups in the state are out to exploit the incident for furthering their own agenda. Bijay Sankar Bora, The Tribune Special Correspondent in Guwahati, reports

ANY stranger travelling along the 3-km stretch of the pot-holed road from the centre of the small north Assam township of Bishwanath Chariali in Sonitpur district to the nondescript Jopoubari village is being closely watched till he or she arrives at the doorstep of the most visited house in the area in the wake of what had befallen Adivasi protesters on the streets of Guwahati on November 24.

The ordinary-looking tin-shed house with mud-plastered bamboo walls has become the focal point of politics revolving around the Adivasi community’s prolonged agitation in the state, demanding its inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution for recognition as Scheduled Tribes. These Adivasis made Assam their home about 150 years back when their forefathers migrated from Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh to find employment in the then British-owned tea estates.

There has been a continuous stream of Adivasis visiting the house of Deva Orang, a 65-year-old ex-Army man who fought Chinese invaders in 1962, after the tragedy of November 24 —- a day that will go down as one of the darkest in the modern history of Assam. That day 16-year-old Dipti (name changed), the only daughter of Deva Orang was stripped naked by some miscreants in broad daylight on the main thoroughfare of the posh Beltola area close to Assam’s capital complex at Dispur in Guwahati while she was taking part in a rally. The rally was held by Adivasis in response to the call of the All Adivasi Students Association of Assam (AASAA) to press for the community’s demand for ST status.

AASAA members keep vigil at the victim’s house
AASAA members keep vigil at the victim’s house

Deva Orang (centre) with his wife Seema and three sons
Deva Orang (centre) with his wife Seema and three sons

Members of the All India Democratic Women’s Association with Seema Orang
Members of the All India Democratic Women’s Association with Seema Orang

The residence of the victim at Jopoubari in Assam
The residence of the victim at Jopoubari in Assam

The rally had turned violent after a clash between local residents and Adivasi protesters. In the mayhem that continued for hours in broad daylight —- an Adivasi youth was killed, hundreds were injured and Dipti was stripped in full public gaze and forced to run naked on the streets of Guwahati to save her life. This crime committed on the young girl by some miscreants has not only shaken the entire nation but has also threatened to shatter the bond of brotherhood between Adivasis and Assamese communities in the state.

While the humiliation has left a deep scar on the psyche of the tormented girl, the Adivasis in the state consider it an insult and injury to their entire community.

Meeting visitors, the anguished father is still finding it difficult to believe how a simple act of letting his daughter attend the rally could turn into a nightmare. "My daughter, who is well aware of our community’s demand for ST status, was very keen to go to Guwahati to attend the rally though she was preparing for the matriculation examination slated for January-end. As she was willing, I allowed her to leave for Guwahati along with her two brothers and some other members of the community on the night of November 23. I thought that besides participating in the protest meeting, she will also see the bustling Guwahati which she had always wanted to visit. But demons who were on the prowl on Guwahati streets, mauled my little girl and left her with a trauma that will haunt her for years to come," said a distressed Deva Orang.

Venting anger at the government and its attempts to make amends, he said. "The state government, which failed to protect the Adivasi agitators in the high-security area of Guwahati, is now trying to save the situation with an offer of a meagre Rs 1 lakh and a job for my tormented daughter. I don’t want to become a laughing stock before the community by accepting offers from the state government. If the government is really interested in compensating what my daughter has lost for life then it should grant ST status to the Adivasi community in Assam. I consider that the humiliation suffered by my daughter is the ultimate sacrifice made for the community." His wife Seema, sitting next to him, silently nodded in agreement.

Lying on a bed, a tired-looking Dipti said in a frail but steely voice, "I no longer want to discuss what happened to me in Guwahati. It hurts but at the same time the incident has strengthened my resolve to achieve what my community has been fighting for all these years. My state of health and mind will not allow me to appear for the High School Leaving Examination this time, but I will try my best to overcome the trauma and appear for the examination next year. I want to take the tragedy in my stride and get educated so that I become empowered to serve my backward and largely illiterate community. The government will not be able to deny us the ST status for long."

Dr Eliza Deka from Jopoubari Primary Health Centre, who has been regularly monitoring the health of Dipti, said: "The young girl has tried her best to come to terms with life. She has recovered well although her mental condition was pretty bad for at least three days after the incident. She is now taking normal diet and fortunately there is no serious injury to her body. She will of course need tremendous mental support from her family and friends."

The family, however, seems to be under pressure from their community to refuse government aid and help till their demands are accepted.

Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of Bishwanath Chariali subdivision Vishal Solanki said doctors in the local civil hospital conducted a thorough check-up of the girl and stated that there was no serious injury to her body, but prescribed a CT scan to be sure. "Accordingly," says Solanki, "the administration offered to take the girl to Tezpur for the scan. However, the family which is under tremendous pressure from AASAA to not cooperate with the administration, has refused the offer and said that AASAA would make arrangements for the scan.

"Meanwhile, I have to send a report to the National Women Commission on the state of health of the girl sans the CT scan report. Too many quarters are interested in politicising what has happened to the girl without caring about her physical and mental well-being."

Probably, the SDO has sized up the situation quite well. Local activists of AASAA are keeping round-the-clock vigil at the residence of the girl in a bid to keep ‘unwanted visitors’ at bay. While the ruling party is trying to prevent opposition party leaders from visiting the family and the girl, some nefarious forces are out to exploit the situation to bring a permanent divide between the Adivasis and the Assamese.

AASAA, too, is out to project the young girl as a symbol of sacrifice`85 a symbol that could provide more impetus to their agitation for ST status. The Opposition as well as political leaders of Jharkhand, not one to lose an opportunity to criticise the ruling party, are making a lot of noise about the outrageous incident and pointing an accusing finger at the state government. The ruling Congress is trying to save its skin by offering money and job to the girl besides recommending a CBI probe and calling for judicial probe into the tragedy.

Ironically, no one is talking about what is being done to facilitate proper psychological treatment and rehabilitation of the girl, who is now spending her days lying on bed inside a dark room. She has been hiding her face from the numerous visitors making a beeline to her house. Her illiterate parents and three semi-literate, unemployed brothers — Raju, Rajen and Ramen — are doing their best to support her but that will not be enough.

Amid such intense politicking, nobody is realising that the girl who used to roam around freely in the area with her friends, even taking part in cultural functions —- she can do Bihu besides the traditional Adivasi dance —- is now confined to her room for no fault of hers.

Her father, who can hardly make both ends meet with only nine acres of family holding, said: "Such a moment of agony wouldn’t have arrived had the political leaders of the state really cared for the welfare of the Adivasis. My small Jopoubari village wouldn’t have remained so backward had the politicians visited it as frequently as they are now coming to visit my tormented daughter for gaining political mileage. I hardly listen to what visiting politicians have to say to us at this moment of tragedy."

The girl’s great grandfather Kripa Orang, who was instrumental in bringing thousands of Adivasis from Ranchi during the British days to work in north Assam tea estates, wouldn’t have imagined that such a tragedy would befall his family, threatening to disrupt the community’s assimilation with locals in Assam.

In an attempt to involve the entire Adivasi community to support the tragedy-struck Orangs, the local unit of the AASAA is trying to mobilise funds. The AASAA assistant secretary of Sonitpur district unit said that 40,000-odd Adivasi households in the Bishwanath Chariali area would contribute Rs 10 each to the family that has chosen to reject the compensation offered by the government.

Unless the greater Assamese society wakes up to the reality that it was an Assamese girl, and not just an Adivasi, who was stripped naked on the streets of Guwahati, it will be difficult to prevent the Adivasi community from drifting away from the mainstream of society. The Adivasis, who have been demanding ST status in Assam for the last 60 years, have adopted the language and traditions of the land. But they have remained a largely ignored lot. For instance, only one per cent of the 35 lakh Adivasis in Assam are literate.

The community’s demand for ST status has by and large been supported by all sections of the Assamese society, barring conditional support from a few ST communities like the Bodos who will not oppose the ST status for Adivasis as long as it doesn’t affect the benefits that are being enjoyed by the already recognised ST communities in the state.

All the political parties in the state support ST status to Adivasis while the incumbent state government had recommended it for perusal of the Centre. However, Adivasis’ history of migration to Assam has been the major technical hurdle for the Centre to grant ST status to them in Assam. Since they are migrants they can’t be considered indigenous and the ST status is meant for the in situ ethnic groups.

The present situation in the tension-ridden Assam warrants better political will and sincerity on the part of the government in accepting the long-standing demand of the Adivasi community that is considered a Scheduled Tribe in many other states of the country.