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No statehood for Assam ethnic minorities

thnic armed groups in different parts of Assam have been bluntly told by New Delhi that their demands for the division of the state are unacceptable. This position has been made clear to all groups including the Bodos, the largest plains tribal community in the state, whose demand for a separate state is nearly 40 years old and cuts across those who took up the gun to pursue their goals as well as those who fought the battle of the ballot and through the streets.

The groups, which have included those which made a great deal of clamour and shed blood for what they called "independence", have not yet reacted openly. But they are said to have been taken aback by the Centre's unambiguous stand.

At least three ethnic groups in Assam, including the Bodos, have been fighting for a separate state and the Centre now has to see how it can offer them a solution that is short of a state but goes beyond the standard Constitutional formula, enshrined in the Sixth Schedule, of Autonomous Councils and special powers.

"From the talks, it is clear that what they really wanted was not independence, which is not viable, but separate states carved out of Assam," said one official associated with the discussions with various armed groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with the government. "They have been told this is not on and they can be given autonomy, funds, powers within the borders of the state. Many of them did not realise that all this was possible within the existing Constitutional framework."

It needs to be underlined though that the Sixth Schedule endows ethnic groups, largely Scheduled Tribes who are covered by it, with panchayat-like powers on natural resources and taxation within the structure of an existing state. However, ethnic groups such as the Mizos, Khasis and Garos used the Sixth Schedule status as a stepping stone to eventual statehood. So perhaps the small ethnic groups that have demanded separation from Assam may still hope for a change in the future.

As part of the peace process, leaders of the Dima Halam Daogah in the Dimasa (formerly North Cachar) Hills Autonomous District are being released on bail to facilitate progress toward an agreement.

What this means for the perennial demand of Manipur's Nagas for a separate state, protesting what they regard as the exclusivist policies of the majority plains Meitei community, is not clear as the Centre has not made its position known on this issue, one of the most critical and sensitive to the entire region. The territorial question could either trigger unending unrest in different parts of the Northeast or, if resolved, reduce confrontation and conflict.

The call for a Nagalim (Naga land or nation) has been central to the demand by the former underground National Socialist Council of Nagalaim, which now says it is committed to find a peaceful solution to the "Indo-Naga" problem, not through force or arms as it had pledged till a 1997 ceasefire came into place. But is it setting a tacit precedent for Manipur with its position on Assam? As in Assam, where a majority is totally opposed to any further vivisection of the state (Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram have been carved out of the old Assam between the 1960s and 1970s), the dominant population group in Manipur refuses to countenance any division.

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