Assam is a place enriched by the migration of multiple groups. It is what it is because of and not despite migration. As a transnational space, groups from various ethnic and racial backgrounds form a heterogeneous cultural space. Assamese culture hence owes a debt to all the other cultural worlds that constitute the multi-ethnic, multilingual space of Assam. Portraying Assamese as a homogeneous identity and culture, which the Assamese nationalist tries to do, is a theft of history.
Historians Edward Gait and S. K. Bhuyan wrote a great deal about the Assamese. Gait notes that there are no true indigenous Assamese. He wrote his version of history with Ahoms at the centre of things, which presented certain events as benchmarks for identity making. In that light he accepts the arrival of Ahoms in 1228 CE as an event that separates the original inhabitants from the “immigrants”. Both were in agreement on the importance of immigration into Assam, by which they primarily meant labour.
Gait further observes that “artisans, craftsman, weavers, clerks, accountants, scholars and saints”, both Muslim and Hindu, were admitted if the Ahom kingdom gained from them. For Bhuyan, the “foreigners brought in by the Ahom rulers” posed no economic or political threat. They were accepted as a part of Assamese society as they had cut their ties to their ancestral places. But a distinction was made in respect of those immigrants who settled in Assam, mostly the Brahmaputra valley, from the earlier “immigrants” in the late modern period. These new people were not considered part of Assamese society. Going by the criteria of inclusion, as Gait and Bhuyan point out, their exclusion was primarily because they maintained ties with their places of origin. These migrations could be read as natural movement of people, as from above and below (same tectonic plate) Sylhet is linked to Assam.
But the immigration problem, as it is stated in Assam, mostly refers to migrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It should also be noted here that labourers settled in tea-gardens who were screened from the neighbourhood and public spaces of caste Assamese society never became an issue. They have been ignored, denied and forgotten. Such selective targeting of people into a common enemy in the form of a “Bangaldeshi” also highlights the chauvinistic and communal dimension of the Assam movement.
he Assamese middle-class and caste Assamese in time constructed a homogeneous identity that used certain exclusive events in history as markers. One such selective use of history is the case of Lachit Barphukan, the 17th century Ahom general who defeated the Mughals. During the Assam movement he was used as a metaphor that indicated the cultural dimension of the movement itself, writes Gareth Price. A fact finding committee under the aegis of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in its report of February 28, 1980, noted that the presence of Lachit’s image in the All Assam Students Union office can only indicate its chauvinistic inclinations.
With states reorganisation, when Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of Assam, a new caste Hindu Assamese identity was forged, from the Brahmaputra valley.
The most recent appropriation of Lachit is by right wing groups that project him as the saviour of a Hindu country from Muslim invasion. The Last Battle of Saraighat is proof of how certain imagery and symbolism is projected through popular history. In essence, Lachit became a cultural symbol of valour and patriotism. He has also become the showpiece of caste Assamese society, evident in his commemoration. It should be kept in mind that Srimanta Sankardev was also a prominent figure of Assamese cultural nationalism, as was the Assamese language.
The differences between Bengali and Assamese are reduced to two letters. The interesting aspect is how much energy has been spent to prove the differences, as opposed to the similarities or commonalities which are erased in this effort. Gareth Price in his dissertation shows that Assamese elites and American missionaries in the late 19th century managed to sediment this difference with the Bengalis and turn it into a distinctive marker of being Assamese.
Furthermore, with states reorganisation, when Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of Assam, a new caste Hindu Assamese identity was forged, largely imagined, from the Brahmaputra valley. Congress party elite played an important role in consolidating Assamese identity after Independence. It was mainly represented by upper-caste Assamese. With the reorganisation, upper-caste powers were significantly eroded in Assam. The decline of Congress party influence took place against the backdrop of the Assam movement when it was projected as running on the “illegal vote-bank” of immigrants.
Assam Yuvak Samaj (Assam Youth Society, AYS) an organisation nurtured by Ambikagiri Raichowdhary used anti-Bengali sentiment to mirror Assamese culture. Purbanchal Luko Parishad (Democratic Peoples’ Council, PLP) was formed by Gaurishankar Bhattacharjee, grandfather of TV anchor Arnab Goswami, which included members dissatisfied with the policies, indifference and positions of different political parties in Assam. They maintained a thin line between xenophobia and populism. Their failure can be traced to this hesitation to step over the line, as the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) did.
lthough the slogan “Assam for the Assamese” hinged on anti-immigrant feeling, the overall impression people had was of Assamese as an accommodating identity irrespective of caste and creed. PLP also advocated industrial development and in a way led the argument that Assam was economically deprived and its resources taken out of the state. Its 1978 manifesto called for a unification of the Northeast to fight the Centre’s colonial exploitation. But its attempt to appease both the “indigenous” and the migrants failed to find popular support, particularly from the former, mainly upper-caste Hindus. The social base was eroded partly due to Congress economic appeasement. After PLP failed to make a mark in the 1978 election, it amalgamated into the newly formed AGP, whose support came from the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Assamese cultural organisations and parties such as PLP.
But the award for xenophobia goes to Assam Jatiyatabadi Dal (Assam Nationalist Party, AJD). Its president Girin Baruah suggested that Assamese had been in conflict with Bengalis since 1837. Yet another group of significance is the Ujani Assam Rajya Parishad (Upper Assam State Council, UAPR) founded in 1967, a party of the Ahom Mongolian Tai Parishad, an Ahom pressure group. It wanted a homeland in Upper Assam, comprising the districts of Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh and Sibsagar. It also criticised the presence of a refinery in Guwahati, as opposed to Upper Assam where the oil was produced. It failed because non-Ahom voters found it unattractive, adds Price.
These organisations were important drivers of identity in the state. Although there seem to be no agreed definitions of who is an Assamese, the 1951 Census Report defined indigenous people of Assam as such:
“Indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the State of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of Assam, or in the case of Cachar the language of the region.”
The movement solved the problem of identity. In the pre-British period, apart from religion, there is no proof Assamese was a singular cultural group. Indeed the territory was marked by ethnic and cultural diversity.
The most recent debate on this definition was in the Assam Assembly in 2015. It was about the 1951 deadline to be considered for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process and the definition of Assamese also to be included within the ambit of NRC. The above mentioned definition was included by the then speaker of the house Pranab Kumar Gogoi, which the AGP, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) supported. The Indian National Congress and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), however, opposed the move and pointed out its inadequacy.
Anup Chetia, secretary-general, United Liberation Front of Assam, made a claim in the Indigenous Platform organised earlier this year that the cut-off date for identification of foreigner should be 24 February, 1826, not 1971. He also pushed for a new category or rather inclusion of the Nepali/Gorkhas and Bagania (tea-tribes of Assam) people within the fold of Assamese. But a distinction was made between indigenous Assamese and Assamese. His reason for the inclusion was that these two communities had assimilated into the larger Assamese culture. His statement received a mixed response. The All Assam Gorkha Student Union termed such an attempt as dangerous and unhealthy for society.
he Assam movement solved the problem of identity. In the pre-British period, apart from religion, there is no proof Assamese was a singular cultural group. Indeed the territory was marked by ethnic and cultural diversity. The contributions of Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bisnuprasad Rabha, two stalwarts of Assamese art and culture, are proof of the diversity of Assamese cultural and social world.
Gareth Pierce notes that it is the Assam movement that first portrayed Ahom history as the early modern history of Assam. At the same time, Ahom myths were used as representative of the Assamese. Ahom military triumphs and political power became important in foregrounding the movement. Although Ahoms did not become an important part of the Assam movement, caste Hindu Assamese used it to consolidate caste Hindus for the movement. This separation of Ahoms from Assamese had been encouraged by the British.
The NRC has caused deep trauma and anxiety among people from all sections of society, whether they are “doubtful” or not. It has become the cause of every sorrow and an exceptionable exercise.
Another important dimension of myth-making centring Ahoms is that they still exist, so much so that one of the links often drawn is that the name Assam is derived from Ahom. But in the time of NRC such retrospective use of history seems to have become a norm. NRC itself is a retrospective process where a person’s claim to belong to a place is determined by going back in history. The symbolism of the Battle of Saraighat or Lachit Barphukan employed by right-wing ideologists is another example of history used to build political narratives with a complete disregard for the facts.
Providing a measure of who is Assamese is important. The lack of, or ambiguity of, a definition leaves space for a lot of manoeuvre and discrimination, which the NRC process has proved yet again. Assam is a multiethnic world enriched by many streams. The definitions we have are narrow and violate the essence of what made Assamese culture possible.
he NRC in Assam, aimed at detecting original inhabitants in the state, has caused deep trauma and anxiety among people from all sections of society, whether they are “doubtful” or not. It has become the cause of every sorrow and an exceptionable exercise. Common people and intellectuals alike support this citizenship register as the solution for questions over citizenship and to illegal immigration, turning it into a sacrosanct process.
In a letter to the Prime Minister in 2008 then Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi stated: “Updating of the National Register of Citizens 1951 is looked upon as the solution to the vexed foreigners issue in the State and there seems to be a consensus among cross section of people with regard to the updating of NRC”. But a close look at the grounds on which the NRC process stands shows the loopholes and contradictions.
The NRC was a transcription of certain census information from the 1951 census... a ‘secret administrative document, not open for inspection’ , compiled by ‘unqualified or ill-qualified person’ .
Any person, to be included in the NRC, has to prove ties with a family member whose name is present in NRC 1951 or electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971. Both these documents are called legacy data which forms the basis for NRC. But NRC 1951 was “a casual affair as it was prepared without any planning, training or any organisation” within a span of twenty days between February 9 and February 28, 1951.
In his book Demographic Trends in Assam 1921-1971, published in 1982, Tushar Kanti Chaudhuri writes “The NRC was a transcription of certain census information from the 1951 census in Assam. It was a ‘secret administrative document, not open for inspection’. Furthermore, it was compiled by ‘unqualified or ill-qualified person’ and insecurity over the position of Bengali Muslims given the Nehru-Liaquat Pact may well have led to many returning after the register was compiled, in March 1951, leading to under-enumeration.”
Even then the number of people identified and deported was not small. On the basis of NRC 1951, under the initiation of B. P. Chaliha, one of the most pro-Assamese Congress chief ministers, 2.4 lakh immigrants were identified, of whom 1.9 lakh were deported in the first three years. What is interesting is that this citizenship register, on the basis of which so many people were deported, was not an admissible document in court as early as 1970. In a judgement by Justic P. K. Goswami of the Gauhati High Court, the Assam Law Report (ALR) 1970 A&N 206, in page 208 and 209 states
“…it only shows that the National Register of Citizens is a contemporaneous register prepared by the officers appointed under the provisions of the Census Act in the course of Census operations. If so, Section 15 of the Census Act will make such records of Census not open to inspection nor admissible in evidence…what is directly prohibited under Section 15 of the Census Act cannot be let in by an indirect method through the agency of a private organisation…”
How a document that was non-admissible evidence in court becomes the basis for a Supreme Court-monitored process does raise some questions. But the electoral rolls of 1971, the other legacy data, are not beyond question either. Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) correspondent Sujit Choudhury in his article of 1985 “Election Commission and the Assam Accord” writes:
“Only in 77 constituencies, out of the total of 126, could the government itself procure full copies of the 1971 electoral rolls; in the remaining 49, these rolls were not available. Moreover, where the rolls were available it was actually impossible to collect a certified copy, particularly for a layman, from a hostile pro-AASU electoral office. For persons who had moved from other states to Assam, it is really difficult to obtain a certified copy from a 15-year-old roll from his erstwhile place of residence.”
Some of the wall slogans of the Gana Sangram Parishad read: “Indian dogs get out of Assam”, “Condemn Indian Army for raping our mothers and sisters in Assam”, and “Forget Mother India Love Mother Assam”.
One can only wonder how such an inadequate set of data became central to determining citizenship. The absence of electoral rolls from 49 constituencies is no joke, yet 1971 remains the cut-off year of legacy data. If this is not a colossal fraud, what is? How does this reflect on the NRC process itself? It is, by design, a system of exclusion since NRC 1951 or the electoral roll of 1971 by default will keep a large number of people out of its cover.
he same group of people for whom electoral rolls were problematic have now submitted to the NRC process, which shows the changing goalposts of Assamese cultural nationalism. The anti-rational, anti-fact environment and the xenophobia surrounding the process is no different to the social and political milieu during the Assam movement. Then, too, the media (primarily The Assam Tribune and Dainik Assam), All India Radio Guwahati and Guwahati University played a huge role in spreading hate and fear, as noted in the PUCL report. Amalendu Guha held that the press in Assam was in the control of the Assamese bourgeoisie since 1978. In a similar fashion, there is an organic link between AASU and the Assamese elite.
The PUCL report noted that when the fact-finding team was around, Assam Chief Election Commissioner S. K. Rao was forced to go on leave and “an Assamese-speaking official now presides over this operation adding to the arbitrary and indiscriminate character of decision-making relating to the electoral rolls”. Harsh Mandar’s resignation from the National Human Rights Commission and revelation serves as an epilogue to such practice of exception in determining citizenship.
The report also recorded examples of the chauvinistic slogans that were in vogue. Some of the wall slogans of the Gana Sangram Parishad read: “Indian dogs get out of Assam”, “condemn Indian Army for raping our mothers and sisters in Assam”, and “Forget Mother India Love Mother Assam”, among others. Is it not an irony that the leaders who were against the Indian army now want the army to be deployed during the publication of the NRC list? As we write AFSPA is extended to the whole of Assam in anticipation of the troubles that may follow publication of the draft NRC. Things do indeed come a full circle.
If one notes the response of Prateek Hajela, co-ordinator of NRC, to the Avaaz online petition that the Border Police and Foreigners Tribunal (FT), among others, have no link to NRC, the history of the register and appeasement by the Election Commission that led to the Assam accord only shows they are in fact connected. The present anomalies brought to light and the biases in the FT were also observed in the past. One can see how the social and legal process are closely tied in the NRC process. In essence, the nature of Assamese nationalism and the definition of Assamese have played a significant role in official measures of original inhabitants (OI) and outsiders.
Writer Mitra Phukan notes that, “We all looked the other way... We were too ready to forgive violence, too ready to find excuses. Terror was all over the place, and we were all victims, though even the most peaceable among us were perpetrators, too, because we kept quiet.”
Ordinarily, the idea of who is an Assamese would be an ongoing process, one premised on assimilation. However, with NRC the narrow cultural definition is now the legal definition, legitimising the chauvinism that is part of the Assam movement, a process manufactured by the middle class. Anti-Bengali sentiment, as highlighted earlier, was shared socially, politically and culturally but is now officially legitimate through state mechanisms such as NRC. The anxiety of the people and the suicides, thus, are a result of the cultural exclusion that clouds the skies of Assam.
n 1979, Anjan Chakravarty was murdered in Guwahati Medical College. Dr. Robi Mitra was murdered in Duliajan, and Sourab Borah in Dibrugarh University. The accounts of students suggest that a sense of terror reigned across Assam and violence gripped the whole state. Places like Nellie and Gohpur were replete with violence. Even academic spaces like Gauhati University were xenophobic, where “non-Assamese” students and teachers felt terrified and insecure.
Writer Mitra Phukan in a conversation with us notes that, “We all looked the other way when the first stirrings of violence reared its head. We were too ready to forgive violence, too ready to find excuses, and then it was too late. Terror was all over the place, and we were all victims, though even the most peaceable among us were perpetrators, too, because we kept quiet.” She further adds that even Rabindra Sangeet suffered during the movement when “anything Bangla” was opposed, “though Hindi and North Indian were embraced with open arms”. Even wearing a saree was considered unpatriotic.
Political attitudes towards NRC in the public sphere show we have learnt nothing from “our” history. We have no guilt or shame. The privileged are happy to see the others suffer. They are quiet. Even if there are voices they are directed at highlighting the oppression of the “son of the soil” only. They are indolent in the face of human rights violations. People have submitted to the state, for NRC will realise all their chauvinistic passions desire. It will, in essence, sediment social distinction and normalise it. But we ought not to forget and must retell the stories that led to NRC. It is a process riddled with contradictions, anomalies and discriminations.
RC in Assam is used as a social machine to produce certain desired results—a “Bangladeshi–free” Assam. Caste Assamese, philistine intellectuals and nationalists in the state have placed all their hopes on this machine. NRC is seen as the ultimate triumph of the Assam movement. It will give their chauvinistic passions the cloak of legitimacy. The people who are disenfranchised and declared as foreigners will be “deported”, notes Ram Madhav, the BJP spokesman. After intense media attention which highlighted the state of detention camps and the arbitrary and biased nature of Foreigners Tribunals, certain solutions for these disposable citizens gained currency. They included the idea of work permit, turning them into cheap labour and also distributing them across India without political rights.
The milieu is suffused with hatred. We have lost the language of love. One senses the odour of decay when the world around you looks in amused contempt at your grief or demands patriotism.
We have indeed arrived at the gates of decay when as a society and as citizens, we accept the sanctity of the NRC process, ignoring multiple contradictions in legacy data. The state media, its intellectuals, civil, literary and cultural bodies have lent unconditional support to this process of exclusion, ignoring the camps, multiple suicides, impoverishment, trauma and loss. The reasons for the exclusion of those four million unfortunates are not the top priority, but the Surpeme Court has given a direction to re-verify 10 per cent of the included in the Draft NRC. It is indeed a most exceptionable exercise, far from civility and love.
Mulla Darviah in his Ode of 1663 wrote:
Assam, which lies on the border of China and Cathay;
It is another world, another people and other customs;
Its land is not like our land,
Its sky is not like our sky.
The skies of Assam are very different today from how the poet imagined it in the 17th century. The milieu is suffused with hatred. We have lost the language of love. One senses the odour of decay when the world around you looks in amused contempt at your grief or demands patriotism.
Will the tales of suffering be ever told, as silent hatred ignores the cry of heartbreak? NRC will add another character to Assamese identity, a stain even the waters of the Brahmaputra won’t be able to wash away.