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Happy hours have been short and bittersweet in Assam’s history in the years immediately before Independence and thereafter. Plans were afoot to sever the umbilical cord—Assam would go to East Pakistan. It took the pursuance of the Assamese leadership as well as Gandhiji’s intervention to keep the state within the Indian Union when the international lines of Partition were charted on a religious template. Later, internal borders were reshaped on the basis of language—Maharashtra for Marathi, Karnataka for Kannada, West Bengal for Bengali, Assam for Assamese….
Assam—much fatter, with Meghalaya and Mizoram not born yet—was a complicated mix. Assorted groups having distinct ethnic languages, customs and identities lived there, as they do now. Throw into this melange the natives of Surma Valley, aka Barak, who were inserted into Assam as the Partition rubric demanded this landmass with mostly Bengali-speaking Hindu inhabitants be kept off Muslim-majority East Pakistan. And fusing this area with West Bengal was a geographical impossibility—a separate nation stood in between.
Bengali speakers, thus, became the second most populous group in Assam and collectively with the different tribes outnumbered those who spoke Assamese or axomiya as their parent language. The seeds of distrust and fear germinated soon, manifesting later into a struggle to check attempts to impose Bengali hegemony or Assamese chauvinism (depending on which side you are in). The unease spiraled into paranoia when hundreds of thousands of people from East Pakistan/Bangladesh fled the turmoil there and found refuge in the state at various stages of time.
AASU leader Prafulla Mahanta (middle) at an event.
The numbers were telling. Dhaka University professor Abul Barkat writes that around 11.3 million Hindus left the country between 1964 and 2013. That means, 632 Hindus fled each day and 230,612 each year. The reason: the East Pakistani regime grabbed Hindu land as enemy property, while the Bangladesh government kept it as vested property. Most of these people landed in Assam and West Bengal. Another exodus from impoverished Bangladesh were happening simultaneously—Muslim immigrants looking for better opportunities in Assam and Bengal. Nobody has an accurate figure, but the migration could be in millions, because Assam’s Muslim population has ballooned to 35 per cent.
The Assamese backlash began as early as 1950, when the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act was enacted to check the influx of refugees/illegal foreigners from East Pakistan. The law was repealed seven years later but, by then, the Assamese-Bengali divide had reached a crisis point. The state assembly passed the Assam Official Language Act in 1960, making Assamese the official language. But provisions were made for the Bengali language “for administrative and other official purposes” in the Cachar belt following protests. The act says people in Cachar could adopt Assamese as the official language if “a majority of not less than two-thirds of members” of mahkuma parishads and municipal boards vote in favour”. That hasn’t happened, and Assamese couldn’t become the state language yet. The hatred festered, thus.
Assam’s resources and fragile demographic balance were further strained post-1971, as hordes of refugees fled the Bangladesh war of independence. The Assamese reacted with a six-year movement from 1979 against “illegal immigrants”, in which 855 people died in police crackdowns. The unrest ended with the Assam Accord of August 15, 1985. It was decided that “foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971” would be detected and expelled. Besides, Clause 6 says: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
Detect, yes. But deport? That’s easier said than done. “India hasn’t signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees and we don’t have an extradition treaty with Bangladesh either. The Bangladeshi government has always maintained a hands-off policy about these people. Its stated line has been that it would take back any Bangladeshi citizen provided India proves his citizenship,” says Sabyasachi Mahanta, columnist and principal of Gargaon College in Assam’s Sivasagar district. From the 1950 expulsion law to the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983, provisions have been made to “expel illegal foreigners”, but these never passed the test of time because of inherent flaws. The IM(DT) act, which the Supreme court had quashed, mandated that the accuser prove the accused a foreigner staying illegally in the country.
Protestors at a satyagraha in Tihu, lower Assam.
How to foolproof the flawed detection process? The long-forgotten National Register of Citizens (NRC), first made on the basis of the 1951 census, was dredged out for Assam. When the final list was out this summer, 1.9 million people were “excluded”—among them a large chunk of Hindus (Bengalis, Rabhas, Tiwas, Marwaris, Biharis, Gorkhas and Assamese-speakers too). Another mistake and the ruling BJP rejected the NRC outright. The answer to the NRC faults was amending the citizenship act of 1955 and giving legitimacy without question to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who came to India before December 31, 2014. But Muslims were excluded.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, was passed this winter and met with protests—beginning in Assam, where the issue is not about exclusion of Muslims (like in the rest of the country), but an outright rejection of citizenship to all immigrants, irrespective of religion, from Bangladesh. Sabyasachi Mahanta is one among millions opposing the law. “The CAA, like several instruments before, countermands provisions in the Assam Accord. First, when Indian citizenship was determined by the 1951 census, Assam agreed to take the additional burden of 20 years (till 1971) to accommodate Bangladeshi immigrants. The CAA now pushed the cut-off to 2014. Why pile extra load on us, especially on the Brahmaputra Valley? Barak is already Bengali-majority and the tribal autonomous areas, protected by the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule, are exempted from CAA,” he says. Columnist Dwipen Kakoty echoes the weight of history, saying the Assamese fear of becoming a minority in their own state (only 48 per cent of the population speak Assamese as the first language) could take shape if more Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi immigrants are allowed to settle in Assam as Indian citizens. Bangladesh has 11.37 million Hindus (2001 census) and the CAA made it easy for them to apply for Indian citizenship.
What next then? Mahanta demands constitutional safeguards to the indigenous Assamese. “Since India is a signatory to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and Clause 4 of the Assam Accord mentions constitutional provisions and international agreements, the government must protect the Assamese people like it does to those under the Sixth Schedule,” he says. “Assamese people”—that touch-point of Assam’s history—needs a formal definition, though. There’s hope the ambiguity would be addressed when a Union home ministry-appointed high-level committee comes up with its recommendations, clearly defining who’s an Assamese, or the “original inhabitants”. Mahanta suggests those included in the 1951 census—Bengalis too—should make the cut.