January 24, 2020
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The Importance Of Being Ahomese

It’s a squabble over dates, definitions and political interests

The Importance Of Being Ahomese

The ghosts of the past are resurfacing. After nearly a decade where militancy occupied centre-stage, some of the questions raised during the anti-foreigners movement in the early ‘80s have once again come to the fore. According to aasu advisor Samujjal Bhattacharyya, the recent tripartite meeting chaired by the joint secretary in the Union home ministry, G.K. Pillai, agreed in principle that those who figure in the 1951 National Register of Citizens (nrc) for Assam and their descendants would alone be regarded as "Assamese people". In the seven districts where the nrc is not available, the meeting decided that the electoral rolls of 1952 would be taken as the base document.

"Under the proposal, only these two categories of people can avail of the proposed 100 per cent seat reservation for election to local bodies, the state assembly and the Lok Sabha," says Bhattacharyya. The aasu proposal is in the context of Clause VI of the Assam Accord signed in August 1985. This clause states that the Centre would provide "constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people."

Suddenly, what all along looked a seemingly innocuous proposal put forward by the aasu to define who is an ‘Assamese’, has raised the hackles of several parties and has given rise to new social tensions in a state already riddled with a multitude of problems. The stamp of approval given to the aasu by the governments at the Centre and the state is what is invoking much wrath.

Says noted social scientist Amalendu Guha, "This proposal has ominous portents. The base-year formula will be very unfair to post-Partition immigrants." This is precisely what the aasu is opposed to. "Our proposal is not aimed at deporting or harassing the post-1951 migrants. All that we are asking for is that they or their descendants may not be allowed to contest elections," Bhattacharyya counters.

The aasu arrangement has raised protests from different interest groups. Says Holiram Terang of the Autonomous State Demand Committee and a Karbi tribal leader: "The issue can’t be decided unilaterally. Neither the aasu nor the state can do it alone. The Centre must take the tribals and minorities into confidence. Such definition of ‘indigenous people’ can’t be accepted. So long as foreigners continue to vote, reservation for indigenous people is meaningless."

The All Bodo Students Union (absu) is also unhappy with the turn of events. Says its president, Urkhao Gwra Brahma: "The proposal is ambiguous and confusing. The question is, who is an indigenous Assamese? This attempt is nothing but a ploy to perpetuate the exploitation of the ethnic groups by the ruling clique and to deprive the real indigenous people of their rights. From an anthropological and historical point of view, the groups of Bodo people are the most indigenous people of Assam."

The minority organisations are also up in arms over the issue. In a statement, Mohammed Shamshul Ahmed, secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’s northeast zone shura or council, said: "Since the issue involves the question of constitutional safeguards, it is incumbent upon the government to take us into confidence. If that is not done, a communal flare-up is likely."

The United Minorities Front (umf), a party with considerable influence among the 28 per cent Muslim population in the state, has also opposed the proposal to have the 1951 nrc as the cut-off date to identify or define indigenous people of Assam. After an executive meeting, the umf said the definition will exclude a vast section of the people belonging to various religious and linguistic groups who had returned to India under the Nehru-Liaquat pact.

It wanted the government to stick to the earlier-agreed March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date. Under the 1985 accord, all those who came into India after March 25, 1971, would be treated as foreigners and all the migrants who entered India before that date would be treated as Indian citizens.

Interestingly, the mainline political parties have been cautious in their reaction to the raging debate. Assam chief minister and agp president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta told Outlook: "Our stand is clear. All those belonging to tribal, non-tribal and other local ethnic groups living within the geographical boundaries of Assam are indigenous people. Moreover, all those genuine Indian citizens who have decided to live or have been living in Assam and have decided to embrace or are have already embraced the culture and language of Assam are indigenous people."

The Congress is not so categorical. Says its spokesman Pankaj Bora: "The issue needs thorough discussion by all parties. Moreover, we have only seen newspaper reports in this regard. Neither the Centre nor the state has come up with any official statement so far. As far as we are concerned, an all-party consensus will have to emerge on the issue. The greater Assamese nationality is an all-embracing entity."

Former state government officials and experts also differ on what should be the basis of definition of indigenous people. Says former dgp N.N. Changkakoti: "March 25, 1971, has been identified as the cut-off date to determine foreigners in Assam. All those who came into Assam after that are foreigners so whoever came before that date are Assamese." But Nagen Dutta, former director of census operations in Assam, prefers the nrc as the base document for identifying indigenous people. "It is the best document for the purpose. It is a generous document as the flow of migrants to Assam rose after 1911 but the names of all those who entered Assam up to 1951 were included in the nrc."

The aasu, watching the reactions of various groups, has come up with another reason as to why the 1951 nrc should be the basis to define indigenous people in Assam. Says Bhattacharyya: "According to the instructions of former revenue minister and later Assam chief minister Bishuram Medhi during the 1951 census, an indigenous person is a person who belongs to Assam and speaks Assamese or any other tribal dialect. Even those whose mother tongue is not Assamese but speak Assamese at least as their subsidiary language will be recorded as indigenous. With such clear-cut instructions, do we need to have any confusion?"

The aasu may be clear on what it wants but others are annoyed and concerned. With elections to the state assembly slated within a year, this issue is likely to dominate the campaign in the run-up to the polls and also lead to fresh tensions in a state beset with several other problems.

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