By Rakesh Talukdar:
As the proverbial chill ran down the spine of the people of the country at the grotesque images of the Assam riots and the following incidents of sporadic violence across the country, the pundits of the nation sat down as usual to dissect the issue at its heart. However, in this battle of perspectives, somehow the average Indian, who is hardly certain of his identity in the changing demographics of the state, gets lost. And apply it to the small stretch of land named Assam, and the lines between informed opinions and rhetoric blur to a large extent.
A large majority of the people who have an opinion on the issue (which is practically the whole country), invariably categorises it as either a Hindu-Muslim riot or a clash between the indigenous Assamese and the illegal Bangladeshis. The propaganda on both sides of the clash only adds to the confusion. While some believe that it is a result of government’s laxity and vote bank politics, they fail to recognise the role of the other parties in the conflict.
The issue of the Bangladeshi migration is a complex one at its heart too. Migration had started into Assam since the British had evicted the Burmese, and the resulting low population density attracted the British who saw prospects in trade and also possible settlement of labour. At the time of independence again, a large number of Bengali Muslims, after partition, chose to stay behind or migrate to India, leading to an increase in the population as well as the proportion of both Bengali’s and Muslims in the area. This exodus of migrants continued due to the constant neglect of erstwhile East Pakistan by its western counterpart and the corresponding job and agricultural activities in Assam. The migration however, from the limits of sanity, soon turned to a mass exodus of East Pakistanis from their homeland, adding to chaos and an acute social strain on the Assamese population during the period of 1971-72, following which Bangladesh was created. However, illegal migration continues unabated still.
However, looking through the eyes of practicability, some problems need to be addressed before we proclaim a land exclusively for the ‘sons of the soil’.
Firstly, even though the whole issue of migration from across the border is almost unquestioned, barring the political wannabe, the practical need of the hour is to question if there is anything we can do. The migrants we identify as ‘Bangladeshis’ have over the years not just lived and settled in Assam, but the effect of their culture, language and habits has led to a substantial change in social demographics of the state. The Bangladeshi migrant who has been the ‘outsider’ for a couple of decades now, has had to not just shun his identity, but has also been under the influence of the Assamese culture. And the claimants of the privilege of the Assamese culture have themselves been the result of a culture which is much independent from the North Indian influence, or the Dravidian characteristics, for that matter. And so the ones, who had migrated before 1971, and the ones who migrated much later, but have significantly assimilated into the Assamese culture can practically not be distinguished.
What also needs to be asked is what makes the laws of the land (legal and societal) sacrosanct when the formation of a culture is itself a chaotic phenomenon? This holds true for not just the Assamese society, but any society or culture. Since no culture is practically homogenous in nature, does the logic of “sons of the soil” hold well on any ground of logic?
However, this aspect is something which most tend to ignore as the more pressing problems, in perfect harmony to Foucault’s definition of power, have been ascertained to be the ‘infringement’ on one’s land and property.
Secondly, one needs to ascertain the two parties in the conflict. The tragedy has been the conflict’s expansion to a domain which was wholly unrelated to the issue at the core. Of the many levels the ‘battle’ is fought at, the basics at home still remain the antagonism of the Assamese over the ‘mixing’ of their culture. Though the notion of this being a conflict between two religions has not stood the test of logic on many instances, there is also a need to delve deeper into the issues of the Assamese-Bengali relation. During the time of the British, Bengali had been the preferred language, remaining in power as the ‘official’ language till 1873. The first college did not start till 1901. Hence, the resentment among Bengalis exists to quite an extent among the Assamese people, however advantaged. This includes foreigners, Hindus and Muslims alike. However, the political leaders, inevitably intent on the vote bank this possibly gives them, have been much more attracted by a communal vote bank on religious grounds, rather than linguistic ones.
Also, the parallel history of the schism between the religious groups in the region, coupled with the Bengali issue provided an explosive ground for the political leaders, who had to tread it carefully to prevent from blowing away into pieces, their own mechanism of rule. One example can be seen in the form of Barak valley, which though a part of Assam geographically, is a separate entity for all practical purposes. But one needs to understand the change in context of the conflict. Gopinath Bordoloi, who had once played a remarkable role in preventing Saadulla from reforming the land policies in the state, was grasped by the possibility of Pakistan’s demand for Assam based on its minority population. Hence, a decent and satisfactory solution to the Assamese and mostly Hindus had to be provided.
Thirdly, as the state saw, with the signing of the Assam Accord, a particularly calm atmosphere in the state, there also laid the seeds of a conflict which was waiting to erupt. The tribal communities of the state, predominantly the Bodos, had been demanding a state of their own. And with the ascertaining on strong and no uncertain terms of the Assamese identity, the Bodos too pressed their demand for a separate state. Finally accommodated in the Assam Government’s formula for autonomous councils, this was never going to be enough. In a battle which saw the different identities of the communities getting strengthened every day, the gradual demand from autonomous districts to a Bodoland intensified. This, coupled with the aggressive campaigning on communal lines by political leaders, aggravating the situation to the brink.
The Assam accord laid down in strict words, that “Constitutional, administrative and legislative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, promote and preserve the cultural, social and linguistic identity of the Assamese people”. However, this has probably been the most laxically implemented provision of the accord, which does much to antagonise the normal Assamese, who sees his cultural identity being mixed with political motives. Add to this, the appaling census figures which show a rise of the Muslim polulation of about 29% in the bordering districts of Assam when the same in Bangladesh was about 10% less, and the normal person, already apprehensive of his cultural identity being taken away, takes recourse to unwanted measures.
The added stepmotherly treatment of the state of Assam,because of which the people have robustly argued for a special status to the state, has only intensified the problems of the state. The strictly mainstream and majoritarian Indian thought has often failed to comprehend and understand the demographics of the state of Assam and the whole of North East. Laws made in haste, with no cultural penetration of the basic ideologies behind them have made the rhetoric of the Northeast sound quite genuine. A detailed historical perspective of the region outlines the difference it has had with the mainstream ideologies and the tales and accusations of betrayal it has levelled. However, in the absence of any mechanism to substancively address these mechanisms has only led to the strengthening of regional identities, undermining the often obscured idea of being an Indian. And then to lay the blame on the individual of being a stauch supporter of his regional identity, is in complete disregard of his sensibilities and the common mind’s logic.
Hence, what needs to be realised now is that a practical problem to the solution seems far away from what an average person may consider it to be. For there is no mechanism to determine who is an illegal migrant. Added to it is the communal flavour which the great stooges (read politicians) of the state have made us taste, against the backdrop of tensions across communities pervading language and religion (and often logic,too). Combine the two, and there does not exist an option of the very debatable idea of a pure land of Assam anymore.
And one inevitable consequence will be the evolution of the Assamese culture (possibly in a different name altogether), which itself is very difficult to define, in a direction probably not acceptable to some. Because national, linguistic and religious identities are bound to collide. It is the result of the ‘big bang’, which decides the future and course of a particular culture. Too tragic, that an evolved culture, at a certain point in time, refuses to comprehend this very solution responsible for their existence.