Reopening Old Wounds: Why Assamese Feel Culturally Cheated In Their Own Land

The Big Election Promise

Betraying the people of Assam, the BJP government is preparing to give permanent citizenship to the illegal immigrants, who were supposed to be deported.

In 2014, Modiji said in an election rally with an astounding voice that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh should start packing their bags as his government was coming to power. Six years down the line, Modiji’s government is preparing to give permanent citizenship to the illegal immigrants, who were supposed to be deported.

Most people in Assam do not see the Citizenship Amendment Act from a religious angle. Rather, they see it from a linguistic and cultural perspective. The fear psychosis of Assamese social identity is not a sudden outburst. It dates back to April 1836 when colonial rulers introduced Bengali as the official language in Assam for their “administrative convenience”.

People like Andaram Dhekial Phukan raised the demand to substitute Bengali with vernacular Assamese, and later, with much help from Christian missionaries, it was reinstated in April 1872, but only in the schools of Brahmaputra valley. The suppression of Assamese for long 36 years during the Colonial era ignited the sparks of linguistic regionalism in and around Assam. 

Apart from linguistic domination, the cultural and commercial resurrection of Bengali speakers significantly impacted the Assamese society. The post-colonial Assam saw two more fierce language movements: one in 1960, when linguistic organizations of Assam demanded to make Assamese as the official language, and another in 1972 when Gauhati University proposed that Assamese and English would be the medium of instruction in local colleges.

Assamese Is Not A Mono-Religious Community

The diverse social fabric of the Assamese community has different groups of people from different religious faiths. Their cultural heterogeneity is reflected in Zikir, the folk songs composed by a Sufi poet Azan Fakir, who was contemporary to the pan-India Bhakti movement. People like Mafizuddin Ahmed Hazarika, Moidul Islam Borah and Syed Abdul Mallik became the president of Axom Sahitya Sabha, the primary linguistic body of Assam.

When it comes to the Vaishnavite faith, Sankardeva the great Hindu saint, even had Muslim followers. One of the finest novels on the life history of Sankardeva is Dhanyo Noro Tonu Bhal written by an eminent Assamese writer Syed Abdul Malik. In the present-day world, one will hardly see Muslim scholars like Ismail Hussain working tirelessly towards the upliftment of Sankari culture.

The age-old social bonding of Hindus and Muslims in Assam can be felt from the writings of 15th century Mughal historian Shihabuddin Talish, who wrote in Fathiya-i-Ibriyya that there was hardly any difference between an Assamese Hindu’s and Muslim’s living style. Many Muslim soldiers from Koch dynasty even helped Ahom rulers during the battle of Saraighat between Delhi’s Badshah and combined Ahom forces.

From these historical perspectives, it is quite evident that unlike some other places in India, the pre-colonial Assam had an assimilative and peaceful coexisting environment for both Hindus and Muslims, which contributed significantly towards the development of Assamese community. Apart from the Muslims, the contribution of Christian Missionaries in the Assamese literary renaissance was also significant from 1850 through 1900.

The first martyr of 1972 language movement of Assam was a Muslim boy named Mujammil Haque, who breathed his last while protesting for the cause of Assamese language. Sam Stafford, who lost his life on December 12, 2019, in the anti- Citizenship Amendment (CAA) protest, was a Christian boy. These facts are enough to firmly state that the Assamese community was developed based on ethnocultural spirits rather than ethnoreligious sentiments.

How Assam’s Anti-CAA Protest Is Distinctive From The Rest Of India

Anti-CAB protest in Assam
Anti-CAB protest in Assam

The people must realize the fact that local people of Assam are going through a phase of insecure social identity due to demographic changes shaped by illegal immigrants, irrespective of their religion. The post-colonial Assam witnessed prodigious influx of these immigrants from Bangladesh. The upset in demographic balance had led to a gradual socio-political crisis in this poverty-ridden agrarian state.

The growth of Muslim population in the state is indeed quite rapid in the last five decades compared to Hindus, but at the same time, the Assamese-speaking population came down to 48.76% in 2011 from 60.89% in 1971. Lack of education, development etc. can be cited as reasons, and one cannot ignore these facts while discussing the religion-based growth numbers. But, the daunting point is, while we discuss these religious affairs, the issue of social identity gets further dilated. One must remember that East Pakistan and West Pakistan were both Muslim majoritarian countries. Still, East Pakistan bifurcated and became Bangladesh primarily due to a language movement backed by strong ethnic nationalism.

From Kerela to Delhi, India is protesting against a pan-India National Register of Citizen (NRC), but the updation process of NRC in Assam was relatively peaceful. Despite the hardship faced, different sections of people welcomed this move supervised by the Supreme Court of India. After years of socio-political movement and disorderliness, no one wanted to stay as a doubtful voter or D-voter, and NRC paved the way to settle this issue.

After the completion of the NRC process, there were reports of exclusions of many Hindu Bangladeshis from the list. A political party like BJP, whose core ideology is based on Hindutva, would never want such exclusions to happen in their ruling—as it will have several implications in the nationwide politics. Therefore, we now have a system in the form of the Citizenship Amendment Act, through which the excluded Hindu Bangladeshis will be able to apply for Indian citizenship.

This very step has jeopardized the whole movement against illegal immigrants which was started 40 years back in Assam. The state government of Assam is trying hard to convince people that only a “few” (4 to 5 lakhs) Hindu Bangladeshi will get citizenship through CAA as there is a specific cut off date in the act, i.e., 31st December 2014. According to the government, the citizenship of these “few” immigrants will have a negligible effect in the overall demography of the state, and locals should not get worried about this.

It took almost 35 years from the days of Assam Accord to identify the illegal immigrants, who have come after 24th March 1971, through NRC. How the government has come out with this number of 4–5 lakhs Hindu Bangladeshis is quite puzzling. If this number is based on the 19 lakhs excluded from the NRC, the BJP-led state government must admit that the whole process of NRC was fair, and one can take it as a reference point to derive any other data.

But interestingly, Assam BJP has rejected this NRC, and Himanta Biswas Sarma has raised the issue of inclusion of people with fake identity in this NRC. Even if one buys the government’s argument of “few immigrants”, it is unclear how these immigrants will prove their residential status in India within the cutoff limit of December 31, 2014. To counter this point, leaders of Assam BJP are saying that “rules” of CAA have not been framed yet, and the matter of the cut off date will be addressed in these rules.

However, as the central Home Minister Amit Shah has categorically stated in the parliament that immigrants will get citizenship, without any valid documents, it is easy to assume that the cutoff date is nothing but a bluff. The whole issue is further complicated when it was decided that CAA will not be effective in the Northeastern states having inner line permit and areas under the sixth schedule. So, there is a high probability that illegal immigrants residing in these areas may come to Assam for citizenship, which will further deepen the ethnic concerns. On top of that, there is absolutely no data on the actual number of illegal immigrants residing in the Northeast.

The “Clause 6” Bubble And BJP’s Win

In his speech addressing the people of Assam, Sarbanand Sonowal, the Chief Minister of Assam, has said that his government is determined to implement clause six of the Assam Accord, which deals with the constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards of the “indigenous” people. This clause is preceded by clause five, which states that foreigners coming on or after March 25, 1971, shall be detected and expelled.

After the enactment of CAA, clause five is negated—as non-Muslims will get citizenship till December 31, 2014. On one front, the government talks about the constitutional safeguard of the indigenous people and on the other front, they have opened the gates to embrace illegal immigrants. Although this approach seems quite antithetical, during the election days, the Assam BJP had succeeded in creating a favorable environment by projecting clause six as the only driving instrument to safeguard the interests of indigenous people.

Along with the absence of a formidable opposition in Assam, this was another key reason for BJP to win nine out of the fourteen Lok Sabha seats in 2019 elections. While the implementation of clause six is still a fantasy, doors to immigrants have already been opened.

The Faith Of The Protest

Five people have lost their lives in the anti-CAA protests in Assam. However, the situation has drastically improved in the last few days. The protest is mainly strong in the Brahmaputra valley where thousands have come out willingly to show their anguish against CAA. The government has handled this protest just like one handles the pressure release valve of a hot pressure cooker.

The central Home Minister Amit Shah has said in an interview that protest in the Northeast has been peaceful—where CAA matters most. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned the peaceful protests happening in Assam. From their statements, it is quite clear that they were anticipating unrest, and accordingly, they have tackled the situation. In the last few days, there were a series of meetings between the state government and different local organizations, and several welfare announcements were made to quell the protests.

However, spontaneous agitations are still going on, and there is a high chance that these protests will continue till January 22 when the honorable Supreme Court will hear the CAA-petition. In the meantime, the government will try tempting ways to stop these protests, just like they have been doing from the beginning. In summary, after 40 years of socio-political mess and legal battles to curb illegal immigrants, Assam has returned to base zero.

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