January 30, 2020 marks the 72nd death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. It signifies an era, when the values he died for are slowly disappearing. That is problematic for India because Gandhi works as the glue that sticks the diverse nation, especially northeast (NE) India.
More so at a time when the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has been passed without consulting and considering the interests of NE, India. It takes a historical understanding of Gandhi’s role to know why we should follow his path when it comes to the Assam/NER narrative against CAA.
The Cabinet Mission Plan by the British clubbed Muslim Majority Bengal and Assam together in Group C. Bengal would have overriden Assam as it had more legislators and representation in the group C. Assam faced the potential merger with a non-Assamese Muslim dominated province which had no historical links to the NER, a part of which later went on to become East Pakistan.
The leaders of Assam protested, although they were backed by Central leaders initially like Sardar Patel, all backed out and most saw Assam as a hindrance to India’s independence process. Nehru saw support to Assam would mean refusal to accept the British PM’s statement of December 6 and “letting loose the forces of chaos and civil war.”
Then came our saviour, Mahatma Gandhi. Gopinath Bordoloi (the first CM of Assam) sent two of his trusted people Bijoy Bhagwati and Mahendra Mohan Choudhury to meet him at Sewrampore. A miraculous turn of events occurred.
Mahatma urged Assam to defy both the Central leadership of Congress as well as the Government of India. He said, “If Assam keeps quiet, it is finished. No one can force Assam to do what it doesn’t want to do.”
He advised Assam against going into the Constituent Assembly under the Grouping and Sections Scheme. “It will be a kind of Satyagraha against the Congress for the good of Congress,” (conversation transcript published by Assam Congress).
Gandhi’s bold stand helped Assam’s cause along with the spirited opposition of Assam Congress, united under Bordoloi and several ethnic regional players forced the central Congress to change its stand. This also checked the Muslim League’s position in the Grouping Scheme who supporter the British decision to put Assam in Group C.
Gandhi also declared that Assam had made a mistake following the rest of Congress Ministries in India by resigning because of India’s involvement in the Second World War, which facilitated Muhammed Saadulla and the Muslim League’s interests, as forwarded in the book Strangers of the Mist.
He also agreed with Subhash Bose, that Assam was a ‘special’ case. And when Saadulla of the Muslim League tried to bring in pro-immigrant policies with the aim of increasing the Muslim population as a bigger plot to include Assam in future East Pakistan, Gandhi backed Bordoloi again. Mahatma said, “If the people feel that the present policy of the Government on settlement and immigration is oppressive, let them fight it.”
Illegal immigration has already reduced Tripura’s indigenous people into a minority in their own state. In 1901, 74% of Tripura’s makeup were indigenous people. Now, it’s a Bengali majority with about 31% indigenous people.
Why is Assam protesting? In 1951, 1961, 1971, 1991, the percentage increase of Assam’s population was higher than the national average.
Another fact: the districts where the Bengali population is bigger, showed greater population increase during 1961, 1971, 1991, as seen in Chart 2.
Previous charts reveal population change during post-partition and mostly in the Bangladesh war exodus 1971 – altering Assam’s demography. However, that didn’t end with the formation of Bangladesh, even though the subsequent Assam Agitation raised the issues of illegal immigration.
Since 1991, 57% people spoke Assamese but in 2011, it is down to 48%. In 1971, 1.6% to 1.2% in 2011, spoke Assamese in India (Chart 3). This is an indication that even after the Bangladesh war exodus, illegal immigration has stopped.
The current pan India protests against CAA have missed out on the aforementioned NER concerns. Even before the pan India protests started, Assam has been protesting against CAB since 2017. The narrative being the safeguard of their indigenous culture which faces demographic shift from unchecked illegal immigration as CAA extends legitimisation of non-Muslim immigrants till 2014 without any meaningful protection of the border states. The NE protest was against the inclusion of any illegal immigrants irrespective of any religion.
Pan-India protests have avoided the NE narrative, out of the age-old habit of ignorance and few have decimated the NE in a xenophobic manner without understanding the historical and contemporary problems. By categorising the NE concerns as paranoia and inhuman citing the rollout of Assam NRC, one nullifies the conditions that led to the demands of such an exercise.
One forgets that Assam absorbed immigrants till 1971 due to humanitarian grounds surrounding the Bangladesh war exodus. That’s why the base year is understood as 1971 in the Assam Accord after which it talks about the identification of illegal immigrants in the state.
Thus, before making such hasty statements one needs to consider history, and the settler colonialist project that originates from the Muslim league along with the unabated illegal immigration to NER in subsequent years post-partition-Bangladesh war exodus – until now.
But mostly, one also needs to revisit the NER’s internal struggles through a Gandhian lens that saw Assam’s internal struggles were not linked to the mainstream binary of Hindus vs Muslims, rather a self-determination attempt to save one’s identity, culture, and language irrespective of religion. That’s why Class 10 student and martyr Sam Stafford was an Assamese first before being a Christian.