Many indigenous Assamese, this writer included, often lament loudly about the fact that they make ‘worthy’ news for the national media only when it pertains to some law and order or election-related issue.
Their grudge has some basis as the ‘tyranny of distance’ frequently plays spoilsport in highlighting the trauma and trouble faced by the Assamese people for a pretty long time.
Last ten days after the publication of the draft NRC (National Register of Citizens) on 30 July, however, has been entirely different. Many discerning eyes of India and abroad seem to have been firmly transfixed on this land of the red river and the blue hills, situated on the other side of the famous Siliguri corridor, often referred to as the chicken-neck of the country. The toxic rhetoric unabashedly underlined by politicians of different hues to give colour to the whole exercise of NRC updating for their narrow political and sectarian gains is disturbingly ominous not only for Assam but for the whole nation. The fact that politicians would try to fish in troubled water was not entirely unexpected, although the intensity of their vitriolic campaign has rattled many in Assam.
But more unsettling and disturbing is the prejudiced attitude shown by a large section of the left-liberal intellectuals of India in denouncing an exercise undertaken in a fairly objective and transparent manner under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court. While invoking the victimhood card ad nauseam, they have exhibited their lack of neutrality and balance in the whole issue. I know it is somewhat fashionable for some celebrity writers and columnists to champion the cause of those people whose names have not figured in the draft NRC in their cosy intellectual circles. While it is not wrong to emphasise the trauma of those people, but during that process, should we totally turn a blind eye to the human rights of the indigenous people of Assam whose legitimate claim and grip over their own homeland is fast slipping away due to the large-scale influx across the borders?
It is not difficult to fathom that their partisan posturing has become more strident after the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party Amit Shah’s preposterous comment in Parliament tarring the whole four million people as ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’. Just because one important leader has adroitly utilised the opportunity to usurp the political discourse in the country should not have blinded these scholars to the traumatic experience faced by the Assamese for nearly a century.
Migration before Independence from East Bengal and infiltration after Independence from East Pakistan and later on from Bangladesh into Assam had become so easy that it caused a profound sense of unease and fear in the minds of all Assamese people.
Way back in 1931, TS Mulan, the then census commissioner in Assam expressed serious concern over the massive migration of people from erstwhile East Bengal to Assam. He said if that trend continued, the indigenous people would be reduced to a minority in all other districts except in Sivasagar district in eastern Assam. Today out of 33 districts in Assam, Muslims are a majority in nine and are almost neck to neck with the Hindu population in few others.
As the communal politics of Muslim League became more and more aggressive after 1937, it wanted Assam to be a Muslim majority province to facilitate its entry into the proposed map of East Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s famous statement – ‘Shilliong would be my summer capital’ – has deeply shocked as well as galvanised the indigenous people of the Brahmaputra valley to stand firmly with the tallest leader of the Assam Congress Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi, the then premier and the first chief minister of Assam after Independence.
On NRC and Assam, the Congress party and ambivalence have become two sides of the same coin now. It is difficult to imagine that same Congress fought the 1946 election with the slogan – homeland for the Assamese. The party won that election by a slender majority and successfully prevented the amalgamation of Assam in Pakistan during the infamous Grouping Scheme. During that extremely critical time threatening to gobble up the whole identity of the Assamese, only one important leader from the mainland India supported the just cause of Assam and he was none other than Mahatma Gandhi. However, after two decades of Independence, the Congress party got inextricably enmeshed in the dangerous game of building up their vote banks with the help of those infiltrators.
The Assam Movement against the illegal infiltrators started in 1979 in this backdrop under the leadership of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). It strongly conveyed the pent-up feelings of the indigenous people against the alarming level of influx. A total of 855 martyrs laid down their lives for their motherland and several thousands were severely maimed for life. It culminated in the signing of the historic Assam Accord between the AASU, Axom Gana Sangram Parishad (AGSP) and the Central government led by Rajiv Gandhi. Not a single columnist has pointed out the sacrifice made by the Assamese in accepting 1971 as the cut off year for detection, deletion and deportation of illegal migrants whereas for the rest of the country, the cut off year is 1948. When magnanimity shown by Assam in accepting migrants up to 1971 goes insufficiently recognised by all, it becomes a frustratingly disquieting experience for the majority of the indigenous people.
And now, nearly 33 years of the Assam Accord, the kind of bizarre logic that we have seen right, left and centre has conclusively proved our peripheral status not only in terms of geographical location but also in the ‘national’ imagination.
As per the Assam Accord, the indigenous Assamese should have been protected by constitutional safeguards in lieu of their sacrifice up to 1971. But any serious work is yet to be initiated in this regard. I know my piece runs the danger of being dismissed by some as an emotional rant by an aggrieved Assamese. But before dismissing, please keep the following facts in mind. If not a feeling of empathy, you may regain some sense of balance. I know this is in severely short supply as this group of academics tries to analyse the current NRC exercise in Assam with an inadequate understanding of the struggle faced by the local people for the last many decades.
First, after the publication of the draft NRC, every person in Assam irrespective of his caste, creed, religion, ethnicity and citizenship status, has shown tremendous maturity by maintaining calm and tranquillity. Credit must go to those indigenous people and Indian citizens of other states whose names are not on the list, for their steadfast refusal to get provoked. We should also not stop short of appreciating those people of dubious citizenship status whose names are not figuring now. I know the sight of unlisted people getting reassured by both Central and state governments and developing faith in the claim and objection procedure of the NRC updating exercise is not liked by many ‘thinkers and columnists’ who are bent upon getting some brownie points in their intellectual constituencies.
It is pertinent to note that while trying to justify their preconceived notions about the people of Assam, some have denigrated, some have denounced and some have refused to take into account the massive sacrifice made by the indigenous people in the past due to this intractable problem. The development of the state has continuously suffered due to excessive energy and effort being extracted by various narratives and counter-narratives associated with this issue.
Second and more importantly, the people of Assam have remained totally impervious to sinister Assamese-Bengali linguistic spin started by West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. The BJP’s oft-repeated political design of pitting the Hindus against the Muslims has also fallen flat in Assam. The Assamese are in fact angry with the BJP for the proposed citizenship amendment bill 2016 planning to give citizenship status to people based on their religion and in the last several months, the whole of the Brahmaputra valley rose in protest against that. The maturity of the people can be gauged by the fact that they have not left any fertile ground for the nasty political design to take root and sprout. Majority of them have remained unfazed by the divisive refugee-infiltrator binary propounded by the Hindutva brigade.
Last but not the least, a majority of the Assamese people are well aware of the fact that Bangladeshi immigrants have economically contributed to the state. On an individual basis, it would be hard to find many Assamese who are against them. They are scared by the fact that in the last few decades, because of their fast-rising numbers due to infiltration and uncontrolled family planning, the land rights, the political rights and cultural ethos so painstakingly built up by the indigenous people over many centuries are likely to be overwhelmed. Their homeland is being increasingly threatened. But even then, no conscious Assamese wants any infringement of human rights of the non-citizens to be declared by the final NRC. Their demand for expulsion of foreigners as well as for sealing the porous India-Bangladesh border has so far fallen on deaf ears. This has profoundly disturbed and angered the people.
In those trying times, we have not seen any national or international campaign to highlight the plight of the indigenous Assamese. But as the work relating to the preparation of final NRC is about to commence, that too after 33 years of the Assam Accord, we have some people shedding crocodile tears over the fate of the likely foreigners.
But would someone dare to shed a tear for the vanishing homeland and other rights of the Assamese? This is the moot question on many lips in Assam today which would perhaps fail spectacularly to elicit any sincere reply from those biased left-liberal scholars.
News credit : Firstpost