The Search for “Original Inhabitants” in Assam and the future of the “Other”

assam NRC1

The final draft of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has rejected the claim of citizenship of about 4.07 million persons. The administrative head of NRC in Assam has said that the four million rejected persons would get another chance to reapply with additional documents and their cases would be reassessed. The Supreme Court has also said that the four million whose names were not included in the list should not be considered as foreigners, that is, till their appeals have been processed.

Prateek Hajela the states NRC Coordinator has added a new twist. He has said that has said, the final list which is yet to be put out, might exclude even some of the persons who have made it to the draft final list. For the four million already excluded, he has provided three options. He said, “They can come with a fresh set of documents which are correct. Or they can provide us with a mix of documents which will include a part of the old documents and some fresh ones. Or finally they can resubmit what they had submitted earlier and we will consider all three cases equally.”

Hajels’s message is yet to reach the excluded persons in the districts in the hinterland. As an observer describes, in the districts of Kokrajhar and Goalpara, thousands of panic stricken people, clutching dozens of documents, are frantically going from one window to another of the local NRC Seva Kendras, only to be asked to go home and wait. There is no clarity as to how the reexamination of the same old documents will yield different results. An academic in Guwahati University pointed out that it was not clear how the reexamination of same old documents would change the decision, unless the parameters and standards were modified. He also pointed out the flaws in the process, particularly as in many cases while some members of a family were included while other members were rejected on the basis of the same documents. Considering the fact that the final draft NRC list has left out a large number of women, old people and minor children whose spouses, descendants and parents have been included, it remains to be seen what awaits the fate of the four million after they reapply.

The assurances given by the Supreme Court, Central Home Minister and the state government that till the list is finalized, no one should be regarded as “foreigner” means little on the ground. The BJP President has gone on record to call the four million people left out of the draft ‘ghuspaithiye’, or infiltrators. The AGP chief, Atul Bora, a minister in Assam state government has cautioned the NRC state coordinator, Prateek Hajela to ensure that not a single foreigners’ name is included in the final NRC. The ASSU’s Samujjal Bhattachraya, has also indicated that ASSU and twenty eight other organisations were unhappy that the NRC disregarded the category of “Original Inhabitants” for determining citizenship. The very use of the term created fear among the Bengali speaking Muslim and Hindu minority bringing back memories violence during the eighties and nineties. Social media went viral with postings claiming that not a single Muslim would be identified as “Original Inhabitants”.

The All Assam Minority Students. Union (AAMSU), All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), CPI(M), the Congress Party and several organisations from Barak valley in the state have pointed out that as the category of “Original Inhabitants” was not defined by constitutional authorities, and identifying persons on the basis of “Original Inhabitants” would be wrong. The AAMSU expressed fear that in the absence of a clear definition of “Original Inhabitants”, names of many applicants from religious or linguistic minorities might be left out during the process of verification. Former Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi also expressed similar apprehension. Several small indigenous groups in Assam fear that this would lead to greater hegemonic control of the state by the Assamese linguistic group. Under the circumstances, concerns of the minority communities cannot be dismissed. As has been seen in the past, the situation is ripe for ethnic conflict and violence.

The “Original Inhabitants” Vs. Others

On the issue of “Original Inhabitants”, the Supreme Court has said that the NRC exercise of upgrading the list of citizens was not intended to identify and determine which inhabitants of the State of Assam were originally and who are not. The bench proclaimed that the sole test for inclusion in the NRC was citizenship under the Constitution of India and under the Citizenship Act including Section 6A thereof. The Supreme Court such apprehensions were “wholly unfounded”.

But the debate on “Original Inhabitants” continued. The NRC State Coordinator, Prateek Hajela’s statement in September 2017 that out of the 48 lakh individuals who had submitted panchayat documents, only 20 lakh were original inhabitants, has added fuel to the raging controversy. It prompted Congress MLA Kamalakhya Deb Purkayastha to ask, “Who is Hajela to define original inhabitants?” Speaker of Assam’s Legislative Assembly Hitendranath Goswami in an effort to stop this contentious discussion intervened that as the matter is sensitive, he would discuss it with Chief Minister. However, the state government website continues to say that the new citizens’ register will establish the “original inhabitants of Assam”, and root out illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

It should be noted that Assam has a remarkable linguistic diversity. Settlement of outsiders in this region had also helped in spreading a linguistic matrix made up of a number of multi-lingual people as a result both rural and urban people often speak two or even three different languages. As each of the states in this region is a multilingual complex, members of a single family often speak different languages in different states of this region. Although the government uses language as the main criterion of indigeneity, after the introduction of Assamese as the medium of instruction in schools almost all residents of Assam speak Assamese. It is apparent that religion has emerged as an important if not main criterion for determining indigeneity.

The Fear of Bengalis

Seemingly, Assamese speaking linguistic community’s fear of being swamped by Bengalis and losing their identity was the driving force behind the six year-long Assam Agitation launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1979. Assamese intelligentsia points to the long history of this fear. Several authors have referred to the reaction to ‘Bengali chauvinism’ as the key factor that contributed to the growth of community consciousness. Assamese intellectuals talk about the ruthless attitude of the Bengali functionaries of the imperial administration towards the Assamese, treating them as an inferior people. They have also blamed the ‘elite of the Bengali society and their patrons in Bengal’ for the imposition of the Bengali language on Assam. Several authors claim that the British colonial government’s decision to introduce Bengali in 1836 as the state language provided the stimulus for the growth of Assamese community consciousness. If imposition of Bengali was the main source of resentment, one would think that after Assamese language was reinstated as the official language in 1873, the language movement would have lost its steam. But it did not.

One needs to ask, how pervasive was Bengali chauvinism that it should be regarded a foremost cause for Assam’s language based identity movement. For a people to feel being wronged, by an assault on their language, prior existence of consciousness of language as a marker of the community is essential. It should be pointed out that prior to British rule, Assamese was not taught as a subject as there were no schools in the modern sense of the term. Its script was yet to be developed. During the pre-British period, Persian was the court language of Assam and Sanskrit was used for religious purposes. These two languages were mostly used by Assamese elite. Initially, the imposition of Bengali as the official language and as the medium of instruction in Assam did not meet with any protest. On the contrary, the Assamese elite made use of Bengali in their writings and often even in their conversations. As the 1911 census report shows, there were more people in Assam who spoke Bengali (45.6 %) than those who spoke Assamese (21. 69%). For almost a decade, the language policy of the colonial government was not challenged. Assamese language was in the process of being standardized during these years. But a strong feeling of resentment had started to grow as recruitment of Bengalis in government services increased, resulting in greater unemployment among the budding middle classes on Assam.

However the growth of an ethnic movement is a much more complex issue than the way it has been portrayed by most of the scholars. The colonial rule had brought about many changes. The arrival of large body of migrants, modern education, introduction modern administrative system and the consequent rise of bureaucracy, labour system, and arrival of Christianity contributed to the disintegration of the traditional social order and transformation of the communal identity of Assamese people. Not enough attention has been paid to the multi-layered changes in the structures of Assamese society under the colonial system of governance, which eventually gave birth to a middle class that rose to a dominant position and still maintains its hegemony over the society.

During the early days of colonialism, the Ahom princes and old landed elite who lost their power and status had led anti-British uprisings. These were brutally crushed. The British takeover of forests, pastures and natural fisheries which under the Ahom kings were regarded as rajahua or “common land” for the use of the people of a common neighborhood together and imposition of land revenue and other taxes, and commodification of the commons and forest had impoverished the landowners and the peasantry. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century there were violent revolts of the peasantry led by traditional leadership of Gaonburas and Dolois. However, by late nineteenth century, as the armed uprising were replaced by “petitions”. From the path of violent uprising, the peasantry gradually began to toe moderate reformist ideas of the middle class leadership. The Peasantry lost is leadership and initiative which it had earlier. Having established its control over the peasantry, the only force that could challenge its dominant position in society, the Assamese middle class, gradually established itself as the most dominant class – a position it holds till date. In their efforts to maintain their hold over the masses and the peripheral communities, the Assamese middle classes have used language as a hegemonic instrument. The most interesting aspect of this that though it was not a ruling class during the colonial period and even after independence, it has been able to maintain its dominance both ideologically and culturally over Assamese society. And it is the dominance of this class, which is committed to creating a culturally and linguistically homogenous society in Assam that has guided and controlled the process of change in Assam.

Bongal Kheda

The Bengali was constituted as the “other”, the “outsider” who was the cause of all the troubles. During the 19th century sections of emerging Assamese middleclass intellectual had started a movement against foreigners, who were called “Bongals”. Except the ethnic Assamese or the people belonging to the hill tribes, all others were described as foreigners, uncivilized and filthy. The term, “Bongal Kheda” was coined in the 1960s. It was the beginning of organised campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Bengalis in the North East. During its peak in 1960, which began at the Cotton College in Guwahati on Bengali students who were agitating against imposition of Assamese as the only medium of instruction in the universities and colleges, around 50,000 Bengali were expelled from Assam, who took shelter in West Bengal.

The first ethnic riot after independence, between Assamese and Bengalis, took place in 1948. During the forties the Congress party leaders and people of the three Bengali majority districts had demanded the separation from Assam. However, a referendum was held only in Sylhet as a result of which it was merged with the then East Pakistan. British administrative restructuring saw the constitution of the Chief Commissionership of Assam in 1874. During the reconstitution of Assam into a Chief Commissioner’s Province the districts of Cachar, Goalpara and Sylhet- all Bengali majority areas– were attached to Assam. It drastically altered the demographic, ethnic and linguistic profile of the state. As a result, the Muslim population of the state rose from a negligible 5.9 percent to 28.8 percent of the total population of the newly created province.

In 1956, there were widespread disturbances in the then undivided Goalpara district which had a majority Bengali speaking population. In response to the demands of the people pf Goalpara, the Central government had sent a team of the States Reorganisation Committee to the district to assess the ground situation and the linguistic make of the local population to determine the feasibility of the district’s merger with West Bengal. In order to obstruct work of the team, Assam government overnight converted around 250 Bengali medium schools to Assamese medium schools. In 1972, large scale ethnic riots again erupted in Assam. Around 14,000 Bengali had to flee to West Bengal and elsewhere in the North East for safety.

During the first phase of the Assam Agitation in the 1980s, Bengali settlements were attacked throughout the Brahmaputra valley. In 1983, the Bengali were attacked again during the anti-foreign agitation. In Dhemaji district, the Bengali houses were vandalised by the Assamese students in Silapathar. In Nellie village, more than 2000 Bengali Muslims were massacred in 1983. Muslims were killed because they voted in defiance of the election boycott call given by the student bodies. During the Assam movement, the indigenous people like Bodo, Mising, Keot (Kaibarta), Rabha, Deori, Kalita, Ahom, Moran, Koch-Rajbongshi, Dimasa and Karbi were mobilized and motivated to attacking the Bengali Hindus in Assam and Meghalaya.

Mamata Banerjee has been criticized for raising the issue of rights and safety of the Bengali people in Assam. Considering the long history of violence that the Bengali people have suffered at the hands of the “protectors of Assamese language and culture”, should we reject her reaction as an exaggeration. India is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and a multi-religious country. The constitution gives citizens the right to move to any part of the country and settle there. Yet, the enterprise of sections of the Assamese middle classes to convert Assam into a mono-linguistic, mono-cultural and mono-religious state has been going on, with the rest of India, quietly acquiescing. Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims who have been living in Assam since 1820s have been asked again and again to prove their citizenship and their loyalty. Even when they are able to do so, they still remain the “outsider”. Is there any guaranty that after dealing with the four million illegal immigrants, there will not be another movement to oust those who are not “Original Inhabitants”?

Tapan Bose is an independent documentary filmmaker, human rights and peace activist, author and regular contributor leading journals and news magazines in India, Nepal and Pakistan. His award winning documentaries on human rights and democratic issues include An Indian Story (1982) on the blinding of under trial prisoners in Bhagalpur and the nexus between landlord, police and politicians and Beyond Genocide: Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1986). His film ‘Behind the Barricades; Punjab’ (1993) on the state repression in Punjab, as with the earlier cited films, was banned and after a long legal struggle was shown. His latest film is The Expendable People’, (2016) a passionate appeal for justice for the tribal peoples of India, cheated, dispossessed, pauperised and criminalized in their forest homes, made to pay the price for extractive development.


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