Assam: Discourse of Disinheritance


For the last five years or so heated discussion on violence committed on minorities in Assam has risen to such a fever-pitch that any plea for a reasonable assessment of the Assamese concerns has been virtually ruled out of court.The Assamese,or a section of them,have been grave violators of human rights.But that by itself should not justify ruling out any sober hearing of what the subjects of condemnation have to say in self-defence.

The barrier to understanding is the popularization and circulation of certain colonial concepts which have acquired the power of myths through repetition.There are hasty assertions that citing colonial origin and content of such concepts is wilful overmining!

Let us stand back and look at some of them.First is the notion that the Assamese have been conspiring over a century to deny Muslim and Hindu immigrants from Bengal any right to the land they occupied and the benefits the government conferred on them.

That is a half-truth and devoid of any historical understanding because the history of Assam has been studied through colonial lenses without any mediation of regional interests and ideas.Since the British regarded Assam as a relatively empty sparsely populated province,ergo,Assamese protests against hectic mass immigration have no justification.And further that they protested only out of sheer malice.

Actually at first the Assamese did not object to the immense rush of land-poor indigent East Bengali peasants to Assam.The land had been ravaged by three successive Burmese invasions still remembered in folklore with the frisson of horror and dread.Before that there was a prolonged civil war with feudalism imploding from within for three decades and more.Ruin of local infrastructure was followed by ravages of epidemics.

So Assam needed more people to open up and prromote settlement and make the land habitable once more.Nabin Chandra Bardoloi, among the tallest Assamese leaders of the Congress in nineteen twenties declared in the Assam provincial legislature that under certain conditions he was prepared to welcome immigration.Assamese landlords who had acquired land under new colonial land-laws from hapless tribals baffled by the commercial monetized economy, allowed Muslim peasants from East Bengal to settle in their landed property and bring it under the plough.No trace of the later animosity then.Conscious sections were more scared of educated Bengali Hindus who monopolized government service and denied them entry lower levels.But they did murmur their apprehension of a future cultural shock from such numbers.Initially the immigrants understood and reciprocated as they wanted peace.One Muslim notable,Osman Ali Saudagar,opened the first Assamese school for children of immigrants. Incidentally he remained stout in his opposition to the Muslim League when it succeeded in communal mobilization of multitudes of immigrants and inflamed passions.

At this point one might cite a sobering fact.In 1910 the proportion of Muslims in the sprawling Nowgong district was about 5 p.c.,but by 1930 it had shot up to 20 p.c.The overwhelming bulk of them were of immigrant origin.So the wonder and growing unease of the local Assamese were not unexpected.After all for the majority of the Assamese the competition was for primary resources like land and wetland.

There is the further conundrum about ‘waste land’.For the British officers in charge of land and land-revenue any plot of land that did not yield revenue was ‘wasteland’.They could not or would not concede that the wastes were actually an integral part of native agrarian system where open banks of rivers were annual channel of fine sediment replenishing fertlility of land during floods, and the ‘bils’ or natural ponds were sources of moisture for soil of interior areas and reservoirs of fish stock.The British saw to it that it was precisely those areas where immigrant Muslims settled and thus gradually sowed the seeds of latent conflict.This pattern of settlement has ultimately depleted the fertility of land and drying up of water bodies.Agriculture still remains the main source of income for Assam and irrigation is seen in less than a quarter of the agricultural land.

Though nominally land was in the scant list of subjects in which provincial governments had some power, practically the British held the key to all state policy and its implementation.So they promoted,incited large-scale migration from Bengal by lowering rail fare for the one-way trip to Assam and incited Assamese fears and hate by comparing the immigrant Muslims in Census Reports( vide the 1931 Census Report overseen by Mullan.) to vultures swooping down on carcasses,and to a huge army of invasion advancing steadily.

The numerically small native Assamese,with their hands tied by the composition of the legislature under colonial reforms,had little room for introducing checks and balances.The result had been accumulation of impotent rage against the wrong target.

This was followed by the toxic growth of communal politics with the British rulers as puppet-masters behind the scenes.By 1930s the British had Jinnah as their favourite political agent in the sub-continent and Jinnah stridently demanded that Assam be made part of the proposed Pakistan.He was unfortunately backed by immigrant Muslims under the charismatic and rather demagogic leadership of Maulana Bhasani in rallies of tens of thousands.Partition saw Bhasani decamp to East Pakistan leaving a few remaining leaders fearfully holding the baby.

Independence rid the country of colonial intrigue but Assam lagged behind the rest of the country as the leaders of the state had neither the understanding of the dynamic of modern development nor the resources to bring it about even if they had.The vast majority of tea-gardens were not in their hands.The centre claimed monopoly rights over oil and gas.Revenue accruing to the government was small and inelastic.Fertile ground for promotion of chauvinism to set people against wrongly identified enemies.

Next on the block is the whole idea of indigeneity versus migrant status.It is sometimes argued,rather vehemently,that the question of indigeneity cannot arise as Assam was part of undivided India when migration from Bengal took place.

Indigeneity should not be pushed to an absurd level,where it becomes a trigger to light hate-filled violence.But is there not a Tamil,Oriya or Punjabi indigeneity?In an article in the Wire,Siddharth Bhatia has spoken of a Goan identity which is shared by Goans of all religious denominations.He also implies that it is worth defending.

In Assam it is even more pertinent as the province became part of British India a century after the rest of the country and was formed into a province only in 1873,to lose that status for five fateful years 1905 to 1911.During this period when Assam was merged with Eastern Bengal the Lieutenant Governor Sir Bampfylde Fuller declared several times that this had been done to promote the Muslim interests. Obviously with a divisive intent.The traces left behind by this temporary disruption of normal political life well after restoration of provincial status later proved toxic.

It is known that growth of modern nationalities in India took place during British rule and at times was moulded by British colonial management.For example a so-called ‘ patron of the Assamese’ P.R.T.Gurdon took pains to promote extreme assertion of Assamese identity through language politics.Likewise colonial rulers also encouraged Bengali Hindu settlers to play the favourite! A Bengali settlers’ association meeting at Tezpur formally passed a resolution urging all settlers’ communities to unite and marginalize the Assamese by helping the British rulers!

As shown earlier on because of forcible transition from the older legal and political order and the deliberate British policy to use the land of Assam for plantation and extractive industries only,Assam lurched into modernity late and with feeble steps.

Thus maintenance of the Assamese identity and its consolidation became the overriding concern of Assamese leaders to the neglect of transformative economic development.Hence a conservative approach sometimes bordering on fanaticism became the badge of Assamese nationalism.

Such historical distortions,not quite voluntary or deliberate, notwithstanding, there is justified fear of being swamped by migrant communities who had the advantage of earlier start and more time to adjust to and profit from colonial conditions.For example educated Bengali Hindus in general showed better aptitude for jobs in various rungs of colonial administration,and Bengali Muslim peasants were accustomed to using agriculture for profit,crop rotation and intense exploitation of land.Every Assamese village had a large area around it to support grazing of their cattle. Migrants thought those areas were vacant land and they bitterly resented the resistance of the Assamese to their occupation of that land.British officials also craved the use of such land for revenue-yielding cultivation but took care not to appear too partial.

Now for the general argument that since all Assamese were migrants any way they have no right to resist migration.The point to ponder is that all the Assamese have been building up a particular way of life over centuries and since earlier migrations were smaller and willing to integrate to the local way of life,they did not appear like threats to the indigenous Assamese who shared one cultural

This scarcely amounts to an argument that all who have settled in Assam should be driven out of the land,only that a population overload will smother Assamese identity.

This brings us to the issue of NRC.The Assamese are jeered at by the metropolitan press for their alleged vile role in promoting the highly divisive NRC.This is a fable.The Assam Anti-foreigner Movement did not press for an NRC and its leaders concentrated on purging electoral rolls with quick strokes in red ink.Migrants naturally opposed it tooth and nail.But since mutual intransigence led to unravelling of massacres and bloodshed in an horrifying manner and without any end in sight,both sides in the end accepted the NRC as an expedient compromise in the nineteen nineties.Work on its preparation started under Congress rule.Of course the saffron elements who had infiltrated the elite hoped it would at one stroke rob forty to fifty lakhs of immigrant origin Muslims of citizenship and were outraged that those left out were only nineteen lakhs,half of whom were estimated Hindus.They cursed and pilloried Co-ordinator Prateek Hajela,whom they had lauded to the skies until then,and forced the poor man to seek transfer to a far-away station.The BJP-led Assam Government hastened to instal in his place an ardent supporter of the Hindutva,but the Supreme Court came down heavily on his manouevre to ‘revise’ the final version of the NRC drastically.Interestingly neither the Registrar-general of India,nor the BJP-led Assam Government has shown any urgency to officially recognize the final version of the NRC,thus nailing the fiction that the Assam-specific NRC is the brain-child of the BJP.

All things considered, there is an urgent need to take an objective view of the scene and not rush headlong into an hate-filled sterile feud.The latest Bengali vs Assamese canard is also a diversionary saffron ploy.But of that later.

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator

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