A remarkable number of candidates fielded by various political parties in Assam are veterans of the Assam Movement — the protests against the entry and enfranchisement of “foreigners” that dominated the state’s politics for six long years from 1979 to 1985. Four elected ministries collapsed during that period and there were three spells of president’s rule. Even the census of 1981 could not be conducted in Assam during that period. Post-Independence India’s most violent elections are also part of this history, including the horrendous Nellie massacre.
Assam Movement veterans feature not only on the list of candidates of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the regional party that grew out of the movement and now an ally of the BJP. They are also among the candidates of the two major national parties:
The BJP as well as the Congress. Prominent among them are the BJP’s chief ministerial hopeful, Sarbananda Sonowal, and a number of former AGP heavyweights, as well as the Congress party’s Zoiinath Sarma, who led the volunteer force of the All Assam Students Union during the movement.
Then there are the politicians who made the transition to national political parties a long time ago such as the Congress party’s Bharat Narah. The Guwahati MP, Bijoya Chakraborty of the BJP, is also an Assam Movement veteran. This time, her daughter, Suman Haripriya, is the BJP candidate for the Hajo constituency.
In retrospect, the Assam Movement turned out to be the school and recruiting ground for a major segment of the next generation of Assam’s political leaders. And the Congress and the BJP appear to have succeeded in remaking themselves as national parties with a regional orientation — as the former chief minister, the late Hiteswar Saikia, had promised the Congress would become.
This story can easily be told as a warm and fuzzy self-congratulatory narrative of the inclusiveness and resilience of India’s democratic institutions. But the picture gets more complicated when one tries to take stock of the goals of the Assam Movement. How successful was it?
A novice may be excused for thinking that with so many veterans of the Assam Movement now part of the political establishment, the central issue of the movement must have been settled a long time ago. But that is not the case. From the perspective of the thousands who responded to the calls of the movement’s leaders and came out to the streets during those six years, what has transpired in the three decades since then is a story of bitter disappointment and betrayal.
It is not only supporters of the Assam Movement who are disappointed. Even the Supreme Court has expressed similar views. When in July 2005, it declared the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act unconstitutional, it spelt out the dangers to Assam from the continued unauthorised immigration from Bangladesh using a language that was reminiscent of that used by the leaders of the Assam Movement. There can be “no manner of doubt,” said the apex court, that Assam is facing “external aggression and internal disturbance” because of large-scale unauthorised immigration from Bangladesh. In July 2008, the Gauhati High Court said a “large number of Bangladeshis” play “a major role in electing the representatives both to the legislative assembly and Parliament and consequently, in the decision-making process towards building the nation”.
Such pronouncements by authoritative institutions cannot but eat away at the legitimacy of elected governments. It is not surprising that the failure of the Assam Movement created the ground for the rise of the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) that argued in favour of an extra-constitutional path for defending Assam’s historical identity and wellbeing.
In recent years, the ambiguities of citizenship that the Assam Movement sought to address have been a potent source of civil strife in various parts of the state. When violence between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims broke out in the summer of 2012, a number of media reports and commentaries blamed it on the influx of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” into the area, in effect portraying Muslims of East Bengali descent inhabiting western Assam — many of them descendants of the early 20th century settlers from East Bengal — as “Bangladeshis”.
A couple of years later, militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) gunned down 81 Adivasis — descendants of tea workers brought as indentured labourers to Assam in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Adivasis have been victims of violence and dispossession in the land conflicts on the Assam-Nagaland border as well; some of their forefathers having settled on those lands bordering tea plantations — technically reserved forests — after their contracts had expired. Quite a fate in 21st century India for a group of people whose forefathers provided the muscle for the 19th century capitalist transformation of Assam.
If one goes by the assessment of the Supreme Court of the IMDT act — a law passed by the Indian Parliament in order to deal with the challenges presented by the Assam Movement to the post-Partition citizenship regime — our decision-making process has become far too porous; it gives “too many actors the means to stifle adjustments in public policy”, to borrow the words of Francis Fukuyama used in a different context. The costs of the Assam Movement’s failures have been steep, but obviously not for its leaders. The price is being paid by some of the country’s most disadvantaged citizens: In blood, and in lives lost. After three decades of the Assam Movement, they are still unable to reclaim a sense of everyday security.