Assam is witnessing an epic re-enactment of the protests in Tamil Nadu in 1965 against the government of India’s proposal to impose Hindi as its official language. Tamil protestors refused to bow down to the pressure of the votaries of Hindi. Since Independence, the argument has been made that Hindi deserves to be India’s national language since its speakers are the most numerous. The movement lasted for more than 50 days, forced the government of India to bring in the Official Languages (Amendment) Act of 1967. This Act ensured that English would remain as an associate official language. But the anger against the imposition of Hindi went way beyond that. In 1967, Indira Gandhi’s party was voted out of power in Tamil Nadu.
A contentious piece of legislation about Indian citizenship is at the core of the ongoing political protests in Assam and in many parts of India. Simmering tensions against this legislation have been there since 2018. Meetings and conferences debating the pros and cons of this legislation took place across Assam. That wave of protests only marginally influenced the outcome of the general election of 2019. The election manifesto of the BJP had promised that if voted to power they would push for such a bill — but hardly anyone reads an election manifesto. Instead, during election time, public attention is captured by the words of the leaders.
The present movement surfaced in this Winter Session of Parliament. Led by small numbers of Guwahati-based students in the first couple of days, the movement was confined to their campuses. Young students listened to many public speakers about how detrimental this legislation is to the idea of Assamese identity. As the Indian lawmakers assembled in Parliament to debate this legislation, the movement spilled over to the streets.
Common people entered the fray; a strike was successfully observed. The students also gave a call for a protest march. Several Guwahati-based colleges became empty as their students joined those marching to Dispur. Street vendors, city dwellers and many others joined them. Youths from urban Assamese families were in the forefront. Speaking Assamese, English and Hindi and probably a few other languages including Bengali, playing western music, this sea of humanity marched towards Dispur, their slogans acquiring a rhythm: “We do not want CAB”. They sang patriotic Assamese songs, including the Assamese national anthem.
Soon, the protestors were confronted by the security forces. The argumentative protestors knew that their political masters had no answers, no responses to their apprehensions. They became more restless. The security forces unsuccessfully tried to chase away the restive crowds. In the space that had been created for a wide spectrum of political protests, a section of violent protestors targeted the city’s new-found symbols of wealth. The police machinery came down heavily, there was firing, curfew was imposed, the internet was banned.
Spontaneous protests soon swept across major parts of Assam. Angry protesters incessantly hurled slogans against the legislation. The protesters made it clear that they felt deceived by the BJP-AGP political coalition. Peasants and traders, youngsters from all classes, workers of the tea gardens, middle classes, non-resident Assamese, swelled the numbers of the protesters. Unlike earlier instances, non-Assamese speakers also willingly merged with the movement. The Assamese artist fraternity and several religious and cultural bodies provided emotional strength to the movement. The Assamese Vaishnavite monasteries’ rebuttal of this legislation seriously undermined the RSS narratives of a monolithic Assamese cultural history.
This protest unpacks several layers of critical and interwoven faultlines that have remained buried within Assam’s modern history. In the forefront is the contested history of India’s regional nationalism. In the rise of a powerful Union government, the Assamese regional middle classes, like others across India, see a threat to this much-cherished idea. This perception is further reinforced by the beleaguered idea of Assamese linguistic nationalism. The citizenship legislation is seen as an anti-thesis to this idea. This new wave of linguistic nationalism is also emboldened by the aspirations of a much-globalised Assamese population. The recent attempts to assertively recast the linguistic nationalism as an extension of Indian nationalism produced in the Hindi heartland has also backfired.
Assam had a fraught relationship with the government of India in the middle of the last century. True, the region had a deep engagement with other regions of India, intellectually, culturally and economically prior to the 19th century. The British era redefined and further intensified these connections. Much has been written about how the British imperial government had miserably transformed Assam and her neighbourhood into a major colonial hinterland. That political and economic framework was not corrected during the first three decades of India’s independence.
The political unrest of 1979-85 moderately changed this but it was short-lived. The benefits of India’s post-1991 economic liberalisation did not impact the region’s economic structure. Regional inequalities further deepened. Yet many continued to hope and waited for something dramatic to happen to improve their general economic lot. What, then, worked as a catalyst to shape the recent events? Assamese leaders across the social spectrum have suddenly woken up to the fact this legislation essentially erased the political promises made to them by the government of India in 1985.
Is there a way out? A careful reading of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities and Tribal and Excluded Areas chaired by none other than Sardar Patel can be of help now. Ideas enshrined in these deliberations ultimately gave moral strength to Assam’s Gopinath Bordoloi-led sub-committee to imagine the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. This was intended to protect the political and economic needs of a frontier province. Provisions encapsulated in Article 371 of the Constitution of India also partly emerged from this creative mechanism.
The political experiences emanating from all these can possibly provide a ray of hope in these troubled times. Whether Assamese and Indian leaders can learn from this, only time will tell.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 18, 2019 under the title ‘Touching a nerve in Assam’. Saikia is a Guwahati-based historian and author of The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra. Views are personal.
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