Anatomy of an anxiety

Assam has been on edge over the settlement of persons from neighbouring countries. The roots of these demographic and cultural fears stretch back to Partition and beyond

Written by M P Bezbaruah | Updated: May 22, 2018 12:05:16 am
Anatomy of an anxiety Assam’s modern history is marked by this fear of being dominated by Dhaka or by Bengal. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

Recently, Assam has been on edge again over the issue of the settlement of persons belonging to minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. There are dark clouds of anger and anxiety and more ominously, polarisation, in the two valleys of Assam — Brahmaputra and Barak — primarily on the issue of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh. Strange as it may seem, the roots of this tension go much deeper. They stretch back to Partition and beyond.

Partition was a human tragedy of epic proportions. Assam shared that anguish and agony but did not experience it physically to the same extent as some other states. Yet, any analysis of the social, political and economic developments in the region in the post-Partition period would show how, in an imperceptible way, the effects of the event have seeped into the very existence of Assam.

The interplay of the many consequences of Partition, and the nuances of the changing complexion of linguistic, religious and other identities, have left a lasting impact on Assam and the Northeast. In fact, political scientist Sanjib Baruah calls it a “failed partition”. He argues that, “for all its twists and turns, politics in post-Independence Assam has been mostly about a single issue: dealing with the failure of the 1947 Partition”.

During 125 years of British rule, the socio-psychological stress of (the future) Partition was hanging over Assam like the Damocles’ Sword. The British, keen to protect the fragile culture and ethnicity of the hill people, devised the Inner Line system. This continues in some form till today. Perhaps a similar concern led to a proposal to form a Crown Colony consisting of the hills of Assam, contiguous hill areas of Burma and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It was revived as late as 1941, with the support of the then governor of Assam. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, turned the proposal down and luckily it remains no more than a “what if” of Assam’s history.

In 1905, a new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam was created. The Lt Governor of the new province was headquartered in Dacca (Dhaka). In view of great resentment in Assam, the decision was revised in 1911. In 1912, Assam emerged as the chief commissioner’s province. During the Cabinet Mission Plan and the infamous “Grouping Scheme”, Assam was once again tagged with Bengal. People were concerned that this may lead to it being clubbed with East Pakistan in the eventual Partition. Led by Gopinath Bordoloi — who became the first chief minister (initially called prime minister) — Assam rebelled. Jawaharlal Nehru was not amused, but Mahatma Gandhi gave his blessings — and Assam saved the day.

Assam’s modern history is marked by this fear of being dominated by Dhaka or by Bengal. In that sense, Partition and its de-linking from Sylhet was a great relief for the Brahmaputra valley. But in the other valley of Assam — Barak — it caused many disruptions, including of communication and social relations. This led to fissures and friction between the two valleys.

In his book, Sons of the Soil: Migration and Ethnic Conflict in India, Myron Weiner says that before Partition, both Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims had designs on Assam — one of cultural dominance, and the other, demographic. In 1905, when Assam was tagged to East Bengal, P R T Gordon, the British commissioner of Assam, had stated that the Assamese language and local employment were under threat. Partition reduced one fear, at least temporarily. But Assam’s post-Partition history has seen the hopes of Partition belied. As Weiner says, “A new cleavage between the Bengali Hindus and [the] Assamese” emerged. It would be unrealistic to view the current tension and simmering apprehension without an appreciation of this history.

“Partition,” writer Kayes Ahmed once remarked, “was only the freedom to be a refugee”. Refugee settlement has been a contentious issue in Assam, often rousing public emotions. Assam had reservations about the large-scale rehabilitation of Bengali refugees after Partition as it would disturb demographic equations and lead to a polarisation of sentiments on communal and linguistic lines. This resulted in a continuous confrontation with West Bengal and with the government of India. Even scientist and MP Meghnad Saha criticised Assam for not doing enough. Reportedly, Sardar Patel told the Assam administration that refugees should get priority as a national responsibility, irrespective of local sentiments.

Public opinion in the Brahmaputra valley resented this lack of sympathy. Citing the British policy of encouraging migration to Assam in the 19th and 20th centuries, it saw this as a continuation of colonial hegemony. As seeds of distrust and alienation were sown, complaints of neglect became the refrain in the relationship with the Centre.

The trauma of Partition, the “Northeast Vision 2020” document points out, took the region back by at least a quarter of a century. It placed hurdles to future progress. “Economic imprisonment” caused by Partition made the development scenario “anarchic”. Apart from economic imprisonment, the isolation and distance from the rest of India raised a serious question about non-economic costs. As the veteran Northeast watcher B G Verghese put it, the physical and psychological severity of the blow was not fully appreciated elsewhere in the country: “Isolated and traumatised, the Northeast turned inward.”

Assamese society’s pride was a tradition of tolerance and pluralism, flowing from Sankaradeva and embellished by persons like Ajan Fakir. Did Partition and its legacy create permanent fissures in the composite Assamese identity? The Assam Accord (1985) accepted the need for a constitutional safeguard for the Assamese people. As old fears come to haunt Assam again, it is necessary to tread the path with great care and sensitivity.

The writer is a retired IAS officer who served in Assam, and was later Member, Northeastern Council

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