A whole new generation in Assam has recently been introduced to curfews in their towns and army flag marches in their lanes — though, for the older generation, this means revisiting a trauma.
The current sense of dismay in Assam is primarily due to what they perceive as the BJP’s backtracking on pre-poll stances like securing an “immigrant free Assam” and “protecting the indigenous” by putting the state under the purview of the Citizenship Amendment Act without any exemptions. This is precisely why the repeated assurances by the home minister about bringing “safeguards to the indigenous of Assam” in the context of the CAA has not found many takers in the state. While the government is promising to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which promises protection to the cultural-economic identities of the Assamese, in the same breath, it seems to be denouncing the essence of the Accord by not respecting the cut-off year of 1971. The Accord also refrains from making religion a criterion of identification.
The present agitation is largely a reaction to the perceived breach of this political commitment, given by the government of India to Assam. At the base of this equation lies another cardinal political truth about Assam — that language has historically trumped religion as a primary marker of identity. This foundation quickly lapses into the argument that with the “acceptance” of Bengali Hindu migrants, there appears a real possibility that the Assamese speakers and the other “indigenous” communities will be turned into absolute minorities, linguistically and politically.
It is often pointed out that with consecutive census reports, the number of Assamese speakers has been coming down — to 47.8 per cent (2001) from 57.8 per cent (1991). During the same period, the share of Bengali speakers has gone up — to 27.5 per cent (2001) from 21.7 per cent (1991); number of Hindus declined to 64.9 per cent (2001) from 67.1 per cent (1991), and, further declined to 61.47 per cent (2011 census). During the same period, the number of Muslims went up by 2.4 per cent in 2001 — that number stood at 34.22 per cent in the 2011 census.
Evidently, during 1991-2001 the rise of Bengalis as a linguistic group seems to be due to the growth of both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis in Assam. The statistics do not support a linear relation between the growth of the “Muslims” alone (which the ruling party insists on projecting as a threat to “Assamese identity”) and the decline in the number of Assamese speakers.
As different mass programmes have been announced jointly by multiple groups — political and otherwise — across districts in Assam, parallels are being drawn with the Assam Movement of the Eighties. That was a social movement launched by an “apolitical-cultural front”, spearheaded by students and backed by different segments of society through a complex alliance. It succeeded in overthrowing the Congress government in the state by forming a new regional party. As that regional party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), once hailed as paragon of regionalism in Assam, finds itself the object of people’s wrath today, many wonder if the final demise of the AGP will usher in the entry of a new regional force in the state.
A road near my house that is now tarred with the rubber of burnt tyres, ringing with the uneasy silence of curfew and patrolled by army trucks, still bears the sign, “Asian Highway 1”. People look at it and wonder what sense notions like the “Act East” policy make when one is beneath the military boots? I thought of taking a picture of it recently to send it to a friend abroad, only to realise that internet services had been suspended. Perhaps “normalcy” will be restored in a few more days, but by then, India would have taken a few strides backwards when it comes to acquiring the good faith of smaller “nationalities” within the larger design of the nation-state.
This article first appeared in the December 20 print edition titled ‘Assam’s edge’. The writer is assistant professor, department of political science, Dibrugarh University
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