A distant but distinct memory from my student days, which I often recall with fondness, concerns an incident so trivial that I would never have thought of bringing it up in connection with something as serious as the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Yet there can be no better illustration of what our identity meant to us:
It was after dinner at our engineering college hostel, and we were taking a new boarder through an introductory routine. We asked him to chant the national anthem; he faltered a little. Are you not Indian, we asked. I am Naga, the freshman said with pride. You are Naga but Indian first, one senior started to preach, when another interrupted him: Let him be Naga first if he wishes, as long as he is Indian; just as we are Assamese first and also Indian.
No need for anyone to outrage. Nearly every Assamese I know is as proud of his or her nationality as an Indian from any other state. That observation by my friend was just a reflection of the times. In the wisdom of the 1980s, “Assamese first” was the identity we wore on our sleeve. A logician might find the idea questionable — each one of us was all his identities simultaneously — but what the phrase conveyed was tied with emotion. It remains in circulation today; the question is whether it carries the same import as before. As we get more and more “mainstreamed” and a new politics of religion competes with the regional pride of old, every Assamese may one day need to reflect on what we once were, and what we are turning out to be.
Take the NRC. The exercise was religion-neutral at its core, seeking to identify citizens on the basis of a cut-off date. But after its completion, the focus has been on the religious faith of one section among the 19 lakh excluded — Bengali Hindus, who may eventually be given citizenship — and even more on one section among the 3.11 crore included. The NRC has given legitimacy to lakhs of migrant-origin Muslims, who had papers to show that they or their ancestors had entered Assam before the cut-off date. For this very reason, many of them had welcomed the NRC, but it turns out that they are still being viewed with suspicion despite — and because of — their high inclusion in districts bordering Bangladesh.
What I have set out to reflect on is not, however, whether the number of exclusions is too low or just right, or the unanswered question of what will happen to those who will still be left out after the NRC is trimmed further after the appeals and legislation. This is about a puzzle called the Assamese identity, now confounded by religion.
Religion has cast its shadow in strange ways. Take the “Miya Poetry” controversy, when verses of self-assertion by Bengal-origin Muslims caused offence to many Assamese, leading to police booking them. Those who had filed the complaints included a number of Assamese Muslim organisations. In one news report, a complainant was quoted as saying that “we are Assamese first and Muslims later”. Those two words again, so nostalgic and relatable. Come to think of it, however, it begs a question: Is it necessary to mention your religious faith to show that you are more Assamese than others?
Indeed, the idea of Assamese identity, for some, has often coexisted with contempt for the other. The 1979-85 agitation against illegal immigration may have limited its focus to those who had entered Assam after a cut-off date, but the emotions it generated were built on larger Assamese anxieties around the migrant communities as a whole. When the cut-off was agreed and signed, it came with the implicit premise that the greater Assamese society would accommodate migrants on the right side of that date. Instead, a number of factors, including population growth and political consolidation around the AIUDF, have raised the anxieties around Bengal-origin Muslims, while the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill has threatened to reopen a fault line between Assamese and Bengali Hindus.
When the Bill returns, seeking to accommodate Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, it will upset the section of Assamese whose opposition to illegal migrants does not recognise religion. It will also raise a new question, between one Assamese and another. If a Hindu migrant is a better migrant than a Muslim migrant, does it mean, by extension, that an Assamese Muslim is less Assamese than an Assamese Hindu?
As a society, we appear to be holding on. We still pat each other on the back, thump our secular chests with Assamese pride, and still celebrate our shared culture and shared history of centuries — from the Battle of Saraighat when our ancestors brought Mughal invaders to their knees, to the language riots when our elders were killed, and the agitation against illegal immigration when 855 of our generation became martyrs.
As voters, however, we are already divided. In 2016, when the BJP won Assam for the first time, a survey by Lokniti-CSDS, published in this paper, found that two-thirds of Assamese Hindus had voted for the BJP and two-thirds of Assamese Muslims for the Congress. Like Assamese Hindus, two-thirds of Bengali Hindus had voted for the BJP, while Bengali Muslims had split evenly between the Congress and AIUDF.
Maybe I worry too much, but I keep an eye on the Muslim population, already over one-third of Assam’s total by 2011. Yes, that population includes both Assamese and Bengal-origin Muslims. But if it keeps growing, will an Assamese who looks at me as a fellow Assamese today, see instead a Muslim tomorrow?
Who knows, that day too may come. It can never be sweeping, though; there will always be some who continue to believe in what we once were. Defined by the cliché we used that night more than three decades ago. Assamese first. Non-negotiable.
(This article first appeared in the print edition on September 23, 2019 under the title ‘Us and them’)