For months now, the faultlines in Assam have been growing wider, as the debate over the question — who is an Assamese? — grows ever more divisive and unaccommodating. The implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and talk of a proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has thrown the state in tumult, dredging out old anxieties and communal resentments between the ethnic Assamese, indigenous tribes and a sizeable Bengali-speaking population. While this was looked upon as a necessary, if difficult, state of flux that would make way for greater clarity, that seems increasingly to be wishful thinking. A warning from a senior Assam police official is a red flag that ought not to be ignored.
Special DGP (Special Branch) of the Assam Police, Pallab Bhattacharyya, has said that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has deepened the rift between Assamese and Bengali-speaking communities — and given a new lease of life to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The militant outfit, say the police, is responsible for the killing of five Bengali-speaking men in Tinsukia district earlier this month, all allegedly targeted because of the language they spoke. The history of Assam — and its intersection with the legacy of colonialism and Partition — is an impossibly complicated one to untangle. It is also not a past that is buried and cold: Even a few decades ago, the tussle over language led to violence in the state, and inspired a subnationalism that transmogrified into the extremism of outfits like the ULFA. In the last few months, however, the ruling BJP government has recklessly stoked the fire of identity politics, with an eye, apparently, on its mainland vote banks. Its national president has called the NRC an exercise to weed out “termites”, dehumanising 40 lakh people who still have a chance to prove their citizenship, according to the Supreme Court. Assamese civil society and media, too, have chosen to hoist the flag of jatiyota.
For all its talk of fair process, of righting historical wrongs, the identity politics of Assam has been painfully short of empathy and sympathy for the many communities which have coexisted for years. The narrative of sub-nationalism has refused to engage with the despair of those deemed stateless, nor addressed the fears of Assam’s minorities. But as Bhattacharyya’s words reveal, this is a wake-up call for the hypernationalists in both politics and the larger society. The crude calculus of differences might benefit politically, but it is a dangerous game. It runs the risk of leaving behind an utterly divided state, high on distrust and hate, low on humanity — an invitation to violent extremism. Who will then put out the fire?