GUWAHATI: New Delhi based journalist Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty who recently wrote a book on the Assam Accord – Assam, the Accord and Discord – believes that questioning the government has become more difficult under the current regime.

Pisharoty who worked with organisations such as United News of India and The Hindu before joining The Wire as deputy editor says her book deals with aspects of the much discussed Assam Accord, which was signed in 1985 after a bloody six-year agitation to drive out people believed to have recently settled in the state.

The ongoing update to the National Register of Citizens in Assam is one of the outcomes of the accord. But many clauses of the accord remain to be implemented.

Tell us something about the book?

The title itself says what the book is all about. We all thought the Assam Accord would bring peace to the state but it didn’t, instead it brought issues of discord. And the issue is still on. Nobody has found any closure or solution to it yet. That is the broad canvas.

I have tried to look at things chronologically, from Burmese rule to the fall of Ahoms and the entry of the British… the migration that took place… the question of language and land coming in… Then of course post-independence Assam and how these entire issues play on…

I have included possible solutions which the people are talking about, like work permits or constitutional protection under Clause 6 of the Accord.

I have also tried to bring out what actually caused the migration. We don’t even talk about various things like the failure of jute crops, which led to migration to bordering districts like Goalpara and Dhubri. There are certain specific things like that which I have tried to mention.

There was the Bengal famine during WWII, due to which people started to migrate to Dhaka and Calcutta from the villages. A lot of people came to Assam also during that time. There were Hindus as well in that migration as everybody was affected by the famine.

People may look at these issues as small but these are the things that are not discussed when we talk about Assam. That’s why I have tried to see these issues with a wider aspect.

There are not many documents in the public domain about the Accord and developments during that period. Was it difficult for you to gather sources?

Yes, finding the ready documents was very difficult. There are many things that happened during the Assam agitation which are not in written form. They exist only on people’s lips, especially with the older generation.

When you have a drawing room conversation, people will tell you a lot of things that happened then. But when it comes to referring to a book, it’s not there. So, I had to mention that I spoke to so and so on that particular date at this venue. There are some points I crosschecked with three-four other individuals… that helped.

I was lucky in that everybody helped me out. Nobody refused to speak to me… everyone whom I approached narrated their stories.

The other thing is the Nehru Memorial Library, the collection they have, that helped me a lot. I spent lot of time there doing my research and I must thank the chief librarian for sorting things out for me.

She had to make extra efforts to arrange things for me as not many people go there looking for books and documents on Assam.

There must be some very interesting things that came out in the book?

There are so many such things actually. Particularly when I started looking into it from the Emergency point of view… many intellectuals believed that there was no impact of the Emergency on Assam. I try to ask why not.

I say in the book that the Assam agitation was in a way an offshoot of post-Emergency politics in the state.

There are also some interesting tidbits, a lot of intrigues… Like how one political party tried to break another and because they couldn’t, they helped to fuel insurgency… things like that.

Then in the 1983 elections, how Indira Gandhi went for it and that led to so many killings. And she herself tried to duck questions from the national and international media about the number of deaths. She would say ‘you guys are exaggerating the number, not so many people have died in Nellie…’

My uncle who is no more was the BSF chief then and would tell me… even KPS Gill told me that overnight, just before India Gandhi was to come, many bodies were dumped into a pond and covered. Things like that…

Apart from that there is a lot of political manoeuvring that led to killings… say in Gohpur (Biswanath district) where I actually quote from former IPS officer E.Rammohan’s book about how that killing was organised by the ruling party.

It’s also interesting that the flag of the All Assam Students’ Union, the apex students’ body was inspired by the Mukti Bahini in Bangladesh.

Yes. I found that very interesting. Because Atul Bora who actually drew the flag gave me a copy of his original drawing. And he told me of meeting two Mukti Bahini volunteers in Guwahati at the time.

As they were leaving, they gave him a flag and explained what the colours were for. He found the colour red very interesting… and when Bora was drawing the flag for AASU he took inspiration from it.

He said this to me on record. And after only a few years this flag was used to go after the Bangladeshis.

At that point of time a lot of engagement happened in Assam. Even former Assam DGP Hiranya Bhattacharyya was honoured by the Bangladesh government for training the Mukti Bahini.

You also mention the detention centres in Assam.

I haven’t taken the name of the person but I was told by former chief minister Tarun Gogoi how ad hoc the system of detention centres was… and why suddenly they had to think of the detention centres.

There was a Gauhati High Court order… people were disappearing… and the government was supposed to do something.

And I was told that a minister who belongs to the so called Axomiya Miya community (whose ancestors were from East Bengal) who happened to visit the UK as part of a delegation where he saw similar arrangements in the UK for people suspected to be immigrants without papers.

So that idea was suggested by him and finally it was accepted. That’s how the Goalpara detention centre came up. This indicates that the entire process was so ad hoc.

That’s why I have also asked that if border control is the Centre’s responsibility, why was the state government pushed to take this decision?

(At present there are six such detention centres in Assam with officially around 1,000 inmates declared to be undocumented immigrants.)

You have been doing journalism for last two decades. What’s the scene like now?

See, questioning the government of the day has always been difficult for journalists and it’s continuing, it has become even more difficult now.

A lot of journalists were using the Right to Information Act as a tool but see how this RTI thing has been diluted. All governments have been difficult but when you take away things like RTI, when you are under surveillance when you go to a particular ministry and the person you are talking to is always looking over their shoulder…

Journalists’ loyalty lies with people. You have to bring the stories to the people. And people are not fools… if you say something biased, people can see it. My role as a journalist is not to take sides but to bring the stories. Even that has become difficult now.

And what about yourself?

I feel good that I get to question the government and its policies and also get to talk to mainstream Indian readers about my region. Many a time, I feel that lot of these interesting stories never got space. But with the emergence of the digital media, the northeast has started getting lot of attention on national platforms. The rise of the digital sites is a boon for the northeast.