34 Years and Assam Still in Search of Elusive Identity
The state’s twin messiahs are seen giving suitably different bytes to different people
GUWAHATI: Today, Assam is at a crossroads because once again the violent days of the six year long Assam Movement (1979–1985) have started peeping into the minds of those who witnessed this infamous agitation, which wreaked havoc in this tiny northeastern Indian state.
34 long years have passed but the wounds that left an indelible mark on the people’s psyche have yet to heal.
The BJP rode to power in Assam on the plank of development, and of saving the land from ‘illegal immigrants’ – frankly speaking the ruling regime in Assam can’t be considered to be a pure BJP government, because the entire chunk including the chief minister is a group of turncoats.
Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal was president himself of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and earned the title of Jatiya Nayak for moving the Supreme Court against the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal Act.
As per the IM-DT Act it is up to the complainant to provide documents to prove that the suspect concerned is indeed an illegal immigrant who has sneaked into Assam.
The entire politics of Assam has been revolving around this debate.
The Assamese community firmly believes that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh will take away their lands and in the long run Assam’s indigenous communities will become minorities in their own homeland.
In mainland India ‘caste-ism’ dominates the political discourse whereas in the Northeast ethnicity and identity dominate the polity.
Prior to the arrival of the BJP, the Congress followed a go-slow approach to the issue which suited its own political interests.
It was former Assam CM and AASU president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta under whose tutelage the historic Assam Accord was inked in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister.
Here it was agreed by all parties that whoever had entered Assam up to midnight of March 24, 1971 would be allowed to remain in the state, and the rest, irrespective of their religion, would be deported to Bangladesh.
34 years have passed but the process of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants is still going on at a snail’s pace. The fate of many so-called illegal immigrants hangs in the balance.
Assam is probably the only state in the world where detention camps have been set for illegal immigrants – who are dubbed as doubtful voters, or D-voters for short.
The entry of the BJP into the picture has made this game more complicated still. Now, the entire state is seeing a raging debate on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2015 which is loitering now in the Rajya Sabha following its successful passing by the Lok Sabha.
The Bill intends to provide citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis, who in the opinion of the central government are the victims of religious persecution.
But AASU and other likeminded Assamese bodies, such as Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Parishad, are opposing this bill tooth and nail because they fear that the indigenous communities will lose their identity, language, land and culture to marauding illegal immigrants.
The rift between the Bengali speaking population and the Assamese community is not a recent phenomenon. But the Citizenship Bill has widened divisions between the two linguistic groups.
With a view to mollifying the Assamese community the Modi government decided to form a high-powered committee to suggest ways for the proper implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord.
Clause 6 states that constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards will be provided to the Assamese community. This particular clause was inserted to safeguard the linguistic, social and cultural identity of the khilanjiays, or sons of the soil.
However the committee could not be formed, because those nominated to it refused to be part of the set up.
Now, both Sarbananda and Himanta (Biswa Sharma) — twin messiahs of the Assam BJP – are seen giving suitably different bytes in different places to woo voters ahead of the ensuing big fight.
The Northeast occupies a pivotal position for the BJP because it sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The ‘Shah’ has set a target of 21 seats. Under these trying circumstances, how far he will achieve his target, time alone can tell.
The BJP unit in the Northeast is still in a fledgling state because the show is being run by turncoats: one is in Assam and the other one is Manipur CM Biren Singh.
Though CM Sonowal is not openly defying the party line, his Manipur counterpart has already apprised the central leadership of his steadfast opposition to this contentious Bill.
In fact both the Congress and the BJP are seeing different versions of their respective leaders. The Barak Valley and the Brahmaputra Valley are on different pages. The former is dominated by Bengali speakers and they are supporting this Bill.
Veteran Congress leader and former CM Tarun Gogoi during his tenure pitched for the preparation of a voter’s list on the basis of the 2014 voter’s list. But this is not acceptable to AASU which considers the Assam Accord its gospel.
Sensing the mood of the state Gogoi is also changing his stance. Both of Assam’s premier political parties are trying to measure the water’s depth ahead of the general election.
All India Mahila Congress president and Silchar MP Sushmita Dev is one of the members of the anti-Gogoi front, which was led once upon a time by a close aide of Gogoi’s: Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma.
“We have not changed our position at all. We are still following the path of Tarun Gogoi. He said the authorities should follow the 2014 voter’s list for the preparation of the new list,” Dev quipped.
By saying this she has put the veteran Congress leader on the backfoot, and at the same time the cracks between the Barak and Brahmaputra chapters of the Congress have come to the fore.
Though Modi promised the people of Assam – especially the Bengali speaking population – that his government would do away with detention camps, in reality he has failed to deliver on this front.
Around 40 lakh people have failed to make it to the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in the state. Now, what will happen to this large chunk of people? What will be their identity? Will they be deported to Bangladesh? And most important, will Bangladesh accept them?
These are a few critical questions which will surely chase the BJP. It is to be seen how the saffron brigade counters them.
The hapless lot who might be from a different religion and a different linguistic group is also contributing to Assam’s economy. Their contributions can certainly not be overlooked. Unfortunately, ultra-jingoism has come to stand between peace and humanity.
34 years have passed, and even today Assam is in search of its elusive identity.