A few months after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a coalition government in Assam in 2016, I happened to have a conversation with some senior functionaries of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind in New Delhi. The discussion was around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) update in Assam, an exercise being carried out to determine the citizenship status of the state’s residents.
With a complex legal procedure unravelling on the ground, involving the citizenship rights of a large number of Muslims ruled by a party not known to be Muslim-friendly, the top socio-religious body of the community seemed anxious, and eager to know what the majority Assamese community was thinking.
The NRC of 1951 is being updated in Assam since 2015 for two reasons. One is the 2005 tripartite agreement between the Manmohan Singh and Tarun Gogoi governments and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to implement the Assam Accord. The Accord, signed in 1985 to end the anti-immigration agitation in Assam, created an exclusive cut-off date of March 25, 1971 for Indian citizenship for the residents of the state. The date for the rest of India is November 26, 1949, and for those migrating from East Pakistan is July 19, 1948. This difference of over 21 years has been a bitter pill to swallow for many indigenous communities in Assam, though most have dealt with it by now as it was the only solution available to solve the ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ issue.
The second reason is the December 2014 Supreme Court directive in response to some petitions seeking implementation of the main clause of the Accord, which was the detection and deletion of “foreigners” from the state’s electoral rolls. This is why a two-judge bench of the apex court, comprising Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman and Ranjan Gogoi, is monitoring the NRC update process. State coordinator for the NRC Prateek Hajela has to keep updating the Supreme Court on the exercise, which involves 3.29 crore people who have filled forms to establish their citizenship status. All the pending court petitions, filed for or against the cut-off date of the Accord and other related issues, were clubbed together by the SC, which is still hearing them.
Understanding the Assam elections
Coming back to my conversation with the Jamiat leaders – there were two major takeaways.
One, on hearing that most Assamese people wouldn’t like to view the issue of ‘influx’ strictly from a religious point of view (further proved true by the huge agitation Assam is witnessing against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016), the senior functionaries of the organisation seemed somewhat relieved. However, it was difficult for them – like most mainstream organisations and even Delhi newsrooms – to understand how the majority population, which chose a right-wing Hindu party a few months before, was not looking at the “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant” issue only through the Hindu-Muslim prism. Even more so because the BJP-RSS top brass in the country had by then begun projecting the party’s big win in Assam as Assamese people’s approval for their right-wing agenda.
But the real reasons behind the electoral results were different. Besides the anti-incumbency sentiment against the three-term-old Congress government and the clever voter calculations for each constituency by BJP strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party’s 2016 win in Assam was driven by two other major factors.
First was the BJP’s clever alliance with the regional forces, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), laced with the sharp sloganeering on ‘Jati Mati Bheti (home, hearth and base, literally)’. Those three words strung together as a promise raised hope in a majority of Khilonjia (indigenous) voters that they need ‘poriborton (change)’. They felt, at last, the long-drawn-out problem of ‘illegal immigration’ would be solved by a party at the Centre. After all, Modi had by then proclaimed that ‘Bangladeshis’ would have to pack their bags soon. The election results, therefore, were an assertion of the majority community’s identity – but not in a way that fits the Hindutva or caste-based politics of mainstream India.
The other factor was the projection of Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate. A former AASU president, Sonowal, was named Jatio Nayok (by the AASU) for challenging the Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunal) Act in the Supreme Court, which finally scrapped it in 2005. The Indira Gandhi government brought in the Act, exclusive to the state, in 1983, which put the onus of proving that a person is an undocumented foreigner on the complainant and the police. The complainant not only had to prove with documents that the person in question was a foreigner, but also needed to pay a fee, besides following other rules. The Act was in violation of the Foreigners Act 1946, applicable in the rest of India, as per which the onus of proving one’s citizenship lies with the accused.
Since parliament passed the Act when no Assamese MPs representing the Brahmaputra Valley were present in the house (Assamese people were opposed to the 1980 Lok Sabha elections on the anti-foreigner issue and so didn’t contest), a majority in Assam looked at the Act as a ploy by the Congress to covertly support their voter base among the “illegal immigrants” residing in the state.
Replacing the Act with the Foreigners’ Act, the Supreme Court called it the “biggest barrier for deportation” of undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. Deportation was one of the major conditions put forward by the AASU while calling off the agitation.
Looking for grey
Again, coming back to that conversation with the Jamiat leaders – the second takeaway for me was their surprise when I mentioned that a prominent leader demanding that the citizenship cut-off date in Assam be at par with the rest of India happens to be a Muslim.
“Who is he? What is his name?” one asked in near disbelief.
I was referring to Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha president Matiur Rehman, an ultra jatiotabadi (sub-nationalist) leader of Assamese Muslim descent, spotted on July 2 at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar sitting on a “token hunger strike” with 16 other members of the organisation. They were demanding that the Supreme Court form a constitutional bench to hear four of their petitions pending at the court for 3.5 years.
The surprise expressed by the Jamiat leader about Rehman’s identity is what makes Assam’s citizenship issue a layered, complex phenomenon that can’t be seen merely as a Hindu-Muslim fault line, though the temptation to do so is often noticed across the board. That Assam has a BJP government adds to this. However, this assumption is not only faulty but runs the danger of polarising votes so that a few leaders can win the subsequent elections (read 2019) on communal lines, besides adding strength to the ultra-chauvinism spotted in a section of Assamese leaders.
Since the issue goes beyond independent India, attracting many facets over the decades, it is not easy to deal with it within the restrictions of just one write-up here. Perhaps the best way, therefore, is to look at how a section of the media, in Assam and New Delhi, is treating it in the wake of the NRC update and the Citizenship Bill – victim versus perpetrator.
From my experience of covering the Northeast, I would call it a faulty gaze. The first ground rule for anyone looking at the region filled with multiple communities with complex and well-guarded histories is to recognise the primary fact that almost all groups residing in that expanse have been both victim and perpetrator at different points in history. At least, any given community would view some other as such, and base their ideas of ‘them’ and ‘us’ on that. By recognising this, and not playing judge, the media, both regional and national, can bring the important issues of the region to attention without bias.
In other words, between the black and white, there is also grey, and recognising that grey is often key in the northeast. That has been missing at times from reportage on the present issues around the Citizenship Bill and NRC update, both in the regional and mainstream media. However, one must acknowledge here that increased reporting in mainstream media about the arbitrary methods of the Assam Border Police to round up suspected foreigners, with many of them ending up in the six detention centres being run in Assam (set up during the Congress regime), have pushed the state government, the AASU and a section of state-based media to recognise that there could be a problem there.
Who are we talking about?
Coming back to the victim-perpetrator analogy – it is true for all three major groups associated with the ‘Bangladeshi’ issue in Assam. These are the Assamese speakers (including the Assamese Muslims, as they identify themselves more ethnically), the Bengali-speaking Hindus and the Bengali-speaking Muslims.
Let’s first hold up the Bengali-speaking Hindus, most of whom have their origins in the Sylhet district of colonial Assam, now in Bangladesh. Most parts of Assam came into the hands of the British in 1826, not from the Ahoms but from the Burmese. The Ahoms had sought the help of British firepower to chase away the Maan (Burmese in Assamese). The British rulers looked at this as an opportunity to venture into a region which even the mighty Mughals couldn’t hold on to, thereafter defeated the Burmese and pocketed Assam by making it an extension of the Bengal Province.
Even as the people were coming to terms with a new invader to deal with, the British not only brought Bengali Hindus in to various government posts, but also introduced Bengali as the official language on the people of Assam (from 1837 to 1873). This forced the Assamese and the other indigenous populations to use a language not their own, if they wanted some sort of education, government jobs or any transaction with the rulers.
What added to this was the gradual attempt by influential Bengali intellectuals to treat the Assamese language as an offshoot of Bengali. This, even though Assamese has an old written history. This dismissive attitude triggered a group of Kolkata-educated Assamese intellectuals and writers, including Assam’s greatest writer Laskhminath Bezbaruah, to take up writing only in Assamese. Suspicion grew as Bengali or its script had been imposed on many indigenous people of the region over a long span of time, including in Manipur. This linguistic assertion of the Assamese writers became the fount of Assamese jatiotabad.
When Bengal was divided in 1905 and Assam was brought under East Bengal, the fear of losing their culture and language to the Bengalis went deeper. In 1911, even though Bengal was reunited, Assam was kept attached to the Bengali-majority Sylhet district for economic reasons. While the Assamese wanted to get rid of Sylhet due to anxieties over language, the Sylhetis too wanted it because they felt truncated from greater Bengal, with which they had strong cultural and linguistic affinities. If Assamese sub-nationalism has been hinged on language and culture, so has Bengali sub-nationalism.
In the run-up to Partition, Assam’s Congress leader Gopinath Bordoloi played a stellar role in saving Assam from the Muslim League’s eight-province plan for Pakistan by opposing the grouping system. However, fearing that they would lose their homeland, the Sylheti Hindus wanted to stick to Assam then.
Finally, when most parts of Sylhet separated from Assam following a controversial referendum, many Hindu Bengalis had to bear immense personal loss and settle down in Assam and its then capital Shillong. Their anger and frustration at losing their homeland manifested in many ways, but it was primarily directed at the Assamese Congress leaders as they felt they didn’t join the grouping system ‘deliberately’ to keep the Bengalis away. It is also the reason why many Bengali Hindus supported the Khasis when they revolted against the Assamese, leading to formation of Meghalaya as a separate state in 1972.
So, while the Bengali Hindus looked at themselves post Partition as victims and the Assamese as the perpetrators, the Assamese continued to look at them as perpetrators and themselves as victims, as their anxiety about Bengali linguistic and cultural hegemony didn’t quite go away with the physical separation of Sylhet. The victim and perpetrator outlook firmed up further with the Bengali Hindus’ stiff opposition to the attempt by Assamese leaders to establish their language across the state, ultimately leading to Bengali being the official language of Barak Valley.
What really happened
Away from the popular trope on these issues, played out by both communities, there are certain truths that need to be recognised by those on either side.
In the seminal book Remembering Sylhet on memories of life in Sylhet by Bengali Hindus and Muslims residing in present-day Assam, author Anindita Dasgupta explains in Bordoloi’s own words that the decision to go for a referendum was agreed upon by the then home minister of Assam, Basanta Kumar Das, also a Bengali Hindu, and that the working committee of the Congress endorsed it. He was quoted asking Gandhi categorically when the latter questioned him on why he agreed to it, “How can I fight the Working Committee?”
Yet another issue that created suspicion between the two communities immediately after Partition was the Bordoloi government’s inability to accommodate all Bengali Hindu officers from Sylhet in newly-formed Assam. Many remained jobless for months together and some even went to the court; the Bengali leaders of West Bengal put immense pressure on the Nehru government to ask Assam to hire only the retrenched Bengali employees. However, a reading of Nirode K. Barooah’s Gopinath Bordoloi, ‘The Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre explains the issue lucidly, pointing out that the Centre decided to give the government employees of Sylhet the option of moving to Assam by transferring their jobs without consulting Bordoloi; and didn’t take into account that there were more officers than vacant posts, and that few Muslim officers opted for it as they didn’t leave for East Pakistan. Then, there was also the issue of giving jobs to educated Assamese in the newly created state.
Some amount of the community’s anger was also directed at Das, who preferred to stay back in East Pakistan and became its finance minister. But Dasgupta pointed out another poignant truth by quoting from the book Pak-Bharoter Ruprekha by Prabhash Chandra Lahiri, who knew Das personally. Lahiri wrote, that Das “paid the ultimate price. A man, who possessed more than 50 bighas of land in Sylhet, could not breathe his last in his home of ancestors. During the regime of Ayub Khan, he had to flee to Calcutta where he passed away in his son-in-law’s rented house.”
Dasgupta also pointed out that during her interviews of Bengali Hindus who fled Sylhet, she was “repeatedly informed that the only politician from the Brahmaputra Valley to personally visit Sylhet and actively canvass for the retention of the area within India was the popular Assamese politician Rohini Kumar Chowdhury.”
“Many Sylheti Hindus I interviewed spoke of his ‘liberal attitude’ in glowing terms,” she wrote. In the din of victim versus perpetrator voices, these truths get drowned, which could otherwise have a healing effect.
Her book holds up another truth: though the Sylheti Hindus suffered a lot during Partition, their story never became part of the pan-India Partition narrative. Importantly, it also didn’t get any popular notice from the wider Assamese society.
The time is ripe for both communities to snatch the opportunity thrown up by the NRC and the Citizenship Bill issues to realise the dangers of holding on to their side of the ‘truth’, and instead engage with each other at a humane level. While the Assamese and other indigenous communities should recognise the loss of Assam’s Bengali Hindu residents of Sylheti origin with whom they had a shared colonial history of 73 years (they were part of greater Assam), the Bengalis too need to agree that the concerns of the Assamese-speaking and other smaller indigenous communities of the state about their fear of losing political and linguistic relevance and the right over land in their homeland due to the possible influx from Bangladesh through the Bill has some legitimacy.
The oft-cited example of the loss of political and linguistic importance of the indigenous people of Tripura due to the heavy rush of refugees to the state post Partition, after all, has a grain of truth. The Tripura story highlights that in Indian electoral politics, numbers matter. So worries of these numerically smaller indigenous communities are natural and have to be recognised. In Assam, the Assamese may be the ruling class, but they never had any control over the state’s economic resources since the colonial period, and that is primarily the reason behind the general fear of the ‘other’. This needs to be understood.
Instead of sticking to their guns and insisting they are right in how they view each other, the two communities need to create a space for a third voice to emerge, so that they can have a mutually respectful relationship instead of feeling the need to respond strongly to the divisive politics played out by vested interests to firm up the battle lines, as is unfolding now.
Also, it is time the Assamese recognise that subsequent state governments led by the community have ignored the development of the Barak Valley and ask the fair question: Why?
The victim/perpetrator outlook is true for the Bengali-speaking Muslims too. Since the first bout of migration of the Bengali Muslims to the state took place under British India in the early 1900s, the Assamese-speaking and other indigenous communities, largely dependent on agriculture and related activities, continued to look at the Bengali Muslims as perpetrators, out to grab their resources and land, even the protected ones, and demographically and linguistically overpower them with the patronage of the rulers. They began to see the community from the religious angle due to the Muslim League’s mobilisation to make Assam a part of its Muslim homeland. In this context too, the Assamese looked at themselves as victims, against whom a conspiracy was hatched to politically and linguistically decimate them. With both Nehru and Patel not offering any support to the state’s Assamese leaders in opposing the grouping system, the first seeds of suspicion towards New Delhi sprouted in many minds.
However, the Bengali-speaking Muslims also see themselves as victims in post Partition India. Though the Muslim League had huge support in the community, few crossed over to East Pakistan. Some prominent leaders of the ML in fact joined the Congress thereafter. S. Sadulla, an Assamese Muslim, widely seen as the main driver of ML’s Pakistan agenda in the state, too stayed back, though a few Assamese families did move to the newly created East Pakistan. Interestingly, many Bengali Muslims residing in present-day Karimganj and Cachar areas of Assam did vote to become part of East Pakistan in the Sylhet referendum (these districts were part of Sylhet then), but had to remain with India when a thin slice of Sylhet was attached to Assam finally. So this lot of Bengali Muslims joined India with land, and no way fit the general feeling among some Assamese that all Bengali Muslims ‘grabbed’ the land of the khilonjia.
In post-Partition Assam, the battle lines between the Assamese and the Bengali Muslims firmed up during the Assam agitation against ‘foreigners’, as most of those whom the majority community looked at as ‘outsiders’ happened to be Bengali Muslims. While the frenzy against ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ grew after the then Election Commission expressed apprehension over the presence of ‘foreigners’ in the state’s electoral rolls, many in the Bengali Muslim community, manoeuvred by ambitious leaders with electoral interests, began to see the agitation only from the prism of the majority community directing its ire at them. They sought protection from the ruling Congress, whom it traditionally supported, little recognising the danger of completely doing so, as politicians have been taking advantage of the open border to bring in bogus voters for their electoral advantage, which is a well-documented fact. This only firmed up the old suspicions of the majority community towards it.
In the process of looking at themselves only as victims, the leaders of the Bengali Muslim community, though, didn’t differentiate much between Indian citizens and genuine foreigners. Many undocumented immigrants did trickle in to Assam over the years through the open border, forged documents with the patronage of politicians and corrupt officials, and found some amount of legal legitimacy. Even today, many community leaders dither to admit that undocumented migration from Bangladesh takes place, even though those who have studied this migration closely from both the sides of the international boundary agree to it. This dithering is perhaps because of the absurd numbers that many Assamese sub-nationalist leaders (even Central governments) tend to quote without any data. However, Sanjoy Hazarika’s Rights of Passage is an important book in this regard to understand the migration, the first such attempt to look at the issue closely from both sides of the border.
Seasonal migration from across the border is still looked at by some people in Bangladesh as an option. Only two months ago, I came across a rickshaw puller on Shaheed Syed Nazrul Islam Sarani in Dhaka who, on knowing that I am from Assam, asked why it is becoming difficult for people of his village to enter my state. Simple and unlettered that he is, he failed to fathom why people like him should be stopped at the border when they intend to return after earning some money from tending the fields on the Indian side.
“I am told by some people in my village that from now on if I go, I will not be able to return, as Assamese people have begun to do black magic on Bangladeshis. Is it true?” he asked.
The border is new but that route of human migration is old. No amount of brickwork will be able to completely ‘seal the border’. This needs to be recognised by both countries and a legal mechanism be worked out to handle the flow, and therein lies the final solution to the Assam problem.
Going back to 1985, when the Accord was signed, the Bengali Muslim community politically mobilised itself to move away from the Congress. Led by Assam Jamiat chief Badaruddin Ajmal, the United Democratic Front was born, first as a platform for all Bengali speakers, before metamorphosing into All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) after the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in 2005 and becoming a party that primarily looks at the interests of Bengali Muslims. This political assertion led by a religious leader created a huge schism between the majority community and the Bengali Muslims. AIUDF’s political effect on the Assamese community could be seen even in the 2016 assembly polls, when Ajmal claimed himself to be the possible ‘king-maker’ post elections.
This oft-found tendency of Bengali Muslims of Assam to look at themselves as victims is also largely due to a section of Assamese ultra-chauvinists treating even legitimate Indian Muslim citizens of East Bengali origin as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, just going by their language and outfit. They also don’t give due recognition to the fact that many Bengali Muslims did try to assimilate into the greater Assamese society by adopting the language and becoming what the celebrated Assamese writer-filmmaker Jyoti Prasad Agarwala had coined for them – Na Axomiya (new Assamese). This is true of many Bengali Hindus of Brahmaputra Valley too who identify themselves, Dasgupta pointed out in her book, as Assamese Bengalis. It is time now for the Assamese community to go back to what Bhupen Hazarika went away saying, “Luitor parore matik matri bula proti Bharatiya hol notun rupor Axomiya… (Every Indian who calls the land by the Brahmaputra as mother is the new Assamese)”.
The NRC: A tool of harassment?
Since the ongoing NRC update has sprung out of the Accord, most Bengali Muslims and Hindus tend to treat it only as a tool for the majority community to harass and disenfranchise them, while the common Assamese look at it as their last chance to have an error-free electoral roll, the reason why the agitation began in 1979, claimed 855 young lives and triggered a bloody bout of insurgency. The Central government needs to answer why it didn’t honour the Accord’s main clause – the detection of foreigners – in the 1980s. Implementing it 33 years later by seeking 48-year-old papers from applicants which involve a lot of poor, illiterate people, many of whom were affected by floods and therefore may have lost many crucial papers, comes with its own challenges, and often at the cost of the most disadvantaged.
One needs to also point out here that the process of the NRC update may have faults and everyone has a right to question it, particularly the Bengali and Hindi speaking communities. Because while the khilonjia can finally depend on his/her surname to enter themselves into the register, such an option is not readily available to the Bengali Hindus and Muslims, even though they may have entered Assam before the creation of Bangladesh. The saving grace for the NRC process is that it is being monitored by the Supreme Court. The court has to be extremely vigilant in this regard and be seen delivering justice to all.
The question to be asked at this point is also this: why is the Border Police still rounding up suspected foreigners before the NRC is out with its final draft? How are two parallel procedures going with respect to the same set of people? It is pertinent to pose this question as the Gauhati high court has upheld the decision of the NRC coordinator to keep out the families of those declared foreigners by the tribunals. The SC too has agreed to keep out the families of those marked ‘D’ by the tribunals. Caution in not allowing foreigners to enter the register is necessary, but the Border Police acting independently of the NRC on the same set of people can create doubts about the objectivity of the process.
Some in the majority community are already recognising the arbitrariness of the Border Police in marking people randomly, mostly from a poor background, and thereby pumping up the number of cases in the tribunals. But it is also time conscious citizens among the Assamese raise their voices against the detention centres. The centres were created on the premise that those identified as D voters tend to go missing. It could be a valid ground, but there can certainly be a humane way of dealing with the issue. Citizen or non-citizen, everyone has certain inherent rights and a democracy must respect them. Importantly, the Assamese as a community will have to step out of their victim perspective on this issue particularly and be seen standing with humanity, otherwise history will judge them harshly. Demanding rights can’t be at the cost of curtailing another’s rights.
Further anxiety among the Bengali Muslims with regard to the NRC issue stems from the fact that there is a BJP government in place. The final draft NRC is to be published by July 30 and worries are rising. Some, having not found their names in the first draft list, have even committed suicide.
Looking at the increased attacks on Muslims across the country over the last few years, it is understandable if the community only looks at the many issues related to NRC anomalies more from the persecution angle and less as a bureaucratic bungling. However, the Bengali Muslims of Assam will have to somewhere draw the line when it comes to the question of who should represent them. If it is a religious body or bodies, or someone associated with these, which is oft seen to be the case, it will only add salt to the old wounds of the majority community, and give a ready field to the opposing religious forces to step in. The community will have to create a space for rights-based politics instead.
Recently, many from the majority community have mooted the need for “constitutional safeguards” to protect their political, economic and social rights, as promised in the Accord. The time is now to give it an honest look, explore possibilities, to allay traditional fears of the ‘other’ in the majority community and arrive at a consensus with all the stakeholders. Else, the victim-perpetrator narrative triggered by the old suspicions of each community that creates the ‘other’ will see yet another chapter in Assam.
It is also time for the rest of India – intellectuals, media, government – to recognise that Assam’s is basically a migration issue. Looking at it as a Hindu-Muslim or one community versus another issue will only lead to them missing the plot. The religious overtone is an important offshoot of the Assam issue, but it is not primary to the basic issue. If it was, the majority community would have embraced the Citizenship Bill by now, which the BJP-RSS tried to get them to do without results. And there would have been more Nellie-like massacres in the Brahmaputra Valley. The killings of Bengali Muslims in the Bodo areas in recent years can’t fit typically into the mainstream India narrative of Hindu-Muslim riots. Else, the Adivasis would have been spared.
The need of the hour is an official migration policy recognising the colonial relations with today’s Bangladesh as well as the land and other rights of the multiple smaller communities of the northeast that live in the constant fear of the ‘outsider’. Without this, suspicion of the ‘other’ often ending in mindless violence will endure.
In dealing with the old anxieties, refreshed by the NRC and the Bill, what one needs badly from all stakeholders is a little widening of the heart to accept the ‘other’. For Sankar-Azan and Hemango-Hazarika may have long gone, but Assam and its people of diverse ethnicities can’t afford to make them irrelevant. If someone has to be made irrelevant at this point, they are certainly those narrow-minded religious groups, Hindu or Muslim, particularly streaming in from mainstream India, looking at setting up shop in the state by taking advantage of the traditional fears to push their communal agenda with the help of some ambitious politicians and community leaders.