Identity and grievances

Published : Aug 12, 2005 00:00 IST

The ferment in Assam is the superficial manifestation of a discontent that is much deeper than what is seen outside as sentiments aroused by the question, "who is an Assamese?"

WHO is an Assamese? This is one of those silly and argument-stopping questions posed by those who ought to know better in any discussion or debate on the present situation, marked by intermittent outbursts of ferment and violence, in Assam.

This ferment is the superficial manifestation of a deeper discontent that has found expression at three different, but inter-related, levels. First, there is the general discontent about the lack of economic development and the unequal apportionment of national resources by the government in Delhi. This is a near-universal grievance cherished by all the States, many far more developed and much better off than Assam according to every indicator of economic and social progress. Elected governments and political parties operating nationally or within a State or region within the framework of the Constitution routinely articulate such discontent - and not merely in Assam.

Second, the same grievances are articulated in a broader historical and political context unique to Assam, relating this lack of development to a whole sequence of events and colonial initiatives beginning with the annexation of Assam by the British to Partition and Independence, and further relating these to the problems arising out of the movement of migrants from East Bengal (legal), East Pakistan and, since 1971, Bangladesh (illegal), into Assam in this historical, political and social context. These aspects of the past (and the present and the future) are also shared by other States in the region affected by migration and Partition and (illegal) migration. However the exceptionality of the ferment in Assam is related to the impediments these developments - beginning with war, defeat and annexation - have affected the evolution and consolidation of the Assamese as a people, particularly in the context of the similarities and distance between Assam and its far bigger and more resourceful neighbour, Bengal.

The principal, though not the only, influential voice articulating the grievances in these terms is that of the All Assam Students' Union (AASU). AASU came into its own when it launched the "anti-foreigner nationals" movement in 1979 and signed the Assam Accord (Memorandum of Settlement on the Problem of Foreigners in Assam) with the Union and State governments in August 1985. The Accord, which had a developmental content and promise, was also the midwife that assisted in the birth of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the first regional party in Assam, whose leadership was virtually identical to the leadership of the AASU, to capture political power and form the State's first regional party government. The implementation of this Accord, 20 years after it was signed, continues to be on the agenda of its three signatories.

Finally, these grievances have acquired an explicitly separatist expression articulated by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), also a child of the Assam movement that has outgrown its begetters. Taking the desire for greater autonomy implicit in the earlier nationalist assertions to its logical end, ULFA believes that all these problems are rooted in history and can only be resolved by the establishment of a Swadhin Asom (Sovereign Assam).

The argument-stopping question posed above is asked, and in the very way it is asked is also answered, in the context of the Assam Accord and, what was evident even when the Accord was signed, the built-in impediments in the way of its implementation. For Clause Six of the Accord has this to say:

Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.

Except for auxiliary and conjunctional words that too are not entirely neutral in their context, every word in this clause is fraught with ambiguities, thus meaning different things to different people. The phrase, "... as may be appropriate... " for instance, is not simple bureaucratese; it provides several strategies and tactics of retreat into inaction.

There are two aspects to this supposed disjunction, and the problems it has created in the matter of the implementation of the Assam Accord. One is obvious, and the other has grave implications for the very integrity and identity of the State and its people.

At the most obvious level evident to the simplest of minds, the question highlights, with little originality, the disjunction between the "Assamese", a nationality corresponding to any other Indian nationality whose identity has no ambiguities in the perspective of those who are themselves Assamese, and the people while not being Assamese in those terms have come to inhabit the land of Assam and may choose to remain what they are or over a period of time lay claim to be asombasi, those who live in Assam, as a first step in their eventual evolution to Assamese. Even though there is a general feeling in Assam that this phenomenon of an incremental evolution of a people who are not Assamese into Assamese is a unique sign of the openness of Assamese society and its ability to absorb other streams and make these its own, corresponding instances of such openness and mobility across language and other identities are to be found in every language and culture group. For it is only through such plasticity that a culture and a people absorb change remain alive.

That such obvious points need to be laboured is just another indication of the frivolousness of approach that marks debate over issues that are matters of life and death in Assam. Such disjunction is a feature of the demographic composition of every State of the Union, barring perhaps Kerala where 96.6 per cent of the population speak Malayalam and, presumably, also return themselves as Malayalis. Every State of the Union has a substantial population of minorities who inhabit the land, who indeed, unlike in Assam, have inhabited the land for much longer periods, but are not identifiable with the nationality-nomenclature derived from the name of the land they inhabit and the language spoken by the majority of the inhabitants.

Table 1, downloaded from the Union Home Ministry's website, Census online, which provides the 1991 Census data, illustrates the point.

If at all there is a disjunction, it is between the name of a language and the "mother tongue(s)", most of them cognates of the language cited and so grouped under the language, as has been brought out in two interesting Tables from the 1991 Census: Languages and Mother Tongues (Scheduled Languages) and their strength, and Languages and Mother Tongues (Non-Scheduled Languages) and their strength. As the Tables make clear, this disjunction, if it is that, is present not merely in respect of the 18 "Scheduled Languages" but also in respect of 63 of the 96 other languages not specified in the Eighth Schedule having a strength of 10,000 speakers and above. Interestingly, 25 of the 33 languages not specified in the Eighth Schedule where there is "one to one unity" between the name of the language and the mother tongues of the speaker listed under that language are spoken in the northeastern region.

Cited below in Table 2 are some telling figures from Table 1. While the Table identifies 13,079,696 persons as Assamese, those identified as speakers of Assamese as mother tongue are 12,962,721. Table 1 cites 12,958,088 Assamese speakers; the discrepancy in respect of 4,633 persons between the two figures is perhaps yet another indication of the ambiguities even in the matter of self-identification.

Perhaps the corresponding figures in respect of the four major languages of South India (with the number of speakers who returned the language under both categories), and a brief account of how Hindi fares in such categorisation may clarify the issue of the disjunction; and also point out that such questions can be asked about any of the languages and nationalities in the country.

The figures for Hindi are even more interesting. Of the 337,272,114 persons listed under Hindi, as many as 103,839,285 (nearly a third) declare 48 cognate languages as mother tongue. The same is the picture in respect of almost all the languages, including most of the languages not included in the Eighth Schedule.

In other words, ambiguity marks the language and larger social (or "ethnic") identity of the overwhelming majority of Indians who are multilingual, barring those living in very small and isolated pockets. As noted by the poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan, one constantly switches one's language identity in the public and the private sphere, the home and the world.

One can say the same thing in respect of one's "ethnic identity" too, to the extent that language is linked to "ethnicity". Who is an Assamese? Equally, who is a Tamil, who is a Bengali? Or, indeed, who is an Indian?

AND yet, the question is posed, not always in malice or out of ignorance or the wish to be clever. For the Assam Accord makes this identity central to the providing of "constitutional safeguards" to the people so identified and by definition not available to people not so identified.

If one were charitable, one would say that the Assam agitation leaders did not apply their minds seriously when they agreed, in fact insisted, upon this clause. However, even 20 years ago when the Accord was signed, indeed even earlier, the certain certainties about the Assamese identity had received some hard knocks. The days of a Mavis Dunn, a Khasi woman from Shillong who was then the provincial Minister, proudly proclaiming that she belonged to the "sisterhood of the same Assamese community of which Mrs [Narayani] Handiqui was an ornament and example" (speech delivered on the occasion of the unveiling of the portrait of the late Narayani Handiqui at the Narayani Handiqui Historical Institute, Guwahati, on February 7, 1940, Bulletin No. 4 of the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies, Government of Assam) are gone, never to return. The mass mobilisation during the Assam agitation superficially papered over these cracks and in the euphoria of a triumphalist and militant Assamese autonomist/nationalist assertion, further strengthened by the swift capture of political office and state power, these cracks were lost sight of.

However, the very moment of the triumph of such assertion as articulated by AASU and the formation of the first regional party government in the State headed by the AGP also marked the corresponding assertion, in some respects the re-assertion of such autonomist/nationalist tendencies long cherished, by communities that had always been viewed (at least in the Assamese nationalist imagination) as an integral part of the "greater Assamese society". The first was the agitation in the name of the Bodo people, constituting less than 5 per cent of the State's total population, for a separate Bodoland, mobilised by the All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU). Its calculatedly provocative slogan, "Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty", outmatched anything that earlier movements seeking separation from Assam had been able to articulate.

During its decade and a half of struggle which involved much violence, as well as the emergence of a separatist stream articulating the demand for an "independent and sovereign Bodoland" (paralleling the articulation of Swadhin Asom by ULFA), there was an accord on the creation of a Bodoland Autonomous Council (February 1993), substantially restructured later following more violent struggle, and the signing of another accord for the creation of a Bodoland Territorial Council (February 2003). Both the accords were clinched when the Congress party was in office in the State. Since then, even smaller groups, tribal and non-tribal, in opposition to real or perceived Assamese dominance have been relentlessly pressing for corresponding concessions.

Leaving aside the Hill Tribes inhabiting the two Hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar, which under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule already enjoy substantial autonomy (and are engaged in an agitation for greater autonomy, in the form of an "autonomous State within Assam" provided for under Article 244-A of the Constitution), there are nine (plains) tribal communities in Assam, the most numerous of whom are the Bodo (12,67,015). The remaining eight are listed below in the descending order of their numerical strength (according to 1991 Census figures):

Mising (4,67,790); Sonwal Kachari (2.51,725); Rabha (2,38,931); Lalung, now known as Tiwa (1,43,746); Deori (35,839); Barman of Cachar (13,348); Mech (6,738) and Hojai (4,582).

None of the representative organisations of these communities accepts these figures as accurate; all of them dismiss them as deliberate and politically calculated gross under-enumerations.

Three of these - the Mising, the Rabha, and the Tiwa - have autonomous councils which they want to be upgraded into territorial councils. Recently, the State government, with the forthcoming elections in mind, passed legislation providing for the creation of autonomous councils for the Sonwal Kachari and Deori communities as well. There is little doubt that these too will eventually join the demand for territorial councils though the creation of such a territorial council even in respect of the Bodos whose population is more than that of all other Plains Tribes taken together, has created more problems than ever, since the issue of demarcation of the BTC territory still remains unresolved.

Consider, for instance, the case of the Deori, a Plains tribe, who now have an autonomous council whose jurisdiction is supposed to be "Deori-dominated areas of the North Bank in Lakhimpur district". The 35,839 persons enumerated as Deori in the 1991 Census live in four districts of Upper Assam on both banks of the Brahmaputra, though it is convenient for the government to acknowledge a supposedly "predominant area" inhabited by the Deori. A territorial council for the Deoris, whose total population is less than that of any municipal ward of a small town, would be an unnecessary exercise.

There are other communities on the periphery of existing tribal communities or entirely outside that world who too have corresponding, sometimes contrary, demands, all hinging ultimately on that magic word, identity. For the demands are not always for greater autonomy; they are marked by far greater variety and complexity. For instance, communities such as the Koch Rajbongshi or the Sarania Kachari, both of whom have moved away from their historical tribal roots and are now recognised as Other Backward Classes (OBC), want their tribal status to be restored. Similar is the demand of the Adivasis. These descendants of tea-garden labourers, who migrated from central India where communities going by their ancestral identities continue to be recognised as Scheduled Tribes, have lost their S.T. status in Assam because of the location-specificity of such identities. Those now recognised as Plains Tribes want for themselves the concessions made in respect of the Bodos.

Virtually every identifiable community barring the caste Hindu Assamese and, to an extent, the Assamese Muslims, have similar identity-autonomy based demands for recognition as a S.T.; for "upgradation" of such recognition by seeking inclusion in the Sixth Schedule, for territorial autonomy. Identity is the name of the game; the trajectory is the one charted by the ABSU, which in turn closely modelled its agitational methods after those of the AASU.

Where will all this end, one may well ask, instead of asking who is an Assamese.

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