Even after many rounds of debate and discussion, we have failed to arrive at a unanimously acceptable definition of ‘Assamese’. Who is an ‘Assamese’, if one is a Rabha; another, a Bodo; yet another, a Karbi; so on and so forth? A collective identity is hard to conjure up if there are several fissiparous sub-identities. Sub-identities do not make a cohesive community. Sub-identities have underpinned the politics of the state for decades, which partly explains why it is onerous to arrive at an unanimously acceptable definition of ‘Assamese’.
Assam has been truncated many times in the past. Not too long ago, the Khasis, Pnars and Garos broke away from Assam because the imposition of Assamese as the state language was unacceptable to them. Major ethnic groups like the Bodos are gradually showing their disinclination in using Assamese as a medium of instruction or communication. The day may not be too far for the Bodos to attain statehood. When that happens, there will be an explosion of many more voices demanding separate states. The two districts that were carved out of Assam to create Meghalaya enjoyed relative autonomy within the state of Assam. Today, there are a number of autonomous areas in Assam and some groups dwelling in these areas are becoming highly vocal in their demands for separate states. If there is a movement for a separate state in the Barak valley, and along with the valley, other autonomous areas become separate states with the passage of time, then what would remain of the ‘Oxomiyajati’ is not hard to fathom.
Let us come to the Assam Accord. Why is it that, for the rest of the country, 1951 is the cut-off year for detection and expulsion of foreigners, but for Assam, it is 1971? It is said that the AASU-Gana Sangram Parishad (GSP) leaders signed the accord under duress. These leaders remain unaccountable to the people of Assam as to why they accepted 1971 as the base year. Acceptance of 1971 as the base year automatically turned the Bangladeshi migrants of two decades into citizens. Stalwarts of the Assam Movement who are political heavyweights today and who are opposing the Citizens’s Amendment Bill (CAB), had thrown Assam’s future into darkness by this single horrendous act. In a feckless attempt to airbrush Indira Gandhi’s fault in endangering the security of the people of Assam by proposing 1971 as the base year, the justification given was that she was under the compulsions of the Indira-Mujib pact. But there is a flip side to this narrative. In 1980, Indira Gandhi had offered the AASU-GSP leaders, January 1, 1967, as the cut-off year for detection and deportation of the illegal migrants. What subsequently happened needs to be brought to the fore. Though the former CM of Assam, Mr PK Mahanta, denies that such an offer was ever made by the former PM of India, Bharat Narah and Hiranya Bhattacharya vehemently contradicts him (Prafulla in a tight spot over migrants, HT, 28 Aug 2008).
There is a perception that the passage of the CAB will open the floodgates for a fresh wave of influx of Bangladeshi Hindus to India, and Assam will have to bear the brunt of the next wave of influx again. Paranoia has reached such dangerous proportions that even the voices of reason are no longer heard. Consider this: there are two types of migrants from Bangladesh to India—economic and political. The remarkable performance of Bangladesh’s economy under Sheikh Hasina indicates that the flow of economic migrants has almost stopped. The country’s GDP growth rate has gone up from roughly 5% in 2008 to 7.86% in 2017-18 with key sectors like agriculture, manufacturing and services generating the bulk of the jobs. Foreign exchange reserves increased five-fold and both savings and investments rose to over 30% of the GDP. Per capita income has risen nearly three-fold since 2009, reaching USD 1750 last year, and the number of people living in extreme poverty—classified as under USD 1.25 per day—has shrunk from 19% of the population to less than 9% over the same period. 2.5 million overseas workers fuel the economy with remittances which jumped 18% over the previous year to reach USD 15 billion in 2018.
Political migrants are generally those who are persecuted, most of whom belong to the minority Hindu community. During the BNP-Jamaat regime of 2001-06, attacks on minorities were rampant. After Hasina returned to power, minorities generally feel safe. Only a few cases of land grab have come to light. 18 members of the Hindu community have been recently elected to the Bangladesh National Assembly. Apart from the political voice that that the Hindus have in Bangladesh today, a number of law enforcement personnel and lawgivers are also from the Hindu community. The possibility of people fleeing persecution on a large scale and infiltrating into India appears remote. The Home Ministry has recommended that those seeking Indian citizenship must provide proof of persecution. Moreover, a three-tier smart fence is being erected along the Bangladesh border to check infiltration.
It is being contested that the CAB is not in keeping with the spirit of the Assam Accord, which states that all immigrants, irrespective of their religious persuasions, must be deported. There are Assamese, Khasis, Garos and other Northeastern communities living in Bangladesh even today. What would be the stance of the organisations opposed to the CAB, if members from the Northeastern communities, who are linguistic minorities in Bangladesh, are forced to flee to India? Would these outfits still take the hard line or a moderate one?
It is also for consideration, as stated by some, that if the eight lakh Bengali Hindus are excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), then 17 districts of Assam will fall into the hands of those who follow Jinnah’s ideology or those who are driven by the zeal to complete the ‘unfinished business of Partition’, i.e. merging Assam with Bangladesh. Let us consider this claim from a historical and a contemporary perspective. History illustrates that the Saadullah government wanted Assam to be incorporated into East Pakistan. Though Assam continued to be a part of the Indian Union, Sylhet district of the erstwhile Assam Province was transferred to East Pakistan. In the Muslim majority Kashmir valley, hardly a day passes by without the call for ‘azadi’. If 17 of Assam’s 33 districts are Muslim dominated, is there any guarantee that Assam will not witness a religion based separatist movement? In the debate over the CAB, the reality should not be lost – that a ‘jati’ without the ‘mati’ has no identity and the ‘mati’ with a ‘divided jati’ attracts predatory powers.
(Dr. Jyoti Prasad Das is a medical practitioner and freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.)