In a two-part series, ProfAPURBA K. BARUAHcontextualizes the major factors that led to the shameful violence that took place in Dholpur, Assam a fortnight back. In this part, he explains how the polarization between the two main ethno-linguistic communities in the state has increased since Himanta Biswa Sarma took over as the Chief Minister of Assam in May.
IT is an unfortunate fact that the six year-long massive Assam Movement demanding detection, deletion of names from voters’ list and deportation of illegal migrants created a major conflict between the Bengali-speaking Muslims, who came in large numbers from Bangladesh, and the indigenous population led by the Asomiya middle class, who were afraid of being outnumbered in their own land.
Assam Accord and its aftermath
At the peak of the movement in the early 1980s, the supporters demanded only that illegal immigrants be detected and deported, and their names deleted from electoral rolls. However, because of the fact that a large number of immigrants of the same ethnic group have been present in Assam since the early twentieth century, the masses of the state began to identify all Bengali speaking Muslims of Assam as foreigners.
However, once the Assam Accord of 1985 was signed, and the leaders of the agitation and Government of India agreed to accept all such immigrants who came before March 1971, a large section of democratic civil society activists, intellectuals and political leaders worked tirelessly to create an atmosphere of tolerance. Nevertheless, a particular aggressive section of Asomiya continued to view all Bengali speaking Muslims as threats to the identity of the indigenous population.
History of the tenuous relationships between Asomiya and Bengali communities
In the struggle for linguistic hegemony in the state of Assam, the two major contenders are the Asomiya andBengali communities led by their respective middle classes. This conflict, which started in the mid-nineteenth century, polarises the speakers of the two languages, irrespective of their religion. If the politics of linguistic or other ethnic identities takes a prominent place in democratic mobilisation, the Hindu card becomes ineffective.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that gave citizenship to Hindu immigrants threatened the Asomiya and other indigenous communities with losing their pre-eminent positions in the areas inhabited by them. There was a fear among the indigenous population of being swamped by immigrant Bengali speaking Hindus. This was one reason why the movement against the CAA received such volatile and spontaneous support. It was thus necessary for Hindutva politics to project the Bengali-speaking Muslims or the Miya as the enemy of all indigenous communities.
The modern Asomiya language that is the lingua franca and gives an identity to the indigenous communities, took shape under the six hundred year rule of the Ahom kings. Interestingly, a small group of Tai (as the Ahom was originally called) came from beyond the Patkai range in the east during the thirteenth century and subjugated the innumerable small tribal principalities of what is now called upper Assam. The group intermarried with the local tribes and, while consolidating their rule, itself got assimilated. This process of assimilation and integration together gave birth to a new linguistic community and a new lingua franca, the Asomiya, often referred to in English as ‘Assamese’.
However, all those who live in Assam today cannot be called Assamese. This is because almost all the indigenous communities which, from the Ahom era till the late 1950s accepted the identity of the Assamese language as their lingua franca,and in many cases as their language of instruction and public discourse, began to assert their own ethnic identity, and in some cases, even a distinct nationality, accompanied by a demand for respective homelands in the areas believed by them to be traditionally inhabited by them. This phenomena is connected to the emergence of educated elites in the respective communities.
The process was in fact set in motion in the nineteenth century by the then newly emerging western educated Assamese speaking elite. This elite initially began the politics of association and petition, and then gradually moved to politics of democratic mobilization.
The Asomiya began to assert itself as a linguistic community through formation of the literary societies like the Assam Students Literary Society formed by the Asomiya students studying in Calcutta (there was no scope of higher education in Assam then) and later in Assam by the Assam Sahitya Sabha (later in Assam) in 1917. The former eventually led to the formation of All Assam Students Association which was actually converted to All Assam Students Union (AASU) in 1967 in Jorhat.
AASU led the six year-long anti-foreigner Assam Movement. Though the environment created by the Assam Movement made the Miya come to be perceived as a threat and there were violent clashes, yet, the Assam Accord of 1985 brought an end to the agitation, creating conditions for return of harmony.
After the Assam Accord, the majority of the population of the state accepted that all those who came from across the border before March 1971 will be treated as Indian citizens, and thus they cannot be called ‘illegal’. It is a fact that most of the people that Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma calls illegal were included in the National Register of Citizens, and there is no way they can be called illegal citizens.
As there cannot be any legal encroachers when Sarma calls them illegal encroachers, he actually implies that they are illegal immigrants. Sarma and his party is trying to pitch the indigenous youth against these hapless Indian citizens by portraying them as non-indigenous and therefore illegal. They forget that it is these people who reclaimed these uncultivable riverine areas, and converted them to profitable agricultural assets. They have been living there for decades, and have built their homes by cultivating the land for livelihood. To take away the source of livelihood and the roof over their head is violative of their fundamental right to life.
Many members of the Miya community who initially came under British patronage to “grow more food” converted the virtually un-inhabited Char (riverine) areas of Brahmaputra to agricultural hubs. They began by producing jute, but these have now become the main source of vegetables for major markets in Assam. In fact, in many lower Assam villages today agricultural activity without the Miya is unthinkable.
According to the state government, the project for which the land is being cleared in Darrang, which caused the eviction that led to the ugly scenes witnessed last month, is expected to promote agriculture. Sarma’s BJP government is shouting from the roof top that it wants the area cleared of “illegal encroachers” to implement a multi-purpose agricultural project in an area of 4500 bighas.
One wonders why cultivators need to be ousted to implement an agricultural project? The focus of the publicity campaign around the project is around involving indigenous youth. This public position of involving indigenous youth in a project to be carried out in an area populated by Bengali speaking Muslim peasants and agricultural labourers adds fuel to the fire of communal hatred created by BJP’s electoral agenda set by Sarma himself.
During the last assembly elections in Assam, Sarma targeted the Bengali speaking Muslim population of lower Assam. He repeatedly called them Mughal who, according to the popular narrative of the pre-British Assam, attacked the Ahom kingdom 17 times but failed to conquer it. His speeches carefully reconstruct the Ahom kingdom’s fight against its attackers from the Indian empire, often led by Hindu generals, like Ram Singh, serving the Mughal rulers, as a fight of Hindus against the Muslim invaders.
He never mentioned the fact that when the legendry Ahom general Lachit Barphukan fought the famous battle of Saraighat to ward off the “Bongal” – anyone coming from beyond the boundary of Ahom Assam – his trusted lieutenant was Ismail Siddique, popularly known as Bagh Hazarika, an Asomiya Muslim. The people of the Ahom kingdom has not been afraid of any religious invader. It fought all invaders irrespective of their religions.
Not that Mr. Sarma does not know it. After all, he is a PhD holder in Political science from Gauhati University. Even Bhupen Hazarika’s songs talk of Bagh Bahadur. But what Sarma needed in the charged atmosphere created by the anti-CAA protest, which united all the indigenous communities against the BJP, was to mobilise the indigenous Hindu, or rather non-Muslim voters of Assam of all communities, against the Bengali Muslim immigrants who have been supporting the Indian National Congress, of whose former state governments he was a powerful minister for decades before he jumped ship to BJP.
It is also necessary to note that the bulk of the construction work in big cities like Guwahati and road building through the state is done by both male and female labourers of this community. The community has adopted Asomiya as medium of instruction, and a number of important Asomiya litterateurs have emerged among them.
Many Asomiya nationalists have been arguing that had it not been for returning “Asomiya” as their mother tongue by a large majority of the Miyas, Asomiya would be reduce to a language of a minority community in Assam, and it will lose the status of the official language of the state.
Sarma wants to destroy the secular linguistic community called Asomiya, a community which has the potential of challenging the religious communalism of Hindutva, because this community has the history of fighting the aggressive centralising agenda of the Indian State and can thus strengthen the federal democratic politics that recognises the multi-cultural diversity of India. Sarma, who during his hey days in Congress had shouted, that “in Gujarat water does not flow in the water lines, it is the blood of Muslims that flows there in those lines” can now save his political career in BJP only by spewing venom in his words.
Sarma, like his colleagues in the Hindutva mainland, has spread so much hatred, that the ordinary policemen in Assam have come to view the miya as the main enemy of the indigenous population. More importantly. he believes that it is legitimate to attack them violently. Even the civil administration has become highly anti-Muslim. Nothing else can explain the stomping of the body, fallen to a police bullet, by the photographer who accompanied the police party.
It will be grave mistake to focus on the climate of hate only and to turn a blind eye to the rapacious section of the Asomiyas and other indigenous communities. The Asomiya middle class and the emerging middle classes of the various indigenous communities of Assam have been able to exercise hegemony in their respective communities primarily because in these communities, other social forces like big regional bourgeoisie or organised working classes are very weak or, in certain cases, non-existent. These middle classes are cronies of the Indian ruling classes, but democratic politics forces them to mouth slogans of “regionalism” or ethno-nationalism.
In a relatively backward economy they are constantly in search of easy access to resources. The riverine barren lands converted to fertile agricultural assets by the hard labour of the hapless Miya make them salivate.
These rapacious cohorts of the communal and corrupt Hindutva agents in Assam are therefore going whole hog with their hateful campaigns and atrocious eviction of people who have been cultivating the chars for generations.
The most prominent among these cohorts is a former Asom Gan Parishad leader who used to swear in the name of Asomiya nationalism and who has now found greener pastures in the BJP. This legislator has been disgruntled because he was not accommodated in the Ministry.
Sarma has now given him a cabinet rank, and put him in charge of the “agricultural project”. He has the best credentials because he was recently seen chasing away Miyas in another area wielding a revolver in hand. With the help of such cohorts, the hate politics against this section of the Indian citizens are being carried out to dispossess them of their hard earned homestead and agricultural fields to placate a section of the indigenous youth.
Here is a rogue state under a rogue leader. The rogue leader gets away only because the opposition has been inept and short sighted. It will take a major effort by the saner section of the civil society to save Assam from falling into a quagmire of violent communal politics.
(Prof Apurba K. Baruah is a retired professor of North Eastern Hill University, and a social activist based in Guwahati. The views expressed are personal.)