Who is an Assamese?

sanjoy hazarika | Updated on January 24, 2018

Up in arms: Thousands from the Bodo community rally for a separate Bodoland state, August 2013; perhaps it is time that the Bodos be described as residents of Assam state. -- Ritu Raj Konwar   -  The Hindu;BUSINESS LINE

Members of the All Assam StudentUnion (AASU) have played a rolein defining who is an Assamese. - Ritu Raj Konwar   -  The Hindu;THE HINDU

The state is home to numerous ethnic groups - Ritu Raj Konwar   -  The Hindu;THE HINDU

With Assam home to more than 30 ethnic groups, easy classifications prove elusive. We need to guard against a definition that uses religion or language as a discriminatory tool

For decades, not weeks as the recent discourse in Assam would have us believe, the people of Assam, especially its scholars and litterateurs, politicians and bureaucrats, media and activists, have been debating — and at times taking to the streets, even coming to blows or worse — over what constitutes an ‘Assamese’. Clause Six of the 1985 Assam Accord, which sought to bring closure to the bloody yet remarkable struggle led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to define outsiders (in this case Bangladeshis), left a fundamental issue unresolved: who or what is an Assamese? It sought constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the Assamese, without defining them further.

It may appear strange to many Indians that such an issue continues to generate heat and anger, division and confrontation, even bloodshed, in a state so distant from Delhi. In addition to all the challenges it faces of underdevelopment, natural disasters, especially flooding, conflict — remember the horrendous killings and displacements of 1983 and 2012 involving different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups — remains the worst. And why is it that the issue has remained unresolved for 30 years? The closest comparison which comes to mind is that of Maharashtra, where, thanks to the Shiv Sena, the issue of Marathi manoos keeps coming up, with the targeted population now being those from ‘Northern India’ rather than the ‘South Indians’ who were singled out earlier.

Part of the reason lies in Assam’s extreme diversity. This reflects the larger region to which it belongs, not just politically but also geographically. Here getting a consensus on any issue is difficult because the communities have long been opposed to or suspicious of each other. Assam lies in the lap of the eastern Himalayan rim and is bisected by the vast Brahmaputra. It is landlocked between Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, the Patkai range of Nagaland, the blue hills of Mizoram, the Shillong plateau and the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo hills. This region is home to over 220 separate ethnic groups and more than 30 of them are in Assam, which has over 70 per cent of the region’s population. This diversity is not helped by the fact that although the religious break-up is clear — about 64 per cent Hindu and 34.2 per cent Muslim — the fact is that the former comprises many different groups and tribes, which do not speak in one voice or see eye-to-eye on most matters. Assam is a classic case of numerous major minorities of ethnic and linguistic groups, which have become increasingly fragmented with time, leading to outbreaks of anger and violence where larger groups in the valley have preyed upon more vulnerable ones.

The Bodos, the largest plains tribe with a Territorial Council of its own, have furiously opposed the idea proposed by the Assam Sahitya Sabha that Assamese are those who, “irrespective of community, language, religion and place of origin, accept Assamese as their mother tongue or their second or third language”. A spokesman for the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, a literary organisation (which accepts Devanagari and not Assamese as the script, an outcome of prolonged struggle against the Assam Sabha and Assam’s political leadership) attacked the Assam group’s definition saying that the state would now have to provide safeguards to foreigners who were willing to accept Assamese as their first, second or third language.

Many ethnic groups in the state do not wish to be called Assamese as they believe that they have suffered second-class treatment at the hands of the ‘Assamese’ elite.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides several definitions of what constitutes ‘Assam’ and ‘Assamese’: the first reference is to “a black tea grown in northeastern India” and another to Assam, India (First Known Use: 1842); a third is that it is a state in NE India on the edge of the Himalayas, while an Assamese is defined as a native or inhabitant of Assam, India and as the Indo-Aryan language of Assam. From my perspective, it is important to stress the following: while discounting the use of tea, the dictionary’s first definition of Assamese is not language but geography and location.

In her classic work The Assamese, Audrey Cantlie, who taught social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and whose father served in Assam for 40 years, describes the Assamese thus: “The term ‘Assamese’ is sometimes used to those who are citizens of Assam: in this sense it includes tea garden labour and Mymensinghi settlers. More generally, however, it is used to denote the indigenous or long-settled inhabitants who are recognised as Assamese, not only in language, but also in culture and way of life… To the Assamese the distinctive features of their culture are inseparably connected with their religious institutions.”

The latter are the satras or monasteries of reformist Vaishnavism that the saint-scholar and cultural pioneer Srimanta Sankaradeva developed in the 15th century. Today, there is no politically acceptable definition of the ‘Assamese’. A statement by an umbrella group of organisations led by AASU declared that “those whose names, irrespective of caste, community or religion, were included in National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951 were Assamese and eligible to enjoy safeguards as promised by Clause Six of the Assam Accord”. But this in turn raises more questions than it answers: what about those who moved out of Assam pre-independence or post-independence, post-1951 to other parts of India and the Northeast? What about those who were residents of Meghalaya when it was carved out of Assam in 1972? What about the migrants who moved into Assam post-1951? We cannot be blind to the constitutional provision that gives every Indian the right to move and settle in other parts of the country (except, obviously, in defined areas where such settlements are controlled by law as in Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, etc).

What we need to guard against is a definition that uses religion or language as a discriminatory tool, especially against those of Bangla origin (remember the Dimapur mob killing of a Muslim from Assam’s Karimganj district who was accused of rape, whose siblings were serving in the Indian army, and who was alleged to be a ‘Bangladeshi’?). The struggle to define ourselves will continue but we cannot lose sight of the fact that time, daily incomes, livelihoods and lives of ordinary people are lost, and growth hampered, if the debate continues without resolution.

Perhaps one way of tackling this sensitive issue is to ensure that geographical location forms part of the definition: thus, the Bodos could also be described as members of the Bodo tribe resident in Assam state. Both definitions would be accurate.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is Director, Centre for North East Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi)

Published on May 29, 2015

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