Identity Politics and We the Assamese

Partha Pratim Hazarika

The unprecedented rise of voters in the Mangaldai constituency, detected during the by-election held owing to the death of Lok Sabha Member, Hiralal Patowary in 1979, was a defining moment as far as the State of Assam is concerned. In fact, no one ever thought that the unusual rise in the number voters in the Mangaldai constituency would be a nagging, unending phenomenon with far-reaching social, political, cultural, economical and demographical consequences for the peace-loving people of this land at the north-eastern part of India.

Since then, Assam has been a suitable ground for identity politics. The Mangaldai issue of rise in the number of particularly Bengali Muslim voters gave birth to a fear psychosis among people of the State in terms of a perceived threat to the Khilongiya (indigenous) peoples’ culture, language, literature, custom and tradition. More than that, there was, at that point of time, a fear of demographic transformation in terms of number of indigenous people. Needless to say that this demographic permutation and combination gave rise to a fear of political dominance of the Bangladeshi infiltrators in impending future, if it would continue to grow at the same rate. These together led to the agitation in the form of Assam Movement. And to the sheer detriment to the greater Assamese society, that fear has turned out true today after nearly 38 years.

The Assam Movement was so powerful that it culminated in an accord, the ‘historic’ Assam Accord in 1985, and brought into the helm of regime a new set of politicians, mostly young agitators who led the six-year-long agitation. However, the larger implication of the movement did not limit to a mere change in the political regime. It was a reawakening of the identity of the Assamese community at large.

This question of identity has awakened and reawakened us as a community time and again and has been a dominant pattern of our collective life, shaping and reshaping our collective conscience. Nonetheless, post-1979, the question of indigenous Assamese identity has almost invariably been a part of election gimmick. In fact, this catchy slogan of identity of indigenous people so resonates among the inhabitants that the party raising this slogan thereby effectively communicating its so-called agenda of ‘protecting’ the ethnic identity would eventually find itself on the winning side. That has been pattern since then. It is visible from the gradual downfall of the Asam Gana Parishad (AGP) post 2001, because of the party losing its earlier fervour of identity question for which it was voted with majority immediately after the Assam Accord was signed. No one can deny the fact that this very facet of seeking favour for a secure identity for the Assamese people was instrumental in leading to formation of and ruling by an AGP Government from 1985-1990 and then once again from 1996-2001. It was the vacuum created by the receding popularity of the AGP that the Indian National Congress was able to project itself as an alternative. It was, uncannily, the Congress that became a new champion of the urge of the Assamese people towards securing its indigenous identity.

Similarly, the 2016 election was no less different vis-a-vis the question of identity. This was refashioned into a catchy slogan of ‘Jati, Mati, Bheti’ (nation, land and hearth) that catapulted the Bharatiya Janata Party to the seat of power at Dispur for the first time in the political history of the State. This actually made the party incumbent to protect the identity of the indigenous people at any cost and respect the mandate for which it was voted to power.

But, unfortunately, the recent trends in the party and the Central Government activities show a scanty regard to the verdict of the people of the State. The much-criticized Citizenship (Amendment) Bill,2016,which was proposed by the Central Government seeking to confer citizenship rights to the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who have fled their own country, migrated to India and have resided in India for a minimum period of six years. This means, a Bangladeshi Hindu can illegally migrate to India, stay in a nearby State, stay for a minimum period of six years and claim citizenship of India. If this is not a farce, what else is? Such a move would just add to our own problem at a time when we are struggling hard to transform our own demographic burden into demographic dividend.

While there are larger implications of the Bill if it is passed by the Parliament, Assam would be its worst victim. Because, the Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants who have infiltrated alongside the Bangladeshi Bengali-speaking Muslims, would never like to move back to their own country. They would, in all probability, stay back, usurp our jobs legally and claim citizenship rightfully. This would virtually render our life-long struggle for protection of identity futile. While Hindus or Muslims, Christians or Parsis, Sikhs or Jains, Bangladeshis are nothing else, but Bangladeshis. They are different from us in every aspect of life. They cannot jigsaw fit in the larger strand of Assamese culture just because of their religious affinity. They are equal bearers of the same culture as the Bangladeshi Muslims are, which we seek to deport. This necessarily means that they pose equal threat to our culture, language, literature, custom and tradition, for protection of which we are fighting for long.

This has engendered a renewed fear in the minds of the indigenous people of Assam in the sense that while we have been fighting to deport the illegal immigrants, the Central Government is making a move to legalize them. The BJP in the State should realize sooner than later that the people of the State can no more bear the burden of Bangladeshi immigrants. The government of the day should show solidarity with the people of the State and communicate the concern with the Centre.

That the Gauhati High Court has had to reprimand the State Government and its machinery time and again over their inertia on the all-important matter of follow-up once a person is declared an illegal Bangladeshi migrant through the judicial process is shocking and deplorable. Instances have been galore when the high court had to pull up the Government and its agencies over their failure to delete the names of such illegal migrants from the voters list as also their indifference in apprehending the declared illegal foreigners. In one of the instances, an illegal migrant, Jahura Khatun, has been found to be exercising her voting rights despite being pronounced as a foreigner by the courts! There would be many similar cases of foreigners enjoying political rights in the State. Earlier also, the Gauhati High Court had exposed how illegal migrants had been residing in the State for years and even had valid Indian passports. This shocking state of affairs brings to the fore issues that have sinister implications for the security and integrity of not just Assam but the entire country. Despite it being an open secret that unabated cross-border infiltration from Bangladesh is fast reducing the indigenous populace of Assam to a minority, the response from successive governments both in the State and at the Centre has been one of utter indifference.

The Assam Government needs to wake up from its slumber and accord due importance to these issues. Thanks to the laxity of the authorities, it has become a routine practice for the declared foreigners to do the vanishing act. Indeed, the entire process of detection and deportation of illegal Bangladeshi migrants continues to be clumsy, allowing enough time for the infiltrators to disappear during the unduly lengthy proceedings. Then, the loopholes in the system which allow people with questionable credentials to have easy access to important documents ought to be plugged. As things stand today, it will not be an exaggeration to say that the entire process of detection and deportation of illegal migrants has been rendered a farce. The completion of the Assam-Bangladesh border fencing should also be accorded top priority, as the porous border has been at the root of the large-scale influx. All this, however, will materialize only when the governments, both in the State and at Centre, exhibit the will to check infiltration. The influx from Bangladesh is a threat to the country’s integrity and sovereignty, with the infiltrators standing a good chance of wresting political power in Assam in the near future.

And, the protracted issue of ‘Nagalim’ has caused distress among the people of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Large parts of these States are speculated to be part of Nagalim. There are many non-Naga ethno-linguistic groups (groups unified by both a common ethnicity and language) residing in these areas. Moreover, in Assam itself, we already have a number of autonomous councils entertaining different groups. Some of them are already demanding new or separate States. In simple terms, North-East India is a mosaic of hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups – some indigenous, some immigrants from different regions at different point of time.

With such complex issues at hand, we the Khilongiya people should and must become united under one umbrella and fight for the protection and safekeeping of the people of this region and their rich social and cultural heritage from the onslaught of the so-called nationalistic forces that have been clandestinely working against the ethos of the greater ethnic and indigenous society of the entire North-east India.

(The author is the Assistant Editor, The Assam Tribune, Guwahati.)

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