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Who Are Assamese?

Assam Accord Clause 6: The bone of Contention

Arup Baisya

Along with the NRC process in Assam, another contentious issue that may cause festering sores in the body-politic of Assam is the exercise on the basis of clause 6 of the Assam Accord. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) brought this issue to the fore during the social turmoil surrounding the process of updating of NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill that generated immense passion within the mainstream Assamese society.

The clause 6 says that the 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. Various actions have already been taken on the basis of the provisions of this clause. Out of these actions, one action was related to the Government request to the different political parties. Sahitya Sabhas. Youth organisations, All Assam Students Union and reputed NGO's to furnish their views/suggestions for preparation of definition of "Assamese People".

The dispute continues on the question of "Assamese People". AASU defines the "Assamese People" as "Axomiya Khilonjia (indigeneous)". To take all the tribal organisations on board, AASU modified its stand a little to define. Assamese as "Khilonjia Axomiya and Khilonjia Janajati". AASU' has been batting for "constitutional safeguards" to people of the state on theĀ  basis of NRC, 1951. But many Bengali Muslim organisations also opposed the AASU's demand for 1951 NRC to be the basis of verifying permanent residents because they were not included in it. That it was completed within 20 days was also a reason for many to doubt its accuracy. After completion of the updating process of NRC, the issue of safeguard of 'Axomiya or Khilonjiya' will once again be raised from various quarters to disturb the social harmony to ensure communal-chauvinist hegemony over the geopolitical landscape of Assam. As the NRC updating process itself rests on an undermocratic premise of dividing the citizens in the categories of 'original inhabitants' and 'non-original inhabitants', the completion of NRC itself will not settle the issue related with the clause 6 of Assam Accord.

The issue of the protection and safeguarding of the Assamese language and culture is rooted in the apprehensions ingrained in the Assamese psyche that they will be outnumbered by the Bengali people in their own state. The Assamese ruling class which was hitherto composed of the petty and proto-bourgeoisie and the landed gentry considered to whip up nationalist sentiment whenever their hegemonic control was weakened due to subaltern or class challenges from below. "Axomiya Jati in danger" is the catchword which fits well with the perception of an imagined enemy of the linguistic and religious minority. The bonhomie with the Indian ruling class could easily continue without much conflict as they could accommodate this role of the Assamese ruling class in a space defined by covalent bonding between both the ruling classes. But the here and now, this old Assamese ruling class has been weakened and replaced by a class developed from the womb of neo-liberal policy persuasions and this new class has no distinct role of its own to contest for a hegemonic space for them in Assam under the aegis of the Indian ruling class. The molecular structure of covalent bond has now collapsed due to changes in social chemistry and it turned into a flat concentric circle with Indian ruling class at the center. In these circumstances, the BJP and Sangh Parivar are very conveniently using all the issues in a communal-chauvinist framework without much resistance from any quarter. The official left and liberal forces failed to rise to the occasion and they tried to twist their arms in the shrinking space of so-called Assamese nationalism and had to retreat leaving the space open for the Sangh Parivar to occupy. But consistently with conviction, a small group of radical left people has been trying to consolidate and ensure their defeat by simultaneously addressing the democratic rights of all including the minorities and against the neo-liberal onslaught. This initiative is now gaining ground within the Assamese society. The call of about 200 Assamese intellectuals against harassment of the minorities in the name of NRC process and against detention camp, the signature campaign organised by a leading citizens' group called 'Gonotantrik Sanghati, Asom' sent a positive signal across the society for democratic consolidation. The way the Assamese common people of upper Assam, the bastion of Assamese chauvinist movement spontaneously came forward en masse to help the poor minorities who had to bear the pain and agony to travel a long distance to appear before the NRC officials in Upper Assam within short notice reveals the democratic undercurrent. This indicates that there is every possibility of the emergence of a new passion and new force for democratic change. Like Citizens Amendement Bill, clause 6 of Assam Accord is another such two-edged sword which can be used to divide and subvert the democratic unity.

The question of safeguarding the Assamese nationality is revolving around the question of land rights and linguistic hegemony. It is difficult to ascertain me issue of land scarcity caused by the migration due to lack of data and land profile, but initially, the migration was induced by land abundance in Assam. The government reckoning reveals that the quantum of loss of cultivated land has reached a gargantuan level of 400,000 hectares in the last 50 years. Almost 8000 hectare of land per year along with already constructed physical infrastructure on this land has been destroyed due to natural calamities.

The flood and erosion problem of Assam is singularly different from other states so far as the extent and duration of flooding and magnitude of erosion is concerned and is probably the mostĀ  acute and unique in the country. The flood-prone area of the state as assessed by the Rashtriya Barh Ayog (RBA) is 31.05 lakh hectares against the total area of 78.523 lakh hectares i.e. about 39.58% of the total land area of Assam. This is about 9.40% of the total flood-prone area of the country. Records show that the average annual area affected by the flood is 9.31 lakh hectares. The flood-prone area of Assam is 39.58% of the area of the state. It signifies that the flood-prone area of Assam is four times the national mark of the flood-prone area of the country.

As many as 86,536 people have become landless in Assam in the last five years due to soil erosion, the minister of state for water resources, social justice and empowerment, Rattan Lal Kataria, told parliament, (thewire.in, 09/July/2019). So to save the agricultural land and to avoid scarcity of land for food production for all the cultivators including the Assamese agricultaralists, the policy focus must be shifted from the grabbing of land by illegal migrants to the ever-increasing intensity of the natural disaster. The big dam which is constructed by a private company in Arunachal Pradesh may be considered as the water-bomb which, if brust for any extraneous factor, will wash away the huge part of Brahmaputra Valley with a devastating consequence. The recent study by IIT, Guwahati also rings the alarm bell of the devastating consequence of climate change. The cumulative effect of rising temperature, declining rainfall and the least irrigation facility in Assam may cause havoc in Assam's agricultural production is the near future. So instead of focussing on the real issues on land and agricultural questions, the ruling class diverts the attention by migrant-centric discourse.

The second big concern which is brought to the focus to impress upon the urgency of the implementation of clause 6 of Assam Accord is the possibility of losing the hegemonic position of Assamese language and culture in the state of Assam. The Assamese ruling class and the nationalist intellectuals apprehened that the Bengalis may outnumber them numerically and tilt the political balance in their favour. The past world history tells us that the oral language of the plebeians could transform itself into the language of an empire replacing the hegemonic language of the ruling class. That's why the Assamese intellectuals become so jittery and come down heavily on the "Miya Poetry" which manifests a sense of subaltern rebellion against repression. The Assamese nationalist intellectuals miss the point that subaltern or plebeian culture is located within a particular social relation, the polity of exploitation and resistance to it, within the relation of power, and the material base is masked by culture. The Assamese middle class and nationalist intellectuals are also apprehensive based on a proposition that the Miya Plebeians or subaltern community may switch over the Bengali linquistic group and outnumber the Assamese linguistic identity in the state of Assam. All the apprehensions are the constructs within an idea of static society. The staticity of mindset of the Assamese nationalist intellectuals compels them to lie in a numerical world where everything is decided by simple arithmetic. They do not dwell upon the changing social dynamics within which the relation between diverse cultures is constantly defined and redefined.

The middle-class power of the Bengalis in Brahmaputra valley to assert their linguistic identity was finally decimated in the 1960s. The Bengalis in Assam can assert themselves only through the power of class-consciousness of the toiling masses. This consciousness is not only derived from the past but also moulded through praxis. The existing hegemonic position of Assamese language and culture is not anathema to this praxis provided this hegemony is not designed to intermittently resort to coercion and repression of the subalterns. The language and culture take the form of a system under compelling pressure of nationalism, religious orthodoxy or class consciousness. The Assamese sub-nationality chose to adopt the most regressive path of defining Axomiya or Khilonjiya in a static framework of constructing a bounded circular space in which all the Khilonjiya groups will revolve around the upper-caste Axomiya at the centre and non-Khilonjiyas in Assam will find its place outside the circumference of the circle or an arrangement of concentric circles. This preferential treatment to a dominant community of a state instills a sense of alienation as second-class citizens in the minds of the people who are thrown outside the circular space of citizenry. This static formulation of any sub-nationality is detrimental to its own interest in nationality building. The process of building of nationality must be a vibrant dynamic one which always promotes wide-scale social interaction to finally lead to its withering away for the emergence of a generalised human community. The conscious efforts for the building of any nationality must also keep its focus on its negation to always ensure the democratic process to emerge. The present electoral democracy in Assam has not anyway challenged the hegemony of the Assamese language and culture. So. the Assamese nationalist intellectuals have nothing to he apprehensive if the guarantee for maintaining the status quo of the linguistic character "of the state can be obtained and the democrats is ensured by recognising multi-lingual demography of the state and the rights of the people for education in the mother tongue. Indian federalism based on constitutional provisions on centre-state relation is now facing its worst kind onslaught from the most reactionary centralising force. As such, the unity of the people of Assam is, ipso facto, the most desired goal, and the programmatic call on the question of democracy and economy.

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Frontier
Vol. 52, No. 9, Sep 1 - 7, 2019