‘‘Little Nationalism’’

Citizenship Question and Assam Politics

Arup Baisya

An unprecedented exercise of identifying citizens through updating of the 'National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951' for Assam has been going on over the past two years. The first list of NRC is now out in the public domain. This is done when the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the entire process, had ordered that the first draft of the NRC be published by December 31, 2017 with two crore claims whose scrutiny has been completed and after completing the scrutiny of around 38 lakhs people whose documents were suspect. But the first list contained only 1.9 crore out of total 3.29 crores. NRC authority's unconvincing clarifications in this regard cannot keep wild speculations at bay. Sitting on the fences, Bengali speaking people have every reason to jump the bandwagon of suspecting the bureaucratic motive. Furthermore, when upper Assam recorded about 70% inclusion and predominantly Bengali inhabited Barak Valley recorded about 30% inclusion in the first list, when there are widespread anomalies in the inclusion of members of the same family, one can perceive it as either the manifestation of negligent, chauvinist mentality of the bureaucracy or the absence of any method to their madness.

However, after initial phase of misunderstanding on the purpose of NRC updating initiated by Congress in 2013 and its discontinuation due to widespread protest movement, both religious and linguistic minorities in Assam welcomed it this time when the process restarted in 2015 by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under the monitoring of Supreme Court. They welcomed it to get rid of the harassment being meted out to them in the name of Doubtful voter (D-voter) and sending them to Detention camp after the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act in 2005. In its judgment, delivered on 12 August 2005, in response to a petition seeking its repeal by Sarbananda Sonowal, a former president of AASU, former member of legislative assembly and member of Parliament from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and currently the chief minister of Assam, a three judge bench declared the IMDT Act unconstitutional. IMDT was considered as safeguard by the minorities as the act affirmed the onus of proof of foreign nationality on the complainant. But the communal and chauvinist forces who have internalised the belief of the presence of huge infiltrators and refugees in Assam from their pathological hatred against the minorities were taken aback when 3.29 crore of people completed the complex and due procedure of submitting all kinds of NRC forms. The whole rotten edifice of chauvinist politics meticulously built on cock and bull story of infiltration and immigration and on the whole lot of wildly guessed figures appears to come crashing down. They are now back to the drawing room and formulating new strategy of political chicanery to polarise the people. This is all the more necessary to sustain the hegemonic rule of the compradors and their bourgeois hangers-on of Assamese "Little Nationalism" when the labour movement in Assam is showing new signs of rejuvenation and revitalisation.

The history of identification of citizens and sifting out non-citizens goes back to the Assam movement and the Assam Accord. However, it had much deep rooted concern that had been vexing the people of Assam since the colonial times. The socio-political conditions that emerged in the colonial rule planted a latent fear in the minds of the people of Assam of being swamped by the Bengali-speaking people. As a consequence, Bengali became synonymous to foreigners. British annexed the entire territory of Assam and placed it under the Bengal Presidency. Assam was administered as part of Bengal from 1826 to1873. In 1874, Assam was made a Chief Commissioner's province and three districts of Bengal—Cachar, Sylhet and Goalpara came under the provincial administration of Assam, then in 1905 British incorporated Assam in unit called 'East Bengal and Assam' with Dhaka as the capital. When Bengal partition was annulled in 1912, Assam once again ruled as a separate Chief Commissioner's province that included the predominantly Bengali district of Sylhet and Cachar. Due to the vehement opposition from the leader like Gopinath Bordoloi and the support he secured from Gandhi, Sylhet District excluding Karimganj Sub-Division was conceded to Pakistan through referendum.

The Election Commissioner in 1979 reported the unexpected large increase in the electoral rolls. According to the 1951 census, 56.7 percent of the population was Assamese speaking, in 1961 62.4 percent, and in 1971, 61 percent. The Bengalis were 16.5 percent, 18 percent, and 19.7 percent, and the Hindi-speaking population was 3.8 percent, 4.8 percent, and 5.4 percent. The census report does not reveal the linguistic identity of tea garden population separately. Between 1951 and 1961 the population of Assam increased from 8 million to 10.6 million (a 35 percent increase), but the number of Assamese speakers rose from 4.6 million to 6.7 million, a 48.5 percent increase, suggesting the magnitude of language "switching". In the 1931 census only 1.7 million people reported Assamese as their mother tongue. Between 1961 and 1971 the proportion of Assamese declined for the first time, as the proportion of Bengali speakers increased. This shift, though small, was in a direction that aroused the anxieties of many Assamese. If a large proportion of the Muslim population (24.6 percent of the population in 1971), most of whom are of Bengali origin, declared themselves Bengali, the position of the Assamese and Bengalis could be reversed. The manipulative political stance applied by the Assamese middle class to generate fear-psychosis of losing their identity by being numerically outnumbered by the migrant Bengali speaking people assumed the form of anti-foreigner movement from 1979. The first organised opposition was in the form of twelve-hour general strike called by All Assam Students Union (AASU) on 8th June 1979. AASU demanded "detection, disenfranchisement and deportation" of the foreign nationals; those who had entered the state after 1961 should be expelled from the state and their names were to be expunged from the electoral rolls.

The national political leaderships representing the big business also tried to co-opt the Assamese 'little nationalism', the term coined by the eminent Marxist scholar Amalendu Guha, by inciting ethnic sentiment. The Assam movement, according to Amalendu Guha, was a programme led by the Assamese middle class at a conjunctural crisis. According to him, hard pressed by big capital from above and the rising labour and peasant movement from below, the Assamese upper classes are terribly agitated about the economic stagnation. Incapable of competing with big capital, they aspired to monopolise the small industries, petty trade and the profession and services. This diversion of the movement from targeting the big capital by raising issue of development, devolution and democratisation of power to anti-Bengali anit-foreigner's movement gave the Assamese middle class the required space to collaborate with the national bourgeoisie. Hiren Gohain, another renowned left intellectual of Assam agreed with Guha that the main thrust and character of such movements served the interest of the Assamese small bourgeoisie and landlords, and was most likely to profit the big bourgeoisie.

The Assam movement culminated into a memorandum of settlement signed by AASU and the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, and this accord is known as Assam Accord which stipulated the 24th March midnight, 1971 as the cutoff date for identifying citizens and demarcating illegal migrants. With an open chauvinist agenda of Assam movement to denationalise Bengali speaking people, the merciless mass killings of Nelie etc exposed the inherent communal character of the movement which made the religious minorities as the main target of physical attack. The numerically significant, but economically and socially weak religious minorities of lower Assam were always the soft target of the chauvinists since independence to coerce them to opt for Assamese as their mother tongue. Through coercion and through medium of education, majority of the religious minorities use Assamese language in public life. But despite this submission to the coercive process of Assamisation, the Assamese 'little nationalism' or chauvinism always treat them with suspicion and with the rise of Hindutwa forces they have once again become the prime target. The recent field study conducted by Diganta Sharma, an Assamese mainstream journalist and published it in a book form revealed the fact that similar treatments were meted out to the Namasudras, the Bengali speaking scheduled caste community and they were also physically attacked, their villages torched in mass scale during the Assam movement. However, the Bengali Hindus were mainly targeted as the competitors in the space like services, contracts etc. Some commentators pointed out the land dispute as the reason for conflict in the rural areas. In reality, they have overemphasised the land question because of the fact that the tribals who were instigated to attack their minority neighbours were not land hungry. Rather the feeling of otherness mingled with identity assertion was twisted and turned into hatred against their alien minority Bengali culture. The citizenship question has returned to prominence this time under a changed reality which needs to be taken into consideration while assessing the future implications.

To resolve the widespread migration across the India-Pakistan border due to communal riots that broke out during partition in 1947, the two prime ministers of India and Pakistan signed an agreement on April 2, 1950 and this is known as Nehru-Liaquat Pact. The Bengali Muslims who crossed border during partition came back to lower Assam on the basis of this pact by which both Governments would ensure complete and equal right of citizenship and security of life and properties to their minorities. Those who came back were predominantly Muslim peasant masses. Many educated and influential Muslim families both from Lower Assam and Barak Valley migrated to Pakistan leaving the vulnerable sections amenable to all kinds of communal and chauvinistic pressures and harassment. Naturally Bengali Hindus who migrated to India did not return and a section of them settled in various pockets of Brahmaputra valley and predominantly in Barak valley.

Another large scale influx of Bengali refugee occurred during Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Most of these refugees had returned after the creation of Bangladesh and 1972 Indira-Mujib Pact which expired in 1997. Communal and chauvinist forces in Assam are citing illusory figures to fan ethnic passion against the Bengali migrants, both Hindus and Muslims.

The strategy of Sangh Parivar to bring the Assamese and Bengali Hindus in their fold by focusing on infiltration (Bengali Muslims) issue and the bogey of Islamophobia and posturing as the saviour of refugees (Bengali Hindus) is in doldrums. Cutting across political affiliations, all Muslim organisations want that NRC process should be completed in right earnest so that the myth of large scale Muslim infiltration post 1971 is dismantled. Bengali Hindus who saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the saviour is now getting disillusioned due to the dillydallying tactics of BJP in keeping their electoral promise to provide citizenship rights to refugee Hindus, deletion of D-voter category and dismantling of detention camps. The political and social organisations which emerged from Assam movement as Assamese national formations do not want to lose their support base to BJP and Sangh Parivar by abandoning their core chauvinist appeal to Assamese middle class.

An interesting phenomenon is now emerging in Assam politics. The left leaning intellectuals like Hiren Gohain who stood firm against the Assam Movement and a section of mainstream left are projecting themselves as the cementing core of all chauvinist forces. Their strategy to isolate BJP and to defeat its communal agenda by taking anti-refugee (Bengali Hindu) stance to mobilise chauvinist camps is opportunistic and self-defeating. When BJP's bid to introduce the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is communally motivated to incite Bengali Hindu sentiment; those who are taking anti-refugee stance are inciting Assamese ethnic sentiment. The democratic sensibilities demand that the refugee issue must be seen from a humanitarian ground while ensuring the constitutional safeguards for Assamese language and identity in Assam. It must be noted that the protection of equality—equality before law and equal protection of the law—under Article 14 of the Constitution extends to all persons in India, not just citizens. The present moment is significant for its coalescence with the changes made in 2003 in the Citizenship Act, 1955, which eliminated citizenship by birth and gave precedence to descent. The Citizenship Act, 1955 was amended in 1986 in the wake of Assam accord to inscribe an exception in the law in recognition of the extraordinary conditions prevailing in Assam. But how a state can be democratic which does not even give recognition to those born in between 1971 to till date whose parents are illegal migrants? So the conglomeration of forces under the leadership of intellectuals like Hiren Gohain is not upholding the democratic politics that can be pitted against BJP's reactionary politics. The real existential threat of Assamese nationality is coming from centralisation of power in Delhi and neo-liberal onslaught. Assam is losing control over all its revenue earning resources through privatisation and monopolisation. The state has merely become 'Glorified Municipality' and is dependent on the whim of the centre on every matter. In the shrinking job market, the upper strata of both Assamese and Bengali Hindu educated class are now exploring the opportunities to try their fate outside Assam. In the prevailing job opportunities for educated class, it is illusory to claim one linguistic group as competitor to other. A large section of wage labourers has emerged across the communities. The internal migration of wage-labourers to work in the infrastructural sector has increased manifold. The recent incidents of manhandling of these internally migrated Muslim workers by alleging them as Bangladeshis unfolded a new dimension in the Assam's canvas of ethnic violence. The continuing out-migration from rural areas is creating new areas of settlement in the vicinity of neo-liberal development work and urbanisation activities. The state government is getting involved in evicting their core Assamese people to serve the interest of big capital. The diverse social sector workers belonging to all the communities have already upped the ante by launching new spell of movements. So the emerging objective condition is not conducive for the chauvinist and communal appeal. The most formidable challenge is coming from the Jharkhandi-Adivasi assertion for both identity and tea workers' rights and the assertion of Bengali Muslims and the Namasudras who were hitherto servile and submissive to chauvinist-communal forces. They together constitute more than 50% of the Assam's population and the majority of the working class. The Board-room directors of the communal-chauvinist camp is busy ruminating on the ways and means to create fissures through ethnic fault-lines to defeat any unity move within the struggling masses. The successful completion of NRC will seize another weapon of divisive politics from their anti-people munitions. But without an alternative democratic agenda to unite the struggling masses and disorganised working class, the hegemony of communal-chauvinist politics in Assam cannot be defeated. Caught between the two stools and without a democratic alternative, the Assamese middle class will remain supine before the big capital and the Bengali Hindu middle class, in apparent hostility to their Assamese Hindu counterpart, will actually be playing the second fiddle to the politics backed by big capital by their abject surrender to the communal forces.

It is unfortunate that the Assamese intellectual stalwarts like Hiren Gohain and a section of left intellectuals in Assam are playing to the chauvinist gallery and thus the opportunity for a democratic change of Assam's polity and for the development of a vibrant Assamese nationality is getting missed. Will the revolutionary forces rise to the occasion to offer a democratic alternative to the people of Assam?

Vol. 50, No.30, Jan 28 - Feb 03, 2017