Missing Links

More on Assam Question

Arup Baisya

NRC question has opened up the Pandora's Box of diverse political discourses which were hitherto selectively surfaced as a weapon of the ruling class. It's not confined to the question of liberal or conservative version of citizen's rights, not even to humanitarian or utilitarian viewpoints. The social pressure is mounting on all the political formations and public intellectuals to clear their position and reveal their class character. The tactics of some of the left who have already imbibed the ruling class acumen to speak in forked tongues to keep their nationally and spatio-temporally segregated support-base in good humour is now under challenge. The changing social dynamics and polarisation has blurred the old fault-lines, and the emerging new dimensions of social contradictions gives rise to transitory situation of flux. The points and counter-points that are reverberating in and out of all political discourses must settle somewhere within the garb of social movements. The roadmap is not yet clear. But one thing is clear that the chauvinist road of sub-national aspirations will lead to doom. This article is a limited attempt to dwell on the history of Assam and on the genesis of chauvinism and its ramification on the fate of the people of Assam.

When the Ahom kingdom passed into British hands in 1826, it was the first time in history that the Assamese heartland became politically incorporated into a pan-Indian imperial formation. However the history of Ahom kingdom is not synonymous with the history of the area that came to be referred to as Assam. Among the large pre-colonial political formations in the region was the Koch kingdom. At its height in sixteenth century, the Koch kingdom encompassed eastern Assam and significant parts of Northern Bengal that now form the part of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. In 1581 the kingdom was split into Koch Bihar, which included district of Koch Bihar and parts of Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and Rangpur (in present-day West Bengal and Bangladesh); and Kamrup or Koch Hajo, which included nearly all of western Assam and much of central Assam, including contemporary districts such as Barpeta, Kamrup, Nalbari, Darrang and parts of Sonitpur. Within the period 1609 to 1613, the entire Koch kingdom was annexed by the Mughals. But by the Mughal's emporer Firman on August 12, 1765, the district of Goalpara (now divided into four districts) including the Garo Hills region (now in the state of Meghalaya), which was part of the Mughal province of Bengal came under the control of East India company. Assam, as a colonial province, was formed in 1874. The new province initially included the undivided districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgang, Sibsagar, Lakhimpur, parts of Naga Hills, and the district of Cachar and Garo Hills including the adjacent Eastern Duars—which was under Bhutanese influence in the early nineteenth century and was annexed by the British in 1866. On September 12, 1874 the East Bengal district of Sylhet—historically unconnected to Assam—was included in Assam. The primary goal of making Assam a new administrative entity was to find an inexpensive and effective way to administer the area; considerations of historical continuity or cultural continuity were not in the minds of colonial officials. (Sanjib Baruah : 2001).

When colonial administrators decided to combine Assam and Eastern Bengal into a single province, they came close to removing the word Assam from the name of the new province. The name initially proposed was North Eastern Province. The main opposition to the change of name from Assam did not come from the Assamese, but from the mostly British Tea Industry because of brand name of Assam Tea in the international market. Sanjib Baruah argues that the colonial political geography was part of what has been called Orientalism that evolved as a tool of colonial domination. The British segregated the Hills from the plains by drawing inner lines along the foothills and thus broke the historical contact and the ties between plains and hills people, especially between the Assamese and the Nagas during Ahom kingdom. The British also saw Assam as an extension of Bengal from their administrative point of view and the notion of political geography. Early colonial administrators regarded the Assamese language as an offshoot of Bengali. From 1837 to 1873, Bengali was the language of the courts and government schools of Assam. The demand that Assamese be made the language of education and of the courts in Assam produced a major political controversy in the 1860s. Assamese intellectuals, in alliance with Baptist missionaries, who at that time were writing grammars and dictionaries of Assamese for their own reasons, managed to convince British colonial officials of their case, and Assamese became recognized as the language of Assam.

Sylhet was part of Assam through the entire period from 1874 to 1947. Shillong as the capital of Assam—which continued till 1971—had to do with Sylhet being part of Assam. Bengali constituted 45.8 percent of the population of Assam in 1911 and that was more than double the number of Assamese speaker. Having been part of Bengal—British India's most dynamic province—Sylhet had substantially more experience with colonial rule, and there was an English-educated class who could immediately take advantage of the opportunities opened up in the new frontier. In 1926, when the Assam Council debated the separation of Sylhet, Muslim leader Saadullah and a representative from Sylhet, Dewan Wasil Choudhury, opposed the proposal. The opinion polarised on Hindu-Muslim line, Muslims opposed separation of Sylhet from Assam. But in the backdrop of politics of partition of India on the basis of two-nation theory, when a referendum was held in June 1947, the Bengali Muslim voters opted for Pakistan. Sylhet was partitioned by which Patherkandi, Ratabari, Badarpur and part of Karimganj remained with Assam and the rest of Sylhet became part of Pakistan. Thus the advantage of the Bengali people of Sylhet in colonial province of Assam was scuttled through a communal line. But the question of immigration after the British conquest of Assam later became the source of ethno-political conflict. The discovery of tea and the natural resources like oil, coal etc attracted investors in Assam in 1830s and 1840s. Thus what Assam saw in the nineteenth century was nothing short of an economic revolution accompanied by massive ecological destruction. British saw the early nineteenth century Assam as a land with vast expanses of uninhibited land for productive expansion and revenue collection. As a result of the British conquest, Sanjib Barua rightly asserts, Assam became a land frontier attracting large-scale immigration, especially the tea-labourers from erstwhile Bengal-Bihar-Madhya Pradesh and Bengali Muslim immigrants from adjoining areas of Bengal Province in Lower Assam. Sanjib Barua writes, "the primary factor that transformed Assam into a land frontier was political conquest. For as long as Assam was not part of British India—aided further by the inaccessible forests and lack of roads—Assam was nobody's land frontier. It is only the British conquest of Assam that turned it into what came to be seen a "natural" land frontier—a sparsely populated region located next to a densely populated region of the Indian subcontinent." "Assam has been the fastest growing area in the subcontinent for the past seventy years" wrote Myron Weimer in 1978.

Assam's decennial population growth rate since 1951 was higher than the previous growth rate. As per census report, the population growth rate during 1951-61, 1961-71 were respectively 34.98% and 34.95%. For this period from 1951-71, we can safely rely on Prof Susanta K Das who delineated three factors viz an increase in the natural rate of increase, the influx of Hindu refugees, and immigration from the rest of India as the three main factors for increase in population growth rate. From 1911 to 1951, the decennial growth rate was around 20%. During the period 1905-11 when Dacca was the capital of Assam, the population growth rate was 16.99%. The Assam's population growth rate was always higher than all India average, but the variation was highest during 1911-21 (20.78%) and then 13.34% in 1951-61, 10.15% in 1961-71. It seems that migration due to political reasons was one of the prime factors in the increase in growth rate during this period. There was no census in 1981. In twenty years span of time from 1971-1991, the growth rate was 52.44% and it was not much higher than pre-1951 period. So the large-scale migration from Bangladesh cannot be considered as the contributing factor for the population growth rate during this period. The communal polarisation that was set in motion on the question of separation of Sylhet and India's partition has its grave ramification on Assam's politics. Those Muslim peasant masses who returned to their original abode in Assam villages post-independence in pursuance of Nehru-Liyakat Pact faced intimidation and administrative harassment. To establish the overwhelming power of the Assamese Bourgeois-Landlord class and to paint Assam as a unilingual state, Majoritarian politics of suppressing the religio-linguistic identity of the Bengali Muslim peasantry was played out. Assam witnessed a large-scale state-sponsored persecution and intimidation of Muslim masses before and after every census to compel them to identify themselves as Assamese speaking people.

In the case of exodus of Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam during 1971-72, one had the refugee camp registers to find from there the total number of refugees. Wild rumours about fictitious figures got circulated among the indigenous inhabitants. They constantly haunted their mind like ominous dreams and actuated them to react violently. A legacy of frenzied popular outbursts can be traced from 1960 when they turned furious and their organised outbursts took sectarian form. A local militia called Lachit Sena also surfaced at that time. This compelled a good number of Bengali Hindu immigrants clandestinely living in Assam to enter into the state of West Bengal and settle there permanently. The natives also reacted in 1961, 1963 and in 1970. These entire popular outbursts, after lasting for some weeks subsided. But in 1972 there were desperate ethnic outburst which turned into a major north-eastern issue. It lasted for some weeks and then discontinued due to intervention of West Bengal and Assam leaders. By 1975 numerous reports started appearing in Indian newspapers about illegal Bangladeshi emigrants in Assam, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Tripura and other border states in India. The External affairs Minister reported to the Parliament that the number of illegal migrants in India from Bangladesh between April to December 1974 was 15,278; in 1975 it was 38,445 and in 1976 it stood at 7,014. According to an estimate, about ten million or one crore Bengali refugees had officially returned from India to Bangladesh in accordance with Indira-Mujib Pact by 25 March 1972 when the refugee camps were officially closed. The government of India's official records indicate that during the period of the War of Liberation as many as 9,899,305 Bangladeshi nationals crossed the Indo-Bangladesh border without travel documents and sought shelter on humanitarian grounds in the Indian territories. The number of the arrival of such persons in West Bengal was 7,493,474; 1,416,491 in Tripura; 667,986 in Meghalaya; 312,713 in Assam and 8,641 in Bihar. West Bengal and Tripura Government shifted 292,400 persons from there to the newly opened camps in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The number of government refugee camps was 492 in West Bengal; 276 in Tripura; 28 in Assam; 17 in Meghalaya; 8 in Bihar; 3 in Madhya Pradesh and 1 in Uttar Pradesh.

The colonial claim of 'land abundance' was often accepted by the Assamese intelligentsia. According to the Census of 1911, the population density in the cultivated land of Assam per square mile was higher than the all -India average. Another set of statistics indicates that during 1894-1919, the proportion of the uncultivated area to the net area was higher than the all-India average. One of the uncultivated tracts known as Chapori, the flood plains of Brahmaputra Rivers, was exposed to many layers of hazards. As there was no scope for permanent agricultural activity and the Assamese peasants were not familiar with the production of commercial crops like Jute, the Bengali Muslims peasants were later settled to reclaim the land with their expertise and hard labour. During the British period, Assamese peasant society was primarily constituted of landlord, peasant proprietor, sharecropper, and agricultural labourer. By 1860s, the Raiyatwari system of land tenure was firmly in place except the districts like undivided Goalpara, Karimganj where Bengal's permanent settlement was in place. During the entire period of British rule, Assam's rural landscape was agog with the conflict between the interests of tenants and the landlords. In the 1940s, the presence of communist organisations gave an orientation in the political consciousness of the Assamese peasant society. A branch of communist league or the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCPI) was formed in October 1939 and several Assamese students from prestigious Cotton College joined the party and the student wing under the influence of Saumendranath Tagore (1901-74), a grand-nephew of Rabin-dranath Tagore and a Trotskyite in political orientation. RCPI formed the Krishak Banua Panchayat (KBP) as its peasant wing in May 1940. RCPI and much later, the CPI in months before independence were advocating radical land reform and sided with the class interest of the poor and middle peasants, and agricultural labourers. RCPI's mouthpiece Biplabi Khetiak highlighted the dependence of Indian middle class on agriculture, criticised Congress for their understanding of landlords as benevolent and advocated peasant movement on communist line. RCPI was also in favour of armed struggle and formation of soviet-styled rural commune. During Quit India movement, the communist organisations made deep inroads within the peasantry and RCPI organised several conferences in 1945 where large number of poor Assamese peasants participated. But both communist organisations had underestimated and even overlooked the design of the Assamese feudal class to shift the desire of the land ownerships of the tenants, the poor and mid-peasants, against the culturally alien Muslim peasantries. The peasant having certain form of the ownership of means of production has petty-bourgeois character and vulnerable to fall prey to the exclusionary appeal of ruling class. The communists did not have any political programme to combat the retaliation of landlord-bourgeois class in the form of Assamese chauvinist nationalism to dismantle the unity of the peasantry on the one end and to blunt the appeal of the land-reform slogan through partial land-reform and changing class dynamics in the post-independence period. The Assamese leadership of the communist movement misinterpreted the chauvinist content as the genuine aspiration of the oppressed sub-nationality. The shrinking base of the communist organisations opened the space for chauvinist politics and the resultant anti-minority pogroms. The rise of CPI(M) through mass-struggle on people's issues has not also eradicated the ambiguity in the people's mind on the communist project on nationality question. The Naxalbari peasant upsurge had also its reverberation in Assam's society. The CPI(ML) could made significant inroads within the rural masses. The significant and meaningful attempt was made by PCC CPI(ML) to develop a revolutionary programme addressing caste-class and nationality question and to build resistance movement against chauvinism. But it faced chauvinist onslaught at its premature stage. It could not sustain and expand its revolutionary activities beyond a cycle of expansion and contraction primarily due to the changing class dynamics of Assam's landscape through proletarianisation and precariatisation, but it could retain its revolutionary character without making any compromise with chauvinism or bourgeois nationalism. CPI(M) was popularly perceived as a left-of-centre version of ruling class parties. They opposed Assam movement; their cadres were murdered due to their opposition, but never launched an alternative communist programme to fight chauvinism tooth and nail. In this light, the role of the Assamese left-liberal public intellectuals like Dr Hiren Gohain needs to be assessed. Suneet Chopra writes in the journal Social Scientist in 1982, "Moreover, it is curious that Gohain does not include the Muslim minority in Assam as also native, which they undoubtedly are. In fact, Islam had been introduced to Kamrup in 1205 AD by the invasion of Bakhtiar Khilji, a few years previous to the Ahom arrival in 1228 AD The guide of the first invasion was himself an Assamese convert, Ali Mech. A colony of Muslims has existed in Hajo from 1498 AD. The same holds largely for Muslim populations in Goalpara, Darrang and Nowgong. This does not mean immigrants have not been coming in, but it should be noted that the vast majority of Assamese Muslims, whatever their date of origin, are being assimilated into Assamese society."

Suneet Chopra also wrote, diversionary movements have always proved slippery ground for intellectuals. The organised intervention of the ruling classes among the masses has a particularly terrifying effect on those intellectuals who are not a part of the organised working class movement. They are often tempted to rationalise their sentiments and eventually in the name of tactics begin to churn out apologies on behalf of the very movements they concede are basically against the interests of the very people embroiled in them. Hiren Gohain's latest paper "Once More on the Assam Movement" is the case in point."

Lenin too, in dealing with the national question, has made it perfectly clear that "the development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations that which is founded on force or privilege."

Assam is once again at its crossroad to decide its future on citizenship and nationality question which can be visualised from a revolutionary perspective of working class politics or a communal-chauvinist sub-nationalism of establishing political hegemony over the toiling masses. One road leads to prosperity, another to collective doom. Assam urgently needs a revolutionary programme which, of course, needs to be evolved through popular interactions within the working class and social movements.

References :
India against itself : Assam and Politics of Nationality : Sanjib Baruah : Oxford University Press, 2001.
Illegal Migrations and the North-East : A Study of Migrants from Bangladesh : Sibopada De : Anamika Pub and Distributors, 2005
A Century of Protests : Peasant Politics in Assam since 1900 : Arupjyoti Saikia : Routledge, 2014.
The Assam Movement and the Left: A Reply to Hiren Gohain Author(s): Suneet Chopra Source: Social Scientist, Vol. 10, No. 11 (Nov., 1982), pp. 63-70

Vol. 51, No.13, Sep 30 - Oct 6, 2018