Assam: Contextualising NRC Historically

Devabrata Sharma

British imperialism was notoriously successful in planting the seeds of communalism-both religious nad linguistic, in this country. The 'masterstroke' in this direction was the effect of two partitions: Partition of Bengal first, and partition of India, later. The present conflicts and contradictions inflicting Assam can be traced back to the divisive British policies.

Assam was brought under the British rule in 1826 a la Yandaboo Treaty signed in Myanmar between the British and the Myanmarese governments. No Assamese or Indian was party to that treaty which sealed the fate of Assam in foreign lands. For the next 10 years the British ran its administration using Assamese language. But in 1836 they replaced Assamese with Bengali. For many decades thereafter, it was believed and propagated that the Bengali clerks and bureaucrats were primarily responsible for imposing Bengali in Assam. It is known as the Bengali amlamohri theory. But thanks to the painstacking research of several Assamese writers and researchers, it has been proved beyond doubt that the British knew the difference between Bengali and Assamese very well. So they were not simpletons to be befooled or misled by Bengali clerks and to replace Assamese with Bengali.

We on behalf of Asomia Jatiya Abhidhan working at Jatiya Bhavan Jorhat, have shown that the British had conducted thorough research about Assamese and other languages of Assam in the first two decades of 19th century itself. We have not only unearthed but also publised the mauscript of the 1810 Vocabularies of Sanskrit, Assamese and Kamarupi, compiled by Ruchinath Buragohain of Jorhat, Assam. Retrieved from the British Library deposited there by Dr Francis Buchanon Hamilton, this 2500-entry word vocabulary was compiled in Kolkata itself, under the patronge of Dr Hamiliton.That the British were conducting extensive research about Assamese and other eastern languages is made amply clear by our retrievd and publishing of again after two centuries of compilation, another 10 languages vocabulary. Patronised again by Dr Buchanon Hamilton, and completed at Kolkata, chiefly by Raja Brajanath Singha, an Ahom prince from Assam, this vocabulary has English, Bengali, Assamese, Manipuri, Garo, Kachari, Mech. This was completed in 1814, long before the British had taken over Assam.

So it would be a travesty of truth to say that the British did not know about the difference of Assamese and Bengali and therefore they had imposed Bengali being misled by a few Bengalis. It proved the point that being fully aware of the individuality of Assamese and Bengali, the British hed imposed the latter so as to plant the seed of division, hatred and long lasting, endless fratricides between two neighbouring nationalities, having similar cultures.

The Assamese intellegentia, supported by the American Baptist Missioneries were eminently successful in reinstating their language in the offices, courts and schools of Assam. Assamese replaced Bengali again in 1873 A.D. From then onward the newly emerging Assamese middle class strengthened and tightened its grip over the state machinary. The Bengali middle class hold over jobs in P&T, Raiways, banks, tea gardens and other professions eased out leading to Assamese sway. But the remnants of the old influence was still lurking, or so thought the Assamese middle-class.

This class had an unenviable task, that of assimilating a huge number of immigrants brought in by British imperialism. The population of Assam had dwindled to one third of its original, thanks to the civil war called Moamoria Rebellion and the Myanmarese invasions. Now the British trepled the population by bringing in Adibasis to work in tea gardens, and east Bengal Muslims to cultivate in the riverine tracts, besides Bengali Hindus to man the administration.

The slowly emerging Assamese middle class, still in trauma of Moamoria Rebellion and Myanmarese invasious could not devise ways to assimilate the huge immigrant masses in a democratic way. The tea planter-satradhikar-land lord-bureaucrat class which ran the post independence state rather used the 'statist' way of assimilation. The immediate aftermath of independence was marked by 1950 riots, leading to the deaths of hundreds, may be thousands, and displacement of several lakhs to newly formed Eastern Pakistan. Most of them could not come back to Assam before 1951 census & NRC, hence they and their progenies were also left out of the process. It created a chronic problem though temporarily led to the majority of Assamese speakers in 1951 census.

But the Assamese 'state' class wanted to be doubtly sure about its continued hegemony. So the 1960 Assam Official Language Act, and agitation leading to it, were given shape to. While Ranjit Borpuzari and Surya Bora died for the cause of Assamese language, archival data mined by us shows the death of atleast 39 persons. Most of the remaining were Bengali Hindus, and about a dozen Muslims from erstwhile east Bengal, upholding the Assamese cause. But examination of more, hitherto unexplored, archival data shows that the number of death could be around 100! The 1972 Assamese Medium agitation followed more or less the same pattern, keeping alive the legacy of Assamese-Bengali conflicts.

The Assamese Bengali conflicts were interspersed by Hindu-Muslim, Assamese-Bodo and Assamese-Marwari conflicts and riots, more often than not. This illustrates violent competitions between and among middle and upper classes of concerned nationalities and ethnicities.

The 1979-83 Assam Movement was the logical culmination of the 1950, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1974 and all other intermittent conflicts and classes. It was a free for all, resulting in collective doom and death of nearly 10,000 people. The process of Assamese nationality formation was grievously hurt during this period.

One would have expected that a collective self-criticism and realisation would emerge from the catastrophe, a phoenix would emerge from the ashes. But alas the vicious circle of communalism and chauvinism, state and ethnic terror is rolling on, gaining higher momentum with passage of time.

The matter of National Register of Citizens (NRC), an otherwise innocuous, legal, constitutional document, came up in such a context.There cannot be a yes or no, support or oppose option to this. It is simply because in the backdrop of the communal settings of two partitions and the recently communally recharged situation under a communal-fascist dispensation such a massive and potentially explosive excercise would not be left unutilised. We cannot ignore the fact though under declared Supreme Court supervision, the nitty gritties of the implementation part of NRC is left to a vicious and callous bureaucretic machinery.

A basic question here is that, can the left trust a state, more specifically a communal fascist state of the semi-neocolonial era to perform the duties of impartially completing an NRC? More practically, can one expect the bureaucracy to do justice to a communally differentiated, discriminated, mass of illiterate poor? What about the 4 million left out of the process? What do we do with them when Bengladesh closes the door on them? Do we disenfrenchise these millions and categorise them as second class citizens (or non-citizens) allowing them only work permits? Is it a question of human rights only that we give them food and water and deprive them of other democratic rights?

The British had engineered these large scale migrations into Assam and the British had projected them as eternal enemies of the Assamese people. Globalisation has turned out millions of people the world over out of their homes, has forced them to migrate to the remotest corner of the world and has projected them as enemies of the local people. Same here. But instead of exposing and realising the sinister, divisive designs of these imperalist forces are we fighting it out in the people-to--people level only? These are questions that would continue to dog us for some days to come.

Meanwhile, as an interim measure, the NRC is to be completed. As per Supreme Court instruction no harassment to those who are left out. Rather opportunities for them to be provided. Here a friend has very pertinently suggested that it is the bounden duty of the state to complete the NRC. Therefore the state would have go to the people, door to door, much like census and voters list operations. The people cannot be forced to shuttle between home and NRC offices umpteen times by foregoing their bread and butter.

Euphoria over, those who intially supported NRC are now crying hoarse over alleged inclusion of foreigners while there are millions who are crying for their exclusion alleging they are communally left out. Things are back to square one. As if we are standing on the threshold of 1950, pre-first NRC days.

The fate of Assam cannot be allowed to hang in the balance forever like this. Neither can one allow the sword of Damocles to hang above peoples' heads. To recall 1950, 1960, 1972, 1974, 1979-83 are not the only halmarks of Assam's history. Those were milestones of a bloody road. But then, there was yet another road, a road less traversed, but glorious though. The road of a united freedom struggle from 1826-1947, the 1966 Food Movement, the 1968 Refinery Movement, the 1974 Students Movement. Assam would have to choose the second road for its survival and onward march, NRC or no-NRC. A decisive-conclusive fight against the Siamese twins of communalism-chauvinism beckons upon us. Whether united left- as there are instances of several strems capitulating to those forces-can take upon themselves this challenging task of democratisation of the polity would be crystal-clear very soon.

In spite of the dark clouds around, one sees a silver lining in that despite wide-spread provocations, the people, most importantly the Assamese people, have so far refused to indulge in any kind of violence on NRC issue. All is not lost yet.

Vol. 51, No.7, Aug 19 - 25, 2018