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Defining Assamese

Nava Thakuria |

Bengali (or for that matter a Tamil or Marathi) may not find it important to define his/her “nationality”, but the Assam government and various civil society groups are now engaged in debating the topic and it is gaining momentum in the context of the upgradation of the National Register of Citizens.

The subject has been alive since the historic Assam Movement led by the All Assam Students’ Union in 1979. Its six-year agitation focused on illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and that they should be deported.

The Assam Accord,which the Aasu leaders signed with the Centre in 1985, mentions the constitutional safeguard to the Assamese people, but the word Assamese is not properly defined.Moreover, it is not empowered with specific regulations.

According to the Assam Accord, anybody (mostly Bangladeshis) who had come to the state before 25 March 1971 can be recognised as Indians: they have the legitimate right to live and also exercise their franchise. However, those who entered Assam after the specific date would be deported, irrespective of their religion.

The issue of defining an Assamese came to the fore in a bigger way, as the state assembly debated the matter in an approach to implementing various clauses of the Assam Accord,Clause 6 of which highlights “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”

Assam Accord implementation minister Bhumidhar Barman, while answering questions from opposition legislators in the assembly recently, admitted that the state government was yet to finalise the definition of “Assamese” people as the beneficiaries of the provisions as per Clause 6.

The state&’s highest literary forum, the Asom Sahitya Sabha, argues that it is the state government&’s constitutional responsibility to decide on the definition of an Assamese for the “purpose of providing constitutional and other safeguards to the people of Assam as per Clause 6 of the Assam Accord”.

Newly-elected president Dhrubajyoti Bora disclosed that the primary role of the sabha was to create and protect a greater Assamese society on the basis of language,meaning any Indian citizen who lives in Assam and speaks Assamese as his/her mother-tongue or either as a second or third language, may be identified as an Asomiya, irrespective of their original ethnicity, caste or religion. Howeverm Aasu leaders have opposed the sabha&’s theory and also influenced many other ethnic groups to reject it. An Aasu team met speaker Pranab Kumar Gogoi to express their resentment against the controversy.

They alleged that the Congress- ruled Assam government was hatching the controversy to derail the NRC updating process. Aasu advisor Samujjal Bhattacharyya has accused chief minister Tarun Gogoi of working against the interest of Assamese people for his own political gains from the large number of illegal Bangladeshis living in Assam. He asserted that Gogoi, along with many other Congress leaders in Assam, did not want the Bangladeshi influx problem to be solved. Pranab Kumar Gogoi, also a Congress veteran, undertook a mission to prepare a report on the issue. He met 50 organisations/civil society groups to understand the complicated issue and finally came out with a report suggesting that the 1951 Census report should be taken as the basis for defining the “Assamese people (or indigenous people of Assam)”.

The report says that an “indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the state of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of Assam or, in the case of Cachar, the language of the region”. But the speaker&’s own party did not support him when he tabled the report in the assembly during the budget session.

The All Assam Minorities Students’ Union demanded that all those who came to Assam prior to the midnight of 24 March 1971 should be considered Assamese.

Here emerges the difference as the Aasu has made it clear that “all those who came to Assam before the midnight of 24 March 1971 ought to be recognised as Indian citizens” (not necessarily Assamese). Assam is not the land of Assamese people alone where every legitimate Indian can stay in the state, but that should not empower any person of foreign origin to politically dominate the indigenous people of Assam at the end of the day.