IN THE subcontinent, people have lugged suitcases. Said goodbye to old neighbours and acquired new ones. They have changed cities, hammered nameplates on different doors, sometimes in one generation or in each of them. Moving in has never meant that you won’t move out.
You may even get an answer out of a T-shirt about its place, or factory of origin, but not out of a person. This is true of the people of Assam. Even before it became a state of independent India, Assam was a meeting ground of several dynasties, tribes, traders, immigrants. It was also a place where Bengalis of all faiths learnt to pull together, be watchful of the other, and yet be cordial. And both were accepted by the Assamese as part of Assam, till, as they say, “they couldn’t”.
We are looking up the Bengali connection today, simply because the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise being conducted in Assam, does not include the names of 40 lakh people (approx) in the register’s final draft. Four lakh (approx) from the Bengali-dominated Barak valley have not made it to the list. There is worry now on every brow. What if this is by design, ask the inhabitants of the valley.
“Every 10 years, the Assamese spring something like this on us,” says Sanjib Deb Laskar of the Barak Valley Bengali Literary and Cultural Association, in Silchar, the headquarters of Cachar district. “In the ’50s, thousands of Bengali Hindus and Muslims relocated to or from East Pakistan due to violence and returned [after the Liaquat-Nehru Pact] to Assam to find their names missing from the electoral rolls of 1952 and the NRC of 1951. In the ’60s, Assamese was imposed in our schools; our resistance got Bengali back but now and then they send a circular asking if schools are following the ‘state language’ when they know in the Barak valley that’s Bengali, and it’s there not as a favour but by law. From the ’70s to the ’80s, they ran the ‘Bideshi kheda’ movement, in which the target shifted from outsiders to illegal immigrants to Bengalis in general. Now they have the NRC.” Many families could not apply for inclusion in the final draft of the current NRC because they could not supply the legacy data of which the 1951 NRC is a key document.
Laskar’s father has been a legislator in the Assam assembly. Some in his family have not been included in the NRC. “Barak Bengalis”, he says, “have been here as part of undivided Sylhet. Bengalis have been in Assam since the 5th century. [Sylhet went to East Pakistan in 1947 after a referendum and is now in Bangladesh.] And they are calling us foreigners!”
TaniyaLaskar (no relation to Sanjib, a Hindu), a lawyer who is part of a network comprising 46 organisations in Barak that has been conscientising people on the NRC since the first draft list was published, agrees. She takes us to meet Taslim Ahmed Barbhuiya and Ataur Rahaman Barbhuiya, two brothers in Borkhola village near Silchar, whose names are missing from the NRC list. Their sons Mustafa Kamal and Abu Hanif’s names are in.
“Will our fathers now be considered Bangladeshis?”, the sons ask. “How can one half of the family be Bangladeshi and the other half Indian?” The family traces its roots to Irman Ali Barbhuiya, a resident of the village since 1921 who participated in the Non-cooperation movement.
Two-time Congress MLA Ataur Rahman Mazarbhuiya has also not been included in the final draft. “It is a prestige issue for me. In the name of updating the NRC, they are leaving out Bengali names.” His name was there in the first list. Archana Pal, the wife of Dilip Kumar Pal, the BJP legislator from Silchar, has also not made it to the list. Pal in an earlier interview to HT laughed off the exclusion, saying the “entire process was monitored by the Supreme Court”.
The NRC, Taniya says, is turning out to be an exercise “aimed at turning Indians into foreigners. The Assamese only consider themselves Khilonjia (originals).”
“I have a constitutional right to speak and be educated in my mother tongue,” says Taniya. “How is that a challenge to anyone and where is the conflict? Next, it can also be said that to stay in India, you can only speak Hindi…. Even when people came in after March 1971, few in Barak said, ‘don’t come.’ [The start of the Bangladesh liberation war was March 25, 1971; entry into Assam on the midnight of March 25 is the cut-off to be considered an Indian according to the Assam Accord that the NRC accepts.] This fear of illegal immigration is an imposed fear and NRC is being touted as its cure.”
That Bengalis of both communities find themselves out of the NRC has reinforced their shared identity though that unity is not a given. The Bengali of the Barak valley is not on the same page with those of the Brahmaputra valley. Khokan Bhattacharjee, a Guwahati businessman says: “Bengali Hindus were driven away from Bangladesh. You can’t fight there and hug here,” he says.
The two-lakh Namasudra Matua community of Barak also does not speak in one voice about the NRC. Babul Das, a fishmonger, for example, begins by talking of the NRC being “right to back original settlers”, and then being politically correct: “Of course those who came after 1971 also came in pain.”
Being ‘progressive’ is not a poor man’s burden. The Matuas who moved to Assam’s Barak valley had known both caste Hindu domination and Muslim religious chauvinism at the time of Partition when they were driven back from East Pakistan not yet Bangladesh.
Three of Barak’s districts (Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi) and Barpeta in the Brahmaputra valley have a majority of Bengali-speakers, both Hindus and Muslims. Both communities were accommodated in Assam for different reasons. The main reason is historical; the current controversy surrounding the labels ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘indigenous people’, which this NRC exercise has thrown up like the ’51 NRC did, is political.
The ’51 NRC buoyed up the Assamese. Their numbers had grown. At the time, the Mymensinghias (Brahmaputra valley Muslims of East Bengali origin), already made insecure by the riots, had said, they were Assamese in their documents.
“By the ’80s, things changed. Whenever they went looking for work in the cities people would call them illegal migrants. So they started asserting their Bengali identity in some places as a reaction to the constant questioning of their identity,” explains academic Parvin Sultana, who grew up in Dhubri in the Brahmaputra valley, an area that hawks constantly refer to as a place that has shown a “decline in Assamese speakers” and a “rise in (Bengali) Muslim numbers.”
“Bengali assertion, Muslim or Hindu, is seen by the Assamese as a loyalty issue as it accentuates all past fears of Bengali domination, and fears of being turned into a minority in their own state,” says documentary filmmaker Soumitra Dastidar researching a film to make in Assam with the NRC as backdrop. The picture, however, is more complicated than a simple clash of two blocs – Assamese and Bengali.
The aversion of the ultra-nationalist Assamese for the Bengali of Assam, notwithstanding the former’s secular claims, is subtly skewed against the Bengali Muslim vis-à-vis the Bengali Hindu.
Making the ’51 NRC a key document of the current NRC, with lakhs of names already missing from the former, “is a ploy to disenfranchise huge numbers of Bengalis”, adds Dastidar.
Us and them
If Bengalis have a grudge-list, the Assamese, too, have different pressure points. “The Assamese fear has a context. These are fears based on realism,” says Nanigopal Mahanta, who heads the political science department at Guwahati University.
“Due to their ease with English, the Bengali middle class was able to monopolise administrative jobs and the emerging professions of law, medicine and teaching in Assam in colonial times,” says the professor. “The British, due to their time in Bengal made Bengali the language of governance in Assam for several years. If any Bengali protested this, it is not known.”
Resentment at Bengali domination sparked Assamese nationalism. Historian Sumit Sarkar in his book ‘Modern Times India 1880s-1950s’ writes about Assamese intellectual Anandiram Phukan’s protest, criticising “the ‘foreign medium’ [Bengali] in courts and schools”. The pro-Bengali lobby also tried to pass off Assamese as a Bengali dialect. (This was opposed by Bengali economic historian RC Dutt though). The seed of the language conflict, which has since then fed other paranoia between the Assamese and the Bengalis, were sown at that time, adds Mahanta.
There is absurdity and amnesia on both sides; exceptions are passed off as rule. Some Bengalis say the Assamese “pass off Tagore songs as Bhupen Hazarika’s songs”, or that Bengalis are “harassed when they go to pursue their pension in Dispur [Assam’s capital]”.
Some also raise a most unusual point, which is now too late to correct: “Why couldn’t Pranab Mukherjee have been a signatory in the Assam Accord? There should have been a Bengali at that table…. [The demand for the current NRC flows from the promises of the Accord signed between the government of India, Assam and the leaders of the Assam Agitation, the All Assam Students Union, AASU in 1985.]
The Assamese, on the other hand, spin the Sylhet Referendum as a sign of Assamese “generosity”. Kishore Bhattacharjee, an activist in the Barak valley, denies this. “The Assamese were quite happy to let Sylhet go as it had Bengali majority population. Its sacrifice led to massive displacement of population, bloodbath.”
That Assam’s first government under the Government of India Act, 1935, was run by a Muslim League government, and that Assam was nearly going to Pakistan’s share are presented by Assamese politicians as if these events are unfolding right outside their window and not years ago. That this is being dusted out now is with an eye to 2019 elections, say commentators.
“BJP thinks a division between the Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim will improve their chances,” says Prodip Nath, a theatre worker in Silchar. “Its leaders have been holding rallies saying Hindu refugees have nothing to fear. What they mean is if a person doesn’t get to be identified as a legal immigrant through NRC, there is the new Citizenship Act (Amendment) 2016 bill. If passed, it will help a person get legal immigrant status.” Nath, however, adds that “there are many Assamese who protest ultra-Assamese nationalism. We must talk to them.”
“The attack on the Bengali Hindu is in the name of language – the Assamese say they do not accept our culture. The assault on the Bengali Muslim is in the name of religion. But there are chauvinists in all parties,” says writer Hafiz Ahmed of Barpeta. A pilot project for the NRC was started in 2010 in Barpeta by the Tarun Gogoi government, he adds. Recently, Ahmed met AASU leaders at a television talk show. He asked them “ ‘Who is Khilonjia (original)? It’s basically the Shiv Sena line, the Sena considers only the Marathi manoos as ‘indigenous’.”
AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjya was a teenager when the Assam Agitation began. Reading out from a file in the AASU office, he says: “Assam is facing ‘external aggression and internal disturbance’ due to large-scale influx of Bangladesh nationals. Not my interpretation, the Supreme Court has said this.” He breaks our interview to give a bite to a local channel and then refers to another file. “If they become ‘kingmakers’, and this is a Guwahati Court observation, then indigenous people will become a minority in the state”.
Who is ‘they’? Will these categories of indigenous, non-indigenous not create strife? The solution seems to be in music. “Look we’re not against Bengalis or Muslims,” says Bhattacharjya. “There may have been bad blood during the Assam movement but it was all wiped out when Debojit Saha, took part in the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa challenge in 2005 and became the ‘Voice of India’. The AASU backed him. We did not look at him as a Bengali boy.”