Amid the intensifying political slugfest over Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) with the parties blowing dog whistles to their core constituencies, it is interesting to go back to the past, to see how the process of the Government-engineered migration started in Assam and how it finally turned into a flashpoint in the battle for the protection of the ethnic identity of the indigenous.
The British India Government encouraged mass migration of the cultivators from the erstwhile East Bengal as development of the tea plantations and oil refineries were taken up in Assam in the beginning of the 19th century. The logic was that to speed up commercial development-which would further the cause of the British entrepreneurs- the migration of sturdy, hard-working cultivators from East Bengal into Assam was an imperative. At least, a section of the elites in Assam not just acquiesced to the migration but encouraged the British dispensation to go ahead. For, it was deemed to be the only way to utilise the lands lying waste.
In March 1897, the secretary of the Assam Association, Babu Gunjanan Barua submitted to the Government that as there was 70.15 per cent of land lying waste in Assam, the Government should encourage the migrants to settle by offering them lands on favourable terms as an effective means to help the waste lands produce all sorts of cash crops. Leading Assamese intellectuals like Anandaram Dhekial-Phukon argued that the people of some badly provided parts of Bengal could be invited to migrate for the purpose. The danger of demographic and consequent political turmoil because of the unimpeded migration from East Bengal dawned on the representative sections of the aboriginal communities much later.
In Assam, the danger inherent in the migration became evident by the end of the First World War. Demography got transformed in several areas like Barpeta, Dhubri and Goalpara as well as the entire stretch of the Barak Valley with the Bengalis, mostly from East Bengal, becoming the majority community. “This made the Assamese, who had once supported immigration, very restive. Under pressure from Assamese organisations, the Government tried to implement the Line System by creating a line to delineate the segregated areas of a frontier district where migrants could settle down. But the Line System failed to control immigration and the number of Bengalis continued to rise. By 1931, the Bengali-speaking population had crossed the 1 million mark, with the ethnic Assamese numbering just below 2 million.” (Troubled Periphery, Crisis of India’s North East by Subir Bhaumik).
The Assamese-Bengalese antagonism turned serious, as the Centre under Jawaharlal Nehru asked the first chief minister of Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi to take a part of the refugee burden in the wake of the partition. Bordoloi resented such decision. He tried to argue that there were 1, 86,000 Assamese peasants whose settlement had been hanging in balance. But he was forced to fall in line under pressure from the adamant Centre. The resentment against the exodus from the erstwhile East Pakistan took a collective form by then.
The situation turned grim after the ethnic Bengalis, particularly in the Bengali-majority Barak Valley, came out in the streets in hordes, protesting against the Assam Government’s decision to declare Assamese as the official language of the state in 1960. Silchar, the Bengali-dominated town in the Barak Valley, took the lead in the protests, as the people came out in the streets in large numbers. Eleven persons, including a woman, were killed in police firing on 19 May 1961.
Its repercussion was felt in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley where the Assamese mobs attacked the Bengali settlers. This resulted in large-scale exodus, leading to the mass exodus of the scared Hindu Bengali community to West Bengal. As per the official records, over 45,000 Bengalis crossed over in a span of a few months.
Here, the interesting spin of the things is that several tribal communities spread over Assam like the Mizos, Nagas, Bodos, Khasias and Jayantias shared the resentment of the Bengali settlers regarding the repeated attempts by the Assam Government to impose the Assamese on others. Though these tribal communities had accepted Assamese as the connecting language they were not happy with the Assam Government’s decision to impose Assamese on all the other ethnic and sub-ethnic communities. The hill tribes kept advocating for English as the official language partly because of the influence of the Missionaries and partly because of their fear that the official declaration favouring Assamese as the language of the state would ultimately swamp them culturally. “In fact, the tribal groups joined the Bengalis to organise the ‘All Assam Non-Assamese Language Conference’ in Silchar on 2 July 1961, two months after the police firing in the same town at the peak of the Bengali language movement.” (Troubled Periphery)
A new phase of the agitation began following the by-election at the Mangaldoi Assembly constituency in 1979. Demands for correction of the voters’ list and deletion of the names of the foreign nationals were raised. A routine update of the electoral rolls found that over 45,000 illegal migrants had figured in them. The All Assam Students’ Union called the first state-wide strike on the infiltration issue in June 1979. It demanded the 1951 National Register for Citizens be fixed to screen the genuine Assamese from the migrants.
The movement kept on gaining momentum with time, as the Assamese and other ethnic tribal groups were then united to have the infiltrators thrown out. Several people were killed in police firing. Janata Curfews and oil blockade became a daily affair, disrupting the administration and paralysing the economy.
The Indira Gandhi Government decided to hold Assembly election in the state despite the agitation. Violence marred the election process. Over 130 people were killed in the election month. People preferred to stay away from the polling booths. But the Congress ‘won’ the elections with less than five per cent of the electorate casting votes. The worst carnage took place at a place called Nellie, a village on the highway connecting Guwahati with Nagaon. Over 2000 Muslims were butchered allegedly by Lalung tribesmen. read more post…
Saturday, 04 August 2018 | Romit Bagchi | Dehradun–
Author: Romit Bagchi
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