Historically, Assam is the confluence of many genetic and cultural strains. Negrito, Austro-Asiatic, Mongolian and Nordic genes have intermingled to create a melting pot of ethnicities.
The languages spoken in Assam, are derivatives of an Aryan linguistic base; Tibeto Burmese and the ancient language of Khasi has Austroasiatic roots. These cultures have lived together for centuries.
History of Assam
In modern times, the British annexed Assam from Burma in the early part of the 19th century, at the end of the Anglo Burmese wars. Assam itself was merged, for administrative ease into the Bengal Presidency, and Bengali was made the official language of the province in 1837.
Imperial Britain converted the rich hills of Assam into tea plantations that would satiate the unquenchable demand for tea, and they began importing labour from all over their other territories including central India.
British also brought in Chinese labourers. In 1874, Assam was separated from the Bengal Presidency, and Bengali and Assamese both became languages of the state. The imposition of Bengali and the hiring of Bengalis in plum positions became the root cause of the resentment between the two groups.
We have seen similar stories of clashes throughout modern India centred around “outsiders who take ‘our’ jobs” issue.
The next big defining event was the partition when the province of Sylhet was partitioned from Assam and became part of Pakistan (Now in Bangladesh). Sylhet predominantly speaks Bangla. Refugees poured into India – into the states of West Bengal (now Bangla) and Assam. More Bengali speakers.
And, then came the Pakistani civil war which led to the Indo-Pak war of 1971, and the birth of Bangladesh. There were refugees once more, and Assam, as well as West Bengal, bore the brunt of the refugees.
The Assamese vs Bangla Issue
The Assamese vs Bangla issue has been simmering for long. The tension has three major components, all of whom are equally powerful – language, culture, and now religion. Those who crossed over between 1947 and 1971 were both Hindus and Muslims. This would change in the years that followed the birth of Bangladesh when acute poverty – they were poorer than we were – led hundreds of thousands to cross over for a better tomorrow.
In 1979, the All Assam Students Union led by Prafulla Mahanta launched an agitation to deport all illegal immigrants. In 1984, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord which promised to do this. It brought an end to the agitation. A key clause of the Accord was that those who entered the state after 1971 would be deported. This was 14 years after the birth of Bangladesh.
The publication of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that has left out four million names out of the registry is just the latest in a set of measures that many Assamese believe is necessary to protect their culture.
The registry contains all names who can prove that they were in India before 1971. Many left out are Bengali speaking Muslims. Most claiming to be Indians.
It is likely that many of those on the registry are from other Indian states, and will have to get their states to verify their antecedents. It is likely others will get a reprieve on appeal. Even then there is a fair amount of people to repatriate.
What Next For The Four Million People?
And, that brings us to the next question. Even if these people were Bangladeshis at some point in time, they are in a very grey zone in terms of citizenship and will possibly appeal. There is nothing that tells us that repatriating them to Bangladesh is going to be a cake walk.
If you place them in refugee camps then the state has to bear the cost of that and, there will be some level of fall out in the geopolitical scene, which, no doubt, will be dwarfed by what Donald Trump does with immigration in the USA.
After 47 years of the birth of Bangladesh, and 33 years after the signing of the Assam Accord, the NRC is going to cause turmoil in Assam. In these 47 years, people have set up homes, found work, and made a life. They and probably their children and grandchildren have the most required documentation including voter’s card, ration cards and Aadhaar cards, passports and driving licenses.
And, now many of the 4 million will be disenfranchised or not have the rights of a citizen. While a passport is more of a guarantee of residency, if not citizenship – Aadhaar is slightly more tricky. While it is given to residents of India, and the Calcutta High Court had ruled that it isn’t proof of citizenship, it is still based on already existing government paperwork.
The possession of the Aadhaar card or a passport would be good enough to challenge disenfranchisement in the courts. And, while the NRC has been conducted under the watchful eye of the Supreme Court, there is no reason why they won’t hear appeals based on one of the most vexing constitutional question of the modern era – what defines citizenship, and who is a citizen? Is it culture? is it ethnicity? is it residence? Is it only by birth? What is this thing called citizenship?
Unless Bangladesh agrees to take people, and there is no rational reason for it to accept an influx of millions of people. What happens next is mired in ambiguity. It is unlikely that the government is going to be able to deport many people. The question is whether it should even try? Should the Indian state disenfranchise lakhs of people? Place them in refugee camps? And, to what extent?
What the Indian government needs to do now is seal off borders and ensure no fresh migration takes place. It is unlikely it is going to be able to do much about the past. It is just too many years that have gone by.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
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First Published: IST