Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently said that his government was looking to find a legal definition for the ‘Assamese’ people. “We want a legal definition of Assamese in the context of the Assam Accord, especially Clause-6,” Sarma said. “Emotionally, all those who had been living in Assam for a long time, say two-three generations, are Assamese people. We cannot call them non-Assamese.”
But over three decades after the Assam Accord, the definition of the ‘Assamese’ people remains unresolved. This invites some thought on the measurements used to define who the Assamese people are and why people and institutions care so much about having a strict definition for them. Are they suggesting that we don’t know who we are, or that we need to limit the criteria of who can claim membership of the ‘Assamese’?
It is also a bit more than just an attempt to restrict the criteria and define certain measurements and references that are considered legitimate and primary – such as language, culture, religion – to claim membership of the Assamese community.
Defining the 'Other'
Identity is indeed a highly contested and complex question given the mosaic of cultural, social, political, economic and linguistic realities in Assam. Linguistically, Assamese dominate the Brahmaputra Valley and Bangla in Barak valley, the two rough geographical divisions of Assam. Identity in Assam can be approached in two ways, if not more. First, people identify themselves as who they are, which is to say, their language, food, dress, and so on. Second, another dominant way of identifying someone is by the labels of ‘other’, ‘outsider’, ‘foreigner’, ‘Bangladeshi’, ‘Bihari’ or ‘Nepali’.
These different aspects of the ‘other’ vis-a-vis the Assamese have their own history.
Much of the sensibilities and sentiments about the ‘other’, which are racist, among other things, can be captured in a slogan that became popular during the Assam Movement, which read as ‘Ali, coolie, Bongali [Bengali]/ Naak sepeta [blunt-nosed] Nepali’.
These measurements are also a journey to the Assamese self of who they are not. This way of profiling the other gives us a peep into the psychological self of the Assamese nationalists. The other mirrors the sentiments and sensibilities of the Assamese nationalists, which include people from various identities, and not just caste Assamese, who have been gradually nourished by Assamese nationalism since the early 19th century.
1951 Census and Clause 6: Myriad Definitions
One of the early attempts to define the Assamese people is found in the 1951 Census of Assam. It stated:
“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 (meaning Bangla).”
The criteria for being considered as belonging to Assam is a little ambiguous, but language is sufficiently defined and territorial boundaries of being an Assamese are marked clearly. The year 1951 remains crucial even for the current National Register of Citizens (NRC) process.
One of the more popular references for the Assamese people is Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. Assam Accord, as we know, was signed between the leaders of the Assam Movement (1979-85) agitation and the government of India to end the six-year-long anti-foreigner movement. Clause 6 of the Accord states:
“Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
We can see a marked shift from the 1951 definition here. Law is brought into the picture in a conscious and wholesome manner to consider language, cultural and social identity, and heritage. And, of course, the need to protect, preserve and promote them form an important part of the various safeguards demanded through the Accord.
The GK Pillai Committee and Second-Class Citizens
In 1998, the government of India constituted a sub-committee headed by GK Pillai, the then-Joint Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, to look into the safeguards of Clause 6. A meeting that the committee held on 10 April 2010 involved many stakeholders, including the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). In the meeting, AASU representatives stated that they would like to have a definition of the Assamese people based on the 1951 NRC.
Moreover, in the seven districts with no NRC 1951 data, 1952 electoral rolls could be considered a reference to define the Assamese people. It was also agreed that anyone living in Assam as of 1951 would be considered Assamese.
Almost two decades later, in 2019, the government again formed a 14-member committee (comprising only men) headed by retired High Court judge Biplab Kumar Sarma to look into Clause 6. The committee submitted its report, but both the Centre and the Assam government did not pay much heed to it. They were frustrated; a few of its members, like the late Nilay Dutta and three members of the AASU – Samujjal Bhattacharjya, Dipanka Kr Nath and Lurinjyoti Gogoi – released the report independently. The committee came up with suggestions for Assamese people, among other things. It proposed that the Assamese people be defined as those who are part of:
the Assamese community, residing in the Territory of Assam on or before 1 January 1951;
or any indigenous tribal community of Assam residing in the territory of Assam on or before 1 January 1951;
or any other indigenous community of Assam residing in the territory of Assam on or before 1 January 1951;
or all other citizens of India residing in the territory of Assam on or before 1 January 1951, and descendants of the above categories.
Here, we should ask the committee members, what about the people between 1951 and 1971 whom the NRC recognises as citizens? Are they second-class citizens? Are they not Assamese?
A Slew of Criteria for Belonging, and an Anxious Minority
Having different goalposts for measurement has been a defining feature of belonging and citizenship in Assam. This, coupled with the lack of desire and actual consensus to settle on one aspect, keeps the minority in a perpetual state of anxiety and vulnerability.
The question of ‘who is an Assamese’ also came up in the Assam Legislative Assembly in 2015. The 1951 deadline for the NRC process was discussed, and it was suggested that the definition of Assamese should also be included within the ambit of NRC. The above-mentioned definition was included by the then-Speaker of the House, Pranab Kumar Gogoi, which the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) supported. However, the Indian National Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) opposed it.
When to Define Is to Exclude
The Governor of Assam constituted a seven-member committee in February 2017 to suggest “changes or modifications in the existing land laws and the rules” to ensure the “protection of land rights of indigenous people in the State of Assam”. It was headed by a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Hari Sankar Brahma. The Brahma committee expressed dissatisfaction with the 1951 definition and termed it “incomplete” and “twisted”.
The report added that “going by this definition, anyone who is a non-indigenous Indian citizen living in Assam can also claim to be an indigenous person of Assam”. It said, “To cite an instance, a Bengali or a Bihari or a Punjabi or a Marwari living for a long time in Assam and speaking or even writing one of the languages of the State as mentioned above, can be an indigenous person of Assam.”
Here, we find traces of exclusion and marking of boundaries in the move to define an identity. In their submission, a naturalised Assamese was not an Assamese.
An even narrower and more retrospective understanding of identity is forwarded by the Sanmilita Mahasangha, an umbrella organisation that claims to represent 49 indigenous organisations in Assam. For the Mahasangha, “indigenous persons of Assam are those who have been living in Assam continuously from 24 February 1826, the date of the Yandaboo Treaty [sic], and they alone should be termed and accepted as ‘indigenous people of Assam.’” Thus, dates of belonging are pushed further back.
For them, the term ‘Assamese’ is for “those whose mother tongue is Assamese and have used/spoken/read Assamese as an associate language or lingua franca, in addition to their own language/dialects and are preaching and practising their own culture”.
There Is No One Assam or Assamese
The BJP’s move to define the Assamese people is not new, but certain aspects of what Chief Minister Sarma said recently about Assamese being a minority deserve some reflection. By saying that Assamese are a minority, he obliquely leaves out the Muslims of Assam as members of the Assamese community.
Further, he stresses ‘duty’ – that Muslims have a duty to protect “Sanskari culture, Sattriya culture … only then there will be harmony”. Not just duty, but ‘harmony’ is also related to their obligation to caste Assamese culture and society.
This way of looking at the actual minority, the Muslims of Assam, is also a measure of who an Assamese is. The measure comes with an added “duty” and is unique to the politics of the BJP in Assam.
This sentiment was also visible in the speech Gopinath Bordoloi, the first Chief Minister of Assam, delivered in the State Assembly in 1950 to the Muslims of the state. In his speech, he noted that good Assamese and good Indians should harmonise their interest with the “son of the soil, including the tribal people” (mark the order in which “sons of the soil” and “tribal” appear). Asking them to cut all ties with Pakistan, Bordoloi said that “the privilege of sharing joys and glory is conditional on their wholehearted readiness to share the sorrows and difficulties”. This sense of ‘duty’ is slightly different from what our current Chief Minister is referring to, but both affect the same group of minorities.
There are many Assams and Assamese, too. It depends on what references we use. If we use 1951 as a reference, Assam and Assamese will appear in a particular order. That order is very different if we take the cutoff that the Sanmilita Mahasangha proposes – 1826. Similarly, if we include tribal elements to talk about being ‘Assamese’, as Bishnuprasad Rabha did by arguing that Assamese should be seen as an extension of larger Bodo-Kachari culture and not in an Aryan or caste Assamese frame, Assam and the Assamese will appear radically different. I, for one, would like to see an Assamese society, history and relationship of communities within Assam through the lens that Rabha imagined.
(The author is a sociologist based in Singapore. He tweets @char_chapori. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)