It’s About Our Very Identity: Why Assam is Up in Arms Against CAA
There is a difference in the perspective of anti-CAA protest in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley from rest of the country
"Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impression of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune had befallen us."
Written in 1946 in The Search for India (The Discovery of India), Jawaharlal Nehru enshrined the very essence of India in a few words and the small state of Assam in India's far Northeast resonates with these words. The very introduction of the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) at its core threatens to shred apart the intricate mélange of my state.
About 23 indigenous tribes (Bodo, Karbi, Koch-Rajbanshi, Mishing, Mishimi, Rabha etc) call Assam their home along with the non-indigenous Assamese communities and the people from other states who migrated pre and post independence.
The variations in the languages, festivals, cuisine, attire, traditions and the way of life within these communities are intricately woven to create the composite fabric of the greater Assamese society as a whole which truly defines how diverse the Pan-Assamese society of today is, yet how unified they are.
As such, though the enactment of CAA has raised voices of protests from various corners of the country at present, yet there is a difference in the perspective of such protests in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley from the rest of the country.
Socio-Economic Impact of NRC on Assam
The population of Assam as per 2011 census was 3.12 crores and was projected to be 3.55 crores in 2019. While the number of people who applied for the process of NRC was 3.30 crores, as per the press release of SCNRC, of which 19 lakh people were left out from the final NRC list.
It can be assumed that those who did not apply and a huge number of those who are excluded, had none of the official documents asked by the Government as proof for their eligibility. Though in Assam Accord of 1985, 1971 was adopted as the cut-off year to accept the immigrant refugees.
The CAA overturned this and established 2014 to be the cut-off year. Another 43 years of accepting this steady stream of immigrants as rightful citizens would cripple and devastate the very existence of the indigenous people in all domains.
To give a brief overview about the sheer number of immigrants present in the state, quoting from SK Sinha's report to the President of India in 1998:
“Recent enumeration of electors list in Assam by the Election Commission shows more than 30% increase in 17 Assembly constituencies and more than 20% increase in 40 constituencies between 1994 and 1997. Whereas the All India average growth for three years intervening the two intensive revisions in 1994 and 1997, is 7%, the growth in Assam for this period is 16.4%.”
This shows a drastic change was brought about into the demographic details of the state.
For a state overburdened with slow industrial and economic growth, ravaging floods that displace thousands of people homeless each year, how is the government, both at the Centre and the State, going to handle the extra burden of lakhs of Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants whose names were left out in NRC list, but will be included through CAA?
The GDP of Assam is Rs 2.88 trillion, far below other states and doing slightly better than the other Northeastern and hilly states.
While many of the indigenous communities and the tea-tribes belong to poor socio-economic backgrounds and reside in pockets within the state, living below the poverty line, the ethnic identity of these communities are at stake and are already dying a slow death in the wake of the aggression of their stronger counterparts.
Are votes from illegal “Hindu” immigrants so important for the ruling party that they are ready to throw anyone and everyone under the bus as long as they can remain in power?
The Fear of Becoming a Minority in Their Own Land
Most importantly, the bone of contention between the government and the people in the Brahmaputra valley is the fear stemming from the doubt and insecurity about becoming a minority in their land soon, with likely assault on their ethnic identity, culture, land and their rights to dignified life and liberty, employment, privacy, land, livelihood etc, as it had happened with the Tripuris.
There are many pockets in the state where the Assamese were a majority 20 years ago but are a minority now.
The census data reveals that percentage of Assamese speakers in Assam declined from 48.80% to 48.38% and that of Bodo speakers declined from 4.86% to 4.53% while that of Bengali speakers increased from 27.54% to 28.91% from 2001 to 2011.
With the legalisation of Bangladeshi refugees through CAA, the percentage of people speaking local languages will decrease further and maybe over the years, they will be completely dominated by one single language.
This fear of the Assamese populace towards the subjugation of their language and culture stems from the early 1800s when the British East India Company took control of what is present-day Assam from the Burmese, made it a part of the Bengal province, imposed Bengali as the official language in 1836 and brought in much Bengali intelligentsia to assist them in their administration of the state.
Slowly, the Assamese language got eclipsed as Bengali became the medium of instruction in schools and colleges along with being used in local day-to-day administrative work, until the inception of the era of “Orunodoi” and “Jonaki” when a few Assamese with the help of the British missionaries started to revive the language once again, against all odds, tediously.
The Fight to Save One’s Identity
With the partition of India, Karimganj became a part of Assam while the rest of Sylhet, after the Sylhet referendum went to East Pakistan, despite having a considerable Hindu population of about 43 percent.
This started a cross-border migration of the sizeable Bengali Hindu population of East Pakistan into Assam to escape religious persecution in 1947.
The number of immigrants, including both Hindus and Muslims, kept on increasing over the years, escalating during the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) and continued thereafter too.
As a result, the Assamese speakers (including the tea tribes and a lot of the then Bengali Muslim immigrants) and the Bengali speakers came into direct conflict; especially in the 1960s; which when combined with the apprehensions emanating from the blunders made by the British administration, led to several agitations (Bhasha Andolans) on both sides to preserve the linguistic heritage of the communities, until Assamese was made the official language of Assam in 1960 and Bengali in the Barak Valley.
Since the sense of assimilation of most Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh into the greater Assamese society is very less, the state and its people will once again be thrown into turmoil with the enforcement of CAA and maybe open up buried-down resentment and hostility among the people creating frictions and fractures in the greater Assamese society.
Often the Assamese people are asked about the "fragility" of the Assamese culture, and why their culture is not strong enough to withstand this external aggression.
So, should the Assamese wait for a Tripura-like situation where they become the minority in their land before raising their voices against “settler colonialism”?
Should we be mute spectators to the obliteration of Borgeets and Zikirs and the many indigenous dance forms of Bihu, Sattriya and Bagarumba among others? Is CAA the conclusion to the 6-year long Assam Agitation and the 800+ people who gave their lives just to save their identity?
The state leaders can be rightly called Bibhishanas in this case. At this juncture, the fate of Assam is hanging by a thread. Are the indigenous people to witness the Assam of the 80s and 90s again, with economic depression and the rise of extremism? How many generations of Assamese must sacrifice their youth to protect their identity? In the end, we are just fighting this lone battle to preserve our "Unity in Diversity".
(Srishti Dasgupta hails from Jorhat, Assam, and is currently a software engineer based in Munich, Germany. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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