Who Is An ‘Assamese’? Why New ‘Cut-Off Date’ Proposal Is Dangerous
Demand for 1951 cut-off date is a dangerous prospect that’ll displace millions in Assam who know no other home.
On 11 August, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) independently released the confidential report of the government-appointed ‘high-level committee’ on the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord to the media.
The panel, set up by the Union Home Ministry in July 2019, and headed by retired Justice Biplab Sarma, was originally supposed to submit its report to the Centre. Instead, it was filed to the Assam state government in February 2020, as New Delhi was reportedly uncomfortable with the recommendations. Tuesday’s media release came amidst complaints by AASU, that the government was ‘just sitting idle’ over the report.
A Hugely Problematic Definition of Assamese People
The report is the latest of several attempts made over the years to finalise the contours of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, an MoU signed between the Indian government and Assamese nationalist groups (including AASU) at the end of the Assam Movement in 1985. The Clause is pivotal to the Accord – it promises “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards” to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
However, thirty-five years later, the definition of ‘Assamese people’ remains mired in contesting notions of indigeneity, ethnicity and belongingness.
The latest report, at least the version released to the press by AASU on Tuesday, attempts to close the chapter by providing one. It defines ‘Assamese people’ as those residing in Assam on or before 1 January 1951.
This is a hugely problematic definition, not least because it leaves out those who arrived and settled in Assam after 1951 from the constitutional safeguards regime.
The committee suggests what these ‘safeguards’ would look like – 80 to 100 percent reservation in parliamentary and assembly seats, jobs in central government posts, jobs in Assam state government and private partnerships, and exclusive land rights.
These are far-reaching propositions that will decisively place a certain set of people in Assam above the others. They are based on a deeply hegemonic and xenophobic understanding of Assamese-ness – one that refuses to acknowledge the historically layered and pluralistic nature of the society in Assam.
- Thirty-five years later, the definition of ‘Assamese people’ remains mired in contesting notions of indigeneity, ethnicity and belongingness.
- The latest report attempts to close the chapter by providing one. It defines ‘Assamese people’ as those residing in Assam on or before 1 January 1951.
- The demand for the 1951 cut-off date isn’t new. In fact, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha – the civil society organisation whose PIL at the Supreme Court led to the 2014 NRC updation order – wants the NRC to de-list those who came after 1951, instead of 1971.
- But, this is a dangerous prospect that will disenfranchise, displace and dehumanise millions of people in Assam who know no other home.
A Segregationist Proposal
The narrow interpretation of ‘Assamese people’ that the committee provides will create a whole new framework of social, political and economic segregation in Assam.
For instance, reserved seats in central and state legislatures for pre-1951 residents would give them extraordinary political clout over others. Reserved jobs would give them disproportionate economic leverage over others, creating new socioeconomic wedges in an already fissured state. Exclusive land rights for this group of ‘Assamese’ would mean territorial disenfranchisement for the others.
In a multi-ethnic, multi-layered state like Assam that has seen prolonged inter-group conflict, this is a recipe for disaster. It will only flare up old fault-lines, besides creating new ones.
The committee also suggests that Assamese be kept the “official language throughout the state with provisions for use of local languages in Barak Valley, Hill Districts and the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts.” It also proposes that learning the language be made compulsory for government posts, with the same divisional exceptions.
Both of these are grossly chauvinistic policy measures that only serve to marginalise other languages spoken in Assam – which, in fact, is already underway.
Recently, the Gauhati University discontinued its courses on Mising and Rabha languages – a move that activists and academics from the state have touted as ‘a major blow to linguistic minorities in Assam’. The committee’s report only reaffirms such discriminatory linguistic regimes.
Double Regimes of ‘Belongingness’
The 1951 cut-off date, as proposed by the committee, creates an overlapping regime of indigeneity in Assam.
According to the Assam Accord, those who came to Assam on or before 24 March 1971 are Indian citizens. This is also the cut-off date that Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) operates on. So, if and when Clause 6 report is implemented, those who came to Assam between 1951 and 1971 would be stuck in a strange midway place – Indian citizens (many of whom have lived in Assam for two decades) but not ‘Assamese’.
In fact, in order for the committee’s interpretation of Clause 6 to be fully realised, the state would have to undertake another NRC-like exercise to determine who amongst Assam’s current resident population have pre-1951 family roots.
This would mean another round of paperwork verifications, bureaucratic frenzy, political squabbles and misery for the common people. Not to mention the heavy costs to the Exchequer that such a headcount exercise would entail, much like the Rs 1200 crore NRC project.
A Dangerous Prospect
If the government decides not to undertake a new demographic profiling exercise for whatever reasons, it would have to rely on the 1951 NRC. That is an equally precarious scenario, since the 1951 NRC was a hastily prepared piece of document that presented a distorted picture of the demography back then. It remains unclear how the committee proposes to reconcile with this.
The demand for the 1951 cut-off date isn’t new. In fact, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha – the civil society organisation whose PIL at the Supreme Court led to the 2014 NRC updation order – wants the NRC to de-list those who came after 1951, instead of 1971.
But, this is a dangerous prospect that will disenfranchise, displace and dehumanise millions of people in Assam who know no other home.
By upholding the Mahasangha’s demand, the Clause 6 committee only validates this majoritarian agenda of creating a set of second-class citizens in Assam. Unfortunately, the NRC has already accomplished half of the task.
(Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, and former Visiting Fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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