The elections in Assam are over. Regardless of who wins, some eye-opening facts have emerged that are distinguishable from 2016 when the last elections were held. The dots only connect looking backward, to quote late Steve Jobs. Celebrating Holi this year, the Chief Minister gave an address in the middle of the capital city Guwahati, without uttering almost a single word in Assamese. In October 2020, the State Government declared that Assamese, Bengali and Bodo are not compulsory languages for applicants of the Assam Civil Services from the Barak Valley. In December 2019, Guwahati was perhaps the first city in the world to get a taste of ‘lockdown’ for two days, when military-enforced curfews brought an end to the unarmed protests, a sight similar to that of Srinagar.
Like thousands of others, I moved back to my hometown Guwahati at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. This was the first time in five years I had stayed at home for such a long duration, and perceived that the city had developed considerably, but also changed. If you’re on the streets, listen for a few minutes to the numerous conversations around you. You will notice that the percentage of conversations in Assamese is low (some people say it is only 30%). A Delhi-based journalist from Assam recently tweeted in irritation about restaurant staff in Guwahati’s LGBI airport. She complained that the Assamese-speaking staff hesitated to talk in Assamese with the customers, as if it was prohibited. Many high-end spaces of the new economy – the polished malls, restaurants and cafes – are ‘sanitized’ of Assamese, operating mainly in Hindi or English.
It is unfortunate that we are discussing ethnic identity and nativism in 2021. “Why does it matter?” This is the question raised more by the young post-liberalization generation, most of whom live away from Assam. Many of them see their goal in life as settling in India or abroad and becoming global citizens, not primarily Assamese, but Indian, American, Canadian, British, etc. But 2020 showed us that ethnic identity, inequality and conflict between Blacks and Whites in the US (after the George Floyd incident) literally set the world’s richest and most powerful country on fire. In India as well, ethnic identity is the axis along which politics revolves, according to political scientist Milan Vaishnav. Maharashtra, Haryana and Telangana recently enacted laws reserving private sector jobs for locals. These are among India’s richest, most industrially-advanced States. If they feel the need for policies that protect natives’ socio-economic security, such policies are even more necessary in Assam, which is one of India’s poorest.
However, the major ethnic classification in mainland India is that of caste. You cannot escape your caste in India: recent research shows that caste determines many prospects in life, mainly access to jobs and housing. Inequality and discrimination based on caste is much lower in Assam than the rest of India. The Government’s own statistics show that in the rest of India, on average the Scheduled Caste (SC) households had a monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) 37% lower than the general category households. In Assam, the difference was much lower, with Scheduled Caste households actually having 11% higher consumption. The India Human Development Survey 2012 reported that only 16% households in Assam practised untouchability, compared to a national average of 24%. Being born in Assam makes it more likely that a person from a lower caste will have a higher economic status and dignity compared to the rest of India. While the rest of Indian society is arranged vertically on an imaginary ladder of ‘purity’, with Brahmins at the top and SCs at the bottom, Northeast India’s unique history means Assam’s society is more horizontal, and the identity of being Assamese override caste in most instances. In Assam and the Northeast, ethnic groups negotiate with each other as equals, not ranked on an imaginary system of superiority and inferiority.
From 2015 to 2021, nine security forces personnel were killed in the Northeast, compared to 66 civilians (South Asian Terrorism Portal). This is compared to 283 deaths among security forces in Chhattisgarh during the same period. Even Meghalaya witnessed more deaths – 11 soldiers – and yet the government removed the AFSPA in 2018. How do the statistics justify imposing the AFSPA in Assam? The reason is that Assam as a State has not been able to bargain effectively within India’s federal structure for decades, ever since signing the Assam Accord. Assam and the Assamese speakers in particular have got almost the worst ‘deal’ in the entire Northeast, and perhaps the entire country. Even the smaller indigenous groups like Bodo, Karbi or Dimasa, once considered more vulnerable, have managed to convince the Centre to accept most of their terms, and enacted stringent laws to protect their common lands and language.
The Assamese speakers constituted 46% of the State population according to the 2011 Census, and it is a safe prediction that the 2021 Census (currently under way) will reveal the percentage to dip lower below 40%. The ability to bargain will reduce further with more time. At the same time, Assamese culture is having a renaissance because of the internet. The YouTube artists making content about Assam have millions of combined subscribers. A particularly successful example is in music, with path-breaking new creations from new generation artists like Anurag Saikia, Abhi Saikia and Shankuraj Konwar. Their music, popular among national/ global audiences, is infused with the spirit of Assam. But such efforts require a large Assamese-speaking audience to be commercially viable, and perhaps government support. More creative policy suggestions will need to emerge from all walks of society if the Assamese language is to be secure in Assam; if necessary as implementing the recommendations of the panel on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord.