Plain-Speak - Arup Kumar Dutta

The people of Assam had discovered after independence that the benevolence of the all-India political leadership was a myth and that apathy and neglect were the lot of the Northeast. The reality that the leaders whom they had chosen to represent them in the pan-Indian set up had failed to do their job was a shot in the arm for Assamese nationalism.

It is sad indeed that a vast segment of our urban middle-class today is ignoring the reality that the Assamese are a small socio-cultural group, in fact, one of the tiniest in the nation, forever vulnerable to being swallowed up by bigger socio-cultural groups. This segment, which should have known better, is instead conniving with elements which are attempting to adulterate the authentic Assamese ethos and pollute Assamese culture, thereby bringing about an end to Assamese society as we know it.

I am more than certain that in the coming decadal census such a reality will reveal itself even more starkly. Today, Assam is at a crossroads. At this critical juncture Assamese nationalism itself is under threat. That the indigenous people of Assam have a sword of Damocles, in the shape of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, hanging over their heads, has enhanced the danger manifold! To comprehend this threat one has to briefly retrace the path of Assamese nationalism since the medieval era of our history.

It had been during the Ahom dynasty that the pre-colonial Assamese nation was born. The 600-year-long reign of the Ahoms witnessed the synthesis of the disparate ethnic entities inhabiting the Brahmaputra Valley and the evolution of a distinct Assamese nationalist identity. Periodic Muhameddan assaults from the west which had to be repulsed reinforced this Assamese nationalism, the different tribes being also bonded together by the religious and cultural renaissance ushered in by Mahapurush Sankaradeva.

Two significant developments occurred due to the annexation of Assam by the British in the 19th century. Though influenced by religions and cultures prevalent in mainland India, Assam till then had retained her sovereign and independent political identity. By tagging her onto Britain’s Indian Empire and placing her under a common administration and uniform civil code, the British deprived the region of its sovereignty, and Assam became an outpost of that Empire.

In the process Assamese nationalism was reduced to a sub-nationalistic status within the macrocosm that was pan-Indian nationalism. Meanwhile, the Raj period witnessed the destruction of the medieval order and the birth of the Assamese middle-class and, while earlier the Ahom rulers had been the custodians of Assamese nationalism, the onus of preserving it as well as the Assamese identity was transferred to this enlarging Assamese middle-class.

Initially this class was a staunch champion of Assamese nationalism. For instance, when the colonialists first imposed British administration in the region, they had brought with them natives from outside who had the benefit of western education. Prompted by their machination, Bengali replaced Assamese as the official language of Assam. It had been the middle-class which successfully fought to have Assamese reinstated as the official language.

Despite the region being politically united with the rest of India, Assamese nationalism continued to remain dominant till the beginning of the 20th century. But by then changes in attitudes were occurring throughout the Indian subcontinent and the Assamese middle-class could not remain untouched. In the pan-Indian scenario the middle-class, which initially had been pro-colonial in essence, gradually grew less enamoured of the British and the national freedom movement began.

The gale of the freedom movement swept over Assam too. This was another momentous development which changed the perspective of a section of the Assamese middle-class which now joined the movement for Indian independence under the banner of the Indian National Congress.

Proponents of Indian nationalism, who conceived of India as one whole and indivisible entity, could not harp upon dangers that threatened small socio-cultural groups like the Assamese without having the appellation of being chauvinists thrust upon them. The people too were overwhelmed by nationalistic fervour and ignored the threats against the Assamese identity.

Throughout the decades just preceding Indian independence, there was a continued tussle between proponents of Indian nationalism and Assamese nationalism, with the latter mocking the former for having abjured regional interests for the sake of political gains. Individuals like Ambikagiri Ray Chaudhury and his Asamiya Samrakhshini Sabha through the magazine Deka Asom continuously warned the people of Assam that their identity was in dire danger.

The Congress camp opined that the Assamese nationalists were concerned with petty regional issues. The Assamese nationalists on the other hand came down heavily upon the Congress, calling it a party of ‘Badan Barphukans’ who betrayed the interests of Assam.

In the tussle between the pro-Indian and pro-Assamese nationalists, political power was won by the former, led by the Indian National Congress. But Assamese nationalism, though much emasculated, was not quite dead, coming to the fore every now and then during the early post-independence decades in the form of agitations such as the ones in 1960 and 1971 demanding that Asamiya be made the official language or that refineries must be set up in Assam and not in faraway places like Barauni in Bihar. Organizations such as the All Assam Students’ Union and Asam Sahitya Sabha were at the forefront of such movements.

Meanwhile, the people of Assam had discovered after independence that the benevolence of the all-India political leadership was a myth and that apathy and neglect were the lot of the Northeast. The reality that the leaders whom they had chosen to represent them in the pan-Indian set up had failed to do their job was a shot in the arm for Assamese nationalism.

It manifested itself explosively in the anti-foreign migrant Assam Movement initiated by the AASU towards the fag end of the 1970s. The objective of the movement was not only expulsion of illegal foreign infiltrators, but also to wrest political power back into the hands of the indigenous people. Apart from the signing of the historic Assam Accord on August 15, 1985, the most optimistic outcome of the movement was the formation of a regional party, the Asom Gana Parishad, to articulate the aspirations of the Assamese people and stand as a pillar of Assamese nationalism.

If today Assamese nationalism is struggling to survive, the failure of the AGP to fulfil the objectives and ideals upon which it was founded is largely to blame. But, even then, the AGP would have remained the standard bearer of Assamese nationalism had not some leaders of this party, forgetting the sacrifices made by the Assamese people during the mass movement and the hundreds who were rendered martyrs, chose to ally the party with all-India entities which were inimical to Assamese nationalism.

This they had done so that they could enjoy the privilege of ministership by clinging on to the coat-tails of the ruling party! The nadir has been reached when these AGP leaders betrayed Assam by going along with the CAA which portends to be last nail in the coffin for the Assamese people.

This, then, is the reality. Because of its advocacy of CAA, the AGP can no longer claim to be the articulator of the aspirations of Assamese people and a pillar of Assamese nationalism! However, it is equally true that pan-Indian parties are anti-regionalism in nature, thus the future of Assamese nationalism is tied to the strength of a regional party!

Fortunately, like the proverbial phoenix, two other entities have emerged to fill up the vacuum caused by the abjuration by the AGP of its historical role. These are the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal. The AJP has been backed by organizations which have traditionally fought for the cause of the Assamese people, such as the AASU and AJYCP. The Raijor Dal is backed by another nationalistic entity, the KMSS.

People who love Assam will certainly hope that these two entities would gain in strength and stature in the coming days and succeed in taking up the mantle of Assamese nationalism, so direly required for the survival of this small socio-cultural group!