Needed - an Honest Introspection and Dialogue in Assam

Srimanta Sankaradeva, a Beacon of Assamese Culture (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

As the year 2020 starts, Assam continues to debate issues that have refused to die for decades now. This is not to undermine the seriousness of the issues – illegal immigration is certainly a big problem and a national security concern for us. However, the paradigm of the discussion often takes into itself the discussion of Assamese identity, the native vs outsider narrative, and the demographic sensitivities all wrapped in one. This has hampered a fair dialogue and introspection in general on the issues that Assam faces, and the state has certainly lost out in the face of fresh ideas, with a sense of stagnation setting in the state and its people’s discourse.

Given this situation, perhaps it is important that one looks into the complex issues of identity, origin and clashes on the subject at large. One important reason for me writing this multi part piece is my belief that sometimes an outsider’s perspective and observations are necessary in fragile discourse environments, given how easily anger flares up. This is certainly not an attempt to downgrade or demean anyone – rather, it is an attempt to objectively look at the various identity related concerns of the people of Assam and understand how the state’s people can get out of the morass that they are stuck in today and move forward. 

Understanding the Assamese Linguistic Identity and the Colonial Assamese Construct

The emergence of a modern Assamese identity is a complex phenomenon, because it has less to do with ethnicity per se. Rather, this has roots in the emergence of a standardized language that became acceptable to a significant chunk of the region’s population. This is distinct, because there are parallels to the emergence of the phenomenon of European nationalism where language perhaps even triumphed ethnicity in many ways and emerged as the rallying point for identity. However, this too was a recent, eighteenth-nineteenth century event. The British era Assam state was a conglomeration of various erstwhile kingdoms (each of the kingdoms themselves were multi ethnic in themselves). Bodo, Koch Rajbanshi, Ahom, Naga, Jaintia, Dimasa, Kachari – the list is endless. Additionally, Brahmanas, Kalitas and Kayasthas also formed an important part alongwith many other communities like Nath-jogis, Surya-Vipras/Daivajnas,Kaibartas/Keot/Kevat, who have an equally deep historical connection to the region - some of the caste Hindus came in during the early influx of Aryas in Varman Dynasty era, while some have come as recently as 1700s. There were no standardized languages and scripts – a phenomenon true for the whole region comprising of Bengal, Odisha and Assam. Even the first standardization of script truly happened with Raja Rammohun Roy writing the Gaudiya Vyakarana treatise on grammar rules that got adopted. Sumit Kumar Chatterji in 1926 had highlighted that the entire region was essentially speaking derivatives of Magadhi Apabhramsha, with break offs happening at various points. On the same lines, the standard Assamese script used today was earlier called the Bamuni script and is based on Maithil Script, but other scripts were also used - for example Shankardeva and Madhava Deb wrote in Kaithi script.

The emergence of the modern, standardized Assamese language is directly linked to the missionary activities in the region, wherein they essentially standardized the script and dialect of the eastern region, primarily that spoken in Sibsagar at the time which has homophonic relationships with the Sylheti versions of Bengali in several ways. Till this point, several languages and dialects were spoken, including Kamrupi, Tai Bhaxa (the original Ahom language), Axomiya (the dialect of upper Assam), Bengali, Brajabuli, Bodo, Kachari and several other languages. In fact, the famed linguist Upendranath Goswami in 1958 stated that Kamrupi was the ‘first Aryan language spoken in Rangpur, Cooch Behar, Goalpara, Kamrup districts, and some parts of Nowgong and Darrang districts.’ Kamrupi still survives, though finding very few adherents, and seen more as a dialect that induces derogatory chuckles and jokes. It is important to note that in the pre modern age Kamrupi was the prominent literary language in Brahmaputra valley (Madhav Kandali's work, Ananta Kandali's work, Durgavar Kayastha's, Sukavi Narayandev's). Kamrupi, Bengali, Oriya were three broad branches of Magadhi Apabhramsa, but in reality a wide spectrum of linguistic variation and dialects existed. But the modern Assamese is actually the standardization of Shibasagar dialect (just like modern Bengali is the standardisation of Gaudia dialect).

Interestingly, the golden age of Assam culture emerged under the Koch Rajbanshi king Nara Narayan, and is deeply intertwined with the Vaishnava phenomenon. As E A Gait spelt out in A History of Assam, the Sakta philosophy’s hold was essentially challenged in the Koch rule by Vaishnava reform with the emergence of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Gait noted with irony how

He preached a purified Vishnuism and inculcated the doctrine of salvation by faith and prayer rather than by sacrifices. He at first attempted to propagate his views in Ahom territory, but he was subjected to so much persecution…..that he went to Barpeta, where, under the mild and just rule of Nara Narayan, he proclaimed the faith far and wide.

Further, in this era were written what are considered classics of Assamese language; however, impactful writings, especially of Srimanta Sankaradeva, were in Brajabuli, a Maithili derivative. The deeply Vaishnava strain is significant, since scholars like Tapan Bose have seen the interlinking of the Assamese identity with the Vaishnava cultural identity, which has also led to distinction from the latter Bengali settlers of the British times.

Some scholars have argued that the Assamese identity is a construct of the British times, thanks to the language formalization for missionary activities leading to the emergence of standardized language. Even though initial attempts for getting recognition for standard Assamese language came from American Baptists, who printed the first ever magazine in Assamese, "Arunudaya" in January 1846, the real motive for this exercise was to convert the masses to Christianity. Having realized this, the Hindu Assamese society did undertake efforts to counter these subversive efforts, with the Sattras, religious and cultural centers of Assam leading from the front. The Dharma Prakash Press of Auniati Sattra of Majuli started the second ever magazine in Assamese, "Assam Vilasini" in 1872 to act as Dharmic voice in the Assamese language, after having purchased their own printing press which was named "Dharma Jantra". The Sattra was also responsible for releasing a large number of publications simultaneously to promote Dharma, an activity that is still going on. With the involvement of the Sattras, one sees evidence for movements within Assamese society to preserve the distinctive Assamese language and not letting it become hostage to the missionaries.

It is important to point out at this stage that several parts of Assam still did not speak Assamese, which was borne by the census figures over the years. As Sanjib Goswami had highlighted, census figures over the years always showed the Assamese people to be an ethnic minority. As written by Goswami,

In 1911, the Assamese language speakers were a mere 21.69% of the total population in Assam, which had grown to 60.89% in 1971. This increase was not due to rise in Assamese speakers but simply due to change in the territory of the state and how some groups of immigrants preferred to identify themselves as Assamese. But in subsequent years, when the immigrants stopped identifying themselves as Assamese, the Assamese language speakers started to decline from 57.81% in 1991 to 48.80% in 2001.

The Bengali Problem – More Complex than One Imagines

To say that Bengali was not native to what constitutes Assam is ignorant of the complex history of Assam. The Kachari kings in Lower Barak valley officially used Bengali in their administrative affairs. Even the Koch language despite being a distinct language had deep influence of Bengali – in fact, in regions like Goalpara, the Bengali language was predominant in state affairs, traces of which can still be found in the Cooch Behar regions of present Bengal. That many of the ‘native Bengali’ speakers of Assam later went on to identify themselves with the Assamese identity is often lost on the protestors broadly. In fact, many of the upper caste middle class Assamese speakers who participated in the Assam Agitation can trace their ancestry back to Bengal-Bihar origins, which often raises questions about the reasons for hatred in general.

However, the narrative of the Bengali outsider coming in, taking away their resources has stubbornly persisted. Is it mere stereotyping, one could wonder. There are some elements to the story that must be read to think about it. As Ractim Goswami has noted, in the British times, four distinct waves of migrants entered the then Assam presidency – Adivasis for tea garden and coolie labour; Marwaris for trade; Nepalis as cattle breeders and grazers; and Bengali, specifically East Bengalis as lower level government servants in the state and the East Bengali Muslims as agricultural labour. Chandan Kumar Sharma has noted two distinct reasons for the influx of the Bengalis in particular:

  • Agricultural development of the lower reaches of land that could solve issues of land scarcity in East Bengal, giving relief to pressures on land especially in places like Mymensingh; and
  • Inability of local high-ranking Ahom government officials to work as per the Mughal-Mansabdari system introduced by the British. An interesting thing to note here is that during the early parts of British rule, the old educated class of Assamese Brahmins and Kayasthas failed to fill the role of British administrators, much in part due to the Brahmin-Kayastha orthodoxy of Assam, which thought of English education as pollution with a resultant loss of caste.
While the former saw the influx of Muslim Bengalis, the latter saw Bengali Hindus coming into the state and becoming the face of the colonial administration. This, coupled with the rise of the Assamese language identity with the prodding of the Missionary forces of the time. This, despite the fact that the Assamese elite of the time, as pointed out by Sharma, had filial relations with elite Bengali families in Calcutta. In fact, some eminent Assamese personalities in Calcutta like Boli Narayan Baruah in their writings of the time, as pointed out by Sharma, openly advocated for the immigration of Bengali population to Assam. Quoting a passage from Sharma’s paper:

Baruah, who was an Extra Assistant Commissioner as well as the editor of the journal Assam Bandhu, commented in an article titled ‘Bengali’ that appeared there that the Assamese people should forsake their contempt for the Bengalis. He argued that the more the educated Bengalis came to Assam and our people went out the more broadminded the Assamese would become and would find the Bengalis as brothers.

However, it is not to say that there were no issues in turn at the time. Sharma, Goswami and others have noted how there was significant resistance in the Bengali populations at the time to identify themselves as distinct people. This was also partly driven by what the Assamese call the Dark Age of the Assamese Language, wherein between 1836-1873, Bengali was the official language of the state till a significant revival was undertaken by both the society and some outsiders. Though the language was imposed for official purposes by the British, the issue did create significant bad blood with the locals, and also led to significant hatred for ‘chauvinistic Bengalis who essentially fooled British into believing that Assamese is a mere dialect’ to paraphrase a few Assamese I know.

Further, Sharma concedes that the Hindu Bengali immigrants showed a lesser eagerness to accept Assamese language and culture, and unlike the Muslim immigrants spearheaded the campaign to oppose the Assamese language becoming the sole official language of Assam, thus ensuring that Bengali was recognized as the official language of the Bengali-dominated erstwhile undivided district of Cachar in the Barak valley. The emotionally charged Bengali Language Movement of 1960-61 of course had a logical point at the time – Assamese was the language of only a third of the state’s population, and it was being imposed without consultation and consensus building, creating a cleavage within the state residents at the time.

However, with the passage of time a significant degree of assimilation has happened, and there has been, as Boli Narayan Baruah had predicted, a sense of brotherhood discovered between the two. The common threads, recognized more than once by both sides, are not just ties of religion – they have also become over time of blood and kin, spanning over generations. Bengalis and other ethnicities have openly started to marry and intermingle, taking them well beyond the xenophobic mistrust that caused much bloodshed. Further, the threat to culture has not been what it was imagined with respect to this grouping – instead, the common threads of Dharmic ties have led to the assimilation of these and the other Hindu communities, thus serving as a bridge that has breached a divide. The way in which Shankaradeva and Kamakhya Devi are both symbols of Assam’s glory tells one a lot about how things stand today, and the symbols of cultural pride today stretch across all ethnicities.

The Miya Problem of Assam - Inconvenient Facts about the Greater Bangladesh Project

However, it is interesting that several scholars, Assamese and otherwise, have pointed out how the explosion in the population of Muslim Bengali migrants, which had affected the masses at large, got neglected for the longest time while the middle class issues of clamor for government jobs got prominence in the various rounds of agitations till the Assam. Uddipana Goswami has noted how the zamindars of Goalpara when unable to meet the revenue demands of the British administration, imported agriculturists from Eastern Bengal and provided them settlement in the available wastelands as a means to raise revenue. This could be evidenced in data from the censuses - the 1911 census showed 51000 people of the 54000 East Bengalis in Assam settled in Goalpara which rose to 141000 in Goalpara and another 117000 in the rest of Assam by 1921! However, what perhaps worsened the situation and communalized it further was the Line System of 1920, which was vehemently opposed by the Muslim League. However, the ineffective implementation of the same forced the government of the time to set up the Hockenhull Committee in 1938. Mohammad Saadullah, the Muslim League Chief Minister of Assam, had in fact admitted that immigrant Muslims were replacing not only the tribal peasants but even the Assamese Muslim peasants from their lands.

Leaders like Maulana Bhashani took advantage, as pointed out by Uddipana, of the Hindu-Muslim, Axamiyâ-Bengali, and Barak-Brahmaputra divides, reinforcing them for political dividends. For a fact, Uddipana has pointed out the role of the Muslim League leaders in aggressively pushing for Pakistan’s emergence and Assam’s assimilation into it. Abul Kasem, a member of the Assam Legislative Assembly (and later member of Pakistna National Assembly), built the East Pakistan killa in Mankachar in 1947 as a military garrison to launch a pro-Pakistan movement in Assam. As noted by him:

In fact, on the eve of partition and independence, the idea of Pakistan was uppermost among immigrant leaders, and Muslim League politics was at its peak. Aggressive propaganda and militant activities by pro-Pakistan Muslim League members prevailed. The colonial power also seemed to be favouring the two-nation theory and had all but handed Assam over to Pakistan under the Grouping scheme of the Cabinet Mission Plan drawn up on the eve of transference of power by the colonial rulers.

Subsequently, across several attempts, it must be noted that the Assamese society has always tried to make attempts to merge the Muslim Bengali immigrants, believing that they will become Axamiya someday. However, the fact remains that the influx has continued, especially for the same economic reasons that were stated earlier, with another dimension that came up – Greater Bangladesh.

Greater Bangladesh was first brought into the public discourse by Lt Gen S K Sinha as the Governor General of Assam in 1998. In his report submitted to the then President of India, General Sinha pointed out that the Muslim League was more than eager on making Assam a part of Pakistan. In the 1905 partition of Bengal, Assam had been against the will of the people made a part of East Bengal. Subsequently, with the Partition, it was visualized that Pakistan would comprise Muslim majority provinces in the West and Bang-e-Islam comprising Bengal and Assam, in the East. As pointed out by Lt Gen Sinha in this must-read report:

Mr. Moinul Haque Chowdhary the Private Secretary of Jinnah, who after Independence became a Minister in Assam and later at Delhi, told Jinnah that he would “present Assam to him on a silver platter”. Jinnah confidently declared at Guwahati that Assam was in his pocket. The Cabinet Mission Plan placed Assam in Group C with Bengal. Both the Congress High Command and the Muslim League accepted the grouping plan but Lokapriya Gopinath Borodoloi vehemently opposed it. He was supported by Mahatma Gandhi. The grouping plan was foiled and Assam was saved from becoming a part of Pakistan.

Interestingly, the view was endorsed by later Pakistani leaders as well as Bangladeshi leaders. The policy of Lebensraum has been quoted publicly by Bangladeshi intellectuals and political leaders, without specifying how exactly it will happen, but giving enough hints through certain events taking place. Lt Gen Sinha quoted in his report Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s, Myths of Independence,

It would be wrong to think that Kashmir is the only dispute that divides India and Pakistan, though undoubtedly the most significant. One at least is nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute, that of Assam and some districts of India adjacent to East Pakistan. To these Pakistan has very good claims.

He also quoted Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s, Eastern Pakistan: Its Population and Economics:

Because Eastern Pakistan must have sufficient land for its expansion and because Assam has abundant forests and mineral resources, coal, petroleum etc., Eastern Pakistan must include Assam to be financially and economically strong.

Further, the report also gave eyewitness accounts of how this has gone about, one of which has been reproduced from the report as follows:

Shri E.N. Rammohan, DG. BSF, who is an IPS officer of Assam cadre, in his report of 10 February, 1997 has stated, "As Additional S.P. in 1968 in Nowgaon, I did not see a single Bangladeshi village in Jagi Road or in Kaziranga. In 1982, when I was posted as DIGP, Northern Range, Tezpur, five new Bangladeshis Muslim villages had come up near Jagi Road and hundreds of families had built up their huts encroaching into the land of the Kaziranga Game Sanctuary". He mentioned that in 1971 the large island of Chawalkhoa comprising 5000 bighas of land was being cultivated by Assamese villagers from Gorukhut and Sanuna and went on the state, "In 1982 when I was posted as DIGP, Tezpur, there was a population of more than 10,000 immigrant Muslims on the island. The pleas of the Assamese villagers to the District Administration to evict those people from the island fell on deaf ears. Any honest young IAS, SDO of Mangaldoi Sub-division who tried to do this, found himself transferred. In 1983 when an election was forced on the people of Assam… the people of the villages living on the banks of the Brahmaputra opposite Chawalkhoa attacked the encroachers on this island, when they found that they had been given voting rights by the Government. It is of interest that Assamese Muslims of Sanuna village attacked the Bengali Muslim encroachers on this island. I am a direct witness to this."

Thus, it should be evident to a large number of people where the real danger lies. Therefore, barring a few Assamese Muslims, to assume that the assimilation is not a false pretense for a larger game is for one and all to see. The recent destruction of ancient manuscripts in the Shankaradeva Kalakshetra in Guwahati during the recent protests, the 2010 clashes in Barpeta on the National Register of Citizens, or even the 2013 Bodo area riots clearly hint at the scenario that has emerged and underscores the need for recalibrating the lenses with which communities are being viewed to identify the real dangers.

I would like to thank @neelambuj_ for this for his fantastic inputs that have only improved this piece by leaps and bounds.



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