In the troubled socio political narrative of North East India Assam has always held a prominent face. At the forefront during the national movement Assam has acquired a trajectory that is very dissimilar to the trajectories other Indian states have taken post Independence. And it is in this context that the recent row in the Assam state assembly over the definition of an “Assamese” must be seen.
The state government while submitting itself in the Assembly declared that it has been unable to arrive at the definition of an Assamese and since then there has been a huge furore in the state regarding who is an Assamese. This question holds a special place in the spatial minds of the people because it leads to the larger question of who is not an Assamese. And finally the chimera of “Who is a Bangladeshi”?
Modern states in a post modern world are often heterogeneous projects. The concept of a nation state primarily a European project in the 18th and 19th centuries spoke of homogenous existence where people with similar food culture and language were linked to a particular territory, their nation state their homeland. One of the earliest nations to defeat this very concept from its inception itself was India .India was a multitude of culture with various languages, customs and religions. An Indian was someone who shared a common history that had been shaped by the sands of time. Far from being a homogenous project India celebrated its heterogeneity.
And it is in this context that the northeastern state of Assam had always been celebrated as a mini India. It was indeed a completely functioning subnational project. This subnationalism stemmed from a feeling of proud history to being hoodwinked by the colonial masters in the Treaty of Yandaboo signed on Feb 24 1826. Assam, in the post independent India was a melting pots with different tribes the Khasis, the Nagas the Bodos and the Karbis alongwith the non tribal , the caste Hindus speaking in Assamese, the Bengali speaking Hindus in Barak valley ,the Hindi speaking trading community all lived in peace and harmony.
And it was here that the first break occurred. Often politics in frontier areas are convoluted around building power centers focused on a few individuals .Politics in these frontier areas often focused on a few regressive themes with the tool in Assam being the language Assamese. Assamese was being forced down upon the throats of those who spoke other languages. Naturally the tribes which had long shared a proud history of their own along with an equal relationship with the plains people resented such a move. It amounted to a colonial mindset and subjugation of a different kind a certain kind of linguistic chauvinism. The proud tribes protested and were able to carve their own homelands where the territory was linked to their ethnicity. It was one of the most poignant lessons histories gave to the people of Assam, that linking definition to a particular language would seek to destroy the fabric of Assam.
In the years that have followed Assam has seen a resurgence .A resurgence of cultural proud histories of people that inhabit its land .A striking example in this regard is the emergence of Bathow religion in the cultural space of the Bodo people. And rightly so this has brought about a new sense of identity that is linked to demands for a new state.
At the same time the Bangladeshi question remains far from being resolved. Even after repeated court hearings, the striking down of the IMDT Act and the setting up of foreigner’s tribunals. Nothing has ever been achieved in terms of eradicating the Bangladeshi problem. It is time that the administration as well as the intelligentsia think of new ways of countering it .But at the same time this new call for nomenclature should not become another round of hunting spree of Bangladeshi rounding up .The Bangladeshi question should now move into deeper realms of how to stop further migration if any and how do we shape the future.
Barak valley is often missing in the intellectual mindscape of the people of Assam. The Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims of the Barak valley have never been able to connect themselves with people of the Brahmaputra valley. The addition of Barak valley to the political map of Assam seems to be an administrative decision for ease rather than anything else.
Thus at such a time when the socio political narrative of Assam is anything but in equilibrium the question over an Assamese would undoubtedly create a new round of trouble in its landscape. There is a need to move away from this definition which is linked to a language even if unintended. Because this definition attached to a language would create doubts in the minds of those who don’t speak the tongue. A new exercise needs to be carried out. The definition has to move from Assamese to “PEOPLE OF ASSAM” . This definition would make the context much more wider .It would include everyone who live within the political boundaries of the state irrespective of whatever tongue they speak. The real challenge in this exercise would be the decide the cutoff date from which this would be in vogue and that would be the domain of academics in time to come.
As history has shown us chauvinistic projects however subtle have often felt flat in the world .Man’s need for expression and the yearning of freedom have always trumped the shackles of chauvinism of any kind. It is time that the socio political landscape its academics and its intelligentsia realizes this and put efforts into projecting Assam as a perfect example of heterogeneous identity rather than trying to bind it within the shackles of homogeneity.