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Assam in search of identity, writes Satraajit Palchoudhury

-Satraajit Palchoudhury-

Today Assam is at cross-roads because once again the violent days of six year-long Assam Movement (1979-1985) have started peeping into the minds of those who were a witness to this infamous agitation that wreaked havoc in one of this tiny Northeastern states. Long 34 years have passed, but the wounds that left an indelible mark on the psyche of the people have not yet healed. BJP rode to power in Assam on the plank of development and saving the land from ‘illegal immigrants.’

Frankly speaking, the ruling regime in Assam can’t be considered to be a pure BJP government because the entire chunk, including the Chief Minister is a group of turncoats. Sarbananda Sonowal himself was the president of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and earned the title of  “Jatiya Nayak‟ for moving the Supreme Court against Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal Act (IMDT Act). As per IMDT Act, the complainant had to provide supporting documents to prove that the suspect concerned is indeed an illegal immigrant who has sneaked into Assam.

The entire politics of Assam has been revolving around this debate. The Assamese community firmly believes that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh will take away their lands and in the long run, the indigenous communities of Assam will become minority in their own homeland. In mainland India, casteism dominates the political discourse whereas in Northeast, ethnicity and identity dominate the polity. Prior to the arrival of BJP, Congress followed a “go-slow‟ approach because it suited its own political interests.

The former Assam CM and AASU president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta under whose tutelage the historic Assam Accord was inked in 1985 during the tenure of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi fixed a cut off year—March 24, 1971. It was agreed by all the parties that whosoever has entered Assam up to midnight of March 24, 1971 will be allowed to stay in Assam and the rest irrespective of religion will have to be deported to Bangladesh. 34 years have passed but the process of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants is still going on at a snail‟s pace.

Over these years much water has flown through the mighty Brahmaputra River, but the fate of many so-called illegal immigrants is looming in the large. Assam is probably the only state in the world where detention camps have been set for the illegal immigrants who are dubbed as doubtful voters—they are referred as D-voters. The entry of BJP into the picture has made this game more complicated. Now, the entire state is seeing a raging debate on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) bill, 2016 which is now loitering in Rajya Sabha following its successful passing by Lok Sabha.

The bill intends to provide citizenship to the religious minorities like the Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who in the opinion of the Central government have become victims of religious persecution. But AASU and other like-minded Assamese bodies like Akhil Gogoi‟s Krishak Mukti Sangram Sangstha (KMSS) are opposing this bill tooth and nail because they fear that the indigenous communities will lose their identity, language, land and culture to the marauding illegal immigrants.

The rift between the Bengali speaking population and Assamese community is not a new phenomenon. The citizenship bill has widened the divisions between the two linguistic groups. With a view to mollifying the Assamese community, Modi government decided to form a high power committee to suggest ways for the proper implementation of Clause 6 of Assam Accord. Clause 6 states that the constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards will be provided to the Assamese community. This particular clause has been inserted to safeguard the linguistic, social and cultural identity of the ‘khilanjiyas’ (sons of the soil).

However, the high power committee could not be formed because its nominated members refused to be a part of this set up. Now, both Sarbananda and Himanta—the twin messiah of Assam BJP are seen giving different suitable bytes in different places to woo the voters ahead of the ensuing big fight. Northeast occupies a very pivotal position for BJP because it sends 25 MPs to Lok Sabha. The “Shah” has set a target of 21 seats. Under these trying circumstances how far he will achieve his target, time alone can tell.

The BJP unit in Northeast is still in a fledgling state because the show is being run by turncoats—one is in Assam and the other one is Manipur CM Biren Singh. Though Sonowal is not openly defying the party line, his Manipur counterpart Singh has already apprised the central leadership of his steadfast opposition to this contentious bill. In fact both Congress and BJP are seeing different versions of their respective leaders. Both Barak Valley and Brahmaputra Valley are on different pages.

Barak Valley is dominated by Bengali speaking people and they are supporting this bill. Veteran Congress leader and former CM Tarun Gogoi during his tenure pitched for the preparation of voter‟s list on the basis of 2014 voter‟s list. But this is not acceptable to AASU since it considers Assam Accord as its gospel. Sensing the mood of the state, Gogoi is also changing his stance. Actually, the premier two political parties of Assam are trying to measure the deepness of the water ahead of the general elections.

All India Mahila Congress President and Silchar MP Sushmita Dev is one of the members of anti-Gogoi front which was led by the once upon a time close aide of Gogoi—Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma.“We have not changed our position at all. We are still following the path of Tarun Gogoi. He said that the authorities should follow 2014 voter‟s list for the preparation of the new list,” Dev quipped.

By saying this she has put the veteran Congress leader on back foot and at the same time the cracks between Barak and Brahmaputra chapter of Congress have come to the fore. Though Modi promised the people of Assam especially the Bengali speaking population that his government will do away with detention camps, in reality he has failed to deliver on this front. Around 40 lakh people have failed to make it to the final NRC draft. Now, what will happen to this large chunk of people? What will be their identity? Will they be deported to Bangladesh? Most importantly, will Bangladesh accept them? These are few critical questions. The answers are yet to come by. These questions will surely chase BJP.

Now, it‟s to be seen how the saffron brigade counters these questions. The hapless lot who might be from a different religion and a different linguistic group is also contributing to the GDP of Assam. Their contributions can certainly not be overlooked. Unfortunately, ultra-jingoism is standing between peace and humanity. 34 years have passed till today Assam is in search of its elusive identity.

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