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Explained: Who is Assamese? A proposed definition, and several questions

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 14-08-2020 Kabir Firaque
Rajiv Gandhi et al. sitting at a table © Provided by The Indian Express

The question, “Who is an Assamese?”, has been debated for decades in Assam, whose history has been shaped by people of multiple cultures over the centuries. Now, a report by a government-appointed committee has proposed a definition for “Assamese people”. While this is limited to the purpose of implementing a provision of the 1985 Assam Accord — Clause 6 — it spotlights the complexities at play in Assam.

Why is it a matter of debate?

The Assam Accord was signed at the end of a six-year agitation (1979-85) against illegal migration from Bangladesh. In the context of the Accord, the question of who is Assamese stems from the language of Clause 6: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

This gives rise to two questions: what will these safeguards be; and, who are the “Assamese people” eligible for these?

Isn’t any resident of Assam, Assamese?

It is not all-encompassing in a state defined by the politics of migration. And yet, the definition of “Assamese” cannot be so narrow as to mean only those who speak Assamese as their first language. Assam has many indigenous tribal and ethnic communities with their own ancestral languages. For Clause 6, it was necessary to expand the definition of “Assamese” beyond the Assamese-speaking population.

Those not eligible for the safeguards under Clause 6 would clearly be from among the migrant populations. But would the entire migrant populations be excluded, or would some of them be eligible for Clause 6 benefits? Hence the debate.

But who is a migrant?

In popular conversation, the idea of “indigenous” is taken to mean communities who trace their histories in Assam before 1826, the year when the erstwhile kingdom of Assam was annexed to British India. Large-scale migration from East Bengal took place during British rule, followed by further waves after Independence.

The 1979-85 Assam Movement was triggered by fears that these Bengali Muslim and Bengali Hindu migrants would one day overrun the indigenous population, and dominate the resources and politics of the state. During the agitation, the demand was for the detection and deportation of those who had migrated after 1951.

Was this demand accepted?

Not 1951. The Assam Accord was settled at a cut-off of March 24, 1971; anyone who arrived in Assam before that cut-off would be considered a citizen of India. This date was also the basis of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), published last year.

Because the Accord legalised additional migrants (1951-71) against the original demand of 1951, Clause 6 was incorporated as a safeguard for the indigenous people. This was the reasoning as explained to The Indian Express last year by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who signed the Accord as All Assam Students’ Union president in 1985, and went on to become the Chief Minister.

How has Clause 6 been taken up since?

Because of the complexities involved, previous efforts to work out a framework made little headway. The matter got urgency last year amid protests by the Assamese against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now an Act) which makes it easier for certain categories of migrants to get Indian citizenship — the key here being Hindus from Bangladesh. The Home Ministry set up a new committee, which submitted its report in February, but the government sat on it for months. This led to four of the committee’ s 14 members making its contents public on Tuesday.

So, what are the recommendations?

For the purpose of implementation of Clause 6, the proposed definition includes indigenous tribals, other indigenous communities, all other citizens of India residing in Assam on or before January 1, 1951 and indigenous Assamese — and their descendants. In short, it covers anyone who can prove their presence (or that of their ancestors) in Assam before 1951.

As for safeguards, the committee has recommended reservations in legislature and jobs for “Assamese people”, and that “land rights be confined” to them.

What are implications of the definition?

  • Migrants who entered Assam after 1951 but before March 24, 1971 are not Assamese but are Indian citizens. They would not be eligible, for example, to contest an election in 80-100% of Assam’s seats (if that recommendation is accepted). But they can vote.
  • Not just indigenous groups, but East Bengal migrants who entered Assam before 1951, too, would be considered Assamese. “(Migrants of) 1951-71 have been accepted (as citizens)… for their staying here, some people have suffered certain losses that have to be made up,” said committee member Nilay Dutta, Advocate General of Arunachal Pradesh.

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What issues does this raise?

Some find it too inclusive. The committee had received some public suggestions that had proposed a base year of 1826 for anyone being considered Assamese, Nilay Dutta said.

Hafizul Ahmed, president of the Sadou Asom Goria-Moria-Deshi Jatiya Parishad that speaks for indigenous Assamese Muslims, told The Indian Express that there should not be a base year for identifying the indigenous people of Assam. The organisation had sought that only communities living in Assam during Ahom rule (pre-1826) be included in the definition, based on their cultural identities.

Others find it exclusionary. The All Assam Minority Students’ Union, which is identified with Bengali Muslims, had been demanding that the 1971 cutoff be used for deciding Clause 6 eligibility too. Its adviser Azizur Rahman said: “How will you prove that a person has been in Assam prior to 1951?” (The 1951 NRC is not available in several parts of the state.)

Sadhan Purkayastha, general secretary of the Citizens’ Right Protection Committee, said lakhs of people in Assam’s Barak Valley stand to lose their rights if the report is implemented. A large number of Bengali Hindus and some Bengali Muslims had migrated from Sylhet to Barak Valley in the 1950s and 1960s.

What is the way forward?

“Several issues come up: for both the state and central government, the key issue is whether it will stand the test of judicial scrutiny because it is bound to be challenged in the courts; and will it stand the test of constitutional validity?” said Sanjoy Hazarika, International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and a journalist who has written extensively on migration.

Among the issues Hazarika raised were:

  • Does the definition of an Assamese — a social, historic, ethnic, linguistic, political and cultural and not just religious entity — or a Bengali or a Punjabi or a Tamil also define her/his Indian-ness or Indian citizenship? “This is a key legal and constitutional issue that needs to be considered. It is connected to the NRC process as the Assam Accord cannot be reviewed in isolation of one clause or the other,” he said.
  • How will pre-1971 migrants be accommodated? “There isn't a magic wand to solve the problem which has challenged the core of Assam for over 70 years… I have been an advocate of constitutional reservations and work permits. But we also need to acknowledge the demographic reality in the state and its diversities,” he said.

(Inputs from Abhishek Saha in Guwahati)

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