The definition may not go down well with the various ethnic communities, including the tribals and non-tribals, of the state who could see this as an imposition on their distinct linguistic and cultural identities.
Peeved at the delay in implementing Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has released the report of a high-powered committee constituted by the Union Home Ministry for this purpose. The AASU was part of the panel that submitted its report to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal five months ago.
Among the key recommendations of the committee was the definition of the Assamese identity in this multi-ethnic state, a highly complex issue that literary and cultural stalwarts, scholars and intellectuals have been grappling with for years.
Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which was signed by the Centre, the Assam government, the AASU and the now-defunct All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) in 1985, states, “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards…shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”.
According to the panel, the Indian citizens who were “part of Assamese community of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, any indigenous tribal community of Assam residing in the territory of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, any other indigenous community of Assam residing in the territory of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, all other Indian citizens residing in the territory of Assam on or before the same date and their descendants” should be treated as Assamese people.
This definition may not go down well with the various ethnic communities, including the tribals and non-tribals, of the state who could see this as an imposition on their distinct linguistic and cultural identities. Already, a section of the people from the Bengali-majority Barak valley has opposed this, calling it an “anti-democratic move”.
In addition, the cut-off date of January 1, 1951, is itself a problematic one in view of the citizenship controversy linked with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, something the panel is silent on. The NRC, also a part of the Assam Accord, is aimed at weeding out illegal immigrants. It sets March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date; anyone entering India post this date would be considered an illegal immigrant.
The exercise to update the citizens’ register was a complete mess as it left out only 1.9 million people from the list while including more than 31.1 million names. The state government is now exploring legal options for re-verification of names in the final list released in August last year following fears that a large number of “suspected” people made it to the list.
Assembly hurdle ahead?
Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on August 12 that the state assembly has to first ratify the Clause 6 committee’s definition of Assamese before it is finalised. Nevertheless, this is not the first time that such a recommendation has been put forward. In 2015, the then assembly speaker Pranab Kumar Gogoi had prepared a report after exchanging ideas with representatives from over 50 ethnic groups.
Gogoi recommended 1951 as the cut-off year, and the NRC 1951 as the benchmark for definition of the Assamese people for the purpose of creating constitutional and legislative safeguards, as required under Clause 6 of Assam Accord.
According to the report, “an indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the state of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of Assam or, in the case of Cachar, the language of the region”.
However, members of the ruling Congress and opposition All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) had then prevented the speaker from tabling it in the assembly, claiming that they were not taken into confidence before preparing the report.
Perhaps, the Clause 6 panel could have taken a cue from this episode and provided a broader and more acceptable phrase such as “the people of Assam” instead of “Assamese people”.
Understanding the Assamese identity
Among the cultural historians, Bishnu Prasad Rabha (1909-1969) was perhaps the first to provide an anthropological interpretation of the Assamese identity. In his 1956 seminal work, Axomia Krishtir Somu Abhax (A brief introduction to Assamese culture), Rabha argued that the Assamese language and culture had a strong tribal root that had evolved over the centuries and continued to thrive despite many challenges.
Rabha’s contemporary Jyoti Prasad Agarwala (1903-1951), was “one of the foremost advocates of a distinct Assamese identity and worked towards the revitalisation of the culture of the Assamese people,” Radha Das, who teaches history at Gauhati University, wrote in an article.
Agarwala, a renowned lyricist, playwright and the producer of the first Assamese movie, Joymoti (1935), penned a poem, ‘Axomiya Dekar Ukti’ (The speech of the Assamese youth) that best defines the multiethnic dimension of the Assamese identity. He wrote, “I am the Miri of the plains/The youth of Subansiri/The victorious Ahoms, Kachari, Koch/The prince of the Mech/Rajbongshi- Rabha/In the forehead of whose/glimmers hundred lights of dignity.” (translation by Sutputra Radheye)
Later, cultural theorist Maheswar Neog (1915-1995) interpreted Assamese culture and identity, saying: “The concept of Assamese culture is mostly based on people’s affiliation to, and knowledge of, the Assamese tongue and their belonging to the geographical entity called Assam…”
(Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. He writes on issues related to India’s Northeast. The views are personal.)