India’s New Citizenship Law Shakes Northeastern State

Assam’s tangled history

By Minakshi Bujarbaruah and Rituparna Kaushik Bhattacharyya

In the wake of the January 10 Indian parliament’s approval of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which purportedly offers expedited citizenship to minority migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – but not Muslims – the streets of Assam in the isolated northeastern corner of the country, have been in turmoil. 

The state for the past month has echoed to Bhupen Hazarika’s songs of the spirit of the land, its people and their struggles. It is a reminder of a six-year struggle called the Assam Agitation, a popular movement against illegal migrants that led to the massacre of more than 2,000 people in 14 villages in Nellie and Khoirabari.

An important question arises at this juncture. Assuming that persecuted population from neighboring nations, irrespective of religion, are granted citizenship by India, the larger nation would hail such a move. Unfortunately, not much would change for the people in Assam and Tripura, since the remaining states in the region and miniscule parts of Assam and Tripura are protected under the constitution.

It is not possible to understand the intensity of the protests in the northeast without delving into the region’s history. Assam is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state whose demographic composition includes multiple indigenous groups and identities that make issues in the region more complex. There are also a large number of Hindus and Muslims with roots in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, who have expressed solidarity with the protest. 

Assam’s history with Bangladesh is long and tumultuous, beginning after the region, at the foothills of the Himalaya mountains, fell into the hands of the British colonial administration with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. Soon after the treaty, Assam was placed under the administration of Bengal and in 1836 Bengali replaced Assamese as the language of administration and medium of instruction. 

Imposition of Bengali as the medium of instruction and language of administration led to frustration not only among the intelligentsia but also among the common people. This led to slow progress of education in Assam and the cultural life and identity of the indigenous people underwent a slow degeneration. Though writing of Assamese and other traditional languages were discouraged, initial years of this phase did not see mass opposition. 

Opposition gained momentum when the colonial administration started to bring two different sets of Bengalis from East Bengal and settled them in fertile agricultural lands and gave them administrative positions in the colonial government.

Prior to the signing of the treaty, much of today’s Assam was under Burma, whose repeated invasions led to the extermination of a large share of state’s indigenous people, with massive amounts of fertile agricultural land being left unpopulated. The colonial administration encouraged the migration of Muslim Bengalis from East Bengal to these unused fertile lands in order to cultivate rice and cash crops like jute. 

The British also filled administrative positions with Bengali Hindus. The sudden rise in their numbers in government jobs to the detriment of the indigenous population led to frustration. Unchecked migration from East Bengal started to put pressure on the once resource abundant state and conflict started to simmer. The pressure on the state and the fight for resources became much more prominent and stronger with migration occurring during the partition years of 1947 and the Bangladesh Liberation War period ending in 1971. 

Migration not only created demographic imbalances but also a struggle for land and resource ownership. These irritations over access to land and resources continued to brew for decades, weakening the promise and provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985. 

The concerns raised by those protesting against the citizenship act have opened old wounds in which threats to language, culture, political rights and the overall way of life remain the focal apprehensions. Repeated betrayal by the ‘mainland’ and local political classes has also left deep historic scars, opening a can of worms that may jeopardize the slow peace and reconciliation achieved over the last decade. 

The nature of protests and participation of people in anti-act rallies in Assam makes it clear that the wider citizenry reject the communal agendas of the current government and tactics of the mainstream media. In these protests, the power of music and visual art as a symbol of resistance and political expression have been well exemplified. 

It is perhaps due to this nature of the struggle, where citizen anger moves beyond Hindu-Muslim divisive politics, that Assam or Northeast as whole is not able to garner the attention and empathy of mainland politicians, media and the intelligentsia. Assam has been conveniently called “xenophobic” over the protests. That ignores the region’s history, its continuous struggle and the silencing of the discourse within mainstream politics. 

But having said that, the people of Assam need to remember the tragic events in history like those of the Nellie massacre and other controversies. Any dissenting voice against such episodes within the state needs to find space rather than being muted. Even at this juncture, when we are struggling for survival of our culture, language and indigenous people, we must not ignore our own problems, without addressing which we may not be able to achieve what we are fighting for. 

In the backdrop of this tangled history, the larger coverage of the anti-CAA stand in the country has failed to cover the layers of Assam’s struggle. What has now become just a matter of communal politics, of secularism and reducing it merely to an anti-Muslim Act, is far from the issues and concerns raised by the people of Assam, for their land, culture and identity. 

The authors Minakshi Bujarbaruah and Rituparna Kaushik Bhattacharyya are researchers based in Assam and New Delhi respectively.