A new book seeks to make sense of the citizenship controversy in Assam

Topics assam nrc | NRC Assam | Assam

ASSAM’S TRYST: Union Home Secretary Ram D Pradhan handing over a copy of the signed accord to Assamese leaders on August 15, 1985, as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (second from left) looks on. Indian Express Archive
Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s Assam: The Accord, The Discord is bookended by lines from some of the most resonant and timeless lyrics of Bhupen Hazarika. One of the two songs is a paean to the universal brotherhood of man; the other a clarion call to the Assamese to safeguard their identity and broaden it by embracing those who have settled newly in the state.

Barooah Pisharoty’s book recapitulates the history behind the recent update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an outcome of one of the main clauses in the Assam Accord of 1985 — deportation of those who fail to prove their antecedents in India going back to March 24, 1971, or earlier. The NRC was widely perceived within the state as a necessary step to settle a long-pending demand (of preventing or reversing the influx of immigrants) that culminated in the Assam Movement of 1979-1985. But post-NRC we are staring at a humanitarian crisis filled with uncertainty for lakhs of people.

Assam: The Accord, The Discord is a timely primer for those who are unaware of the history of Assam, especially when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is threatening to repeat the NRC exercise in other states in India and lend it an explicitly anti-Muslim character by introducing a law to grant citizenship to refugees of all faiths except Islam.

The longstanding economic, political and cultural issue centred on the question of who is a native has witnessed tussles over language, religion and nationality at different points in the past two centuries in Assam. That the culturally dominant native Assamese community has been gripped by the fear of being reduced to a minority is well known. But the sense of siege is all-pervasive among communities in an ethnically complex and diverse state. For all the stakeholders involved it is, therefore, easy to slip into a defence of one’s own community and hard to shed a view that entertains a victim-victimiser binary.

As her references to Hazarika’s songs suggest, Barooah Pisharoty’s attempt is to address these questions from the vantage point of an Assamese but without losing sight of the experiences of other communities — Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims in particular. As one who has reported extensively on the Northeast, her balanced and exhaustive approach is reflected in the book.

It starts from the historic signing of the Accord — at 2.45 am on August 15, 1985, in Delhi — with a focus on the fractious principal cast from Assam, including former Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta, who was among the signatories, and student leaders who steered the movement. The agitation, although driven by caste-Hindu Assamese, was popular and penetrated rural areas, the book notes. It captures the motivations and stratagems of parties and governments — stressing, for instance, the largely ignored impact of post-Emergency politics on Assam — and the familiar story of the spectacular ascent of the Mahanta-led Asom Gana Parishad as a regional party and its swift fall.

Assam The accord, the discord; Author: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty; Publisher: Penguin Ebury Press; Pages: 443; Price: Rs 599
With a mix of anecdotes, interviews, reports and references to wide-ranging journalistic and academic literature on Assam, Barooah Pisharoty covers a lot of ground to detail the historical realities that led to the identity politics in the region. In the process, she addresses the multiple strands of a complex issue. The book has 13 chapters, and they are replete with developments spanning centuries. For a reader who has a sense of the historical contours, some of the details can be redundant and appear more suited for dry, fact-laden daily news. A lack of proofreading and editing do not help either, betrayed by the occasional typo and writing that could have been made more concise.

The book does not offer a radical interpretation of the past, yet smaller stories within challenge our assumptions. To cite an example, it points out that the Congress government in Assam under Anwara Taimur targeted border police DGP Hiranya Bhattacharya, considered by the minority political leaders to be among the ones “responsible for escalating the anti-foreigner agitation”. He was arrested in 1981 and later dismissed from service. In 2013, the book adds, Bangladesh awarded him for training cadres of the Mukti Bahini.

While writing about the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983, Barooah Pisharoty also compiles other instances of violence triggered in a fateful election year in Assam. It includes clashes between the Assamese and Bengali Hindus, Bodos and Assamese. She argues, “What happened in Nellie was consequently an anti-migration riot, the likes of which had not been seen in the country till then.” Saying that the mainstream media, national political parties and Muslim right-wing organisations treated Nellie as a Hindu-Muslim riot, she adds: “While it gave a handle to the political parties to polarise the votes it enabled the Muslim right wing to penetrate into the immigrant Muslim community of the state with far more ease than before.”

In describing the anomalies of the NRC update, she makes pertinent points, such as how poor women are the worst off due largely to patriarchy. Many, mostly Bengali Muslims, whom the author met lacked required documents “simply because they were never sent to school, never granted land rights and were married off before the voting age of eighteen, the reason their names didn’t feature in electoral rolls along with their paternal family”.

Barooah Pisharoty succeeds in explaining how historical factors and events have kept alive the native Assamese population’s fears of the foreigner. She argues that “the religious angle… has not yet become intrinsic to” the Assam issue. She reasons that addressing the anxiety of the Assamese community doesn’t require the state to resort to repressive measures like detention centres for those excluded from the NRC list. She urges the Assamese “to oppose the state in running such hellholes in their name” and that “the indigenous people must keep in mind that demanding their rights doesn’t mean curtailing the other’s right to live with dignity — citizen or non-citizen”.

ROOM FOR CONTROVERSY: Security personnel outside an NRC SROOM FOR CONTROVERSY: Security personnel outside an NRC Seva Kendra in Assam. Photo: PTIeva Kendra in Assam. Photo: PTI
The most uplifting excerpts in the book are those that force us to look within and acknowledge that it is necessary to end the discord. The author points out that the loss of the Sylheti Hindus wasn’t met with much empathy. “…subsequent generations like mine grew up in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley thinking that only north India was hugely affected by Partition,” she writes.

In a couple of striking anecdotes, Barooah Pisharoty talks of her encounters with a tiny bunch of people, the descendants of Assamese soldiers who settled in the Chittagong Hill Tracts a century ago, and with Assamese Muslims of Dhaka who migrated from Assam after Bangladesh was born. Those in the hill tracts celebrate Bihu but they have lost links with the Assamese language. One of the Assamese Muslims had this to tell her: “It is important that people who adopt a new land as their home try and assimilate with the existing society but it is also equally important that the host society gives them that chance and accepts them as its part.”

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