The northeast has been a very integral part of India in contributing to a nation’s economic growth. Rich in natural resources and cultural diversity, Northeast India is the role-model upon which the pillars of our Constitution were designed. But despite contributing to the nation’s growth through its natural resources and setting examples of a tolerant Indian society, the people of the Northeast have been facing a severe existential crisis throughout centuries. From a lack of economic growth to racial discrimination to facing cultural slaughter, the people of Northeast has been constantly raising their voices against injustice committed by numerous governments of independent India. Even though these voices have been suppressed or ignored throughout history, today let us find out what exactly these voices cry for and what is the reason and solution behind all these.
A brief History of Northeast India
Before India achieved her independence, Northeast, as we know today, was a huge landmass in the east of the Bengal Province. It was locally known as Greater Assam or “Bor Axom”. A huge state comprising of modern-day Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, and modern-day Assam. Originally founded and united through alliances by the king, “Chow-Lung-Siu-Ka-Pha” from the Ahom Dynasty in 1228, the Kingdoms of Assam has successfully resisted countless foreign invasions, including the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughals until 1824, when it was finally defeated by the Burmese Maan Dynasty and fell to the hands of the British under the Yandaboo Treaty of 1826, finally putting an end to 600 glorious years of rule. Now starts the story of a colonial northeastern state of Assam.
Demography of Assam Under Colonization
Following colonization in 1826, Assam was incorporated into the Bengal province. The British were delighted to find abundant natural resources and rich fertile soil of the Brahmaputra valley. This led them to set up industries in the Brahmaputra valley. But following brutal wars with the Burmese, the local population was outnumbered and hugely lacked manpower. The population of the entire northeast was assumed to be in thousands rather than in millions. For this, the British brought in the first non-natives to the land, the British servants from Bengal and Rajasthan. Posted as government officials, their numbers grew in number throughout the 19th century. Upon discovery of oil, coal, and tea in the state, the British brought in more non-natives, like the tribes from Odisha, Jharkhand and the South to work in the mines, tea plantations and oil fields in and around Digboi. Slowly and steadily these people started setting up their homes and businesses which soon became villages and towns. On receiving news of newfound freedom in Assam, the peasants and farmers from East Bengal and Bihar, trapped under the brutality of the Zamindar System, began immigrating in thousands to feed on the fertile soil of the Brahmaputra Valley.
In the midst of these, the British government on learning about the majority Bengali speaking people, comprising of hundreds of tribes, decided to set Bengali as the official language. Soon the Assamese felt the loss of their social identity, their language, and their cultural heritage. This was the beginning of the long struggle for existence that even continues today. The natives lost their livelihoods to the non-natives. Unemployment began to rise among the Assamese along with the depleting population. This trend of reckless immigration continued well until the end of the British Era in India. When India received her independence, it was presumed that the pain had finally come to its end and the natives shall have their dignity again.
Assam After Independence and Assam Accord, 1985
But things did not turn out as it was supposed to be. East Bengal getting incorporated into East Pakistan, let to millions of Bengali speaking peasants and farmers to immigrate illegally into Assam in search of fertile land. This illegal and unchecked immigration is still a major issue for the state. After immigration, these people soon produced counterfeit documents to validate their Indian citizenship and soon started taking up descent jobs in the state, keeping the indigenous people at bay from having a better livelihood. Following negligence of the central government during Chinese invasions in the Sino-Indian war in 1962, certain internal conflicts arose across the Northeast. Fearing repercussions, the central government gradually divided the state into seven different states (The Seven Sisters), along with polarizing the native people based on communal lines. But this did not solve the issue of unchecked illegal immigration, which rose like never before after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1972, leading to the formation of Bangladesh. Tensions escalated and it crossed every boundary when the voter’s list for the state by-election of 1979 was presented to the people. In this election, it was found that the number of voters increased drastically and upon inquiry, it was concluded that the majority of voters were Bengali speaking non-native immigrants Bangladesh. Soon, the state of Assam went into a major uproar with the demands of the deporting of these illegal immigrants from the state sealing off the border with Bangladesh for good. This protest movement came to be known as The Assam Agitation or “The Assam Movement of 1979-1985”, the first-ever major protest movement in post-independent India. Faced with intense brutality and ignorance from the Central Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi, the protest and the unrest lasted for six long years. 855 Assamese protesters, mostly students were martyred at the hands of the police, along with communal clashes all across the state. On 15th August 1985, the protest came to an end with the signing of The Assam Accord, with the Central Government under Rajiv Gandhi. The Assam Accord promised to fulfill the demands of deporting illegal immigrants who arrived after 1971, protecting the indigenous rights of the Assamese people under Clause 6 and most importantly the implementation of the National Register of Citizen (NRC) in Assam to identify the natives from illegal immigrants. The whole state of Assam celebrated the victorious signing of the Assam Accord with student leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of the All Assam Student Union (AASU) rising as the new leader.
What happened after the Assam Accord was signed?
Unfortunately, after becoming the new Chief Minister of Assam, he along with his political party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), tainted the trust of the Assamese people when the AGP administration failed to implement the demands of The Assam Accord and corruption engulfed the state. The Central Government along with the State Government of Assam formed a secret agreement. An agreement that was so vicious that it came to be known as “Gupto Hotya” or government-sponsored “Secret Killing” of innocent Assamese youths, falsely framing them as members of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). ULFA is an underground separatist group of the Assamese people, formed during the Assam agitation movement. They were declared as a terrorist organization by the Government of India in 1998. Their demand is the declaration of an Independent Greater Assam from the “so-called” Republic of India.
Following many more events, nothing improved when it came to the demography. Instead, the Bodo community demanded a separate state because of cultural differences. Matters worsened when Assam was declared as an insurgent state. Insurgencies and military operations became common events. Tourism and economic development were the worst hit. The implementation of the Assam Accord remained a job to be done despite changing governments. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh continued, crime rates increased, villages plundered, communal clashes between natives and non-natives became common and what not. Things changed drastically when recently the BJP government forcefully implemented CAA over the demography of Assam. It was a situation when all hell broke loose.
Aftereffects and why Assam Rejects CAA?
In 2016, after the BJP won the state election in Assam, debates and discussion began with the central government to pass an act for the state along with the entire country to end this demographic issue once and for all. In 2019, after the central BJP government came to power for the second time, this act was passed in the Upper House of the Parliament in December 2019 and implemented from 10th January 2020. This is called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). A law that shall allow all the illegal immigrants except Muslims currently residing in India because of religious persecution in their home country (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh) to take up citizenship in India. People all over the country and abroad irrespective of any religion, caste, creed protested against this act of amendment, calling it religiously discriminatory, nonsecular and against the pillars of the Indian Constitution. However, the situation for the states of Assam and Northeast is completely different and even today it is widely ignored by the general masses including the international media.
When the government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, it has completely scrapped off the Assam Accord of 1985 which was supposed to protect the indigenous rights of the native people, also putting in vain the sacrifices of the 855 martyrs during the Assam Agitation of 1979. The state government of Assam under BJP also failed to notice that the Bengali speaking illegal immigrants from Bangladesh belonged to both Hindu as well as Muslim religion. The people of the northeast demanded to deport immigrants not based on religion but based on nationality and immigration policies. The government even today fails to listen to this fact. As a result, the Hindu Bengali speaking immigrants from Bangladesh who entered Assam before 2014, as per the Citizenship Amendment Act shall be given full citizenship of India, thus extending the 1971 cut-off date and also relaxing certain citizenship procedures for any Hindu Bangladeshi applying for citizenship in India and residency in Northeast. However, their Muslim counterparts shall be treated like any other illegal immigrants. This leads to incomplete removal of illegal immigrants and a religiously polarized society, a society that is unimaginable in a humanitarian and secular state like Assam. To stop the widescale protests all across Assam and northeast, several brutal measures were taken up by the government which included the shooting and thrashing of protestors, mostly students, arresting and defaming of social activists and leaders like Akhil Gogoi and Dr. Hiren Gohain, curfews, internet shutdowns, laying off government officials and much more. Even after all these, the protests against CAA and the fight to save the indigenous rights continues even today.
What lies ahead?
Today the Assamese speaking population is roughly about 37%, which includes all the tribal communities and castes combined. There is nothing as unfortunate as being a minority and having to stay under the domination and brutality of illegal immigrants who also happened to control most of the businesses in their home state. Where livelihood is nothing but a dream for the natives, where there is no freedom to celebrate one’s native festivals (especially in Barrack Valley), where there is no freedom to carry out free businesses and where the safety of indigenous women and children is always a concern. Even the Assamese language, having script very similar to Bengali has been compromised many times since the colonial era and even today, it continues to be an occasional source of conflict.
As a solution to the century-long conflicts, the only way out is the implementation of Inner Line Permit (ILP), as followed by all the states of Northeast leaving aside Assam and Tripura, the two states severely affected by illegal immigration. But just like every strong medicine has its side-effects, ILP for Assam will also come at a cost. It will truly segregate the state from the entire country as no non-native Indians will be able to buy or sell land here and their rights will be limited. This will alienate the people of Assam from the rest of India which might also lead to social and cultural stigma for the Assamese all across India.
The term ‘Assamese’ is a combination of a huge number of ethnic groups having different cultural backgrounds and dialects coming together to form a common culture, language, and harmony. A community where religion and caste play no role in determining the character of a person. Today, in a society where secularism is highly compromised and lack of tolerance has led to a polarized nation, it is high time the politicians and leaders learn about the demography of the northeast. Because of the amount of diversity present in the demography of Northeast India, calls for special attention and delicate action. Since numerous governments have acted blind to the cries of the Northeast, it is high time, every citizen of India and the world listen to these cries of existential crisis and persuade our leaders to take up necessary actions. Else, the term ‘Assamese’ will be nothing but a reminder of a bygone community who happened to exist in and around the Brahmaputra Valley, spoke an extinct language and practiced a non-existent culture and way of life.