As a literature student, I have often ridiculed facts that came coded in numbers. For me, ‘truth’ was more than mere statistical data. But, now, my own notions were being challenged as I tried to cull down statistical figures to tell a story that hardly gets told in the popular media. A lot has been spoken about the Bodoland movement, Kokrajhar riots and illegal infiltration across the Indo-Bangladesh border. Illegal infiltration is a truth that nobody can deny. But is it the only truth that should be bothering us, while we keep our eyes and ears shut to other equally important, and, perhaps, more grievous concerns, that the Northeast in general and Assam in particular are faced with?
The Char areas (river islands) account for 4.6 per cent of the total land area of Assam. Char-dwellers represent 9.37 per cent of the State’s population while they possess only 4 per cent of Assam’s agricultural land. The density of population in these areas is 690 persons per sq km. Perhaps, these figures would not have been so important to us if the political discourse around illegal infiltration in Assam had taken into account those who live on the margins. Mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, theirs is a saga of devastation and loss.
The Brahmaputra or the ‘Luit’ in Bhupen Hazarika’s words occupies an important place in Assamese literature, music and everyday lives. However, people in Assam are aware of the fury of the mighty Luit, whose worst victims are often the Char-dwellers. The Assam Water Resources Department reveals that the average annual damage since 1954 has been over Rs 124 crore, the estimated average annual erosion rate has been 8,000 hectares, which has affected more than 90,700 families spread over 2,534 villages.
This summer, when I visited my ancestral village in Dhubri, I saw how the Brahmaputra had encroached upon people’s homes. Many people had been forced to leave the village for greener pastures. However, the worse tales were of those who had once occupied an influential position in the village, whose land and livestock were washed away by the river, and were now left in a state of abject poverty and helplessness. An old woman cursed the Brahmaputra without realizing that the river would not understand her woes. She cursed the world.
One of the clauses of the Assam Accord of 1985 was that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would be updated to include all the Assam inhabitants and their descendants on or before March 25, 1971, which is currently ongoing. Muslims fear harassment in the absence of NRC and ID cards. Assam government has set up 36 foreigners’ tribunals to resolve the issue, out of which only a few are functioning. The fact that there is a huge number of ‘D’ voter cases and that the tribunals take a long time to determine a ‘foreigner’, Muslims (as well as Bengali Hindus marked as ‘D’ voters) have been put to considerable harassment and trauma. There are families where out of four siblings one is marked as a ‘D’ voter.
When we tell a story, we carry with us a baggage of other identities than that of the story-teller alone. If a section of the Assamese/national media goes berserk over ‘Bangladeshis’ every now and then, we have to also understand that many of those ‘Bangladeshis’ are created by the media and those who fund it. As school kids when we used to ferry down the Brahmaputra, my brother would gesture at the broken huts, makeshift houses in the river islands – calling them the Taj Mahal or the White House. Today, when I look back, I realize those huts and broken houses were indeed monuments that commemorated poverty, hunger and disease. This is an attempt to tell one story among the many stories that prevail in the Northeast, but are, often sidelined by hegemonic discourses in the media – on war and friendship, on hope and despair, on ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Let us vow never to live or rest content with a single story.
Rafiul Alom Rahman