The day started out like any other in Silapathar, a town in Dhemaji district of Assam. But on the evening of 6th March, a rally taken out by the Nikhil Bharat Bangali Udbastu Samannay Samitee (NBBUSS) turned violent, ransacking a unit office of the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) and vandalising portraits of cultural icons like Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bhupen Hazarika, minstrel beyond boundaries, revered not just in Assam but in Bengal and beyond. In trouble-torn Assam where violence has been normalised over the years, the scale of destruction and violence in Silapathar might not qualify as significant. But if all acts of violence are damaging, some are more than others in terms of manifold implications.
The Silapathar incident has shaken the social conscience of the people of Assam with implications both diverse and long-term. To understand it better, we will need to situate both the incident as well as the AASU and NBBUSS in the larger context of the ongoing debates about citizenship in Assam which in turn is linked to the unfolding narratives of indigenous versus non-indigenous in the State.
The Arc of Vigilante Nationalism
Historically, AASU has been the mouthpiece of the dominant narrative of Assamese nationalism. In the unfolding of events therefore, was it only a matter of time till AASU was singled out and provoked? Or should we see this as a precursor to something more significant? For many like me, who studied in Assamese-medium schools, it would not be incorrect to say that AASU claimed us almost from our cradles; it came to us naturally, and became a part of all of us in a kind of inevitable way post the Assam Movement.
The attack on the AASU office, seen through the bifocals of a history wrought in much blood and strife, is not unprecedented. The 1960s were a decade of tribulations for Assam but more than anything else, it witnessed the awakening of a new class in Assam that was assertive as well as apprehensive. Institutions of higher education like Gauhati University was a decade old by then, branches of different student groups speaking of ‘Assamese nationalism’ were being formed all over the State, and vernacular Assamese media was gradually gaining a foothold. Through those forums, the ‘Asomiya’ (Assamese speaking) middle class had come of age. This was also the time of some low key and short lived urban ‘insurgency’ when furor was created in cities like Guwahati by the formation of clandestine organisations like Lachit Sena which for the first time gave an organisational voice to the ‘ultra nationalist’ agendas such as ‘Assam for the Assamese’, pitched against ‘outsiders’ in Assam. The echoes of this decade hovered over the socio-political landscape of Assam. Many moons later in 2012 at the annual conference of AASU, the Asom Sena or Assam Army was formed, envisaged as a regionalist army without arms but a hard-line organisation which would fight against forces inimical to the interests of the indigenous people of Assam.
The predominant agenda of the sixties was one of linguistic nationalism or programmes that called for robust protection and preservation of Assamese language demanding a primary status for it within Assam. It is significant to remember here that AASU was formed through a series of initiatives throughout the 1960s that consolidated it as a social organisation through its involvement in a series of programmes. Political scientist Sanjib Baruah points out that ‘Only predominantly Assamese-speaking schools and colleges seem to have become part of this federation- numerous Bengali or Hindi schools in Assam are not part of the All Assam Students Union. It is not surprising that the explosion of sub-nationalist politics in Assam coincides with the founding and consolidation of this organisation in the 1970s’.
Anil Bora, selected as the assistant general secretary at the annual conference of the Union held at Guwahati Engineering College on 23rd and 24th September 1972, became the first martyr of the Students’ Union losing his life to the ‘language movement’ in 1972. This was the spark that brought the Union closer to other social movements in the State, and it took an active role in the ‘21 point movement’ or ‘Food Movement’ in Assam in June 1974. Throughout the ’60s and the ’70s, AASU’s involvement in these movements, launched for the protection of the linguistic and cultural identity of the Assamese people, reflected what social scientist Apurba Baruah calls ‘the distress and anxiety of the Assamese middle-classes and the peasantry and their fear of loss of identity’.
The movements of those decades were broadly two kinds, one on economic issues like the oil refinery movement of 1957, the food agitation movement of 1966, the second oil refinery movement in 1969 and others aimed at addressing the issue of threats to Assamese identity. These were the movements for Assamese as the official language of Assam and finally the agitation over the foreign nationals issue in the late 1970s. Thus, despite the existence of a number of opposing political parties (such as the CPI, RCPI, Forward Bloc), apart from the all-dominant Congress party, and joint collaboration of the opposition parties, the AASU gradually assumed a prominent role during these movements and eventually elbowed these national parties out of the movements.
Refugees or Illegal Migrants?
‘In Gauhati, the 20-kilometre stretch of road from the airport to the city was lined with knots of young men, all members of the militant All Assam Students’ Union, chanting slogans against bahiragat – Assamese for foreigner. In reality, the volunteers of the committee drew circles around common Bengali Hindu surnames, such as Chatterjee, Bannerjee and Ghose. At more than a dozen places, effigies of the West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, clad in the Marxist leader’s characteristic dhoti, hung from light posts and trees,’ noted a report published in the 15th December 1979 edition of India Today.
Thus a few points were fairly established by the time the watershed event of the anti-foreigners movement known popularly as the Assam Movement (1979-85) took place. One, that the image of ‘outsider’ has been more or less associated with the Bengali speaking population of the State that was seen to be taking away jobs and resources. Nandana Datta in her book ‘Questions of identity in Assam: location, migration and hybridity’ calls it the biggest and the most interesting manifestation of the identity crisis in Assam, ‘the shadow-boxing among the two large linguistic and cultural groups, so similar and yet so determinedly different – the Bengalis and the Assamese’.
Two, AASU gradually became the mouth piece and votary of this brand of Assamese nationalism that sought to ‘detect, delete and deport’ the unwanted foreign nationals from Assam. The AASU was careful to avoid any link with established political parties to maintain its leadership. Non-acceptability of the regional and all-India political parties and the credibility gained by AASU during the medium of instruction movement of 1972 and the refinery movement of 1970 made AASU the right organization to take on the sensitive issue of foreign nationals in Assam, where traditional political parties hesitated. It brought about an acceptability of the issue as a crucial one and lent respectability to the movement. But also through the years of the Assam Movement, through its way of operating, AASU established its image as ‘boys who can get things done’. Some of its contributing characteristics were: its highly effective central leadership that could take quick and effective decisions and could mobilise the whole organisation behind it, an ability to keep organising people’s conventions at different levels on a sustained basis, a maturity in involving people outside the organisation with the Movement agenda on common minimum grounds. Above all, the image of the student organisation as the most effective movement body was built on two foundational pillars: the image of being non-political and non-violent. Both of which, as later analysis will reveal, were well-timed and calculated projections to serve vested agendas.
Thus the twin pillars on which the Assam movement and subsequent politics was built were, one, the expulsion of ‘foreign nationals’ and second, ensuring the dominance of the Assamese. On both counts, the Bengalis were a marked community due to their numerical strength and precedents of the colonial past. However, right from the early years of the Assam Movement, the tension was palpable. This was the difference of opinion between the movement groups in Assam i.e. All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) that included AASU and the all India non-Congress parties including Jan Sangh (forerunner of Bhartiya Janata Party) and RSS who lent covert and overt support to the Assam Movement. The former wanted all migrants to be identified and evicted — Hindus and Muslims alike – and the latter groups approached it from a religious angle, Hindus as politically persecuted refugees needing shelter and Muslims as economic migrants to be expelled.
Assamese nationalist groups persisted and the Assam Accord inked on 15h August 1985 gave the verdict in its favour when the cutoff date of 25th March 1971 to detect and deport foreign nationals was made applicable to all without any distinctions on religious grounds.
The Assam Accord and Its Legacy
Most of the political clout of AASU as a force in regional politics rests on the legacy of the Assam Accord as well as its role in the formation of a regional camp in Assam politics. Thus the two prongs of regionalism and indigenous rights are crucially linked to the legacy of Assam Movement and the Assam Accord. Therefore, it’s not just an ideological matter but also an existential one, that the AASU and the Assamese nationalist camp would take positions to defend its provisions. The spark of violence at Silapathar can be thus read as an instance when this role of a watchdog was first resented and then challenged.
In the eye of the storm is the newly introduced Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which if passed by Parliament will be the sixth amendment till date to the Citizenship Act of India: 1955, that sets out the parameters for citizenship of the Republic of India. The Bill that is going through the consideration of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament at the moment will grant, if passed, Indian citizenship to migrant non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Assam, different political parties, intellectuals and student and youth bodies have taken to the streets protesting the Bill, which they fear will pave the way for the marginalizing of the indigenous communities in Assam into a minority in their own State. Also this will make the cutoff year of 1971 for accepting foreign nationals as mandated by the Assam accord redundant. AASU and other ‘national’ organisations of Assam have been steadfastly opposed to it.
Counter Narrative or Political Gimmick?
This is where the role of the Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samanay Samiti (NBBUSS) needs to be examined. NBBUSS, which claims to be ‘the voice of 3.5 crore Bengali Hindus’ living in 18 States of the country reportedly rejected the Assam Accord and talked in favour of the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill in the meeting organized in Silapathar that turned violent on March 6th. As a long term policy, the organization has been pushing for proper compensation for all those people ‘who were harassed after wrongfully being tagged as D-voters’, demanding that documents issued by Panchayat and village headmen in the past be recognised officially. They have called for steps to settle the cases of D-voters within a fixed timeframe. There was also proposal to form a legal cell to help genuine citizens get rid of the D-voter tag. However, while the Samiti leaders say that no genuine Indian citizen should be deprived of getting their name included in the NRC because of minor errors in the spellings of their names, at the same time they vehemently oppose ‘the inclusion of the names of any foreign nationals in the NRC.’ In other words, the organization consciously maintains the binary nature of immigrant identity into refugee/citizen vs. illegal alien along religious lines, which has been the BJP/RSS position for some time.
In an interview to the media sometime ago, Sahadev Das, president of the Assam chapter of the NBBUSS (now arrested after the Silapathar incident as one of the prime accused) had said while they welcome the proposed amendment, ‘Refugee status doesn’t fully solve the problem. We want citizenship for the Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh residing not just in Assam but across India simply because they can’t go back. The illegal Bangladeshi Muslims can be sent back because they don’t have any such problem’.
The violent outburst at Silapathar is thus born out of this context of growing assertion as well as restlessness, a sense of emboldenment at being vindicated by government policies alongside a sense of anger and frustration at these prospective policies being opposed by Assamese nationalist organisations including AASU.
AASU on its part was quick to link the violence to the policy measures being proposed. AASU president Dipanka Nath said in a press statement, ‘Due to indulgence from the BJP government, such groups are getting the opportunity to flex their muscles. The central government’s plan to give citizenship to Bengali Hindus has emboldened them to react in a violent way. We oppose the Citizenship Bill tooth and nail and those (Hindus or Muslims) who came to the State after 25th March 1971 should go back to their countries of origin’.
Chinks in BJP’s Armour?
Has the episode at Silapathar then exposed an area of growing vulnerability and contradiction for the BJP in Assam? The complex history of immigration in Assam, its influence on the Assamese psyche, and Assam’s complex multi-ethnic reality might be proving at variance, ideologically as well operationally, to BJP’s pan-Indian political vision and position. But does it even matter to the party? This is a question being asked by sections of the Assamese nationalist camp that have been its allies and were instrumental in the party coming to power in the State. The delicate task for the BJP in Assam is increasingly proving to be one of maintaining balance between the support from the Assamese and tribal Hindus (who oppose migration of all hues) and Bengali Hindus (who seek citizenship as projected victims of persecution). As a strategy, the Sonowal government has proposed measures of constitutional safeguards to the ‘indigenous’ people of Assam as per clause six of the Assam Accord that might include tangible measures like reservation of electoral seats for the ‘indigenous’ communities in Assam. This move can be cited as a two-pronged inclusive-exclusive policy at work –
While the Modi government seeks to officialise the citizenship of certain non-Muslim immigrants, the Sonowal government in Assam wants to bar and deport the Muslim immigrants, while providing some special ‘protective mechanism’ to the indigenous communities in Assam. However, the Silapathar incident and the allegation which surfaced, alleging patronage and protection of NBUSS by BJP and proximity of the NBUSS leadership to the RSS has made nationalist organizations in Assam sceptical of RSS’s assurance that the interests of indigenous people in Assam will be protected and the Assam Accord will be implemented in toto. Opposition political parties in the State like the Congress and active civil society groups like the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) besides the AASU have already called the incident at Silapathar a conspiracy hatched by the RSS.
Prospects of Unity
More importantly, the Silapathar episode once again emphasized the scope for strategic solidarity across ethnic camps in Assam that is increasingly finding an ideological mooring in the principle of indigenous rights. AASU has responded to the incident by coming out with joint rallies and programmes with 28 other student-youth organizations of the State representing different ethnic groups as well as ideologies. As mentioned before, this only strengthens AASU’s assumed role of working for ‘an Assam where the indigenous dominates.’ Pamphlets released by AASU calls for a unified battle’ and talks of ‘the seriousness of the burning foreigner’s crisis’ and the relevance of the Assam Movement. The lines demarcating the ‘outsiders’ emerge ever more sharply, and organizations like ‘Bongobhaxi Axomiya Somaj’ (Bengali Speaking Assamese society) and other Bengali citizens groups have been vocal in condemning NBBUSS as a bunch of miscreants from the ‘outside’ who threaten to undo years of trust and bonhomie built up between the Bengalis and other communities of Assam. Much is riding on the shoulders of the Bengali community in Assam, as they have to take a proactive step now to dispel the accusation of growing Bengali hegemony and chauvinism in Assam, an old scar in Assam’s multi-ethnic history. The fact that the incident happened in Silapathar which has one of the highest densities of Bengali population in the State highlights the unpleasant prospect of a community being polarised on sectarian grounds.
More significantly, this might have implications beyond the immediate issue of citizenship to another important development in contemporary Assam. The unified protests and actions around the Silapathar issue also have a bearing on the other ongoing protest by AASU and other organizations against the proposed big dam in the lower Subansiri area. In fact, apart from the proposed citizenship bill, the other bottleneck for the BJP in Assam has been the issue of big dams, and in both cases the Assamese nationalist camp has stood in opposition to the saffron party. Thus, the echoes of Silapathar might be heard all the way upto the high walls of the nearly completed dams at Subansiri.
What are the lessons from Silapathar then? One perverse outcome could be an attempt to bring in a communal interpretation to the question of a society accepting the inflows of migrants. This issue is delicate as the backlash and reactions to Silapathar by Assamese civil society might be interpreted by some quarters with vested interests as an excessive bias against not accepting the Hindu migrants alone while not raising concerns about the inflow of the Muslim ones. Thus, there can be accusations of an increasing Muslim-phobia among Hindus. . The failure of the police and administration to bring to book one of the prime accused Subodh Biswas, who remains at large to the outrage of the public, has made many people see a larger political conspiracy at play here. Whether Biswas and NBBUSS are getting political patronage and protection or not, this inability on the part of the police in Assam, created or real, is only dragging out the issue.. The Assam government has in the meantime constituted a one-man inquiry committee, headed by an Additional Chief Secretary. The committee is supposed to hand in its report in a month’s time. The sooner it does the better. Wounds of this kind need to heal fast, as they penetrate into the delicate fabric of society, damaging the finely wrought threads of selfhood and identity.
Written By: Kaustubh Deka
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Eclectic Northeast