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Conflict over Centre’s Citizenship Bill creates a new identity of ‘Assamese Bengali’

The birth of the “Assamese Bengali” identity can be attributed to the Centre’s push to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to give citizenship to any non-Muslim from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan who wishes to settle in India.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2019 07:56 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, Guwahati
Citizenship Bill,Assamese Bengali,non-Muslim
People protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 at Latasil Playground in Guwahati.(ANI File Photo)

The Northeast’s most populous state, Assam, is a veritable museum of competing tribes, sub-tribes and ethnicities. Bablu Nandi, a Hindu Bengali young man whose community is now staring at a looming identity conflict, has added one more community to that simmering list: “Assamese Bengali”.

The birth of this new identity can be attributed to the Centre’s push to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to give citizenship to any non-Muslim from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan who wishes to settle in India. “We are Assamese Bengali. We are not only Bengali,” Nandi says.

To most Indians, “Assamese Bengali” would be a confusing term. Assamese and Bengalis are two different communities, with two different cultures, languages (although they share a similar script) and racial ancestry. Most notably, a sizeable number of indigenous Assamese are tribals; Bengalis aren’t.

Even these tribals have their distinct ways of life. Some are the so-called plains tribe, like the Bodos. Others are the hill tribes, such as Dimasas, because they inhabit the mountains to the south. Nandi’s use of “Assamese Bengali”, which melds the two distinct communities, is his way of saying he is both Assamese and Bengali.

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It is also a way of staking claim to a land where people like him aren’t welcome because they are migrants who came, in steady streams, from Bangladesh over decades and are seen by local ethnic Assamese as claimants to an ever shrinking pie of resources and a threat to local culture.

The BJP’s citizenship bill, although aimed at shoring up support among Assam’s Hindu Bengalis, is however not what this Bengali-dominated village thinks it needs most. “To us, (inclusion) in the NRC is more important. What will we do with the citizenship bill? We don’t have any relatives left (in Bangladesh) who we want to bring here,” Nandi said.

Nandi refers to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) released last year. Not being on the register could lead to loss of citizenship and indefinite confinement in a jail-like detention facility. The terms of citizenship were sealed when the then Rajiv Gandhi-led government signed the historic Assam Accord of 1985 after a six-year anti-immigration agitation. Anyone who could prove that their ancestors resided in the state before midnight of March 24, 1971 would be counted as citizens.He claims tens of thousands of deserving Bengali Hindus, like Muslim Bengalis, have been left out of the NRC because they have no record that they migrated before March 24, 1971.

Minesh Ranjan Trivedi, a village elder, says 70% of the 200-odd households have been left out of the NRC. “We came in as refugees after India’s independence because East Pakistan government was harassing us. Jawaharlal Nehru gave us shelter.” The Hindus came from Sylhet district of present Bangladesh and Muslim Bengalis mostly came from the Mymensingh region, he said.

Such historical claims don’t cut ice with indigenous Assamese. Two seminal events shook the state. In the 1960s, an attempt was made by elite Hindu Bengalis to make Bengali the official language of Assam, which led to a successful agitation to block it. In the 1980s, a six-year mass movement to oust illegal Muslim Bengali settlers culminated in the Assam Accord. “Modi said he will throw out Bangladeshis, now he wants to bring more,” said Sunita Kalita-Rakhang, a local Assamese woman.

“If any Bengali can prove his ancestors as per the NRC process, it can be acceptable to all because it is monitored by SC. NRC is not about identity but citizenship. But citizenship bill is about identity. This is pure reality (sic)...,” said Amulya Kalita, a writer and teacher of Pub Sesamukh Government School in Hajo near Guwahati.

First Published: Jan 27, 2019 07:25 IST