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Assam: A little India

The state, home to 115 tribes and 14 languages, is a microcosm of India. Rahul Karmakar travels from Dhubri near the border to Guwahati at the centre — and finds that Assam is fighting the same battles as India...Assam's legends.

india Updated: Nov 09, 2008 00:08 IST
Rahul Karmakar

The journey is the destination

Dhubri is the westernmost town of Assam. It is often in focus for being a prime influx zone. However, it stands out as a place of religious confluence. There’s the Gurudwara of Tegh Bahadur, the mosque of Mir Jumla and the Mahamaya Temple in close proximity. There’s also the Bura Buri Than on a hillock, where Hamidi Muslims ritually initiate Vaishnavite ceremonies.

Bongaigaon and Barpeta districts together present Assam’s agriculture and industrial faces. If Barpeta is the grain bowl, Bongaigaon has petrochemicals and thermal power plants. Bongaigaon in particular has been witness to several rounds of ethnic and communal riots in the last two decades. At least 4,000 people are still in relief camps in these districts.

Nalbari and Kamrup districts are hubs of Assamese culture in Lower (western) Assam. It has also been the hub of the separatist Ulfa. Hajo, near Guwahati, is the epitome of religious harmony. Shah Sultan Ghyasuddin Auliya’s Poa-Mecca, believed to ensure one-fourth the salvation of a Haj trip, is close by the Hayagrib-Madhab Temple, revered both by Hindus and Buddhists.

Guwahati’s strategic location makes it the destination for people across the Northeast. You have a Manipuribasi and Kacharibasti not far from North Indian-dominated Athgaon and Bengali-heavy Kalapahar, Hedayatpur of Garias or Asomiya Muslims and Hatigaon of mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, and of course, Assamese localities like Chandmari.

Alaka Desai, Ajit Singh, Chetia, Aditya Langthasa, Khorsing Engti, Karendra Basumatary, Bhuban Pegu, Dulal Chandra Ghosh, Pranab Kalita, Rupam Kurmi, Joseph Toppo, Kartiksen Sinha, Tanka Bahadur Rai, Nurul Hussain, Abu Taher Byapari...

These names probably don’t ring a bell, but they are all members of the Assam legislative assembly. And they represent a fraction of the 115-odd ethnic groups — not counting 87 communities comprising the Adivasis, a.k.a. the ‘tea tribe’ — that inhabit a part of India not generally considered mainland. Welcome to Assam, which could very well have had the tourism catchphrase, ‘the essence of India’.

In session, the house is a study in ethnicity. The members speak either in Assamese or English, but the accent is unmistakable. Their persona and diction invariably reflect the complexity — ambivalence too — of the seats they are elected from. Take the case of Ramen Das, whose Kock-Rajbongshi community is fighting for tribal status. He owns 36 bighas straddling the Indo-Bangladesh border fence at Sattrasal under Golakganj, the westernmost assembly constituency represented by Byapari, a Bengali-speaking Muslim.

“This area is as peaceful as it is volatile,” says Das. Golakganj is near Dhubri, Assam’s westernmost town on the banks of river Brahmaputra before it flows into Bangladesh. Known more for its Gurudwara of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Dhubri typifies Assam’s multi-ethnic and migrants’ induced complexities, which are a staple of political rhetoric.

So is Sadiya, the constituency kissing the other end of the Brahmaputra near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border 900 km away. There are hardly any migrants in Sadiya, but representing a multitude of tribes can be difficult, as MLA Chetia, an Ahom, knows all too well. At Barharmpur, arguably the centermost constituency, MLA and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has lesser communities to contend with. But the district, Nagaon, has always been the focus of ethnic friction in Assam. Nellie 1983, then a part of the district, is a case in point.

Thankfully, for every conflict zone, Assam has places like Hajo, 30 km from Guwahati, which is an epitome of religious tolerance.

Outsider and insider

NO STATE in India is perhaps as ethnically, politically and geographically complex as Assam. Ruling it thus warrants an extraordinary balancing act. Ask chief minister Tarun Gogoi who can’t afford to be too close to the Congress’ traditional vote-banks — Muslims and Adivasis — lest the ‘sons of the soil’ are estranged. “However good your intentions, you are likely to end up offending one community or the other here,” says former minister Deba Bora. “You can understand the problem from the fact that Assam publishes school textbooks in 14 languages besides having four official languages: Assamese across the Brahmaputra Valley, Bengali in the Barak Valley, English in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts, and Bodo in the Bodoland Territorial Council comprising four districts of western Assam.”

That the Assamese have been accommodative is evident from local legends such as Azan Fakir and Jyotiprasad Agarwala. The former, a Baghdadi born Shah Miran, was given land by the Ahom kings to preach Islam in the 17th century. The latter, originally from Rajasthan, is an Assamese cultural icon on a pedestal perhaps higher than that of Bhupen Hazarika.

Then there are villages such as Borkola, exclusively of some 300 Asomiya Sikhs who cannot write or speak Gurmukhi. “A couple of Granthis do know the language of our forefathers, but they merely read out the holy book mechanically,” says Gurmail Singh of that village in Nagaon district.

There are examples on the political front too. Alaka Desai represents Nalbari, eastern the caste Assamese heartland in the eastern part of the state and once the hub of the outlawed Ulfa, which ironically wants everyone from ‘mainland India’ out. Aditya Langthasa, a Dimasa tribal, represents Hojai, divided almost fifty-fifty between Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims, and Ajit Singh, with roots in Bihar, depends mostly on Bengalis, Adivasis, Manipuris and tribes such as Dimasa and Hmar in his Udharbond constituency in southern Assam. The scenario is no different for Tanka Bahadur Rai, a Gorkha legislator from Borsola on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra.

The genesis of friction

HISTORIAN DIPANKAR Banerjee attributes it to the Treaty of Yandaboo of 1826 between East India Company and the local rulers. “Until this treaty, Assam more or less withstood foreign armies. Even before 1826 there were people who were attracted to this enigmatic land. British rule brought Bengalis and other communities in administrative jobs and central Indian tribes as workers in tea plantations. Independence and the creation of Bangladesh complicated matters and from there on, land wrangles began showing up,” he says. Assam, he continues, “is a cultural honeycomb, each group in a different but conjoined compartment within the hive”.

According to minority leader Hafiz Rashid Choudhury, “Assam’s problem is a case of who came first, so you cannot define the word ‘indigenous’. There is a tendency to brand Bengali-speaking Muslims as Bangladeshis. But there are laws and border sentinels to ensure Bangladeshis do not sneak in. And rest assured, even the earlier settlers from across the border know that infiltrators are a threat to their economy.” Already, the Asomiya Muslims see their Bengali-speaking counterparts as a threat to their identity. “As indigenous Muslims, we are getting nowhere; we are increasingly being clubbed with them because of religion,” says Nekibur Zaman spokesperson of an Asomiya Muslim forum.

The Bangladeshi issue had Assam on the boil between 1979 and 1985. The All Assam Students Union’s movement ‘opened’ India’s eyes to the silent invasion from across the border and led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. In between was enacted the allegedly pro-infiltrators Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, which the Supreme Court struck down in 2005.

This spurred the creation of the minority-specific Asom United Democratic Front, besides fuelling a fresh anti-Bangladeshi drive. “Bangladeshis have taken over half of Assam, thanks to vote-bank politics,” says AASU advisor Samujjal K Bhattacharyya. The answer, he asserts, lies in checking influx and deporting all illegal migrants — not an easy task. Assam has a vast labour market, and Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants virtually control it. They also produce the bulk of agricultural and poultry products that the state depends on. “There are no quick-fix solutions,” says conflict management specialist Noni Gopal Mahanta.

‘Big brother’ attitude

ALONGSIDE THIS are other conflicts, such as Bodos versus Adivasis, Karbis against Dimasas and Dimasas versus Hmars. And with time equations have changed. Bengali Hindus, once at the receiving end, aren’t as hated. As for Bodos, non-Muslim rivals have more or less “patched up” to fight the common enemy. But such alliances, ethnologists say, are fragile.

Many blame Assam’s problems on an indifferent New Delhi. “Our problems arising out of influx are as much ours as they are that of the rest of India, and it is the Centre’s responsibility to ensure Assam remains a part of the country,” says Bhattacharyya. On the other side of the spectrum, the Ulfa, born out of Assamese sub-nationalism, accuses New Delhi of colonialism and deems ‘Indians’ more problematic than Bangladeshis.

Ironically, what New Delhi is to Assam, Assam is to the rest of the Northeast. “We have our share of problems, but they are sometimes compounded by Assam,” says Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio.

Border dispute is one of the reasons for this, while the “tendency to look down upon” the dwellers of the adjoining hill states is another. Anything extreme in Assam, for instance, has Naga prefixed to it. Naga Jolokia, for instance, the hottest of chillies. The sister states also blame Assam for the influx problem. “Migrants sneak into our state because Assam sustains them,” says All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union leader Tobom Dai. Besides, disturbances in Assam hamper the economy of the other northeastern states. The former Arunachal Pradesh chief minister has even gone to the extent of demanding from New Delhi a safe corridor through Bhutan to bypass “troublesome Assam”.

The blame game, analysts say, is threatening to spiral out of control. “It’s time everyone accepted reality and made adjustments,” says Mahanta. Arun Sarma, a scholar, adds: “Wanton violence, whoever be the perpetrators, often sends out the wrong signals. Assam has had a history of assimilation and coexistence, and we should be the ambassadors of multi-culturalism.”