The final list of NRC published on 31st August, 2019 is a culmination of a long drawn process that can be traced back to the state politics of Assam in the pre independence period. The state’s history is marked by incidents which continue to shape the politics of the state. Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s book Assam: The Accord, the Discord tries to do exactly this – revisit the roots of the problems and understand when the seeds of discord were sown.
Not following a strict chronology, the book starts with the signing of the accord and then goes to the pre independence period of Assam politics and focuses on the events that led to the signing of the accord. Illegal immigration was an issue even during the British rule. What started as a planned settlement and initially encouraged by the middle class of Assam became a problem when it went on unabated for a few decades. A section of the local population demanded some kind of safeguards and the line system was envisaged.
Implemented in 1920, the line system was anything but successful. Its provision of segregating living spaces and arresting transfer of lands from the local people to the new entrants was difficult to implement. The governments of Sir Sadullah went soft on such provision and a clear divide emerged between Gopinath Bordoloi and Sir Sadullah who changed his allegiance many a times. The issue of unabated immigration was the cause of rift even before the country was independent.
Even after independence, there was a feeling amongst the people of Assam that they were constantly denied their due by the central government. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) was formed in 1966 when Assam was in the throes of a severe flood crisis. This organisation later went to head the six years long Assam movement. This book focuses on the impact of emergency which barely preceded the Assam Movement.
While AASU’s contention was with migration from other parts of India as well, it started changing after the Janata government came to power in the centre and also in the state under Golap Borbora in 1978. Borbora had it tough in Assam where Congress continued to be strong. And post 1978, while AASU was motivated by CEC S L Shakdher’s comment on the inclusion of foreign nationals in voters’ list, Borbora tried to co-opt AASU and change the opposition of ‘outsiders’ to that of ‘foreigners’.
This aspect of the influence of emergency and Janata government has not been looked into and the book indicates that there is a need to do so. Coming to the movement, the immediate impetus for the movement was the revision of electoral rolls of Mangaldoi which had to go for by polls because of the demise of Janata MP Hiralal Patowary. The DIG (border police) of that time Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharya requested the Election Commission to extend the time required for a revision of the electoral rolls to ‘weed out’ suspected non-citizens. Complaints against almost forty seven thousand people was received by the Election Commission. Ho far this was made possible by the Janata government is worth looking into.
There was a large scale demand across the state to stall elections. But even then the government went ahead with it leading to the genocide in Nellie and nearby areas. While there was attacks and counter attacks amongst various ethnic communities in Gohpur and other places, nothing matched Nellie’s scale which saw the murder of some 3000 women and children. These were Muslims of East Bengal origin. The victims are yet to find any closure or justice. No action was taken on the Tiwari Commission Report which pointed to gross negligence of duty.
Taking into cognisance the circumstances, the book reiterates that the government’s urge to carry on elections even amidst large scale opposition was the immediate cause of the riots. The riots saw a divide amongst the AASU leaders. Nurul Hussain accused AASU of inciting the violence. The book also points to an unplanned alliance that grew between Janata leaders, people like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the AASU leaders on the sole plank of anti Congressism. But they did not play a deciding role in Nellie. Instead it was a reaction to upcoming elections.
Amidst all this, a new player the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) came into the scene and it started diluting the importance of AASU. AASU was no more the sole representative of Assam. As such despite differences and internal factionalism, AASU quickly signed the tripartite Assam Accord in 1985. This Accord promised to ensure that no entrants after 1971 will be accepted by Assam, the culture and language of ‘Axomiya’ people will be safeguarded and centre will provide for the state’s infrastructural development.
While the accord was seen as a culmination of long term demands by the organisations leading Assam Movement, seeds of discord were sown at its very birth. The book takes a detailed look at how there was internal differences amongst the leaders of AASU like Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Bhrigu Phukan, Biraj Sharma, Zoinath Sharma et al. They were divided on the most crucial issue of the deadline – should it be 1971 or 1951.
This discord continued even after the accord was signed and the newly formed Axom Gana Parishad formed the government in 1985. There was clearly two centres of power within the AGP – with Bhrigu Phukan leading the other. How the Axom Gana Parishad fared in its two stints of rule is history now but revisiting the events become relevant because the present scenario of the state is a result of unsolved issues of the past.
The Assam Movement also saw the birth of outfits like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) which believed in armed revolution and sovereignty of Assam. Interestingly the book claims that ULFA was born not in 1979 but in 1983 after the violence shook the state. The accord seemed like a compromise to ULFA especially when the new government gave a go ahead to Central government operations like Operation Rhino and Operation Bajrang.
AGP’s rule was marred by degradation in law and order situation, secret killings, factionalism, corruption and inability to deliver the promises. The situation was such that AGP’s rule in fact paved way for a three term for Tarun Gogoi led Congress governments. However in 2016, the scenario changed with BJP coming to power in the state for the first time. Allying with BJP, the regional party has many a time be seen as compromising on crucial issues like the question of Citizenship Amendment Bill which would subvert the Assam Movement.
Tying Loose Ends
Towards the end, the book revisits the pre independence politics of the state, issues like the language movement, how these incidents build up the need for updating the NRC and how myriad political formations are hoping to benefit from driving home the discourse of ‘us vs the perennial other’.
While the book drives home some important points about the region’s historical make up with the greater South Asia, it points out the persistent conflicts underlying the region’s history. The book rightly elaborates the predicament of Muslims of Brahmaputra valley who may have moved from East Bengal at different points. This book helps in understanding what gave shape to NRC and the various contentions around it.
However the author at times used the word ‘immigrants’ for Muslims of East Bengal origin playing into the mainstream construction of who is an ‘outsider’. While it rightly contextualised the Nellie massacre, it felt that the incident got attention because it fitted into the binaries which can be easily fathomed at the national level. Nellie cannot be reduced to a mere reaction of the Tiwa community to the criminal activities of the Muslims who were attacked. Neither was it just the response to the elections of 1983. The scale of violence was a culmination of deep rooted suspicion and prejudice reserved for a particular community.
Nonetheless the book touches upon every issue that is relevant to today’s Assam. It also looks at trans-border connections between the people of Assam and Bangladesh. Towards the end the book dispels the fear that Assam situation will take the shape of the Rohingiya crisis because Muslims of Assam are very much keen on assimilation. It also takes up the plausible solution for the problem of immigration – issuing of work permits to regulate economic migration can be one way of doing it. The book does bring one up to date to the happenings of the state. It also throws interesting insights like the possibility of saffronisation of AASU, the role of the Jamiat in post Accord years, the role of the Golap Borbora led government in shaping the anti-outsider movement which can be taken up for further research to get a fuller understanding of the role played by different factors of that time.