Who the Hell is ‘Indigenous’ in Assam?

The discourse on indigeneity has been a bone of contention in the social and political life in Assam. This discourse should be discarded.

It is a futile and meaningless exercise to determine a definition of the indigenous by incorporating each and every community and ethnic group inhabiting in Assam at present. But the more the timeline for this determination is pushed to the past, the more discordances and disagreements we come to have. We may say that the definition of the indigenous has become like a game of kabaddi – as much farther as possible, one party drags it to the past, while the other party drags it to the present. This exercise has not been beneficial for anyone, it has rather stirred up a hornet’s nest. Those communitiesor ethnic groups who think that they would not come under the definition of the indigenous or those whom other communities or ethnic groups demarcate as non- indigenous have been trying their utmost to prove their indigeneity, because the question of political rights is associated with it. If a community or ethnic group is demarcated as indigenous, they would be entitled to have certain political rights; if not, they would be denied those rights. Hence in such a situation it has become imperative for everyone to proclaim to be indigenous. From this perspective, we maintain that the discourse on indigeneity be discarded.

The idea of the indigenous solely as a historical category may be allowed to exist – it should not be a bone of contention. Such ideas or categories will always be there in the context of historical analysis – A or B was an indigenous community, later X or Y migrated here, and so on. There may be debates and disputes regarding the criteria or the point of time considered to determine the definition of the indigenous; but whatever the definition be, some communities or ethnic groups living in Assam would always be excluded from that definition. For instance, according to one definition of the indigenous, if the tea tribes of Assam are excluded, according to another, the Muslim miya community would be excluded. But there would not be an apple of discord if the issue of political rights is not entangled with that definition. That is why we contend that the idea of the indigenous be espoused only as a historical category, and the question of political rights be totally dissociated from it. In other words, historically one community or ethnic group may be demarcated as indigenous or non-indigenous, but whether that community or ethnic group has political rights or not must not be based solely on their demarcation as indigenous or non-indigenous. In that case, no community or ethnic group ought to bother about proving or establishing their indigeneity. In case someone asserts that they are indigenous while some others are not, the answer to such assertion should be, “So what? Do you have a problem?”

The discourse of indigeneity has exhausted the social and political life in Assam with ethnic competition and never-ending clashes and conflicts. It is an avoidable quagmire, and hence it is sensible to put an end to it. But even if the discourse of indigeneity is done away with, problems and apprehensions of the communities and ethnic groups would not vanish in thin air. Therefore political and constitutional measures are required to safeguard the economic, political and social interests of the indigenous groups, and there should not be any argument against it. But at the same time, similar measures must be there to safeguard interests and securities of the non-indigenous groups as well. There must be political and constitutional guarantees so that non- indigenous communities are not subject to pressure or exploitation at the hands of majority or indigenous groups. It would be worthwhile to have public debates and discussions regarding how to do this. But it is favourable for all to discard the discourse of indigeneity first and foremost.

The idea of the Assamese should be accepted as a universal and inclusive cultural identity. Each and everyone except those who declare themselves as not being Assamese should be accepted as Assamese, regardless of whether someone is indigenous or non-indigenous. It would be easier to deal with the problems and apprehensions associated with the Assamese identity – for instance, the fear of Assamese hegemony – if a practical and effective political and constitutional formula is devised to safeguard the interests and securities of all the communities and ethnic groups.

What we have put forward is only an abstract theoretical proposition. It is easier said than done to carry it forward in concrete forms. Nevertheless, one must start at some point! We have already wasted invaluable time trying to find the definition of the

Assamese or to determine the indigenous. What we need now is an alternative – problematising the discourse of indigeneity may be a starting point of it.

Postscript: According to news reports, the speaker of the 15th Assam Legislative Assembly, Biswajit Daimary, said that the Adivasi tea tribes living in Assam were not Assamese. We believe that nobody has any right to question after they themselves identified as Assamese. But the leadership of the Assamese nation who demarcate the Adivasi tea tribes as Assamese is also culpable at the same time – they are in fact more guilty and answerable. In reality, taking into consideration how the tea garden labourers are living their life in extreme misery and hardship, the Assamese nation must be penitent. The mainstream Assamese society has always kept the Adivasi tea tribe community away with casteist and racial prejudice and disregard, and the political leadership has always deceived them. For the fact that in spite of all they have been identifying themselves as Assamese, the Assamese nation must always be grateful for them.

(23/05/2021)

Translated from Axomiya by Biswajit K Bora

[Date of Translation: 25/05/2021]

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Jiten Bezboruah Written by:

Jiten Bezboruah is a young socio-political commentator from Assam. He has extensively written on socio-political issues in Assam and India. His recent book, Boikolpik Rajnitir Xondhanot [In Search of Alternative Politics], a collection of essays, has been published by Mukto Sinta Publication in November 2017. His main interests include social movements, nationalism, culture, and socialism.

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