Northeast:‘Identity should be based on geographical boundaries in 1947’
Siddhartha Bhattacharya is an unusual BJP leader. He was the first one to criticise when Subramanian Swamy made a vicious anti-minority remark in Assam recently. At a time when the BJP is trying hard to gain a foothold in Assam, Bhattacharya comes across as a moderate voice who is willing to listen to all sides of the story in this highly fragmented society. Sadiq Naqvi caught up with the President of the BJP state unit at his Guwahati office. Excerpts from an interview:
What are the origins of the present debate over who is Assamese?
The Assamese intelligentsia has always been very ambivalent about this definition. When the British conquered Assam they brought some people from Bengal, particularly from Calcutta, who were Bengali nationalists. They convinced the British that for better administration the lingua franca should be Bengali. It remained the state language of Assam for a long time. Later, when people like my father went to Calcutta to study and noticed how Bengalis were proud of their culture and language they thought, Why do we not have similar feelings for our culture and language. When they came back they emphasised the growth of our language and culture. That is how Assamese nationalism grew as a protest against Bengali expansionism and Assamese became the state language.
How did that Assamese nationalism evolve over time?
The irony of history is that what they were protesting against —the Bengali nationalism—was nearly identical to what they tried to enforce on other ethnicities in this area. They tried to enforce the Assamese culture and language on tribal groups like the Bodos, Nagas and Khasis. History repeats itself. What had happened with Bengali expansionism, a similar thing happened with Assamese expansionism.
How did that impact Assamese identity?
The definition of Assamese as articulated by the Asom Sahitya Sabha and later by the All-Assam Students Union was based on language. But, as I say, Assam is a miniature India, an ethnic mosaic, a place where all languages are spoken by a sizeable number, where followers of all religions including Judaism reside, so in such a scenario only an identity based on geographical parameters can sustain itself. I am a Brahmin and even my forefathers were brought by the Ahom kings. If you go back 800 years then you can say that I am also a migrant. Look at the Nagas, and how they have evolved this Naga identity despite belonging to several different tribes. In my view, the identity should be based on geographical boundaries at the time of Independence. So anyone who has been living in the geographical boundary of Assam in or before 1947 is Assamese.
Many people are distraught that they are still called Bangladeshis, despite having lived in Assam for 70 years. What are your thoughts?
It is very wrong. Muslims are not new entrants to Assam. Islam has been here even before the Ahom kings came. So every Muslim cannot be a foreign national simply because he is a Muslim. It’s a very wrong concept and I totally disagree with that. The definition of Assamese cannot be based on either religion or ethnicity or language.
Many say that it is the BJP which is communalising the polity in Assam. Is the BJP to blame for the fact that Muslims are routinely called Bangladeshis?
It is not so, though it may be a perception of some people. For example, there are lots of people who migrated from Dhaka, for it was a part and parcel of India prior to Independence. So if Rajasthanis could come and settle here then these people also had a right to come and live. These people have been living since then and you will find a ‘Dhaka Patti’ in every major town of Assam. However, at the same time there is a need to differentiate the people who have been coming in because they are facing persecution and the ones who have been migrating for purely economic reasons.
What do you think of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)? What role will it play in the coming elections?
The AIUDF has arisen out of the apprehensions and aspirations for self-assertion of the immigrant Muslims. Earlier, the Muslims who migrated to Assam post-Independence were always apprehensive that by Constitutional norms and the laws framed thereafter they were illegal migrants. They did not have a legal validity or reasoning that has been accepted by the political or legal systems in India. They are in fact foreign nationals who have migrated to Assam illegally. Now this group of people wanted some kind of political support or umbrella to protect them. And the Congress gave them that umbrella. Initially they were with the Congress. In fact, Dev Kant Barooah, once the national President of the Congress, famously said that if Aali (immigrants) and Kuli (tea garden labourers) remain with the Congress then no one can defeat the party in Assam.
How did they break from the Congress?
This group has grown roots in the region. Their children have become educated and got themselves into respectable white collar jobs and they have developed an independent aspiration for self-assertion. They no longer want to be under a protective cover of somebody. These expressions manifest in so many ways. Earlier, it was UMF and other groups. Subsequently, after the failure of these experiments, Badruddin Ajmal has very shrewdly taken control of this group. It is also a very cohesive group for it professes only one religion, Islam. He has taken up a two-pronged strategy, first on the basis of religious identity and, second, as an ethnic community. They play a very important role but in the context in which they have grown this party will remain confined to that particular section only. They will be able to grow to a level of 20-22 seats.
There has been so much violence in BTAD. Do you think carving it out was a bad idea?
Bodoland emerged out of the aspirations of educated Bodos for their own ethnic identity. Post-Independence, the areas which form Bodoland now were not looked after well. There wasn’t much development in these areas. So there was justification in carving out Bodoland. But the mistake was the name given to it. Earlier, it was called Udayachal. This would have been much more easily accepted. Like Meghalaya, which basically comprises three tribes, the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos. Had they named it Khasiland, the other two tribes would have revolted. But Meghalaya was a neutral term. I feel if Bodoland was called Udayachal it would have been more acceptable to everybody. This kind of ethnic identity given to a particular council, it was wrong.
The tea tribes want Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. Is that demand justified?
Yes, their demand is justified. If many of these tribes already have ST status in other parts of the country, then why not in Assam?
Don’t you think it will lead to more conflict?
If Bodos can have their own aspirations then why not these Adivasis? All Indian citizens are entitled to the same kind of treatment everywhere. Simply because I belong to a particular group which is dominating the area hence I will not recognise other groups, this is something which is responsible for all the troubles in this land. The mistakes the Assamese committed, the same mistakes are being repeated by the Bodos now. In Bodoland, they want to dominate and eliminate all other groups. Other groups are not going to be easily eliminated. This is the reason for the conflict.
What is your take on the NRC?
It is required. There are certain administrative difficulties because there are people who have migrated because of religious or social persecution in Bangladesh, particularly the Hindus. This group of people, post-1971, doesn’t have the requisite documents which the authorities have made mandatory for the NRC. So this group is going to be in trouble. And we are looking into that. The government needs to evolve the process, it needs to come up with some means to give legitimacy to these people.
Lastly, what is your take on the land swap deal with Bangladesh? When the UPA was in power, the BJP had opposed it strongly.
The earlier stand taken by my predecessors was coloured by the political background they came from. It was too chauvinist. Now that the BJP has come to power at the Centre, they need to take into account international treaties and pragmatism. There are two aspects to the land swap deal. One pertains to the enclaves in West Bengal, which is a different issue altogether. So far as Assam is concerned, when the Radcliffe Line was drawn, there were areas beyond the Line which fell in Assam but they were under the control of Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Theoretically, they remained in India but for all practical purposes they were a part of Bangladesh. Because of this dichotomy, the boundaries have not been clearly defined and the border fencing couldn’t be done properly. The land swap deal tries to redress these anomalies.