Northeast: ‘National register of citizenship is unreliable’

Face to Face: Monirul Hussain , HoD Political Science at Gauhati University
Sadiq Naqvi Guwahati

Professor Monirul Hussain heads the department of political science at Gauhati University and is the author of The Assam Movement: Class, Ideology and Identity and Interrogating Development: State, Displacement and Popular Resistance in North East India. He spoke to Sadiq Naqvi about the current state of identity politics in Assam. Excerpts: 

What do you think of this renewed debate on who constitutes an Assamese?

There is a need to distinguish between Assamese and Ahomiya. For me, all the people living in the territory of Assam are Assamese or inhabitants of Assam. Ahomiya is different, for there is a nationality called Ahomiya.  Assamese is a bigger identity based on territorial anchorage. So all people living in Assam, irrespective of their origin, are Assamese. [Ahomiya refers to] the people who have adopted Ahomiya as their language. People who say Ahomiya is their mother tongue, their national identity. 

What about the Bodos? By your definition they would be Assamese, but are they Ahomiya?

Bodos speak the Boro language [so you could say they’re another] linguistic-based ethnicity. Whether Bodos are Ahomiya or not is a debatable point because most of the tribals in Assam, particularly in the plains, are bilingual. A Bodo is a Bodo plus an Ahomiya in the sense that he can speak the Ahomiya language. The same with the large number of Bengali people living here. Their mother tongue may be Bengali but they know how to communicate in Ahomiya, particularly Bengalis living in the Brahmaputra valley. 

But isn’t it your mother tongue and customs that define your ethnicity?

We live in a multicultural situation. To define, to isolate from someone is a dangerous tendency. We have multiplicity of identity and different layers of identity and sometimes people find it difficult to negotiate between these identities. I have no difficulties. I speak Ahomiya, so I am an Ahomiya. I live in Assam so I am an Assamese. I belong to India hence I am an Indian. Everyone has a multi-layered identity that must be recognised. One should not fix one as a single identity. 

Why has this debate over who is Assamese resurfaced now?

This debate is dangerous for the process of integration, and assimilation takes a lot of time. For example, the Muslims of East Bengal origin had two identities. Since they were followers of Islam, they had a Muslim identity. [But] their national identity was Bengali, for their mother tongue was Bengali. [In the early years after they migrated to India] they remained unilingual Bengali, but gradually they picked up Ahomiya. The next generation is going to Ahomiya-medium schools and not Bengali schools. They are in the process of becoming Ahomiya. I think this is a very positive sign of their integration in the local society. Identities are not fixed. Even languages are not fixed. It is subject to change, depending on where you live or where your next generations end up. It is subject to adaptation to a new situation. 

So you’re saying the established Ahomiya population has some anxiety about the assimilation of the immigrants?

In Assam, East Bengali Muslims are increasingly becoming Ahomiya now and there are some people who don’t want to recognise them as Ahomiyas. But I call them Ahomiyas. The Ahomiya elite are sending their children to English-medium schools. But the poor peasants of East Bengal origin are sending their children to Ahomiya-medium schools. Tea plantation labourers, a large community, are also sending their children to Ahomiya-medium schools. I think in a decade or so they will have a stronger claim than the Ahomiyas [to that linguistic ethnicity] because they are continuing with the language. Whereas Ahomiyas are gradually giving up the Ahomiya language. 

Is there a class angle to this discrimination? Do Marwaris also face a similar discrimination?

An Assamese boy won’t find a Marwari boy in the job market. He will find a Bengali counterpart, he will find someone from the emerging class of the East Bengal-origin Muslims but he will not find a Bengali competitor. Marwaris are not bothered about clerical jobs. They create their own jobs. But the Ahomiyas, Bengalis, and the emerging class of Muslims of East Bengal origin are dependent on government jobs. So they find themselves in competition. They do not find the Marwari a competitor. Therefore there is no backlash
against Marwaris. 

People in Bodoland mostly attribute the strife to conflict over land. They call themselves the rightful owners of all resources in that area and say that others have encroached upon their property. How do you see it?

To me Assam is not a homeland of a single community. There are multiple communities. Some had come a little earlier and some a little later. To solve this problem one needs to think democratically, in a plural sense, a multi-cultural sense, only then can one find a solution. As tribals, the Bodos are entitled to protection which has not been adequately given. Their political leadership is also responsible for it. Bodos are claiming a particular area as Bodoland but if you look back in history this has been a common homeland for many people. The Koch-Rajbongshis, the Bengalis, the Nepalese, and a lot of other people coming in. 

Bodos target Muslims, they target Adivasis. Do you see a solution to this seemingly neverending vicious cycle of violence?

Those people who are engaged in fighting and those who are victims are not from the so-called mainstream. These are all marginalised people. I consider Bodos marginalised people. They fighting against Adivasis is one marginalised group fighting another marginalised group. You must have seen the plight of the Adivasis and the Muslims. Most of the Muslims are ordinary peasants. They are struggling against riverbank erosion and moving to new places. We have to look into their livelihood question. For example, Bodos are very good in weaving. Give them an opportunity to grow. These peasants are good in agriculture, one needs to give them opportunity to grow. I think that is what is going to solve this problem. 

Where do you trace the origin of this term ‘Bangladeshi’ which is now being used increasingly for the
minority community?

This is a dangerous thing. Bangladesh only emerged recently, in 1971. Prior to Independence, a large part of Bangladesh was part of Assam, and a large part of Assam was part of Bengal. For example, Kokrajhar, which is being called the Bodo homeland, or Gwalpada and Dhubri. These places were annexed by the British much before the annexation of Assam. They were annexed in the 18th century and Assam was annexed in the 19th century. These areas were part of colonial Bengal. And obviously, if it is the same province, people migrate. It is not that the Bodos are living in Bodoland alone. There are a large number of Bodos in Bangladesh. There are a large number of Koch-Rajbongshis too in Bangladesh. There are a large number of Koch-Rajbongshis even in Nepal.  

How do you look at the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that is happening now? Will it lead to more conflict?

The NRC is not a dependable document. The government has admitted that there is no proper NRC to compare with. The aim of this NRC is to compare with an earlier NRC, and that NRC is absolutely anarchic. When the NRC was prepared in 1951, my hometown was Lakhimpur while my father was posted in Kachar, in Karimganj and his name is not there in Lakhimpur NRC, nor is his name there in Karimganj NRC. Does it mean that he was not an Indian citizen? Does it mean that I am not an Indian citizen because my name is also not in the register? This is just a farce. We are depending on a totally undependable document to create a new foolproof document. 

Why do you think it is being done now?

From the 1960s to 1970s there was a huge propaganda in the Assamese newspapers that a lot of Pakistanis have entered Assam. During that period 1,92,000 Muslims were deported from Assam to East Pakistan. Most of them were of East Bengal origin. After the creation of Bangladesh these people thought that now there will no problem, we thought that there will be no migration from that side to this side. 

But migration continued?

From 1977 onwards, a movement started against outsiders. But, according to the Constitution, you can’t call a Bihari or a Bengali an outsider. So they were looking for a rationale to expel some people from Assam. It transformed into a movement against ‘bideshis’. 

Was this group really a threat?

When they talked about bideshis, they talked about many from Bangladesh and also from Nepal. Later, the Nepal case was omitted and only Bangladesh remained. People who started the Assam movement were in power after they formed a regional party. How many outsiders could they find? They were in government twice. They were in power for 10 years but they could only find a few hundred Bangladeshis. Many a time the Indian citizens have suffered, particularly the East Bengal-origin Muslims. 

What’s the current situation? What makes people think this group is growing?

Now, the population of Assam has increased substantially. Those people who were engaged in agriculture, especially the East Bengal-origin Muslims, are facing two major problems. One is land fragmentation and the other is river bank erosion where a huge amount of land has been grabbed by the Brahmaputra. Therefore, a large number of people, especially from the rural Muslim belt, have come to the urban areas to work as labourers. So they become more visible. I don’t deny that there may have been a few Bangladeshis but the
way it is propagated, that many Bangladeshis are definitely not here.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2015