Amid Assam's citizenship debate, meanings of 'Assamese' and 'indigenous' must be addressed

  • The question of who is Assamese is an ontological one, brought about by the advent of colonialism in the 19th century.

  • Starting from the early 20th century, the literary, academic and cultural stalwarts of Assam tried to define the Assamese in many ways possible.

  • They addressed the question of identity through the multiple spectrums of culture, politics and social location.

“Who is an Assamese?”

This is a question that has played out in Assam’s everyday politics — and in the minds of its people — for over a century now.

To those outside the geographical imagination of Assam, the question may mean nothing. Within the state, however, it has the potential to alter the political- and cultural-scape.

Who is indigenous — an Assamese — in Assam? Complex as this issue has been for scholars, politicians and people from all walks of life, this is a crucial question to delve into, especially now, against the backdrop of the much-debated National Registry of Citizenship or the NRC. There may not be any satisfactory and nuanced answers, but a discussion has to begin; this is a critical moment to start that discussion anew.

 Amid Assams citizenship debate, meanings of Assamese and indigenous must be addressed

In this file photo, people stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the NRC at Gumi village of Kamrup district in Assam. AFP

Starting from the early 20th century, the literary, academic and cultural stalwarts of Assam — be it Lakshminath Bezbaruah, Ambika Giri Raichowdhury, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala or Maheswar Neog and even Bhupen Hazarika — tried to define ‘the Assamese’ in many ways possible, addressing the question of identity through the multiple spectrums of culture, politics and social location. The question of who is Assamese is an ontological one, brought about by the advent of colonialism in the 19th century.

The central government appointed a high-level committee on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord in July 2019. The Assam Accord, signed in 1985, has been the reason for the updating of the 1951 NRC in Assam to identify foreigners living in the state. In August, the Committee published advertisements in various newspapers in the state, inviting views, comments and suggestions regarding Clause 6. What was interesting to note in these advertisements, however, was the insertion of the word ‘indigenous’.

Clause 6 of the Assam Accord states, “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” One of the points in the advertisements published by the high-level committee reads as: “Reservation of seats in Parliament, Assam Legislative Assembly and local bodies for the indigenous tribal, indigenous Assamese and other indigenous people of Assam.”

This usage of the word indigenous raises the first point of concern in addressing a major conundrum over the citizenship debate in Assam. The Accord does not mention the term ‘indigenous’ but the committee is endeavouring to address the ‘indigenous’ of Assam along with the ‘Assamese people’, which till date remains a vague term.

In one of the very few articles that have been published in international or national media on the NRC that specifically engages with the concerns of the Assamese people, Nandita Saikia, an assistant professor at JNU, utilises the terms ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler-colonialism’. Senior academic Walter Fernandes also wrote an important piece laying out the concerns of the Assamese people over NRC and the anxiety over loss of natural and other resources, but it is pertinent to point out that he did not use the term ‘indigenous’ in his article. Both these articles were published within days of each other.

However, there have also been articles which have raised questions over the basic premise of the Clause 6 committee, and if indeed there is anything or anyone ‘indigenous’ in Assam. In the Assamese language itself, ‘Axomiya’ means one belonging to Assam and ‘Khilonjiya’ means indigenous in a broader sense. Thus, one may deduce that the idea of ‘indigeneity’ is not just a postcolonial concept.

Historian and cultural scholar Maheswar Neog attempted to define Assamese culture and identity in the 1970s, saying: “The concept of Assamese culture is mostly based on people’s affiliation to, and knowledge of, the Assamese tongue and their belonging to the geographical entity called Assam…. after the political fragmentation of the old Assam, there are left many Assamese speakers beyond her borders.”

Another major debate happened in 2015 in Assam over who might constitute an Assamese. The then speaker of the Assam Legislative Assembly, Pranab Kumar Gogoi, came out with a report over this issue which suggested that the 1951 Census should be taken as the basis for defining who an Assamese person is. The report says that, “…an indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the state of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of Assam or, in the case of Cachar, the language of the region.”

But does such a definition fulfill the requirements of the conditions of indigeneity?

Abhay Flavian Xaxa, research coordinator for Tribal Intellectual Collective of India, says, “Indigeneity in India is understood through the colonial context. And in the case of Assam, the question of who is indigenous is still unsettled.”

Virginius Xaxa, professor emeritus at Tezpur University in Assam, who has worked for decades on tribes and indigeneity, in an essay titled ‘Tribes as Indigenous People of India’, argues who can be classified as indigenous people of India. He says, “…those tribal and semi-tribal population that are regarded as having their descent from the populations which inhabited the country or the geographical region to which the country belongs at the time of the conquest or colonisation of Europe.”

Going by the above definition then, it should be easy for one to define the indigenous in Assam, but it is not quite so simple because Assam was a pluralistic society with multiple ethnic communities and identities even when the British officially began colonising the region from 1826.

A major cause for these complexities is India’s own ambiguous stand over who constitutes an indigenous person. India voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 and signed the ILO Convention 107. Yet, as the international indigenous rights organisation Cultural Survival notes in their report in 2016 on India and the state of the indigenous in the country, the Indian state denies the existence of the term and concept of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ and claims that all Indians are indigenous.

The debates and positioning of citizenship in Assam over the NRC seems to have initiated some amount of public discourse on the question of who is an indigenous inhabitant of Assam rather than on the question of who is an Assamese.

Among the many suggestions that were provided to the committee post their advertisement, the Autonomous State Demand Committee of Karbi Anglong (ASDC) sent theirs. They raised the point that, “The Clause 6 does not cover the Karbi, Dimasa and other hill tribes of Assam. Therefore, separate measures have to be taken for the protection of the hill tribes or Clause 6 has to be legally interpreted as to include the hill tribes besides the Assamese people.”

There is a very important reason to this point that the ASDC raised. This is rooted in both colonial and pre-colonial history, as the ASDC has emphasised. It is because the Karbis, Dimasas and other hill tribes were never under Ahom rule and even during colonisation, the British designated hill areas as ‘Backward Tract, Excluded Area, Partially Excluded Area’ and thus, they were never under the geographical and political space that was mapped out as ‘Assam’. Thus the ASDC argues that because the hill areas were never under Assam, “the people too cannot be categorised under the term Assamese”.

However, the ASDC wants the Clause 6 committee to endeavour to define what is ‘indigenous’ in the context of Assam.

Holiram Terang, president of the ASDC, says, “Apart from the hill tribes, I believe that those people who have been in Assam since the Ahom days, can be categorised as indigenous people of Assam.”

His views are paralleled by other activists in Assam.

Supreme Court advocate Upamanyu Hazarika, activist for the rights of the indigenous in Assam, says the same. Hazarika chaired the one-man commission appointed by the Supreme Court to study illegal immigration in Assam in 2015.

“Assam has around 115 ethnic communities and to define the indigenous, we must go by the UN Convention which says that the communities that existed in a place before colonisation are termed as indigenous,” Hazarika argues.

Matiur Rahman of the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, an umbrella group of various indigenous organisations of the state, has a similar view. The Mahasanga has a petition pending in the SC regarding the cut-off date for citizenship in Assam. Rahman also quotes the UN and says, “According to the UN Convention, all of us are Khilonjiyas who have been here since 1826.”

However, senior journalist and author Mrinal Talukdar has a very different take on the question of indigeneity in Assam. He argues that, “Indigenous tribal, indigenous Assamese and other indigenous people of Assam, may be defined as those people who were living within the geographical boundary of Assam on 31 August 1956, the day the States Reorganisation Act came into effect, and had a mother tongue for which no other state except Assam was created as per the Act.” Thus, going by his definition, communities such as Bengalis or Hindi-speaking communities in Assam are not indigenous, but a Gorkha in Assam can be considered indigenous since there is no language-based state for the Gorkhas in India.

Reservation of natural resources and preservation of cultural and linguistic identity among others, for the indigenous, is at the heart of Clause 6 and the committee formed recently. The fixing of a citizenship date is not in its mandate. The NRC of 2019 can remain the base document to define citizenship in Assam, but the access and control over resources that has led to much anxiety and strife can be placated if the question now moors towards who is indigenous, despite the different understandings of this term, rather than who is an Assamese. This is not a ‘project’ but an ontological and epistemological endeavour that should have been addressed a long time ago — which in turn probably would have addressed the conundrums of citizenship with much greater clarity instead of the mess it is today.

The author is a PhD research scholar in Cultural Studies

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Updated Date: Nov 22, 2019 09:15:22 IST