Unlike the other creatures of this earth, humankind has since time immemorial striven to create bonds on the basis of region, country, language, culture, religion, etc. When such groups feel their identity is getting eroded because of factors like subjugation, migration, etc., they have found ways to assert themselves to preserve their identity.
Recent events across the country like movements for a separate Telangana, Gorkhaland, etc., stem from the assertion of people of a particular region of their identity. While these movements emphasised the issues of discrimination and development, the most notable forerunner to such movements i.e. the movement in Assam (1979-85) spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) revolved around the question of not just assertion of identity but also the eviction of illegal migrants from the state to safeguard Assamese language and culture.
On completion of three decades of this popular movement and the consequent historic Assam Accord, Prof. Nandana Dutta has presented detailed study of Assamese identity combined with a historical background in her book Questions of Identity in Assam Location, Migration, Hybridity published under the SAGE Studies series on India’s North East.
This empirical study on the question of Assamese identity acts as a breath of scholarly fresh air on perceptions of India’s North East given the violent movement and the emergence of militant groups such as the ULFA. Prof. Dutta points out that “This is a location where migration indeed was responsible for spawning separatist movements, and where the internal dynamics generated by migration gave birth to the autonomy movements of many of the larger tribal groups within the state.”
According to noted scholar Hiren Gohain, “the frustration, anger and discontent of the Assamese have been made even more complex by the suspicion and anger of the tribal towards the Assamese on the grounds that the Assamese have exploited and suppressed them both economically and culturally.”
Migrations analysts posit that a host community’s perception of migrant develops through stages of welcome, then indifference, then the perception of threat and finally outright hostility. The increase of hostility in the host society is in direct proportion to the increase in numbers.
In order to utilise the vast lands of Assam, the British induced migration to ensure labour for their plantations. In the last 150 years, Assam has seen immigration into its territory at the behest of British rulers. Many scholars have identified the same periods and phases and the same sets of migrants.
According to Scholar Alaka Sarma, there are two phases during the British rule from 1826 to 1905 and again from 1905 to 1947. In the first phase, three classes of people migrated into Assam – tea plantation labourers, ‘Amolas’ (office employees from Sylhet, Dacca, Mymensing, Rampur and other districts of Bengal) and merchants and tradesmen from Rajasthan and Bengal. In the second phase, while the Muslim peasants from East Bengal settled in the rural areas of Assam, Bengali Hindu migrants continued to pour into its towns.
While the dominance of Bengali in the realm of education and employment opportunities was unsettled during the language movement of 1960s, with the advent of AASU in 1970s, the issue of illegal migrants caught the imagination of Assamese middle class, youth and students. Though the movement was started against the illegal migrants, over the time, it become violent and morphed into a communal movement with anti-Muslim bias. This movement also became responsible for an attitude of indifference to the art and craft of Assam’s tribal groups thus galvanising these groups in the last 30 years to demand autonomously administered areas.
While remembering the Assam movement, Prof. Dutta also points out that the key aspect of the movement, the participation of young adolescents and the subsequent scarring of an entire generation, has to be viewed in terms of its after effects, the turn to militancy, and the criminalisation of a whole society. The entry or seepage of practices of militancy into social and economic practices has affected modes of social exchange, and a denial of otherness has sprung from this exchange. Such groups are not involved in industry or production or in any thing else that is remotely developmental.
The rivalry in Assam was not between Hindus and Muslims, but between the speakers of two major languages in colonial Assam — the Bengalis and Assamese. But the arrival of Bangladeshi migrants released emotions that subverted or destroyed the host’s habitual ways of living.
With the entry of the Muslims from East Bengal/East Pakistan/ Bangladesh, a different way of being Muslim became visible, because this was a group distinguished not only by language and attire but by a more overtly patriarchal/hierarchical internal organisation. This situation has been responsible for the currency given to a renewed image of the obedient, submissive, passive women that is at odds with the respectable position that women were believed to traditionally occupy in Assamese society.
Considering the fallout of the Assam movement within and outside the state, the recent violence at Goalpara, Kokrajhar and other places calls for a deep understanding of the migrant issue, and urgent measures to resolve it. As the saying goes, hatred spreads farther than the wind.
In that respect, it is not a book that would fit into the classic social sciences model containing analyses and solutions. Essentially, it offers “descriptions” with the conviction that there are incidental gains from studying identity through migration and hybridity in a specific location — “Assam of the last three decades.”
Questions of Identity of Assam: Location, Migration, Hybridityby Nandana Dutta, SAGE Publications, Rs. 795