Assamese or Kachari debate rages in Assam

Question of determination of ‘indigenous’ people under Assam Accord raises the stakes

January 21, 2020 08:33 pm | Updated 08:33 pm IST - GUWAHATI

Almost 35 years since the signing of the Assam Accord, the question of who qualifies as ‘indigenous’ under Clause 6 of the accord — the Assamese or the “more primitive” Kachari — still remains an unresolved question. And with a high-level committee slated to submit its recommendations to the Centre to enable implementation of this clause according constitutional rights for the indigenous peoples of Assam, various organisations in the State are debating the issue with added urgency.

The Assam Public Works (APW), whose petition in the Supreme Court led to the exercise of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the State, has suggested that people who settled in Assam before January 26, 1951, and their descendants be regarded as ‘indigenous’ Assamese. It has also sought the tag for tribes, castes and communities living in the State since 1826 when Assam came under British rule.

Some academics consider the Assamese language-speaking people and all other communities — tribal and non-tribal — living in Assam as the Assamese race. Most tribes, specifically those belonging to the Kachari group, disagree and view the Assamese speakers as non-original inhabitants of Assam.

The Kachari group includes the Bodos, the largest plains tribe of the northeast, the Dimasas and the Sonowal Kachari, the community to which Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal belongs.

“The constitutional safeguard should ideally be for the Kachari people of Assam, not the Assamese, and we have made this clear to the Centre,” the All Assam Kochari Samaj (AAKS) said in a statement on Monday. “The Clause 6 committee is a big conspiracy to destroy the race, land, hearth and language of the Kacharis, the real sons-of-the-soil in Assam,” the Samaj added.

The APW, however, cited a book published by the Assam Sahitya Sabha, which attempts to define the “Assamese”, to come up with its suggestions.

“According to the relevant provisions of Constitution of India, persons who settled in Assam before July 19, 1948, and their descendants are Indians,” the APW asserted. “Hence, the persons having Nepali, Bangladeshi, European and Chinese origin living in Assam prior to July 19, 1948, and their descendants are Assamese,” the organisation added.

“According to the relevant provisions of Constitution, a person who registered his name in the 1951 NRC after settling in Assam and his descendants are also Assamese,” the APW said, suggesting 90% of seats in Parliament, Assembly and local bodies should be reserved for people who have been living in Assam before January 1951 and the remaining 10% for those who came later.

There have been several attempts to define “Assamese” since the Assam Accord of August 1985 that ended a six-year agitation seeking a State free of illegal migrants. Clause 6 of the Accord says: “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.”

But AAKS working president Manas Rabha asserted that history had been distorted to seek for the Assamese what the Kachari people deserved. “That government and private institutions in Assam have over the years tried to erase the history of the Kachari kings is the bitter truth,” contended Mr. Rabha. “History can be distorted, but not changed,” he said, demanding that 50% of the State’s seats in the Parliament and in the Assembly be reserved for the Kacharis and that Assam’s administrative capital Dispur be renamed as Mahiranga, in memory of the first Kachari king.

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