The question “Who is an Assamese?” It has been debated for decades in Assam, whose history has been shaped by peoples of multiple cultures over the centuries. Now, a report from a government-appointed committee has proposed a definition of “Assamese people.”
- While this is limited to the objective of implementing a provision of the 1985 Assam Accord (Article 6), it highlights the complexities at stake in Assam.
Why is this a topic of debate?
The Assam Agreement was signed after a six-year agitation (1979-1985) against illegal migration from Bangladesh. In the context of the Agreement, the question of who is Assamese arises from the wording of Clause 6: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative guarantees will be provided, where appropriate, to protect, preserve and promote cultural, social and linguistic identity. and inheritance of the Assamese people.
This raises two questions:
- what will these safeguards be; And
- who are the “peoples of Assam” eligible for these?
There are no residents of Assam, in Assam?
It is not comprehensive in a state defined by immigration policy. And yet the definition of “Assamese” cannot be narrow enough to refer only to those who speak Assamese as their first language. Assam has many indigenous tribal and ethnic communities with their own ancestral languages. In the case of article 6, it was necessary to broaden the definition of the term “Assamese” beyond the Assamese-speaking population. Those who are not eligible for guarantees under clause 6 would clearly belong to migrant populations. But would all migrant populations be excluded or would some of them be eligible for Article 6 benefits?
But who is a migrant?
In popular conversation, the idea of ”natives” is understood as communities that trace their history back to Assam before 1826, the year the former kingdom of Assam was annexed to British India. Large-scale migration from East Bengal took place during British rule, followed by new waves after independence. The Assam movement of 1979-1985 was sparked by fears that these Bengali Muslim and Hindu Bengali immigrants would one day invade the indigenous population and dominate state resources and politics. During the upheaval, the demand was to detect and expel those who had emigrated after 1951.
Was this request accepted?
Not in 1951. The Assam Agreement was reached on the deadline of March 24, 1971; Anyone arriving in Assam before this deadline would be considered an Indian citizen. This date also served as the basis for the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), published last year. Because the Agreement legalized additional migrants (1951-71) against the original 1951 request, Term 6 was incorporated as a guarantee for indigenous peoples.
How has article 6 been taken up since then?
Due to the complexities involved, previous efforts to develop a framework have made little progress. The case became urgent last year amid Assamese protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now a law) that makes it easier for certain categories of migrants to obtain Indian citizenship: the key here is the Hindus of Bangladesh. The Interior Ministry established a new committee, which presented its report in February, but the government sat on it for months. This led to four of the 14 committee members being made public on Tuesday.
So what are the recommendations?
For the purposes of implementing Clause 6, the proposed definition includes indigenous tribes, other indigenous communities, all other Indian citizens residing in Assam on or before January 1, 1951, and indigenous Assamés and their descendants. In short, it covers anyone who can prove their presence (or that of their ancestors) in Assam before 1951. Regarding guarantees, the committee recommended reservations to the legislature and jobs for the “people of Asam”, and that “land rights are limited” for them.
What are the implications of the definition?
The migrants who entered Assam after 1951 but before March 24, 1971 are not Assamese but Indian citizens. They would not be eligible, for example, to stand for election in 80 to 100 percent of Assam’s seats (if this recommendation is accepted). But they can vote. Not only indigenous groups, but also East Bengal migrants who entered.
What problems does this pose?
Some find it too inclusive. The committee had received public suggestions that it had proposed a base year of 1826 for anyone considered Assamese, there should not be a base year to identify the indigenous peoples of Assam. The organization had sought to ensure that only communities living in Assam during Ahom’s reign (before 1826) were included in the definition, on the basis of their cultural identities. Others find it exclusive. The Assam Minority Students’ Union, which identifies with Bengali Muslims, had requested that the 1971 limit also be used to decide eligibility for Term 6. How will you prove that a person is previously found in Assam? 1951? (The 1951 NRC is not available in various parts of the state.) thousands of people in the Barak Valley of Assam risk losing their rights if the report is implemented. Large numbers of Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims migrated from Sylhet to the Barak Valley in the 1950s and 1960s.
What is the way forward?
Several questions arise for both state and central governments, the key question is whether it will withstand judicial review because it will surely be challenged in court; And will it withstand the test of constitutionality? Does the definition of an Assamese – social, historical, ethnic, linguistic, political and cultural entity and not just a religious one – or of a Bengali or a Punjabi or a Tamil also define their Indian status or their Indian citizenship? “This is a key legal and constitutional issue that must be taken into consideration. It is tied to the NRC process, because the Assam Accord cannot be looked at independently of one clause or another.
“There is no silver bullet to solve the problem that has plagued the heart of Assam for more than 70 years ..I am an advocate of constitutional reservations and work permits. But we must also recognize the demographic reality of the s