When I met trailblazing Assamese journalist Sabita Goswami a few years ago, the feeling of betrayal was palpable in her. But for her daring to go where few scribes had in 1983, the world wouldn’t have come to know of the massacre in Chaulkhowa Chapori which preceded one of the worst genocides of the 20th century by a few days – Nellie where 3,000 women and children were massacred within six hours. Instead of awards, Sabita found herself ostracised for doing her job well.
36 years after one of the most violent years in the history of Assam, as the state braces for another long haul agitation against the ‘foreigner’ in their midst, the ghost of what Sabita Goswami first witnessed and reported (in Nellie she writes in her biography she counted 674 bodies before she gave up) is the elephant in the room that threatens to alienate the protests of Assam from the rest of India even though they are standing up for at least half of the same thing.
The main difference between is that while Assam protests only against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the rest of India protests against CAA and NRC – National Register of Citizens. NRC has already been implemented in Assam causing immense grief to both the ‘foreigners’ and indigenous (khilonji colloquially). And while the central Modi government might have wished that most of the 19 lakh excluded in the final NRC register to be Muslims, nearly 70% are actually Hindus.
To my mind though, the biggest question is not who’d be found to be a ‘foreigner’ but what do you do when one is found so? Do you keep them in detention camps as thousands already are? Can you keep millions? For how long will you keep them since they aren’t criminals? How much would confining them cost? Weren’t they better off outside where they eked out their own living? Will Bangladesh really take millions even if they officially agree to?
I have often asked these questions in discussions in Assam and found that few have given thought to these. It’s not hard to understand why? The entire Assam Agitation of the early 80s that led to the Assam Accord where NRC was a condition, was driven by emotion rather than logic or practicality.
That is not to say there’s no logic to NRC in Assam. Filmmaker Jahnu Barua elucidated to some telling statistics in a video he released
. He compares the census figures of 1971 and 2001 and finds that the "increase in Bengali speaking people between 1971 and 2001 (All Migrants) was 20,89,783 i.e. 7.84%" with the corresponding "decrease of Assamese percentage between 1971 and 2001 from 60.88% to 48.81%."
He, like almost everyone in the Northeast, gives the example of Tripura – a state made for the tribal where they have been reduced to below 40%, making them a minority. What he or other Assamese do not talk about because most don’t know, is how their 8th sister – Sikkim, was flooded with ‘outsiders’ and thus brought to their knees in what many in the secret-service circles call India’s bloodless annexation of Sikkim.
Supreme Court Lawyer Upamanyu Hazarika, at an India Today Concave held in Kolkata in early December
said, “Out of 525 ethnic communities in India, 247 alone are in the North-east which has barely 3% of your population… In Arunachal Pradesh for example 26 tribes make up 12 lakh people.”
Another report often quoted is of British Census Superintendent C S Moolan in 1931 where he wrote that "Invasion of vast hordes of land hungry Bengali immigrants from the districts o Eastern Bengal, particularly Mymensingh... (was).. likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam."
This last comment by the British officer and the emotional articulation of becoming a ‘minority in one’s own land’ during the Assam agitation of the 80s by its leaders, led to unspeakable brutalities on the ‘illegal foreigner’.
Sabita Goswami in her autobiography ‘Along the Red River: A Memoir’ speaks of over 7000 deaths and 500 bomb blasts just during the elections of 1983 in Assam.
Though she laments she hasn’t got her due, the truth is perhaps she was lucky. Many who called out the violence in the state then, were killed as this Scroll report highlights
It is in the context of the violence during the Assam Agitation of the 80s that one must also address the disillusionment of a section of the Assamese themselves who do not want anything to do with what is being called ‘Assam Agitation 2.0’ by many.
One man in his 50s in Guwahati, angrily told me, “What did the Assam Agitation give the Assamese but death, destruction, loss of education and thus earning opportunity to an entire generation? Politicians today who were leaders then, are busy filling their coffers at the expense of the state.”
His anger is palpable. He has not only seen friends get killed after joining militant outfits like ULFA – United Liberation Front of Assam but also those lost by the brutal retaliation of the state. But people like him talk in whispers. His point of view though not uncommon – is so unpopular in Assam right now that I’ve been told that some public figures who in their personal lives hold opposing views, have publicly joined the protests against CAA.
The leaders of the same AASU – All Assam’s Students’ Union – that incited mobs into violence in the 80s as reported by Sabita Goswami in her book, today do not tire of repeating that they follow the non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi. The artists of Assam have been doing the same as Sify reported earlier
. It is for this reason that despite the marauding mobs of the first two days of protest and the brutal retaliation of police in university campuses, hostels and roads that killed 5 youth, the violence has been stemmed.
A sceptical Assamese I met in the protest of the 15th December in Chandmari, Guwahati, mocked the AASU leaders, “Their non-violence today sweeps under the carpet the blood spilled in the name of the ‘foreigner’.”
It is this concept of the ‘foreigner’ in their midst that I - a non-resident Assamese - find most ironic.
The only difference between the old Muslims and old Hindus of Assam is in how they place their palms – whether open or closed – while praying. In practically everything else the two groups are indistinguishable. That’s perhaps also because the way the Muslims ended up in Assam is exactly how Hindus landed up there in the last thousand odd years.
The ancestry of both Hindus and Muslims of Assam can be traced to different parts of north India and the united Bengal of the past. Almost every family - including mine - has come from somewhere else. Mine are supposed to have come from Uttar Pradesh some 300 odd years ago.
There’s also the case of Assamese Sikhs who carry all the physical markers of their religion like long beard and turbans covering their long hair, but are as Assamese as the Hindus and Muslims.
The reason for this intermix is geographical and political. The entire northeast is dominated by the Brahmaputra river. Literally the whole state becomes its riverbed during the monsoons.
The surrounding seven sisters (now eight) are mostly mountainous. These are the places which house those who can truly call themselves the original inhabitants of the Northeast, the tribal. And based on their tribes, the different states were formed to protect them.
One person went to the extent of drawing before me a strange analogy when she said that in actuality, it is the Assamese who is the outsider to the rest of the Northeast.
It wasn’t hard for her to prove her point because the fertile plains of Assam have long attracted people from regions as far as Mongolia and China on its north to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia in the south besides of course the rest of the Indian subcontinent. Stand in any busy street of any small or big town in Assam and look at the faces of people and you’ll see more facial diversity than you’ll see in the most cosmopolitan cities of the world.
As protests rage across the nation against CAA, NRC and NPR, one must note that it is because NRC was implemented in Assam that we know the violence it has wrought on millions of lives – not just on the alleged ‘foreigner’ but also on the son of the soil.
Hence, if the rest of India has to make a case against CAA and NRC, they need to head to Assam and study the effect of NRC and detention camps on the state. Many media organizations and activists have done exemplary work on this that can guide the nation.
The other aspect never talked about is sexual abuse and violence on women during Assam’s NRC process. Confined only to rumours, I haven’t yet seen any reports perhaps because not only does no one wants to admit it but also because the effect of any political decision is rarely considered on the lives of women even though their lives are effected the most by them.
Like the population of the state, Assam is a conundrum of complex issues defying simple explanations or straightjacketing. The rest of the nation has to understand the Assamese’s fear of becoming a minority in her own state. The Assamese on their part have to acknowledge the violence and brutality that has been committed in the name of ‘foreigners’ and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Perhaps in this give and take a way ahead can be found where the agitation in Assam and rest of India can both learn and teach each other. This is inevitable if one hopes to make any dent against a government determined not to back down.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications
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