There is a recurring theme in the history of rebellion in Assam, be it cultural or political or militant (the ULFA discourse being prominent, notoriously though), that if the State was given the greater autonomy it deserved at the time of Independence, all such rebellion could have been nipped in the bud. Assam was then undivided, comprising Aruchal Pradesh which was then called NEFA, galand which was then called ga Hills, Meghalaya which then comprised the three hills areas of the Khasis, the Jaintias and the Garos, and Mizoram which was then called Lushai Hills. Since that much-deserved autonomy remained a mere mirage and a hope against hope, all grand post-Independent talks of Assam’s inclusion in the larger map of Indian political imagition remained theoretical, while the practicality of the day was – and it still remains – that Assam remained secluded from what was, and still is, called the ‘tiol mainstream’. The segregation and lampooning of people from the Northeast, comprising seven States, and of course Sikkim too under the North East Council (NEC) map of political inclusion into ‘mainstream’ India, is just a simple case in point; the larger point being the festering sores left by decades of insurgency that has dramatically shifted its hue to cowardly terrorism. But that is a different case study, and we shall have occasion to come to it some other day.
The unfortute fact of life is that there are ‘significant continuities’ between the ULFA brand of politics coupled with its fiercely militant colour and the political philosophy clung on to by even the first generation of Congress leaders when the latter were part of our fight against British imperialism, so say scholars of Assam’s history of politics. But we have glossed over this. Therefore, a reminder is imperative. Nevertheless, a rejoinder is equally imperative: there is a clear distinction between so-called sovereignty as our ‘revolutiory’ boys in jungles with AK-47s in their hands adhere to, and autonomy that many sensible voices in this hinterland have clamoured for.
A reality check then. Some prominent members from Assam who belonged to the then Indian tiol Congress fighting for our freedom from the tyranny of British imperialism had raised their voices in the Constituent Assembly that was into the holy and gargantuan business of drafting the Indian Constitution for a free India – a sovereign democratic state. They had proposed that the States of the Indian Federation, which they had wanted to be a Multitiol Federal State, should be given the right to legislate on issues relating to immigration from foreign countries. This was indeed a remarkable proposal. Had it been granted, Assam would not have borne the hugely debilitating brunt of the enormous influx from Bangladesh, compounded later on by a notorious law fashioned as IM(DT) Act that allowed the flow of aliens from Bangladesh rather than disallowed them for reasons pertaining to tiol security. How perverse! And yet the Congress, which was the fountainhead of that anti-tiol immigration law, abrogated by the Supreme Court in 2005 much to the delight of the indigenous people of Assam, remained a mute spectator despite its pride in giving us freedom from British rule. Well, one can go on and on, on the issue.
But the great Assamese leaders of that time, including the eminent Ambikagiri Roy Choudhury, wanted citizenship matters to be part of the Concurrent List, which never happened. They also proposed that the Centre should not have any unilateral power to redraw the boundaries of the existing States. If this proposal was heeded, the imbroglio over the greater galand issue would not have haunted today’s Assam, Manipur and Aruchal Pradesh. Some sort of Plan B could have been sorted out then. But the reality is different today.
Here hangs a tragic tale: the kind of autonomy that the then undivided Assamese tiolist leaders fighting British rule had sought was in fact meant to be a soothing balm of the future for us all here, but it was not to be. Is a course correction possible now?