The best things in life are best left undefined. Has ‘Assamese’ been put in that exalted category? Considering the timorousness of political parties in Assam whenever the issue of defining ‘Assamese’ crops up, one cannot but be cynical. Bhumidhar Barman, president of the cabinet sub-committee entrusted with the task of formulating a comprehensive definition of ‘Assamese’ way back in 2010, has now let the cat out of the bag. He has been shooting off letters to different political parties and literary bodies, seeking to elicit their views about the matter. Recently Barman took the media into confidence about the results of his exertions, and his disclosures are revealing. In six long years, let alone the ruling Congress, even major opposition parties like the AGP, the BJP and the AIUDF did not submit their opinions to the cabinet panel. Yet these are the parties that always mage to be in the thick of any brouhaha over who qualifies to be an ‘Assamese’ as required under clause 6 of the Assam Accord. None of these parties lets go of any opportunity to stir up their vote-banks, whenever the ‘Assamese’ definition issue comes to the fore. But after muddying the waters with rrow political rhetoric, these major political parties carefully refrain from putting their opinions on paper.
Have the AGP or the BJP not bothered to submit their written opinions to the Barman panel, thinking it to be waste of time? But then, why have not the Congress or the AIUDF recorded their opinions in black and white? Only parties like the CPI, CPI(M) and NCP have reportedly responded to the Barman panel. The conclusion is inescapable — parties like the Congress, AGP, BJP and the AIUDF seem to be paralysed by the fear of upsetting and alieting one section of voters or the other. Hence their deafening silence over the issue. But all these parties were very vocal when Speaker Prab Gogoi submitted his report defining ‘Assamese People’ in the Assembly on the last day of the budget session this year. This two-page report had recommended 1951 as the cut off period and the tiol Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951, be taken as the basis for the definition of the ‘Assamese People’ for the purpose of reserving seats and providing constitutiol safeguards as required by the Assam Accord. The Speaker had quoted the 1951 census report which defined indigenous people of Assam as — ‘Indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the State of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of Assam, or in the case of Cachar, the language of the region.’
Finding this definition totally ucceptable, the Congress and the AIUDF prevented the Speaker from tabling his report, alleging that he had not consulted their legislators and taken their opinions. If this is true, then what has prevented these two parties from submitting their considered opinions to the Barman panel? Or does it suit their interests to keep the issue undefined, milk it for all its political worth, while leaving them free to change their standpoint and strike any sort of political alliance in future? The AGP and the BJP did back the Speaker’s definition in the Assembly, but it remains to be seen whether the two parties will come forward with their opinions when the re-constituted cabinet sub-committee meets in September to consider the issue. This panel will have to submit its report to the Central government, which in turn will have to decide about implementing clause 6 of the Assam Accord. That will also be the time when the exercise of preparing the updated NRC will be entering a critical phase. The definition of ‘Assamese’ is likely to get inextricably tied up with indigenous communities desperately trying to safeguard their political futures. With the immigrant vote-bank figuring strongly in the State’s politics, it remains to be seen what stands political parties take to negotiate the issue with Assembly elections barely ten months away.