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Defining Assamese people made easy

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  21 March 2015 12:00 AM GMT

Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary

The nineteenth-century Italian novelist, Massimo Taparelli d’Azeglio remarked after Italy was created out of the congeries of territories and state-lets: “We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is create Italians.” They have since created Italians and they live in Italian peninsula.

Almost around the same time The Treaty of Yandaboo created Assam in 1826 out of disparate principalities that often fought among themselves for causes small and big but we have not been able to create ‘Assamese people’ even now. The past legacy is in our D; we are still at war with each other so much so that we are not able to define the people living in Assam.

Assam is home to multi-racial and heterogeneous groups of people; it is quintessentially a miniature India with its diverse origin, ethnicity, languages, religions and lifestyles. Actually the diversity of Assam is much more complex because of demographic throes it has undergone due to the presence of large non-citizen migrants not seen elsewhere. This has accentuated the identity crisis in the state and intensified ethnic conflict.

Why do we need to define the people of Assam? It is because the Clause 6 of the Assam Accord reads, “Constitutiol, 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.” Seemingly, the language is simple and it should not create any confusion in understanding it but the problem arises in the underlying connotation of the ‘people of Assam’ and the ‘Assamese people’. The two expressions do not convey the same meaning; they cannot, given our demographic characteristics.

It is an emotive issue and any move to resolve it must have the participation of all the stakeholders. Government should, therefore, consciously involve all segments of our society in working out an acceptable definition. It is of course obvious that any definition going beyond the indigenous heritage will be against the spirit of Accord itself.

It is easy to define the inhabitants of a culturally and linguistically homogenous state –those in Tamil du as Tamils, in Kerala as Malayalis, in Gujarat as Gujaratis, etc. However, in states like galand or Mizoram things become different. If we define all people living in these states as gas or Mizos it will not be acceptable. There is also another aspect where the origil inhabitants have become minorities. To define the people of states like Sikkim or Tripura as Sikkimese or Tripuri, though conveying heritage of the origil inhabitants there, lacks relevance to present population pattern in these states.

In case of Assam it is even more complex; the state has four official languages and there is no predomince of any single cohesive group in terms of culture, heritage and ethnic identity. Assamese language is no doubt widely spoken, understood and learned in the state. It is to Assam what Hindi is to India; some sort of lingua franca in the territorial compass of the state and the country respectively, but will it be right to define an Indian only on the basis of the knowledge of Hindi? Many of us in the northeast and in southern peninsula and in Bengal and Odisa will be left out being Indians then.

In a multi-cultural society there are attributes other than language for identity. History, culture, ethnicity, heritage and lifestyles are equally important. It will go against the interest of Assamese language itself if the people of Assam are to be identified based solely on the knowledge of a single language. It will be what Amartya Sen terms miniaturization of human beings by reducing him to a choiceless singularity, which leads to belittling of human identity.

No one can be forced to learn any language; one cannot make the cat drink milk holding it by its neck. Give it a choice and it will lap it up with relish. When the need arises people will willingly learn any language. No one forces us to learn English but out of necessity more and more people are learning it across the globe. People abhor linguistic chauvinism. It makes us rrow-minded and arrogant. I had a bad experience in this regard. Years ago, I admitted my son in a Guwahati central school in the third standard. He did not know Assamese having stayed all along in Kerala; his mother being a non-Assamese English was the only language he could communicate in for which the Assamese teacher there, a lady, mocked at him loudly, so others could hear, that the boy was pretending not to know Assamese because he thought that he was from England. We cannot create an inclusive society with such a mindset.

There is a suggestion to link the definition issue with NRC updation. NRC is an archaic, moth-eaten document, which is over six decades old. Its updation is likely to remain more an academic exercise than building up a reliable record of citizenship. Government is not bold enough to tell the futility of this exercise but our prudence should warn us that it is not the right way to find solution to citizenship issue. In our anxiety to find solution to vexed issues we often end up barking up the wrong tree. We may recall that in the eighties and nineties many people thought that IMDT Act was responsible for illegal migrants not being detected. Then the Supreme Court struck down the controversial Act in 2005; in ten long years we are yet to deport a single illegal migrant under the Foreigners Act. I only hope NRC updation will not end up in such a fiasco.

There are of course other ways to resolve the citizenship tangle but this easy is not dealing with this issue. It will require another occasion to elucidate on this.

Assamese is endowed with multiple identities – he may be a Mongoloid , an Indo-Aryan, a Dravidian, a Mongolo-Dravidian, an Aryan-Dravidian, even a mixture of all these; he may be a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jain, or an animist, an agnostic or an atheist; he may speak Assamese, Bengali, Hindi, Bodo or any other languages. More important than all these is that his heart must beat for Assam, he must absorb the joys and sorrows, struggles and sufferings, celebrations and deprivations of its people and put his heart and soul in building a modern society free from orthodoxy, exploitation and destructiveness. We need an Assamese who represents heterodoxy, tolerance and capaciousness; who is thrilled with the melody of music that reverberates in the hills and dales of this ancient land and is proud of its varied customs, costumes and cuisines. These characteristics should reflect in defining an Assamese.

We have discussed, debated and disagreed on the issue of definition for three decades without result. Now the time has come for a consensus with an attitude of flexibility and spirit of accommodation. Let us not forget that human vocabulary is idequate for defining things in black and white with mathematical precision. Is it possible to define an ‘Indian’ or a ‘Hindu’ in words that will convey all its contents? We need to be solely guided by the objectives and not caught up in avoidable dialectics.

Some years back I defined ‘Assamese people’ as “those people of Assam whose languages, cultures, social practices and festivals and lifestyles origited or developed in the state and are exclusive to it, and who are ordirily residents of the state in continuity of its historical and racial heritage as distinct from others who are without these identities.” I believe it is contextually inclusive and it will promote a cohesive identity of the people of our state.

By the way, did any one define Jammu and Kashmir people, which include Laddakis, to get them the special status under Article 370?

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