Assam may have celebrated a hundred years of students’ movement on Christmas Day, but challenges facing student organizations are ever more daunting. Many old problems in the State continue to fester while newer ones are looming ahead, combining to create a complicated picture overall. Formally, the centery celebrations organized across the State by All Assam Students Union (AASU) commemorated the birth of Asom Chatra Sanmilan on December 25, 1916 under the presidentship of Sahityarathi Lakshmith Bezbaruah. When Mahatma Gandhi gave the clarion call for non-cooperation with the British Raj, Asom Chatra Sanmilan jumped into the movement with gusto. Since then, it has been the lot of students to agitate for issues as diverse as a refinery for the State, for Assamese language to be used as official language (in 1960) and as medium of instruction (in 1972), for stopping influx and ridding the State of foreign tiols, as well as for guaranteeing constitutiol safeguards to sons of the soil. Hardly any of these issues have been resolved satisfactorily till date. Greater Assam began fragmenting from the early Sixties, the toy refinery that Assam got at Noonmati (in lieu of the big one at Barauni that went to Bihar) remains in existential crisis. The aggressive push for Assamese language generated counter-reactions among other indigenous groups, most notably among the Bodos, which have exacerbated over time. As for the number of Bangladeshi tiols in Assam, successive governments have tied themselves up into knots over it. Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia told the Assembly in 1993 there were 33 lakh Bangladeshi tiols living in the State, Union Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal put the figure at 50 lakh in a reply to Parliament in 2004, while the present incumbent Kiren Rijiju furnished in Parliament a figure of 2 crore for the entire country (prompting the Prabrajan Virodhi Manch to say that this estimate could mean 80 lakh Bangladeshis staying in Assam alone). Bangladeshi tiols are already domiting in several border districts and spreading across the State, figuring in large numbers in electoral rolls, and are likely to do the same in the updated NRC. After becoming a full-fledged student organization in 1967, the AASU came to be linked inextricably with the Assam Agitation, and its outcome, the Assam Accord of 1985. But later governments either gave lip sympathy to the accord, or worked actively to bury it.
There have been tangible fruits from the accord like Numaligarh Refinery and IIT Guwahati, but even something as fundamental as constitutiol safeguards for ‘Assamese people’ have never materialized because there is no coming together of minds as to what the term actually means. The issue provided plenty of scope for political posturing last year when the then Speaker Prab Kumar Gogoi attempted to define it by filing a report, which was promptly put into cold storage. In the recent round-table meet organized by the Assam Accord Implementation department (which had been rendered irrelevant and non-functiol earlier, particularly in the previous three Congress regimes), the debate was more about replacing the term ‘Assamese’ with ‘Indigenous’ when it comes to defining sons of the soil. To its credit, the AASU has kept channels open with ethnic organizations over the issue; it has also taken a principled stand against the Centre’s move to grant citizenship to Hindu migrants, a move that will practically nullify the Assam Accord and push the NRC update exercise back to square one. Apart from social issues, should not student organizations in the State be taking up economic issues, particularly those dealing with labor and employment that impact them? Sadly, economic bread & butter issues are also heavily politicized, so there is little likelihood of student organizations like AASU, Chatra Mukti Sangram Samiti, NSUI, ABVP or Left student unions from seeing eye to eye on most such issues. What the people will likely witness is more student leaders using these platforms to join mainstream political parties. The Asom Chatra Sanmilan may have been a prominent precursor of the AASU, but it was preceded by forums set up by Assamese students in Calcutta for the cause of Assamese language and literature, like the Tea Club in 1869, the ‘Asomiya Chatrar Sahitya Sabha in 1872 and of course the ‘Asomiya Bhasa Unti Sadhani Sabha’ in 1888. These efforts sigled the dawn of modern Assamese literature, so it is a huge disappointment for the people of Assam to see the mess a mature body like Axom Xahitya Xabha is making towards the cause. Assam needs its student organizations to be keenly aware of outside happenings and take inclusive, tolerant views; its people will continue to value student power for issues not just socio-economic, but also cultural and literary.