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Why the controversy over defining 'The Assamese People'

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  15 March 2015 12:00 AM GMT

By J P Rajkhowa

The latest controversy that overtakes the brains and brawns of a number of organizations, politicians, lawmakers, sections of the intelligentsia and the people of Assam generally, happens to hover round the word ‘Assamese’, followed closely by another ‘emotive’ word ‘Indigenous’. While the word ‘Assamese’ has evaded a definition or explation, over more than three decades of the signing of the so- called ‘historical’ Assam Accord, which included two spells of AGP government headed by Prafulla Mahanta and nearly three spells of Congress government of Torun Gogoi, attempts are now made to substitute this word by ‘Indigenous’. The latest development on the issue being that, at a meeting held in Guwahati on 12 March, 2015 the All Assam Students Union (AASU)- one of the sigtories of the Assam Accord of 15/3/1985, together with representatives of 26 local organizations of the State demanded that “constitutiol safeguards be provided to the ‘indigenous’ people of the State to protect their identity and existence from rising influx of outsiders’’. However, the media report has not stated anything on the definition of ‘indigenous people’ arrived at the meeting.

The problem evading a solution through a consensus over the last few decades following the Assam Accord, officially called the “Memorandum of Settlement” (MoS), was created by the Accord itself vide Clause 6, under the heading- Safeguards and Economic Development, which states as follows. “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.” We may recall that, the first AGP ministry of Prafulla Mahanta had appointed a ‘ministerial committee’ headed by the then law minister Late Suren Medhi to prepare a proposal on Clause 6, which was later submitted to the Union Home Ministry, which reportedly asked for a definition of ‘Assamese’. Subsequently, when the Congress recaptured power, under the leadership of Torun Gogoi, two committees – one headed by minister Bhumidhar Barman and another headed by Prithibi Majhi, were appointed since 2006, but, both failed to work out a ‘consensual’ definition of ‘Assamese’. Shri Barman lately told the Assam Legislative Assembly, that, due to lack of consensus among / cooperation from the concerned groups and organizations, the word ‘Assamese’ evaded a definition. At one stage, the issue was handed over to the Assam Sahitya Sabha, some years ago, but, unfortutely the Sabha also failed to arrive at a ‘consensus’.

It is quite clear from the MoS that, it was a very hastily prepared document (two sheets signed by the Union Home Secretary, simply annexed to the main MoS), without going deep into the meaning and significance of many wordings, more particularly, those incorporated in Clause 6, though, we would presume that, the sigtories of the MoS or Accord, had fully understood the meaning and implications of each and every Clause and Sub- clause (s). The surviving sigtories to the MoS are- P. K. Mahanta, then President AASU, Biraj Sharma, Convenor, All Assam Ga Sangram Parishad (since disband), R. D. Pradhan, then Union Home Secretary and Smt. P.P. Trivedi, then Chief Secretary, Government of Assam. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and B. K. Phukan, then General Secretary, AASU, who had also signed the MoS, are no longer alive. Now the ball is in the court of the surviving sigtories, P.K. Mahanta and Biraj Sharma, in particular to make a clear Statement on the definition of ‘Assamese’ and the “Constitutiol, legislative and administrative safeguards” they had in mind and they had discussed with the Government of India, while incorporating the provisions under Clause 6 of the MoS (Assam Accord). I am not aware, if they had done that, nor am I aware, if the Government of Assam or the Bhumidhar Barman / Prithibi Majhi committee had asked them and also the then Government officials, for their version of ‘definition’ or ‘clarification’.

The question of providing the Safeguards under Clause 6 would be relevant, only after a universally acceptable definition of ‘Assamese people’ could be arrived at, through a ‘consensus’ among all the local or tive stake- holders. While it is welcome that the AASU and 26 other organizations of the State have asked for the Safeguards to the ‘’indigenous people’’ in order to ‘’protect, preserve and promote’’ their cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage, an amendment to the MoS by way of substituting the word ‘Assamese’ by the word ‘Indigenous’ would be required. Again, a universally acceptable definition or explation of the word ‘Indigenous’ would be required. In view of the latest stand of the AASU and 26 local organizations, we may accept the substitution of ‘Assamese’ by ‘indigenous’ as a de- facto position in Clause 6 ibid, which could have de- jure recognition through the ‘legal process’. However, the word ‘Indigenous’ has to be defined or elucidated or explained, in order to remove any ambiguity or controversy and confusion, as happened with the word ‘Assamese’.

‘Indigenous’ means born, growing or origiting in the locality, not imported, of or relating to tives. (Grolier, New Webster’s Dictiory). According to Illustrated Oxford Dictiory, it means: 1. ‘tives to a region’ 2. ‘Belonging turally to a place’. Little Oxford English Dictiory defines ‘indigenous’ as belonging to a place; tive. In the common parlance also, we understand, the word conveys the meaning as ‘tive’.

Who do we call tives or people origiting and growing in the territorial boundaries of Assam or belonging to Assam or the indigenous people of Assam? Certainly, the people who are born and brought up in Assam, but do not speak Assamese or any of the tribal or local languages / dialects of some parts of Assam, and do not subscribe to the social, cultural, historical heritage of the State including the ‘dress codes’ of various ethnic tribes and communities of Assam or any part thereof, are not ‘indigenous’. The people of Bangladesh or East Bengal origin, who entered Assam, in different periods of history, for pure economic reason to earn a living, and settled in Assam cannot be called ‘indigenous’. Similarly, the people having their origin in Nepal, Bhutan or even Myanmar, but entered and settled in Assam, for the same reason also cannot be called ‘indigenous’. In the same spirit, the people of other north-eastern States, who have already got their hearth and home, in those States, which were created for them only under various ‘States Re-organization Acts’, but later settled in Assam as a first or second or third home, cannot be called ‘indigenous’. The tives of Assam or the ethnic people of Assam, settled in other north-eastern States, are not only not called ‘indigenous’ in those states, but are also denied entry without a permit called the ‘Inner Line Permit’ and in practice, mostly they are called ‘foreigners’. The people of other communities such as Marwaris, Gujaratis, Keralites, Biharis, Bengalies etc., who have entered and settled in Assam for trading and business purposes, cannot be called ‘indigenous’ though they may be Indian citizens and may be conversant with Assamese or any of the local languages / dialects, to some extent. The safeguards mentioned in the Assam Accord are not meant for such people, who cannot be treated as ‘tive’ or ‘indigenous’ by any standard, though some of them like Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla contributed immensely to the language and culture of Assam.

What Sri D. N. Chakravarty, senior jourlist and a patriot of repute states about ‘Assamese’ as equally true of ‘indigenous’ people as well. “As many Indians can speak and write English much better than the Englishmen but these Indians can never become Englishmen; Similar is the case with the real Assamese”. [The Sentinel, 13 March 2015]. Drawing an alogy, while many Indians and others could be well- versed in any or more of the ‘indigenous’ / tribal languages; that would not make them ‘indigenous’ or tribal.

To state briefly, all the tive people of Assam those speaking Assamese and other ethnic languages- Ahoms, Chutia, Koches, Morans, Mottoks, Deuris, Kalitas, Kayasthas, Brahmins, Bar- kalita, Mising, Garias, Marias, Chaudangs, Barias, Kaibartas, other Asomiya musalmans, Assamese Sikhs, Boro, Dimacha, Karbi, Rabhas, Hazongs, Garos, Meice, Kacharis, Kiratas, Khamtis, Phakiyals, ras,Aitanias, Turungs, Khamjangs, Adivasis, Chah- jajatis, Manipuris including Bishnupurias, origil Bengali- speaking (Syelheti) people of Barak valley etc. A number of professiol tribes living in Assam for centuries and doing brisk business even in the days of Mahapurus Sankardeva, are also ‘indigenous’ in character. These are- Baniya, Sutar, Karmakara, Candala, Kamar, Kumbakara, ta, Teli, Yogi, Katani, Tati with their group leader called Maral, Kumar, Hira, Dhoba, pit, Salai etc. In other words, all the ethnic groups included in the lists of Scheduled tribes, Scheduled castes, Backward classes, More Backward classes and all those ethnic groups which are being recommended for Scheduled status, and all those for whom separate Autonomous Councils or Development Councils are already granted, and all those med here, may, perhaps be included in the list of ‘indigenous people’. Definition of ‘indigenous’ people discussed here is for the purpose of ‘Constitutiol’ and other Safeguards under the Assam Accord. This would not negate the democratic rights of other Indian citizens settled in Assam. We welcome a healthy debate on the issue, which may be followed up by discussion on types of ‘Safeguards’.

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