Moments after Himanta Biswa Sarma took oath to become the 15th Chief Minister of Assam, at a press conference, he reiterated his stance on the NRC issue and said that he sought 20 percent reverification of the National Register of Citizens in the border districts and 10 percent reverification in the remaining ones. This means, yet again, the Bengali in Assam might just be asked to prove their place in the state, in this nation. How long will this humiliation continue?
If I may cite a reference from the Hindu epic Ramayana, the Bengali’s predicament is a lot like Sita’s. No questions can be raised on Sita’s fidelity or loyalty towards her husband. Still, no amount of Agnipariksha would suffice for the subjects of Ayodhya. For the Bengali in the Northeast, there’s no end to this Agnipariksha either. Time and again, the Bengali has to pass this litmus test of citizenship.
It must be added that for the Assamese sub-nationalist, no number is good enough. Even though the Assam NRC siphoned out more than 19 lakh illegal immigrants putting their lives and future in uncertainty, that number didn’t live up to the expectations of the Assamese sub-nationalists. They might have no evidence to back their claims, but that doesn’t stop them from citing numbers upwards of 40 lakhs. What must also be pointed out is the fact that the Assam NRC was skewed in the favour of the person making the accusation; the onus of proving citizenship was on the accused.
Essentially, Assamese sub-nationalism is the kind of politics that has its roots in demographic anxiety. Demographic anxiety is an issue inherent in democracy. Nobody wants to be the minority in any state or nation. This is also the reason Pakistan was born, for a section of Muslims in British-India didn’t want to be a minority. But leaving aside idealism, even if we are to address the question of demographic anxiety to bring this issue of illegal immigrants to a resolution, it must be stated in clear terms that Barak Valley shouldn’t even feature in this discussion, for this valley has always been inhabited by Bengalis who have been living here in harmony with other ethnic and linguistic minorities for generations.
So, with regards to Assamese demographic anxiety in Assamese dominated areas, do the Assamese sub-nationalists have in fact a practical and reasonable solution that isn’t xenophobic? Let’s say enough Bengalis are identified by the NRC and the Assamese sub-nationalists are satisfied with the numbers, so what will then be the fate of those identified as illegal immigrants? Will they be deported to Bangladesh, and if so, will Bangladesh accept them? If Bangladesh doesn’t, where will they go? And is it humane to send them back to the very land from where many of them fled for their lives? Is it fair to deport children born to immigrant parents in Assam; children who didn’t even choose to be born here. It was fate that they were born and raised in Assam. Is it acceptable for the Assamese sub-nationalist to push innocent children into the abyss of uncertainty and dangers. How can one even sleep at night while harbouring such indifference towards children? Or if Bangladesh doesn’t accept them, should they be put in detention camps like many others already languishing inside them? Putting people in camps doesn’t evoke the nicest historical imagery and would the Assamese sub-nationalist be okay with such a parallel being drawn? Is it acceptable to strip people off their basic human rights of freedom, dignity and opportunity to earn a living?
The 2021 Assembly Elections should be a wake-up call for Assamese sub-nationalists. Despite the CAA being passed only a year back, Assamese sub-nationalist leaders got a drubbing in the recently concluded elections. And the very party that brought in the CAA was re-elected into power. This was a clear mandate against Assamese sub-nationalism and the results prove only one thing, that even the Assamese public is disillusioned with sub-nationalistic politics. The Asom Gana Parishad have had their time and we’re all aware of what their political journey has been like. At the end of the day, the bitter truth is that people do not respond to such alarms unless something drastic happens. Subnationalist sentiment found traction in the Assamese masses when a large number of people were seen moving in, during the Partition and the Liberation War.
The Bharatiya Janata Party must also keep in mind that it has come back to power on the back of a consolidated Bengali Hindu vote. While being reduced to a vote bank is in no way good for the Bengali Hindus, yet for a party they’ve voted for unanimously to put them through the same ordeal is outright betrayal. At the same time, the Bengali Hindu Nationalist must acknowledge that the hostility in the Northeast is directed towards the Bengalis, irrespective of religion. The fault lines in the Northeast are ethnic in nature and not religious. Religious politics outsourced from the Hindi Heartland cannot solve ethnic tensions in the Northeast. The same applies to Bengali Muslims as well. At the end of the day, democratic politics is all about numbers. So, the key to Bengalis truly getting their due political capital in the Northeast lies in unity. For a Bengali in the Northeast, it is not a political struggle for legislative power, but for dignity of life and to not be seen with suspicion all the time.
Bengali liberals must also do more. For starters, they must step out of their bubbles. Bhadraloks have been stuck in echo-chambers for far too long now. Fresh ideas must be produced that actually appeal to the new generation. For this, the old must make way for the new, and cede space to young minds with fresh and unconventional perspectives instead of scorning them for not living up to the Bhadralok’s conservative, outdated and idealistic standards.
At the same time, Bengali society at large, not just in India but Bangladesh as well, must address and nurse untended wounds from the times of the Partition and the Liberation War. Or else, Bengali society just won’t move forward. Those sores will keep hurting and bleeding, and prevent any possibility of progress and unity. But then, this is easier said than done, and is too far-fetched an aspiration to be realised anytime soon.
Last year, when the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed with a nationwide NRC on the radar, it was truly overwhelming to see not just Muslims but many Hindus alike - women, men and children come together as one to protect the essence of India; an India which is home to one and all irrespective of caste, colour, creed or religion; like a mother who makes no distinction between her children. But the NRC process in Assam was executed much earlier. As a Bengali, I don’t remember any mass-protest in Assam opposing that. I only remember Bengalis anxiously queueing up to prove their citizenship. Last year, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs chanted in unison - Hum Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge - expressing their disapproval and non-cooperation with the discriminatory act. I can’t recollect anything of that sort ever happening here in Assam.
Since the Bhadraloks perceive themselves as thought-leaders in the Bengali society, why didn’t they rake up such mass mobilization of Bengalis in Assam against a flawed NRC? The Anti-CAA-NPR-NRC protests were not politically backed and were in fact purely a people’s movement amplified by intellectuals and liberals. The Bhadralok must introspect why their high minded ideas do not resonate with the masses. Despite such hostility, why have we not been able to mobilize the Bengali masses to stand up for their share of political capital in Assam and Northeast at large? Why have we failed to create a strong enough political counterpart for the AASU or KSU which hold considerable sway over their communities? Because a strong political narrative of Bengali identity assertion in the Northeast was found missing, both the Hindu Right and the Muslim Right were able to move into that void, creating a fissure in the community.
At times when the goons and foot-soldiers of the ruling dispensation committed excesses on naive and harmless people, sometimes children, I tried reaching out to influential and well-embedded young voices in the Bengali intellectual class but the response I received was mostly lukewarm. There was always a sense of reluctance to engage even as injustices were being perpetrated in front of their own eyes. But at the same time, it is indeed heartwarming to see some new and fearless voices come up. They must learn fast and calibrate themselves with the tastes of the current generations to stay relevant. It is also reassuring to have at least one legislator in the valley who has championed the Bengali cause. It is expected of Barak Valley, the bastion of Bengalis in the Northeast to put up a strong enough resistance when the community is being put on trial time and again.
Himanta Biswa Sarma has made a lot of ideological compromises throughout his journey to become the Chief Minister of Assam. However, there’s no denying the fact that he is an accomplished and astute politician who has always put issues of employment and development above everything else. Interestingly, a contemporary of his in Tripura, Pradyot Manikya Deb Barma chose a different path after falling out with the Congress leadership - he stuck with his ideology while also quitting the Congress which is pretty much like a ship lost at sea right now. Anyway, it is yet to be seen to what extent Himanta is willing to make compromises with his ideological roots. Calling out Mamata Banerjee on allegations of political violence in Bengal might please the Party High Command in New Delhi, but he might one day have to show the door to those very political refugees from Bengal if he continues to fan the flames of exclusive Assamese sub-nationalism.
Views are personal.