Before militants like ULFA or Maoists grab the opportunity due to our lack of vision, a reconciliation process in Assam to foster unity amidst different ethnicity and express apology for the decades of de-nationalizing them is required from us.
Ever since the Republic of India came into existence more than six-decade ago, Assam has been the state to undergo maximum further division and demands for further secession. Yet, there is little from this piece of History that we all have seemed to learn from. Demands and dreams for further secession, whether it is from India itself or from the state of Assam continue to dominate innumerable brains and minds across the state. One of the perennial reasons for this lies in the fact that thin line between Unification vs Denationalization was never maintained.
The chapters of history glorifying the French Revolution tells us how it unleashed the radical concept of Nationalist State, legitimating a centralized system to rule a state in the name of Popular Sovereignty. With this, the Government ruled according to the will of the people and a new concept of Nationalism rose across the Globe, first in Europe, then in Latin America, then in Asia and finally in Africa. The effects were seen when India formed itself, with states given little power to the Centre who controlled almost everything.
Chants of secularism tried to wash away the horrors of Partition even as Ayodhya’s and Godhra’s kept happening once in a while, the number of Native languages kept increasing on the Indian Rupee Notes, GDPs and Literacy rates kept climbing desperately; and amidst all of it kept silently growing the monster of Ethnic Identities or Ethnicity.
It took Indian Rulers at New Delhi more than five long decades to slowly understand that North East India required a quite different Political approach than the rest of the country. With one hand with a Gun and other holding a peace flag, New Delhi has at least paved ways for Peace Talks to tens of Militant outfits struggling for Ethnic Identities (although there is no peace yet). But Ethnicity remains in the region, the monster until an attempt to tame it is initiated.
Lessons from the Past
The Assamese middle-class elite, who found themselves as the majority in 1951 census (after removal of Sylhet from Assam and the immigrant Muslims from East Pakistan deciding to adopt Assamese as mother tongue), stemmed up its attempts of linguistic dominance over others in the fifties and sixties. Although it was aimed mostly against the threat of Bengali taking over Assamese, the linguistic nationalism of the Assamese middle class failed to read the sensitivity of the people from other ethnicity and languages, especially in the hills, who were seeking their own political space.
The Official Language Act of 1960 and introduction of Assamese as the medium of instruction in higher studies in 1972 stood as a hindrance to the emerging political class of the hills in their ethnic aspirations, conscious of religious difference and the cultural distinction between the peoples of the plains and the hills. The discontent in Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills on the issue of the introduction of Assamese as the state official language led to the formation of All Party Hill Leaders Conference (APHLC) demanding for a separate Hill state. There was already a huge resentment amongst the Khasi leadership with the Assamese Rulers when the Assam State Government during Bishnuram Medhi’s time had failed to release a sum of Rs 4 lakh kept in a separate account for tribal development in Khasi hills. Finally, Assam had to part with its brothers who had stood by together against the Mighty Mughal Invasion, to a new state Meghalaya.
In Lushai Hills, more or less the same situation prevailed. During the famine between 1959-61, the indifference of the Assam Government led to the armed rebellion by the Mizo National Front (MNF) seeking sovereignty like the Naga movement which had already taken violent shape till then. The Mizo rebellion finally walked away with a new state Mizoram, again curved out of Assam just as Nagaland was formed to satisfy the armed rebels in 1962.
As if the formations of three states carved out of Assam was not enough, the insurgency in the region took a new shape, motivated by the success of Mizos and Nagas (till then) with further demands for new states by the Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, Koch Rajbangshi, etc. The new demand for an Independent Asom, seceding from India became a dream run for some section of the Assamese nationalists as well.
The concept of ethnicity became Nations or Statehood and Nationalist wars of secession became the biggest concern on the table for this region. Conflicting claims over territory, language policies, and natural resources became nonnegotiable nationalist terms. History has always shown us how dominant ethnicity within multinational states suppressed subordinate groups, whether it is induced assimilation or outright genocide. In Assam, all of it was seen as examples. Even the glorified Assam Agitation became the concern for the ethnic identities of the tribes and sub-groups.
The present and the future
Assam simply cannot take the burden of further division in the name of ethnicity. Having this said, it is of primary importance that all ethnic identities, groups, and communities get their share of respect and political right. For this, more than the assimilation of smaller groups to the larger group, a process of Unification is necessary. The age of de-nationalization must be considered over in this region.
Unfortunately, in Assam, all groups, ethnicities or communities, no matter he is a Brahmin or a Bodo, Mising or a Muslim, exhibits a sense of Superiority Complex. It is this, not Inferiority Complex or Insecurity that has led to so much of unrest, militancy in the region. As Marx had pointed out, a leader must, first of all, degrade his own class to become a mass leader. Unfortunately, none of the leadership ever displayed such characteristics. Whether it is the chauvinistic-Assamese upper-class AGP leadership who led the Assam Agitation or Militant leader Arabinda Rajkhowa of ULFA who held on to his roots of being a descendant of the last Ahom Emperor who ruled Assam; the superiority complex exhibited has failed to generate trust and a sense of unity amongst the people from other communities or class.
Unfortunately, this root cause and need seem to have been identified as late by the wrong body. When the banned militant outfit ULFA made a press release last week that they have decided to have a common surname for their cadres, the chance cannot be ruled out that it would open an entire Pandora’s Box in coming days for National security; for it promises a unified movement without ethnic identity.
The Maoists, who seems to have understood the fruits of a unified class struggle have probably influenced the ULFA hardliners to think in the same terms; – the need for Unification more than de-nationalization. It is time we, the civilians still having believing in the democracy of India, instead initiated this process where every tribe, community or ethnic group can live in harmony with each other with equal rights.
A reconciliation process, similar to the attempt of the Naga Hoho in Nagaland, to reconcile, foster unity and express apology for the decades of de-nationalizing ethnic identities are required. Probably a national convention to kick start this would not be a bad idea before militants like ULFA or Maoists make merry of our lack of vision.