Regionalism in Assam – The need for its Revival and Difficulties

By- Pulakesh Upadhyaya

Regionalism, as a political ideology is gaining ground in India. If we go back to history, we will find that, after the regional movements in the South and in Punjab, the movement in Assam can be counted as one of the oldest regional movements in the country. The paradigm shift that the regional movements have brought about is to change the mindset of the people so as to facilitate a localized, pin-pointed outlook to political problem-solving. At this juncture, when most states have felt the need for regional parties to raise their respective problems, Assam has reduced the regionalists into almost non-entities, with less than one-twelfth of the total seats in the legislature. AGP is now the fourth largest party, after the Congress, AIUDF and the BPF.

The Assam Movement was instrumental in bringing about a surge of regional ambitions in the eyes of the common man. That it instilled in an ordinary man ability to dream about regional prosperity is the biggest contribution of the movement. The inability to follow up the dreams that were created, and a failure of the political class who were entrusted to convert those dreams and idealism into reality has really dashed hopes and lofty dreams. The society in Assam seems to settle down, and seems content for much lesser.

There has to be a deeper analysis on this issue. Plainly speaking, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) that was formed as a political wing of the movement, and was entrusted by the people of Assam with the task of converting the lofty dreams into reality did not understand the enormity of the task. The Assam movement was too big a movement for a single political entity to deliver, especially when the people involved had much lesser experience in governance. Their inexperience began to show initially, and this created almost a deadlock in governance. The intellectuals of the time cared only to criticize rather than suggest alternatives, and those who raised the alarm were conveniently ignored. This practice continues even till date.

However, people provided the AGP with another chance to govern in 1996. Unfortunately, by that time ego clashes ensured that the AGP was almost converted to a fiefdom of certain individuals. The party remained the same as it was in 1985, the individuals were the same, but an average record at governance ensured that apart from an appealing people who were emotionally attached to the AGP, they failed to drive home their point in an evolving society, in which the percentage of youths was increasing day by day. It would not be unfair to say that most of the voters of the AGP vote for it out of an emotional attachment rather than because of any expectations from them on delivering on their promises.

For the sake of regionalism, this mindset has to change. As we move further away from 1985, as the days go by, very few people would be left who would be willing to vote for AGP based on emotional attachment. This process appears to have started in 2011, and unless the AGP creates in the masses the necessity to have a stable, development oriented regional front, they will lose the track, and move towards a complete detachment.

In the present political scenario, regional parties have been able to bargain for political positions. The funds that their respective states acquire for various reasons are much more than the national parties, who have a high-command to blow their voices down. The latter is especially true in case of the Indian National Congress, which is in power both in Dispur and in Delhi. One can always see a regional leader getting sidelined by the high command on important regional issues. The high command, on the other hand seems more content in dealing with pressures from the regional parties, in exchange of some kind of support, rather than listening to the voice of the regional worker of its own party.

Political representation has given way to political bargaining. In such a case, having a strong regional front is an utmost necessity for the people of Assam. In the cat and mouse game that has been going on in Delhi, we cannot afford to be at a complete disadvantage by electing obsequious Members of Parliament, who do not have the guts to raise their voice against the High Command, as and when such an action is deemed necessary.

That brings us to another question. What are the difficulties in creating an upsurge of regional ambitions in Assam? Parties may come and go, but ideas which are closer to the hearts of people do stand the tests of time. It is high time that the dormant regional aspirations of the people expressed themselves in a unified form, where individuals do not matter; a political party does not matter, but a unified voice does.

One cannot allow an idea to be hijacked to become hostage to whims and caprices of a few individuals, and quarrelsome political groups. People who have no dedication to regionalism have occupied the highest echelons of power, and people who promised to work with them shoulder to shoulder were rendered weak by superimposition of power. As a result, simultaneous with the few powerful so-called regional leaders gaining ground, the dedicated leaders of the entire regional movement have also lost hope.

The direct fallout of this is the lack of enthusiasm amongst the youth. A whole generation who were born after the 1985 movement has come up in Assam, which has seen debates of separate states, autonomous councils, separate student unions, but has not seen the need for a unified call against the forces which are inimical to one and all. Rather, these leaderships are more often than not seen approaching powerful political leaders for political perks.

Having separate councils and unions for development of individual communities is perfectly alright. What is missing is a common thread which binds all groups together. This lack of unity, combined with the enormous money power of the Indian National Congress has made the youth, who found no reflection of the regional idea in the society and no person to look up to in the regional front, accept the Youth Congress or NSUI as a safer, and a richer alternative.

The advent of INC has also been simultaneous with the fragmentation of the society into smaller groups. Nowadays, sub-regional assertions have gained much greater voice in terms of appeal, in comparison to the regional ones.

The task that lies ahead is enormous. People have to be convinced that the failings and shortcomings of the past regional governments will not be repeated. This will require the advent of fresh faces, and the departure of the unsuccessful ones from the scene. On the other hand, people should play a more vigilant role in ensuring this. Intellectuals should come to the fore, and suggest alternatives in terms of governance, rather than acting as arm-chair critics. The regional political movement is too big an idea for a particular group of individuals to convert to reality. All sub-regional political groups should come together, and find out a newer way to work together for the betterment of all, and create a paradigm shift in policy framework.

The idea and the idealism are still alive, what is requires is a robust political framework, wherein there is a coordination amongst the various wings of the regional movement and various sub-regional movements. At present, the political wing is at loggerheads with the student wing of the regional movement, and the sub-regionalists with the regionalists. The task seems uphill and enormous, but certain aspects that will simplify it are a massive overhaul in the young leadership, and awareness which will highlight the importance of regionalism as an ideology.

This means that regionalism should rise above petty pandering to chauvinistic, xenophobic or individual interests to a broader, and an acceptable framework, while keeping in mind its core values and aspirations. If that requires certain regional leaders and their political sycophants to go, so be it. Failed leaders will do the regional movement more harm than good. The dam movement has also been reduced to a personal tug-of-war, partly by an irresponsible and a short-sighted media, and partly because of the inability of mainstream political leaders to express their ideas regarding the crisis.

Regionalism cannot only be confined to formation of a political party and its existence, it has to be a broader, a more widespread phenomenon. The problem arises when certain groups assert their authority over it, when the actual authority should lie with the people. The soul of Assam lies in a regional ideology, where people come out of their differences in customs and celebrate their diversity. A few unsuccessful leaders may definitely diminish the movement, but the ideology cannot be destroyed. It might take time, but it will assert itself in some form or the other in the future. If the AGP is wiser now, it might still be relevant, and if it is not, the aspirations may manifest themselves in some form or the other. It is just a matter of how much longer one has to wait for that to happen.

AGPAIUDFAsom Gana ParishadAssamAssam movementBPFCongressDelhiDispurIndiaNSUIregionalism