Who is ‘Assamese’

Source: By Debraj Deb: The Indian Express

In March 2022, the Assam government informed the Assembly that nearly 1.44 lakh illegal foreigners had been identified in the state until 31 January this year based on the 1985 Assam Accord, and around 30,000 of them had been deported to their country of origin. The government added that definitions of phrases mentioned in the Accord such as ‘Axomiya janagan’ (Assamese people), ‘khilonjia’ (indigenous) and ‘adi basinda’ (original inhabitants) were yet to be determined.

Who is a foreigner under the Assam Accord?

The Assam Accord was signed in 1985 by the Centre and the Assam government with the All Assam Student Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, which had spearheaded the 1979-85 Assam Movement against migration from Bangladesh.

The Accord set 24 March 1971 as a cut-off. Anyone who had come to Assam before midnight on that date would be an Indian citizen, while those who had come after would be dealt with as foreigners. The same cut-off was used in updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

What are these expressions for which the definitions have not been determined? Why are they important?

The context is Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which promises “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”, but doesn’t provide clear cut definitions to identify who would be the “Assamese people”.

Clause 6 is important because many felt the 1971 cut-off was inadequate. The Assam Movement had demanded 1951 as the cut-off. Given that the cut-off for the rest of India is 1948, many noted that the Assam Accord would grant citizenship to a section of migrants who would be counted as foreigners elsewhere in the country. Clause 6 was, therefore, seen as a protective provision which would guarantee certain benefits to the Assamese people, while excluding some sections among those granted citizenship on the basis of the 1971 cut-off.

Why is the definition difficult?

Because Assam’s demography has been shaped by decades of migration. Many of the migrants had settled here during the colonial era. While they might not be native speakers of an indigenous language, such as Assamese or Bodo or Karbi, the question was whether the definition of “Assamese” could exclude someone, for example, whose family might have lived in Assam for 100 years.

Dr Kaustubh Deka, from the political science faculty at Dibrugarh University, pointed out that Axomiya or Assamese is a contested phrase and there is no specific universal definition to it. Many feel people whose ancestors were living in Assam before 1826, when Assam was merged with British India, are Axomiya.

Others feel the word ‘Axomiya’ means anyone who were permanent residents of Assam before 1951, when the first NRC was drawn up. Still others feel anyone speaking Assamese (or any other indigenous language) is an Axomiya.  Those from Barak Valley, where Bengali is the local language, would want Bengali-speaking residents of Assam to be included as “Assamese

Have any definitions been proposed?

Over the years, several committees have been set up to determine a definition, but none has been adopted. In 2015, then Assembly Speaker Pranab Kumar Gogoi prepared a report proposing that ‘Assamese people’ be anyone belonging to the state, one speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of the state or local language of the region in the case of Cachar district and adjoining areas (Barak Valley), and who had been living in Assam since 1951 or earlier. This was shot down by MLAs including those of his own party, the Congress.

Another key committee came In 2019, when Assam was rocked by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which proposes to grant citizenship to various categories of foreigners including Hindus from Bangladesh (the Assam Movement was against all migrants from Bangladesh, irrespective of religion). The government set up the committee as a means to quell the protests.

According to this committee’s recommendations, all citizens who are part of the Assamese community, any person of indigenous tribal community of Assam, any other indigenous community of Assam, all other citizens of India residing in the territory or Assam on or before 1 January 1951 and descendants of these categories would be considered Assamese. In essence, this definition includes not only the indigenous people but also all other Indian citizens, irrespective of mother tongue, as long as their ancestors were staying in Assam before 1951. No movement on the report has taken place after it was submitted in 2020.

What are the other terms for which no definition has been finalised?

Khilonjia: In common parlance, khilonjia refers to all indigenous communities. The question is who would be considered indigenous. One line of argument has been that the definition should include various communities whose history in Assam dates back before the 1826 annexation with British India, but others contest this because of the groups that would be excluded.

Adi Basinda:Original inhabitants’, as the phrase suggests, would mean the tribes who have lived for generations in Assam. Some in Assam want this to extend to tribal communities settled by the British during colonial rule, but even this is not a settled definition.