Assam polls and migrants: Managing competing identities in government documents

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Express News Service

GUWAHATI/GOALPARA/KOKRAJHAR: Shyamal Biswas, not his real name, walks briskly into his sparse, customer-less hotel in Bonda Colony, Kamrup district, to engage in an animated discussion with his wife and petite daughter.

Moments later he comes out with a cup of tea and rather proudly declares that he had just got his first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine. His free vaccination was not without hiccup, though.

“The girl there said my name is not in the list but when I told her that I have been sent by a Bharatiya Janata Party leader, she checked and gave me the shot,” the loquacious Biswas said.

“You see, my age is different in all my documents,” he said, fishing out his election identity card from his shirt pocket where he is aged 46 and his PAN card where he is 66.

“The teachers who carried out the survey for these documents goofed up, they are useless,” he declared.

Bonda Colony, a town of a few hundred households just outside Guwahati, is inhabited mainly by Bengali Hindus, like Biswas.

Locals said they are mainly settlers from Bangladesh who have over the years acquired documents that give them the right to claim they belong here.

These documents are often got through illegal means, which perhaps explains the wide discrepancy in Biswas’s age. The Bengali Hindus mostly support the BJP.

In return, the party gives them government benefits, like the vaccination shot Biswas got which he was perhaps not entitled to yet.

“Why shouldn’t the Hindus be given citizenship in India, where else will they go,” he said of the Citizenship Amendment Act as the conversation traversed from small talk to politically-loaded, highly emotive issues, inviting surreptitious glances from a motor mechanic next door.

About 100 kms away in Dhanubanga near Dudhnoi towards Bangladesh, shop owner Sundar Kumar Rabha has different political priorities.

Belonging to the Rabha tribe, an Indo-Tibetan community who are among the first settlers of Assam and hence considered as indigenous people, Sundar said the Rabha Autonomous Council should be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. 

Assam politics revolves around ethnicities, nationalism

T he autonomous council was formed in 1995 to meet the political aspirations of the Rabhas, who are estimated to number six lakh.

But dissatisfied with its functioning, the community formed the Rabha Hasong Joint Movement Committee to spearhead the Sixth Schedule demand.

Lending it support is the All-Rabha Students’ Union. T heir effort paid off partially in May 2020 when the Assam cabinet decided to include the council in the Sixth Schedule.

It now awaits Central action as Parliament has to pass a bill to give it effect.

“The Assam government has not yet sent the proposal to Delhi,” said AR SU president Nripen Khanda in Dudhnoi, Goalpara district.

“We are supporting the BJP in this hope,” Khanda added.

Biswas’s citizenship hopes for his community and Khanda’s aspirations for his people capture the competing and often conflicting demands in Assam’s complex political canvas.

Most, if not all, of these demands are identity-based, each with their own brand of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, tribal and religious political aggregation.

Assam’s politics, in fact, revolves around managing and accommodating these opposing ethnicities and nationalisms.

“It’s all about managing these diversities,” said Lawrence Islary, a candidate in Kokrajhar from the United People’s Party Liberal, the BJP’ Bodo ally. “The Congress did not do anything for the Bodos, they could not even implement the Bodo Accord of 2003 properly because of which a new one had to be signed last year,” Islary said.

The BJP has so far deftly steered its way around this community and ethnically-strewn political road, meeting some demands while not pandering to all.

For instance, the tea workers, who came largely from Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh decades back and who have a decisive say in 40 of the 126 constituencies in Assam.

Although it has failed to keep its 2016 election promise of raising the daily wage of workers from around Rs 100 during the Congress government to Rs 315, the Sarabanda Sonowal government has developed roads inside tea gardens, built schools and is giving free education up to post graduation in government-run institutions.

The Rabhas have been promised the Sixth Schedule while the Koch-Rajbongshis, Motoks and Morans, three communities who have been agitating for Scheduled Tribe status, have been given autonomous councils to blunt their movement.

The BJP also dumped the discredited Bodo People’s Front, its Bodo ally in 2016, and tied up with the UPPL.

The BPF, particularly its leader Hagrama Mohiliary, has been accused of massive corruption and is getting increasingly unpopular.

But there is also a section which believes the BJP is trying to subsume linguistic, cultural and ethnic sub-nationalisms with Hindu nationalism.

“They have already polarised the population of Assam in the name of religion,” said Lurinjyoti Gogoi, a former All-Assam Students’ Union general secretary who has formed a new party, the Asom Jatiya Parishad, and is contesting the elections.

“The BJP is losing hold over the Assamese Hindus and that is why they are playing the Hindu card. But this will not succeed,” said Satyakam Borthakur of Dibrugarh University.

COMPETING IDENTITIES

ST status demand

Tai-Ahom, Moran, Motok, Chutia, tea tribes and Koch-Rajbongshis have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status.

The Centre had approved the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and introduced a Bill in the Rajya Sabha on January 9, 2019 but it a hit roadblock as the existing STs opposed it

Statehood demand

The Autonomous State Demand Committee is spearheading a statehood movement for the Karbis in Karbi Anglong region.

Similarly, the Dimasa tribes want a ‘Dimaland’ by carving out parts of Assam and Nagaland



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