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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 33 New Delhi August 4, 2018

Keeping Assam Together

Tuesday 7 August 2018

The following article highlights one aspect of the Assam problem. It is being published for the benefit of our readers. It was written before the latest developments in the State.

by Pranjit Agarwala

Assam as a State has constantly faced the threat of disintegration. Assam’s political integration to the Indian mainstream began with its British colonisation in 1826. Under colonial rule the geographical boundaries of Assam also changed from the pre-colonial Ahom era. Excluding the then princely States of Manipur and Tripura, Assam included at that time the whole of the North-Eastern region and the erstwhile Sylhet district of colonial East Bengal now in Bangladesh. It overcame its first existential crisis at the dawn of freedom when it had to vehemently protest and stubbornly resist being clubbed with East Pakistan. After independence while India has overcome many challenges to its pan-Indian unity, Assam has faced some of the worst crisis of insurgency, secessionism, linguistic and ethnic riots because of its multi-faceted diaspora. The situation has been further aggravated by demographic changes caused by large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh. This has pitted the indigenous people against the immigrant Bangladeshis, citizens against non-citizens and the people of Assam against the Government of India (GoI).

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016) to amend the Citizenship Act (1955) proposes to grant Indian citizenship on humanitarian grounds to illegal migrants belonging to the minority communities of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Even though ostensibly the Bill has pan-India implications, because of the nature and scale of influx from Bangladesh it has much more detrimental demographic implications for the eastern States of West Bengal, Assam and the North-Eastern region than any other State or region in the country. The immigration from Pakistan in the west, mainly into Gujarat and Rajasthan, has primarily been because of religious persecution, sporadic, estimated around six lakhs only. Significantly the immigrants are segregated in camps, strictly monitored with their movements restricted to within 15 kms of their camps. They enjoy no rights. In contrast the influx from Bangladesh has mainly been a consequence of economic destitution, unabated and in large numbers. In comparison Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam live freely, enjoy all rights and are a political force to reckon with. Pertinently the Pakistani immigrants are religious refugees, while Bangladeshi immigrants are mostly economic refugees.

The Bill has divided the people of the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys threatening to break-up Assam further. The Barak valley has a predominantly Bengali-speaking population with a sizable Hindu community most of whom migrated to the valley from erstwhile East Bengal during partition. Their status and that of pre-March 25, 1971 migrants, irrespective of language or religion, have never been an issue in Assam. The controversy is over the Centre’s decision to grant citizenship to the post-March 25, 1971 illegal immigrants on religious basis. This apparently humanitarian gesture ignores the Assam Accord, the socio-political linguistic and religious implications that may cause social violence and human misery. Like the Brahmaputra valley, the Barak valley has also been badly affected by illegal immigrants. Unfortunately the GoI’s standard response to Assam’s perennial existential crisis has been to balkanise the State.

The balkanisation of Assam only served to assert the sub-national political and cultural identities of the ethnic hill tribes that were once a part of Assam. It however failed to achieve its objective of establishing smaller efficiently administered progressive States with balanced socio-economic development. Instead the new political entities, including the parent State of Assam, remained backward as they failed to address the core issues of good governance, accountability and corruption. Consequently the region has remained backward and disturbed.

While Assam’s multi-faceted diaspora is an inherent cause of separatism, demands for State-hood are triggered by economic deprivation. Unemployment, poverty, low human develop-ment indices (HDI) and lopsided development cause animosity between communities. Economic development is the key to solving Assam’s periodic existential crisis.

The Information Technology (IT) revolution has changed the concept of economic develop-ment. Economic growth is no longer only production oriented, location specific, based on availability of natural resources and dependent on proximity to raw materials. Economic globalisation has opened up market accessibility offering greater opportunities in trade, commerce and service sectors which have become more decentralized, knowledge based and service oriented. IT has generated a new development model that transcends geographical boundaries and gives competitive advantage to regions with an educated workforce, communication skills, broadband capacity, enabling infra-structure, stable working environment and environmental quality. Geographical location, always the biggest hurdle in Assam’s develop-ment, is therefore no longer a factor.

Assam is now passing through a critical phase. The second and final part of the Supreme Court-monitored draft NRC will soon be published. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016) has ignited public sentiment. Both issues have the volatility to push Assam back forty years to the decade of the turbulent 1980s. Therefore setting aside parochial paranoia the people of Assam must introspect coolly. They must not be swayed by the rhetoric of vested interests or political parties whose only objective is to protect their respective vote banks. Ultimately it is for the people to decide whether they want to go forward or move backward.

Assam has a substantial workforce of educated youth able to communicate in English, increasing broadband connectivity, skilled/semi-skilled labor and blessed by nature’s bounty clean environmental quality. While building enabling infrastructure is the responsibility of the government, ensuring peace and stability for a healthy working environment is in the hands of the public. To tap the opportunities offered by a changing economic environment, the people of Assam must abandon the divisive pursuit of asserting sub-national identities and come together on a common platform of inclusive growth to pursue a dynamic agenda of economic development.

The author is an entrepreneur and free-lance writer based in Guwahati.

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