Reading Proof as ‘Proofs’: The Search For The Elusive Bangladeshi in Assam

Gorky Chakraborty

One can feel a palpable sense of disgust amongst a large section of population, Assam in general and Central and Lower Assam in particular, for having to provide the proof that one is not a ‘foreigner’ in her motherland. Interacting with them recently at various locations in Barpeta, Goalpara and Dhubri districts, a speech of a noted Assamese intellectual at the dawn of independence flashed in my mind. It was delivered in the following manner:

“Culturally, racially and linguistically, every non-Assamese is a foreigner in Assam. In this connection we must bear in mind that Assam from the very ancient times never formed a part of India. Mythology and legendary allusions apart, viewed in this perspective every foreigner who came to and reside in Assam for trade and other purposes after the occupation of the province by the British in 1826 AD might be treated as alien” (Lecture by B.K. Baua at the Narayani Historical Institute, July 1947, referred in P.S. Datta ed. Ethnic Movements in Poly-Cultural Assam, Vikas: 1990, p.253).

Ironically, what B.K. Barua mentioned about non-Assamese then seems to be now true of a sizeable section of the Assamese as well, the so-called NoAsomia (New Assamese), virtually the latest entrants to the fold of Assamese nationality. The future of the past in the name of on-going updating and ‘correcting’ National Register of Citizens (NRC) has set in a predicament. The mood seems to be filled with exasperation.

Sanskritisation and the Social Ladder
Observers on Assam will agree that migration, settlement and development have been more than often related. In this process, nationality formation also evolved where by different communities became a part of the overarching inclusionary Assamese nationality that evolved over centuries. Sanskritisation facilitated different communities, to come under this fold and those outside were simultaneously accommodated under the fold of the Satras (Vasihnavite monastery, where the reformer, Sankardeva played a pioneering role). Simplistically put, this evolution of becoming a part of the larger Assamese identity happened through a twofold phenomenon.

The first step involved communities outside the fold to be ascribed as Horu Koch (Lesser Koch) whereby adopting the life style of the caste Hindus e.g. through abstaining from pork, beef, rice beer consumption, residing in land instead of the elevated changghar, cremating the dead instead of burial, replacing animistic faith and practices with Vaisnavism/Shakta/Saivism etc. ultimately over a period elevated them to Bor Koch (Higher Koch). This has been an on-going inclusionary phenomenon till the late colonial period. It slowly transformed into a not so inclusionary process, if not exclusionary in the post-colonial era as nation building and linguistic states gathered momentum as a tool for gaining political exigency. This simultaneously created the process of constructing the ‘other’ comprising of population groups which did not suit the requirement of the dominant political discourse.

Wasteland and Migration
Wasteland has been one of the colonial constructs which had far reaching ramifications in the history of Assam. In a nut shell, ‘any land that did not yield revenue to the Crown was marked as wasteland by the colonial administrators’. The usufruct based subsistence agricultural practices of the communities, where private proprietary rights was not entrenched, has never been understood by the colonial administrators who were trained in the Lockeian logic of property. To them, there was plenty of land available in the colony which was to be utilised for generation of revenue to the Crown and thereby usher in civilisation at the door steps of the savages inhabiting the state.

Tea plantation was introduced to utilise the wastelands through lease to the European planters. This necessitated a workforce which was fulfilled by transferring tribal from various parts of Odisha, Bihar and parts of Bengal to work as indentured labour in these plantations. Over the years, it increased the food grain requirement in the state. This necessitated further utilisation of the wasteland by putting in larger tracts of land under cultivation. The colonial administrators coerced the agricultural sector by steeply increasing the land revenue rates, which they thought would force the peasantry to bring in more wasteland under cultivation and thereby increase food grain availability in the state. But it did not work according to their plans and between ‘1869 and 1905, land revenue increased by 80 percent while the area under cultivation increased by 17 percent only’.

The alternative was to bring in population groups from outside the state to undertake agricultural expansion. Debates regarding different population groups (e.g. Bihari Hindu or East Bengal Muslims) and mode of revenue settlement (zamindari or ryotwari) continued for a while and ultimately it was decided that the Bengali speaking Muslims from the densely populated districts of erstwhile East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) will be facilitated to migrate to the Brahmaputra valley under ryotwari settlement. The first partition of Bengal in 1905 put Assam and East Bengal under one administrative unit, which actually helped the process of migration of East Bengal peasant to Assam. This was evident in Census 1911, which recorded more than 26 per cent increase in population due to the migration of peasants from East Bengal, who now comprised nearly 20 per cent of the districts population. By 1921, 2,58,000 migrants settled in Assam and now they started moving beyond Goalpara to Kamrup, Darrang and Nowgong districts as well. To cut it short, till 1951, there number must have been between ‘one to one and a half million, which was between one-tenth to one-sixth of the total population of the state’. Correspondingly, ‘out of the total (1.1 million acres, including plantation) wasteland settlement in 1941, about half a million acre was with the migrants from East Bengal, which was further added by 6,213,000 acres during 1940-41-1947-48’. This introduced a sea change in the agrarian economy of the state within a short span of time, but also had an impact on the socio-cultural matrix of the state as well.

The Schism
The presence of Muslims in Assam goes back to the Ahom era, if not earlier. Later, the first Census of 1871 while locating population groups with more than 2 lakh population in the then Assam identified three groups, namely Koch-Rajbongshi (2,99,346), Kachari (2,58,810) and Muslim (2,50,470). But the migrant farm settlers from East Bengal, who were overwhelmingly Bengali speaking Muslim, generated a threat to the Assamese speaking elites in Assam. Although the migration process was initially appreciated by the Assamese elites, threats emanated once the migration increased at an exponential rate. Threat perception was more socio-culturally rooted as the amorphous group of people, termed Assamese, feared being overwhelmed by the dominant Bengali speakers and simultaneously being engulfed into Pakistan as Muslim League became a principal player in Assam politics under Maulana Bhasani. History suggests that Assam successfully managed to come out of both the threats, but this apprehension has been ‘sustained’ by both the state and non-state actors in the post-colonial era to sustain their hegemony over the masses.

On the other, the community leaders of the farm settlers from East Bengal displayed unusual foresight. Quite early in the process of migration to Assam they understood the difficulty of negotiating a minority status on both counts i.e. language and religion. Quite judiciously, they voluntarily changed the former while retaining the later. In the census declaration, they returned Assamese as their mother tongue and this enabled this language speaker to officially claim a majority status in the state. The puzzle seemed to have been resolved and the politics of majoritarianism through dominance of language ala census became the justification. This has been a common experience in several Indian states in the post-colonial era; Assam has not been an exception in this direction.

The Twists and Turns
The churning related to the evolving process of identifying ‘who is an Assamese’ is an interesting one. Although, not linear yet inclusion into the Assamese fold has been the trend during the late colonial and early post-colonial period. Here, affinity of language has been the pivot around which the deliberations revolved. Religion, although a bone of contention, did not generate fault lines leading to major contradictions. The movements of 1960 (Assam Official Language Act) and 1972 (Bongal Kheda) saw the Bengali Hindus being targeted and tormented in the name of ‘protecting’ the Assamese language from the hegemony of the Bengali. The farm settlers from East Bengal were no more a threat after their acceptance of Assamese as their mother tongue. However, things started to change during the Assam Movement (1979-85) when the slogans Ali, Kuli, Bongali…. Nak Chapeta Nepali….now belonged to a cohort euphemistically ascribed as Bidexi were urged upon to ‘get out of Assam’. This movement while consolidating the core in the Assamese speaking society generated fault lines in the peripheries of the Assamese social structure. The tribes of Assam such as the Bodos, Karbis, Missings, Dimasas, Rabhas to name a few, chose the path of identity assertion through homeland aspirations.

The Assam Accord, which was the signed document that was agreed upon by the Indian state and the leadership of the Assam Movement, specified among various other clauses that ‘any foreigner who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law’ and ‘the government will give due consideration to certain difficulties regarding the implementation of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983’ as well ‘as safeguard the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people’. It was made to appear that with these safeguards Assam was entering an era of peace and social harmony. Consequently, the Supreme Court repealed the IMDT Act in July 2005 while the updating of NRC started in March 2015 where it was promised that by 31st December 2017 the final draft of NRC will be published. All these efforts were undertaken to free the state from the presence of the alleged illegal immigrants referred as the Bangladeshi!

The Predicament
The process of constructing the ‘other’ has been an on-going phenomenon in post-colonial Assam, except for a brief phase during the early days of insurgency when a person in the state was addressed (in leaflets) as the Asom Baxi (residents of Assam) instead of being the Assamese. This utopia was albeit short lived. While the periodic interventions, both by the state and non-state actors, punctured the inclusionary evolution of Assamese nationality formation, the raij (people) kept the hopes alive through intermingling and intermixing through a permeable social milieu. In fact, the scenario in the state seems intriguing, while in Europe, exclusion and denial of voter’s right goes hand in hand, in Assam bestowing of political rights does not guarantee a freedom from the impending threat of exclusion. In any election, the East Bengal farm settlers always vote in maximum numbers yet these are the areas where the necessity for citizenship proof is the highest.

Will the NRC provide a relief in this direction or there will be newer alibis under a different pretext to treat the compatriot as strangers? As one erosion affected resident from Chikni village (where the river Beki meets Brahmaputra, Barpeta district) explained, ‘we forward the authorities with our proof of citizenship but they visit again for the same and again, are our proof then mere ‘proofs’ for the next print order?

Gorky Chakraborty teaches economics in Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK). His book Assam’s Hinterland: Society and Economy in the Char Areas is one of first detailed research works on char areas in Asssam.

(The feature image first appeared in The Hindu)

A Response to Mizo Student Union, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)

The Memorandum submitted by the Mizo Student Union of JNU, to the Prime Minister of India on 1st September 2017 is, to say the least, shocking and banal. It is nothing but a message of ‘hateful propaganda and sensationalism’. It needs to be scrutinised, every word and sentence, because it lacks not only any humanistic and ethical concerns, but even worse, drives home a propaganda and a wrong articulation and presentation of history. The memorandum seems like an extension of the chauvinism of the Assam Movement that they faced, which has entered a new wave in articulating the other as the outsider or their enemies. What we can see from the memorandum is nothing but a case of the rising xenophobia and hitlerism in the state of Mizoram.

The Union is embarrassingly wrong when it writes that the Chakmas do not share any common history, ancestry, customs and traditions with the Mizos. For all we know, both are Jhummis! That’s hell of a cultural sharing, is it not? The Union also seems to assume the existence of Mizoram state, with clear distinctions between the categories of Mizos and non Mizos, and with fixed spatial boundaries as early as the early nineteenth century. Their argument that the recent protest of the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) of some Chakma students entering in a MBBS Programme has to be seen in the light of the fear of the ‘illegal’ and unnatural growth of the Chakmas in the state of Mizoram is unabashedly shameful. On the one hand, they seem to quote articles from the Constitution, at ease, but when it comes to the Chakmas they become a common enemy, with no rights whatsoever. The union appears to be fond of conspiracy theory which determines anti-minority sentiments in other parts of the country. It provocatively suggests that the Chakma Autonomous Council was formed to weaken the Mizo National Front. However, here, they safely ignore the question of rights.

One might ask, do such statements from an organisation claiming to fight for minority rights, seated high up in the ivory towers of the most reputed academic space like JNU, one of its kind? The answer is no. The social in Mizoram is influenced, controlled by many non-state actors–MZP, Young Mizo Association (YMA), Presbyterian Church and so on. They run a parallel government in the state, and this is not an exaggeration. Interestingly enough, the Union echoes the same spirit of these non-state actors in regard to the population figures of 1901 to 1941, which is even denied by the Mizoram government in its response to the National Human Rights Commission in 2014. Such narratives produced by the Union, are in tune with the way these above mentioned Organisations place themselves in the social life in Mizoram. They practice a kind of necropolitics which is borderline violent.

The constant creation of the categories of the insider and the outsider is a typical case in point here. They speak of chauvinism and jingoism that have become normalized in the everyday experience for the Chakmas in Mizoram. If the Union wishes to speak of history, we should also point out to the fact that the Chittagong Hills Tracts(CHT) is an area home to the Chakmas. Part of the CHT is in Mizoram, hence technically, if we were to adhere to that logic of ecological fixity of identity, one has to go back to how the boundaries were drawn. It was done by the British and their cartography, not the Chakmas. The dam that flooded their land in Bangladesh, led to a treaty which is constitutionally approved. Will the Union be willing to take the debate to those quarters?

To return to their notion of legal and illegal immigrants, it is public secret that the MNF harassed and killed many Burmese people belonging to the Mizo-Kuki-Chin group, back in the 80s, to which the Mizos claim their ancestry, history and roots. The YMA appreciated such acts from the sidewalks. Those Burmese, now, forms the backbone of the economy of Aizawl. Most traders who bring back goods from Burma and other parts of Maniland Southeast Asia, are primarily Burmese. However, they are accommodated into the larger Mizo society. Why is the Chakma community forcibly kept outside the larger conglomerate of Mizo society?

Hate produces ‘concrete others’ (Benhabib 1996). ‘Chakmas’ can be categorised as concrete others in contemporary Mizoram. Otherisation and hate is made available, for there are well-defined categories of who are ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (Hage 2006). In a way, the other make the self more pronounced, even defines the self. As Taylor (2001) defines, how the whole notion of defining oneself is constructed when one knows what is good or bad for oneself.  The Chakmas are prevented from experiencing any belonging–cultural and social–in their everyday. Infact, their bodily disposition, mental and material presence is questioned. Their everyday is incomplete without receiving hatred and othering.

Journalist like Sanjoy Hazarika and the whole brigade of son of the soil, khilonjiya academicians of North-east, gave statistical excuses, in creating a fear of minorities growing large. The Union’s point here is not an aberration and is in perfect sync with such chauvinist standpoints on history and politics. We would like to highlight an instance where statistical excuses are exercised in order to justify the actions of chauvinism and jingoism.

A history of a differentiated taxation, levied on the Mizos and Chakmas respectively, is used as a tool to suggest that these two communities in-fact are different from each other. Accordingly, Chakmas are considered as foreigner because they were levied a tax of five rupees by the British, whereas the Mizos and their kin tribes were levied only a sum of two rupees This account is to be found in the letter that the Superindent of Lushai Hills Shri. S. Barkataki, wrote: D.O No. II-7/50/56-8 dated Aijal 11th October 1950 to R.V Subrahmanian, Secretary to the Government of Assam for Tribal Affairs. It is a fact that Mr. Barkataki was neither a historian nor an ethnologist or anthropologist. Hence, such factual errors were corrected by his former officer, Mr. KGR Iyer, IAS, Mizo District, with his report vide No. GP.21/55/56 dated Aijal the 27th October 1955, which was submitted to the Government of Assam. The Mizos conveniently ignores and hides such historical documents and facts, on one hand, and on the other, goes on circulating only the documents such as that incorrect letter, which states different taxes being levied. Infact, Mr. Barkatai himself admitted on a later date that he had no knowledge about the Chakmas being the indigenous people of Mizoram. Even then, how can one drive home the point that one ought to be treated as different, just because the tax levied were different. Is it not a colonial way of discriminating or a kind of divide and rule?

The mistake of Mr. Barkataki was an organised attempt in order to project a community in different light. He acted under the orders of a Mr. A. Macdonald, the Superintendent of Lushai Hills who thought that declaring the Chakmas as indigenous people will lead to losing of income for the government of Assam. He writes that, “If the Chakmas are treated as non-Lushais they will be liable to pay house tax at the rate of Rs 5/- and also other taxes such as Court and Stamp duties which will bring in an additional revenue of over ten thousand annually. I am in favour of adopting this course”. However, it was Mr. A. Macdonald himself who with his Order No. 734-47G of 29 April 1946 had declared that the Chakmas are the natives of the Lushai Hills just like the “Lushais” or Mizos. This makes it clear that the Chakmas were accepted as natives, by 1946, however, in the contemporary frame of politics, in Mizoram and in student spaces such a Mizo Student Union of JNU, a repeated attempt is being made to criminalize them and even suggest that they are the root causes of disharmony in the state.

Hence, the colonial government, with the help of local administrators, managed to create a deliberate categorization and mis-representation of a community and thus aimed at economic gains from so called non-economic areas. Similar accounts are seen, which justifies the Assam Agitation, the political contours of student bodies in Arunachal Pradesh, the Nellie massacre, Bodoland violence, among others, and constantly re-produce statistical exercises and excuses.

Pangsau Collective



Benhabib, S (1996). Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Hage, G (2006). Insiders and Outsiders. In Beilharz and Hogan (eds.), Sociology: Place, Time and Division, Oxford University Press.