Assam Accord & Its Clause 6: Why the Implementation is being delayed?

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What is Clause 6 of the Assam Accord? The Clause 6 of the Accord reads: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

What is the Assam Accord? It’s a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed in New Delhi on 15th August 1985 by the representatives of the Government of India and the Government of Assam with the leaders of the six-year-long ‘Assam Movement’ (1979 – 1985) that was led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) to put an end to the movement that was launched initially to drive out ‘outsiders’ which later on became a movement against ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ allegedly living in Assam.  

Why the implementation of Clause 6 is being delayed? While the question has remained unanswered till date; it is widely believed that the leaders of the Assam Agitation and its supporters are averse to encompass all the aboriginal people of Assam in the definition of the Assamese people. So, they have been trying to tinker with it to their advantage. But, this has not succeeded so far.

What is its status of implementation? According to item 9 of the Action taken report of Assam Government, “The different political parties, Sahitya Sabhas, Youth organizations, All Assam Student Union and reputed NGO’s are requested to furnish their views/suggestions for preparation of definition of “Assamese Peoples” in the meeting held from time to time. Besides a few organizations, the views and suggestions from all organization are not received. The matter is under consideration of the Cabinet Sub-Committee at present.” The report of the State Government speaks for itself.

The historical background: Assam came into being only after the British East India Company annexed the Ahom Kingdom in 1826 ending the six-hundred odd years of Ahom monarchy. The geographical boundary of the province that came to be known as Assam had undergone many changes subsequently as the British went on annexing the surrounding territories of Kings or Chieftains and then rearranged the territories from time to time for their administrative/political convenience. 

Initially, Assam was made an appendage of the Bengal Presidency. The term ‘Assam’ (Ahom->Aham->Assam) had originally stood for Assam proper – that is, the erstwhile Ahom territory – and later for the whole of Brahmaputra Valley. Subsequently, on 6 February 1874, the Assam Province was made a Commissionership by including the Cachar, Goalpara, Garo Hills and the other hills districts in it. The Bengali dominant Sylhet District of Bengal was added to it 6 months later to make Assam financially viable. [4] On 16 October 1905, the Bengal Presidency was partitioned and East Bengal was added to the Chief Commissioner’s Province of Assam. At first, the new province was going to be called “North Eastern Province”. But, pleas were made by a section of its people for retaining at least the word ‘Assam’ in its designation.” With their ‘efforts’, the proposal for changing the name was shelved and the newborn province was named ‘Eastern Bengal and Assam’-  retaining the word Assam in it. Since then the name Assam continued although by then it became much more multilingual, multiracial and multi-religious State.  

Since  1st April 1912, when the State, along with Sylhet, was formally reverted to a Chief Commissioner’s Province; Assam was an amalgamation of four disparate elements (i) the preliterate hills districts, speaking diverse tongues; (ii) the five by and large Assamese speaking districts of Brahmaputra Valley (Kamrup, Nowgong, Darrang, Sibsagar and Lakhimpur) together known as Assam proper; (iii) Goalpara of Brahmaputra Valley where the Bengali and Assamese cultures overlapped; and (iv) two populous Bengali-speaking districts of Sylhet and Cachar – commonly known as the Surma Valley. There was practically no (what is today known as) Assamese-speaking element in the Surma Valley, whereas in the Goalpara district the majority spoke Bengali. Reason being, Goalpara was a constituent part of Bengal since 1639. Thus, the Bengalis formed the major linguistic group in the province and a viable minority in the Brahmaputra Valley, yet outnumbering the (so-called) Assamese in its urban sector. Besides, the Surma Valley Bengalis (a part of which is now known as ‘Barak Valley’) were sons of the soil in their own right. [6] Yet, the province continued with the name Assam. 

During the Ahom rule, the Brahmins and the other Caste Hindus had exercised great influence in the Kingdom. These members were the leaders of the new society struggling to born out of the gradual decay of feudalism of the Ahoms and the capitalism of the Colonialist rulers. They were given western education so that they could assist in governing the land. Thus, they once again received the opportunity of occupying an influential position in society and accordingly, they aimed at constructing an ‘imagined community’ out of the varying groups and tribes of people occupying the region.

“Till a few centuries back there was nothing like the Assamese. There were instead Bodo, Dimasa, Karbi Koch, Ahom, Tiwa, Mising, Sonowal, Moran, Motok, Chutiya, Bamun, Sudhir, Kayastha, Kalita, etc. It was only with the advent of the British that the earlier term ‘Aham’ (often used to refer to the Ahom kingdom) became Assam. Similarly, with regard to language, along with many tribal languages, there existed the dialects known as Kamrupi, Goalparia, and Darangi. The standardization process, as a result of which the Sibsagar dialect came to be recognized as the Assamese language, was also due to the proselytizing efforts of the American Baptist missionaries. From the time the British arrived, almost all the inhabitants of Assam came to be known as Assamese. Litterateur, Journalist, and Sahitya Sabha President (2005-07) Kanaksen Deka included ‘Bongali (that is Bengali), Rajasthani, Bihari, Sikh, and Mymensinghia” in the list of communities.” [8] It is thus amply clear that all the inhabitants of Assam were designated as Assamese and it was/is NOT the identity of any single community.

At the time of India’s partition in 1947, the Bengali dominant Sylhet District of Assam was reportedly sacrificed to East Pakistan through a controversial referendum believed to be for getting rid of a large number of Bengalis to make Assam a unilingual ‘Assamese’ State. However, due to widespread communal violence, a huge number of Bengali Hindus were forced to come back to Assam.  Side by side, the influx of Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan was patronized by the ‘Assamese’ gentry and landowners to meet the acute labor-shortage for the cultivation of their vast arable lands. Some ‘Assamese’ politicians also encouraged the immigration because of their vote bank politics. What’s more, the Bengali Muslims declared ‘Assamese’ as their mother tongue that artificially inflated the figure of the ‘Assamese’ speaking people in Assam. For the same purpose, a large number of other communities like the tea garden laborers and others were also ‘persuaded’ to declare Assamese as their mother tongue.  Thus, in 1960, based on the inflated numerical superiority, the ‘Assamese’ was made the sole official language of the State and in the early 1970s, it became the medium of instruction. In a State where as many as 120 languages were spoken in 1951 and the number rose to 200 in 1971 the ‘official’ imposition of ‘Assamese’ language was, rhetorically, akin to imposing Hindi, in the name of ‘Indian’ language, in entire India!

According to Researcher Ahmed, Fakhar Uddin Ali, “The Assamese community is a composite community of different caste and its culture is also a composite culture. In the true sense, none of the communities in Assam could claim its absolute majority; however, a dominant class claimed itself as language majority by including tribal, tea garden laborers and particularly Muslims to have Assamese as their language. Tea garden workers are neither entirely Bengali nor entirely Assamese in origin. They came from many parts of India, form a group of their own. Their language is a mixture of Bengali and Assamese. If the tea garden workers and tribal are excluded, Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims will attain a majority based on the Bengali language in Assam.” 

Latest Developments: On 7th January 2019, the Home Ministry had notified formation of a nine-member ‘high-level’ committee to be headed by retired Union secretary M.P. Bezbaruah to break the current impasse. However, in less than a week, six of the nine members refused to be a part of it, broadly terming it in the local media as an enticement to douse the agitation against the Central Government’s attempt to amend the Citizenship Amendment Bill without any sincere intent to implement the Accord.

On 17th July 2019, the Home Ministry announced the formation of a new committee that comprised 13 members to be headed by a Retired Justice of the Guwahati High Court Biplab Kumar Sharma. The Committee has since taken out a public notice asking stakeholders to give their comments, suggestions, views on the implementation of Clause 6 before 20th September 2019. It requested all stakeholders, social organizations, individuals, etc to give their suggestions on measures to be taken as regards the Reservation of seats in Parliament, Assam Legislative Assembly, and Local bodies for the indigenous tribal, indigenous Assamese and other indigenous people of Assam. Those who desire to be heard in person may indicate their willingness to do so along with their submissions.  

Likely Reasons behind the Problem: Going by its origin, the ‘Assamese people’ could be defined as the aboriginal people of today’s Assam. But, the geographical boundary of Assam that finally emerged now had undergone a sea change from the Assam that came into being in 1826, and it is now being inhabited by a large number of other communities too. Yet, the name Assam has been retained since 1905 on the insistence of a handful of the people but, it seems, a few leaders are not ready to recognize the other indigenous communities residing in Assam as the ‘Assamese people’ including the huge number of aboriginal Bengali speaking people. 

Alternatively, the definition of the ‘Assamese people’ could be the people who declared their mother tongue in the Census Report as, what is called, ‘Assamese’ language today. In that case, many Bengali Muslims, tea garden laborers, some tribal and other groups would come within the definition of the ‘Assamese people’. This too is unacceptable – it seems.

Thus, as defining the “Assamese people” based either on the geographical boundary or the mother tongue has become problematic, the issue has become knotty. Consequently, it appears that clause 6 of the Assam Accord meant for the ‘Assamese People’ could not be implemented as yet. 

Likely Solution: Nevertheless, it was reported that AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharjee, who is also a member of the new committee, in an interview to a news website ‘The Wire’ in 2018, defined the “Assamese people” as “Axomiya, Khilonjia (indigenous).” This seems to be a good approach provided, however, all the indigenous people of Assam are included in it and no community is left out under the garb of “Axomiya”.


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