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Revisiting the Nationality Question in Assam

The EPW 1980–81 Debate

Ibu Sanjeeb Garg ( is Assistant Commissoner of Income Tax, Indian Revenue Service.

A series of articles published in the Economic & Political Weekly during the 1980s’ Assam Movement—when the nationality debate was at its zenith—offer a context against which the issue can be revisited.

The author acknowledges the comments given by the anonymous reviewer.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

As the deadline for updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam mandated by the Supreme Court draws near, it is important to look at the context and character of this development. The genesis is undoubtedly the six-year-long Assam Movement against illegal immigrants that culminated in the signing of the historic Assam Accord on 15 August 1985. Since then, for the past three decades, the movement has been repeatedly analysed in a bid to understand and contextualise the agitation.

A series of articles published in the Economic & Political Weekly, covering the ideological discussions on the Assam Movement—which raged between 1979 and 1985—featured the works of Amalendu Guha, Hiren Gohain, Gail Omvedt, Sanjib Baruah, Udayon Misra, Tilottoma Misra and Lily Bara. To revisit the movement and the ideological moorings it took, these discussions are an excellent starting point. Taken together, these
articles also form one of the few collections on the Assam Movement, reflecting the views of a galaxy of thinkers that do not necessarily conform to each other. It is fascinating to see these articles 30 years later and contextualise them in the present times. While one does have the luxury of hindsight when reviewing the articles, it does not take away the originality of the authors in terms of ideas. Rather, it adds to our understanding of the movement and the questions raised that are relevant even today.

Assamese Identity

One of the most defining themes in these articles has been about forging a new “Assamese” identity. Amalendu Guha (1980) argues that the “Assamisation” process taking place amongst the migrant Muslims of East Bengal origin, is a welcome integrative process. He draws inspiration from the history of Assam, including the integration of the Tai-Ahoms in the medieval era. Quoting Jyoti Prasad Agarwala—who termed the Bengali Muslims as Na Axomiaya or Neo-Assamese1—Guha argues that this integration is a natural process that must be encouraged and one that will strengthen Assamese nationhood (nation here as a “little nation” within the territorial boundaries of India). Sanjib Baruah (1980) contradicts Guha, stressing that the advent of the Bengali Muslims in Assam cannot be equated with that of the Ahoms centuries earlier, and as such, immigration in Assam has few parallels in the world, in terms of scale and magnitude, thus hopelessly tangling Assam’s nationality question. Indeed the number of Ahoms who came to Assam was quite small and yet the space and time continuum over which they integrated themselves was fairly long. On the contrary, in a little over hundred years, a large number of Muslims from East Bengal have settled in Assam.

As social scientists have opined, with modern modes of communication, while Bengalis—both Hindus and Muslims—concentrated in pockets to communicate in Assamese, their integration with Assamese society is far less today. Even though the number of Assamese speakers showed a remarkable increase post independence, there is a general agreement that it was a “political call” of the Muslim settlers to list their language as Assamese while continuing to restrict its usage to a bazaar language. Recent evidence has shown parallel trends. Today, while Muslim settlers have indeed accepted the Assamese language, there is also a distinct trend to carve a new literary space within the “Miya” boundaries.2 This assertion is only natural. The North East has witnessed numerous such movements, including the return to Bathouism by a large number of Bodo people. As political consciousness in a particular community grows, it brings with it a growing assertion of identities in different forms. Such inherent tendencies would undoubtedly be a part of any “cultural project,” and the Assamese project is no different.

To this, one must add the more fundamental question of what, then, comprises an Assamese identity. Is it the language alone, or a certain way of life? On the question of Assam, perhaps, one can argue that it is the latter. It is a way of life which is composed of language, culture, folk festivals and art. The indigenous Muslims share a much more common space with the indigenous Hindus of Assam in terms of language, food habits, festivals and other forms of social spaces such as surnames. This, however, is not true for the Bengal-origin Muslims. This is the root of the illegal immigration debate. To argue on the basis of language and census figures alone would be to remain dangerously prejudiced to what the idea of an Assamese actually is.

The question of religion also acquires more prominence in present times. The past three decades have witnessed new political understandings, where religion is much closer to the state than it was decades ago. In such changed circumstances, when religious identity has become primordial and fundamental to one’s identity, merely the question of who speaks Assamese cannot, and will not settle the debate. In such changed circumstances, the question of “who is an Assamese?” needs to be articulated far more carefully.

Underlying Chauvinism

Another central theme that has emerged out of these articles is whether the Assam Movement was “chauvinistic” in nature. Once again, the articles throw up interesting perspectives. Guha (1980), in his arguments, terms the Assam Movement as a middle-class bourgeois-inspired struggle against the peasants. This is perhaps the classic fallacy of the left, to discover class struggle in every movement. As Baruah (1980) has argued that this was not a class struggle, because the peasants were involved en masse. Baruah therefore rejects the suggestion that it was a case of landlords and the bourgeoisie launching a movement against the peasants. The Nellie massacre, which happened after the riots, would conclusively prove that the Assam Movement was not a class struggle. Peasant communities on opposing sides took up arms against one another, which resulted in one of the most gruesome massacres in independent India.

However, the fact that the movement was chauvinistic at times cannot be denied. The movement could have, perhaps, been an ideal platform to bring the smaller nations of people, existing within the political boundaries of Assam, into the subnational space of Assamese nationhood, which in turn would assimilate with the larger Indian nationhood. Yet, it failed to do so. As the movement began to linger, there was undoubtedly lesser participation amongst the tribals and other communities. In fact, when the curtains finally fell on the Assam Movement, the Bodos began to identify themselves as outside of the framework of the Assamese subnational space. A precursor to this was the alienation of the hill tribes in the early 1960s, precisely because there was a need to contextualise Assamese subnational space in a lingusitic paradigm. The Assam Movement too could not prevent itself from becoming a victim of this linguistic chauvinism and lost a golden opportunity to assert itself as a broad umbrella of ideas within the Indian nationhood. One needs to go no further than looking into the credentials of the tallest political leaders that the movement threw up, to find that no tribal made it to that list. This was despite the fact that communities like the Bodos were the original “sons of the soil.” This undoubtedly demonstrates a major weakness in the way the Assam Movement unravelled.

Degrees of Autonomy

The third idea that runs central to these articles is the role of the left and how it saw itself within the Assamese subnational space and Indian nationhood during the movement. Most of the authors gravitate towards a unifying theme on these issues with varying degrees of support. Guha (1980) argued that the only viable form of nationhood within the Indian framework was the Swiss model with the creation of autonomous areas. He drew inspiration from Lenin’s demand for autonomy, while contextualising the left in this national framework. Guha refuses to believe that there is an economic exploitation of Assam and that these are merely the perils of a nation that accompany the varying stages of development.

Baruah (1980) and Udayon Misra (1981) on the other hand talk about autonomy with self-determinism (and not secession), and argue that the question of the North East’s economic relations with the rest of the country is a factor that needs to be analysed. To the question of the left’s own position on the Assam Movement, Guha (1980) argues with evidence that the left has supported the question of safety for indigenous people of Assam and in very clear terms wanted no further infiltration. Hiren Gohain (1981) says that the left needed to argue for the Assam Movement much more vociferously, but cautioned against the mindless violence unleashed on the left, asserting the need to stick to the law, advice that would hold much ground even today, as the NRC rolls are drawn out.

More than 30 years have passed since the Assam Movement took place and the situation has changed considerably. There is a rhetoric that is dominant and if one does not approach the question right, for many, the threat of violence remains real. Fundamentally, what was perhaps glossed over was the economic question. Only Tilottamma Misra (1980) in her essay argued that the movement had an economic genesis as well. The demands of the movement were not limited to the expulsion of illegal immigrants alone, but also kick-starting the economy of Assam. Even today, despite being blessed with abundant natural resources, the domestic income of the state remains low. Economic opportunities remain limited and agriculture is not considered a viable option for employment anymore, barring amongst the Bengal-origin Muslims. With stress on land and economic resources, as the 2012 Kokrajhar riots have shown, the chances of violence are very real.

An important issue that needs to be addressed for solving the problem of illegal immigration lies in finding new ways to kick-start the economy. Agriculture and entrepreneurship are to be the mainstays in a state like Assam. The questions related to the Assam Movement, the NRC and Assamese identity, can all be linked to the economy. One of the push factors for illegal immigrants has undoubtedly been the search for better economic opportunities. To be able to understand these factors would lie at the root of solving the illegal immigration problem.

There is, therefore, a need to think of illegal immigration in economic terms. Indeed, none of the authors could have predicted the almost phenomenal rise of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) just a few years after the Assam Movement, and it was indeed interesting that economic grievances and constructs formed a tool of the core propaganda of ULFA in the early stages. In a frontier state like Assam, the issue of economy and control of economic resources form the fundamental bedrock to providing long-term solutions. The way ahead after the NRC rolls are declared must be approached in this context. Instead of resorting to histrionics and mindless violence, a rational economic solution would pave the way for a truly long-term fruitful solution.


1 The term Na Axomiaya or Neo-Assamese was first coined by Assamese writer Jyoti Prasad Agarwala in his poem “Axamiya Dekar Ukti.” In the poem Agarwala uses the term to refer to the Muslims of East Bengal origin, who had at that point entered in Assam in the preceding 50 years. On the other hand, the indigenous Muslims date back to medieval centuries and share commonalities with their Hindu brethren in terms of food habits, dress, language and even surnames.

2 Miya is a popular pejorative term used to refer to Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam. Recent times have seen the emergence of Miya poetry and art among these Muslims, in an attempt to carve a distinct space and to claim the Miya identity for themselves.


Baruah, Sanjib (1980): “Assam Cudgel of Chauvism or Tangled Nationality Question?,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 15, No 11, pp 543–45.

Gohain, Hiren (1981): “Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist,” Economic & Political Weekly,
Vol 16, No 9, pp 339–40.

Guha, Amalendu (1980): “Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist: Assam’s Anti-foreigner Upsurge, 1979–80,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 15, Nos 41–43, pp 1699–1720.

Misra, Tilottama (1980): “Assam: A Colonial
Hinterland,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 15, No 32, pp 1357–64.

Misra, Udayon (1981): “Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist: A Comment,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 16, No 8.

Updated On : 1st Jun, 2018


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