[lg policy] The Economic Basis of Assam's Linguistic Politics and Anti-Immigrant Movements

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Sep 28 10:50:27 EDT 2018

 The Economic Basis of Assam's Linguistic Politics and Anti-Immigrant

Many accounts ignore the fact that the Assamese territory saw massive
geographical expansion under the British and that despite immigration,
there was an increase in the Assamese speaking population in what was a
multi-lingual society.
[image: The Economic Basis of Assam's Linguistic Politics and
Anti-Immigrant Movements]

People protest the final draft of the NRC. Credit: PTI
Tapan Kumar Bose <https://thewire.in/author/tapan-kumar-bose>

The issue of undocumented immigration of Bangladeshis into Assam had
emerged as a serious political concern in the 1970s. Udayon Misra, a
reputed Assamese scholar, in a recent article in *The Wire*
<https://thewire.in/history/history-nrc-assam>, says:

“Quite often, people from other parts of the country appear a bit puzzled
at the emotional response of the Assamese people to the question of
identity and demographic change. This is often seen as an expression of an
insular mindset, or even as a sign of xenophobia.”

Misra points to the colonial policy of encouraging immigration of peasants,
workers, professionals and business persons from Bengal and other parts of
the Indian subcontinent into Assam during the nineteenth and twentieth
century and continuing undocumented migration of Hindus and Muslims into
Assam from former East Pakistan and present Bangladesh as the reason for
this emotional response.

*“Immigration” and identity politics*

Large scale immigration, whether legal or undocumented, is a matter of
serious social, economic and political concern. It not only changes the
size of the population and other compositions like age, sex, language,
religion, but also brings both quantitative and qualitative changes in the
socio-economic and political pattern of the host region giving rise to
friction and conflicts. While the issue of large scale immigration into
Assam was discussed at the national level, unfortunately, it was treated
essentially as a “regional” problem created by influx of undocumented
migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The only solution that has ever been
discussed was to “push the undocumented immigrants out of India”. The
ongoing NRC exercise is the outcome of that singular focus on undocumented

The singular focus on undocumented immigration obscures the fact that the
present Assamese “homeland” itself is a colonial creation and it is much
larger than the traditional home of the Assamese people, the Brahmaputra
valley. After defeating the Burmese who had occupied Assam, the British had
created the new territory of Assam by amalgamating the existing kingdom of
Jaintia, Cachar and their dependencies into Assam. Later they added the
territories of the independent tribal kingdom of the Khasi Hills, the land
of the Lotha, Ao and Angami Nagas, the Luhsai and the Garo Hills into
Assam. The Surma valley, which is separated from the Brahmaputra valley by
the Garo, Khasi, Jaintia and the Naga Hills, consisted of the kingdom of
Cachar and it was populated by Bengali speaking people. Goalpara, which
lies above the Garo hills was similarly populated by Bengalis and was a
part of Bengal for more than 200 years.

Apart from ignoring the fact of massive geographical expansion of Assamese
territory, and notwithstanding the demographic changes caused by
immigration, the increase in the Assamese speaking population in what was a
multi-lingual society is often not taken into account.

The census reports from 1911 to 1951 show that the Assamese speaking
population in the British-made province of Assam had increased from 21.7%
to 56.7% <https://www.ripublication.com/ijhss16/ijhssv6n2_02.pdf>. During
the same period, the percentage of Bengali speaking population declined
from 45.67% to 16.5%. After independence, the number of Assamese speakers
increased to 56.59% in 1951 as compared to 31.42% in 1931. According to the
census of 1951, a population of about 80 lakhs, of which nearly 45 lakhs
declared themselves to be Assamese speaking and nearly 13 lakhs Bengali

A map of Assam in 1932. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

All identities, as we know, whether national, sub-national, ethnic or
original inhabitants – are modern homogenous construct which the proponents
of identity impose from above to maintain territorial solidarity among its
people. The people who assert to be the “original inhabitants” of a
particular piece of territory lay claim on that territory as their
“homeland”. The emergence of an “ethnic” community in Assam, which treats
language as its main identity marker, particularly in a multi religious,
multi-lingual and multi-ethnic region like Brahmaputra valley, is indeed an
intriguing phenomena. This is not the traditional ethnic community which
lived in the Brahmaputra valley before the entry of colonialism. It had
evolved out of intermarriages, social and cultural interactions between the
Tai Ahom people who had come from the frontier regions between Myanmar and
Yunnan Province in southwest China and established their rule over the
Brahmaputra valley. Tai Ahom rule lasted for nearly 600 years, during which
some of the local ethnic communities were completely subsumed in the Ahom

This linguistic ethnic community is quite distinct from traditional
Assamese ethnic community and different in character. It was constructed by
the growing Assamese middle-class in mid-19th century, to unite the people
in their struggle against the immigrant Bengali Hindu middle-class who were
occupying almost all the clerical and supervisory jobs in the colonial
administration. This is a political class, which is using its
indigenousness based on language to legitimise its group exclusive claims
on state power, rewards of the state and resources. Most of the academics
and scholars who have written on social and political movements in colonial
and post-independent Assam seem to ignore the economic basis of Assamese
linguistic politics.

This article is an attempt to explain the nature and the agenda of this
community from a historical perspective to show how a unilingual ethnic
identity was constructed by Assamese intellectuals of 19th century to
establish its political control and hegemony over diverse communities in
the composite province created by the British colonialists.

*Language as the sole marker of identity*

There was no evidence of a linguistic community consciousness in Assam
prior to 1836, when Bengali was introduced as the official language as well
as the medium of instruction in schools. Assamese language was yet to
develop its grammar and script. Although it was used in religious prayers
and in conversations, it was yet to be standardised.

This changed with the efforts of the American Baptists Missionaries who had
entered Assam in the 1830s to preach Christianity. Realising that they
needed to use the vernacular medium to spread Christianity, the missionaries
began to strongly espouse the cause of the Assamese language
<https://www.jstor.org/stable/44146777?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents> as the
rightful medium of instruction. Apart from printing all their religious
material in Assamese, through their magazine, Nathan Brown, an American
Baptist, developed Assamese grammar, language and scripts.

Nathan Brown, an American Baptist, developed Assamese language, grammar and
scripts. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The efforts of the missionaries in asserting the separate identity of the
Assamese language received wholehearted support from the Assamese
intelligentsia. *Orunodoi*, a magazine published by the American Baptists
disseminated western thoughts and learning, for over twenty years. It
inspired the younger Assamese generation and paved the way for an
intellectual awakening. Faced with the growing protests, the government
revised its earlier language policy and Assamese was reinstated as the
official language in 1873.

With the removal of Bengali, expectedly, the language issue should have
moved lower down in the hierarchy of issues in the subsequent stages of the
ongoing ‘ethnic’ struggle. Language, however, continued to occupy
center-stage, even though it was alienating other ethnic/tribal communities
of the Brahmaputra valley, who were accepted as integral part of the
Assamese community. There is a need to explore the reasons for the
selection of language as the sole marker of Assamese identity. The question
arises, whether it was motivated purely by concerns for language and
culture or perhaps the real reasons were the concerns of the emerging
Assamese middle-class that the Bengalis were taking away a lion’s share of
the loaves and fishes?

Throughout the nineteenth century, Assam’s rural areas as well as the Khasi
and Jaintia hill tracts was afire with militant peasant agitations against
increasing burden of taxation on land. The peasants organised through “*raij
mel*” (peoples’ assembly). The emerging middle-class was not a part of
these uprisings. However, when it entered the peasant movement towards the
end of nineteenth century through Ryot Sabha, the armed uprising were
replaced by “petitions” and the peasantry gradually began to toe moderate
reformist ideas of the middle-class leadership. It clearly diverted the
mounting anger of the rural masses against the British for imposition of
high taxation on land and farm produce to middle-class concerns regarding
assault on language and culture. Having established its control over the
peasantry, the Assamese middle class, gradually established itself as the
most dominant class – a position it holds till date. In their efforts to
maintain their hold over the masses and the peripheral communities, the
Assamese middle classes used “language” as a hegemonic instrument.

*The colonial construction of composite Assam province*

As I have pointed out earlier, what is known as Assam today, is essentially
a colonial creation. The British created Assam as a Chief Commissioner’s
province in 1874. It was a composite of two valleys – the Brahmaputra
Valley and the Surma Valley. The former was dominated by Assamese speaking
people and the later had an overwhelming majority of Bengali speaking
people. Brahmaputra valley had a Hindu majority whereas the Surma valley
was a mix of Hindu and Muslims.

According to Amlendu Guha(*Planter Raj to Swaraj*, 1977), “the term Assam
proper, i.e., the erstwhile Ahom territory alone – and later for the entire
Brahmaputra valley that was under a common Commissionership, that was now
given a wider significance to denote the newly emerged province”. According
to the census report of 1881-82, the population of Brahmaputra valley was
about 1.8 million whereas the Surma valley’s population was nearly 2.1
million. There were practically no Assamese speaking persons in the two
districts of the Surma Valley, where as in Goalpara district of the
Brahmaputra Valley, the majority, according to early census figures, spoke
Bengali. At the time of inclusion of Sylhet into Assam province, the Hindus
and Muslims of Sylhet were opposed to its inclusion. The resentment against
this inclusion continued to be articulated by the people of Sylhet in all
social and political forums. In 1947, at the time of partition, Sylhet was
incorporated into East Pakistan after a referendum.

It was the colonial state’s policy of encouraging immigration into Assam
from neighbouring Bengal and then by imposing Bengali as the official
language that spurred the growth of community consciousness among the
Assamese in the Brahmaputra valley. The nineteenth century immigrants in
Assam may be classified into four groups: (1) tea garden labourers (2)
migrants from East Bengal prior to independence (3) Hindus who came as a
result of migration, and (4) Nepalese who came in search of livelihood.

Amalendu Guha points out that of these immigrants, the Nepalese and the tea
garden labourers did not compete with the natives for jobs, a factor, which
rendered them more acceptable to the local people. The immigrant Bengali
Muslims also did not pose much problem to the indigenous Assamese people in
the field of employment in the government sector because of their interest
in getting land in the fertile valley and by offering their cheap labour in
the struggle for survival. The immigrant Bengali Muslims had declared
Assamese as their mother-tongue.
[image: Tea garden workers in Assam. Credit: Reuters]

The Nepalese and the tea garden labourers did not compete with the natives
for jobs, a factor, which rendered them more acceptable to the local
people. Credit: Reuters

The case of the Bengali Hindu immigrant was, however, different. The
British required the services of “native” bureaucrats to run the
administration. The British had found it convenient to recruit educated
Bengalis as clerks, supervisors, overseers and tax collectors as the
Bengalis were acquainted with the British administrative method. The
Bengali Hindus were disliked by the emerging Assamese middle class as they
dominated the local bureaucracy and had the lion’s share of the government

*The threat of the Bengali*

Hiren Gohain describes the chauvinistic attitude of a section of the
Bengali community in Assam <https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000349672>
as the reason for the resentment. Gohain is not the only author who blames
the Bengali settlers in Assam. Sajal Nag, Apurba Baruah and several authors
have prioritised “Bengali chauvinism” as the key factor that antagonised
the Assamese and contributed to the growth of community consciousness among
them. The population imbalance and limited access to economic development
had given rise to valley-ism in Assam promoting competitive identities of
Assamese and Bengali. As Guha points out, it was a cleverly designed policy
of divide and rule, “maintaining the balance of loaves and fishes – not
power certainly, between the two rival valleys, jealous of each other”.

In his book on middle class politics in Assam, Apurb Baruah in his book *Social
Tensions in Assam: Middle Class Politics* (1991) blames the “elite of the
Bengali society and their patrons in Bengal” not only for the imposition of
the Bengali language on Assam, but also for the growth of anti-Bengali
sentiments among the local people. Apurb Baruah rejects the role of
economic factors as stimuli. He does not substantiate what kind of a role
the Bengali elite had played in influencing the official opinion. All
accounts of colonial history show that the colonial state selectively
accepted ideas and interpreted them to suit their imperial interests.

In *India Against Itself, Assam*, Sanjib Baruah suggests that it was the
“colonial geography’’ that shaped “the projects of people hood in Assam-
the Assamese sub-national narrative and the counter-narratives as well as
the political agendas that followed from these narratives”. He points out
that the colonial policy of encouraging large scale immigration from Bengal
to Assam, as well as the way the boundaries of Assam were drawn up which
included the Bengali dominated Surma valley, had produced a demographic
imbalance that kept Assam’s language question a highly controversial one
throughout the entire colonial period and beyond. According to Sanjib
Baruah, the language movement continued primarily because of the inclusion
of Sylhet. While referring to the considerable opposition to immigration,
Sanjib Baruah also talks about the willingness of sections of Assamese
middle-class to co-opt all those who agreed to accepted Assamese language
and Assamese culture.

History of Assam indicates that while language was one parameter, the
second and equally important marker was Vainashvi Hinduism. Udyon Misra in *The
Transformation of Assamese Identity: A Historical Survey*, points out that
beneath all the 19th century rhetoric about a multi-cultural identity was
the firm belief that the Assamese identity was not an inclusive one. The
Hindu religious underpinnings of the Assamese community are, in fact,
impossible to overlook as Misra asserts that, “An influential section of
the Assamese intelligentsia who stressed the poly-ethnic nature of Assamese
society, at the same time felt that it was the Hindu, and particularly the
Vaishnavite faith, which served as the main cementing force of Assamese

If Vaishnava Hinduism was so important to the people, why this was ignored
in the 19th century as a marker of Assamese identity remains unanswered.
Also the question that needs to be asked is whether the willingness to
accept immigrants, particularly Assamese-speaking Bengali Muslims, as part
of the Assamese community led to the transformation of the Vaishnavite
Hindu identity of the Assamese community?

*Privileging language over other markers of ethnic identity*

The problem with identity arose due to the incongruity between the
aspiration of the ethnic Assamese to make Assam their “national homeland”
and the historically developed multi-ethnic social base of territorial
Assam of today. The selection of language as the main marker of Assamese
identity by Assamese intellectuals of 19th and 20th century over other
traditional markers of ethnicity was aimed at transforming both the
Assamese community as well as the other communities that lived on the
extended territory, to create a unilingual community in order to retain its
control over the new provincial territory. As the Sylheti could not be
subdued, Assamese intellectuals and politicians campaigned for exclusion of
Sylhet from Assam and were happy when at the time of the partition in 1947,
it was transferred to East Pakistan.

Assamese intellectuals and politicians campaigned for exclusion of Sylhet
from Assam and were happy when at the time of the partition in 1947, it was
transferred to East Pakistan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sanjib Baruah acknowledges that Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims were not
averse to becoming part of the Assamese cultural mainstream. It is evident
from the 150% increase in the Assamese speaking population and nearly 200%
decline in the Bengali speaking population during the four decades from
1911 to 1951, that a large section of Bengalis had adopted Assamese as
their main language. Yet the problem has continued. It would seem that the
dominance of Bengali speaking people in the Surma valley continue to pose a
threat to the project of making Assam as the national homeland of the
Assamese people. This explains the violent “Bongal Kheda”, the organised
campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Bengalis which began in the 1960 and
continues till date. The Bengali, particularly the Bengali Hindu, has
become the “other”, the “outsider” who was the cause of all the troubles.


The attempt to convert Assam into a monolingual state through the
controversial Official Language Act, 1960, the six-year long AASU agitation
culminating in the inking of the Assam Accord in 1985, which successfully
curbed the domicile rights of a large number of Bengali settlers in the
State, and the current NRC update process – all these have found unstinted
approval of the Assamese cognoscenti.

Since the 1980’s, the very definition of the “illegal foreign immigrant”,
has undergone many changes. The Assam agitation, at its inception in the
year 1978, was a movement against all foreigners staying in Assam. Within a
year, it had become a movement for “driving out” all so called illegal
immigrants – the Bengali speaking Hindus, Muslims and Nepalese, all were
targeted. However, in 1981-82, the perception about foreigners changed
again and only the Bengali origin Muslims of Assam were targeted as
Bangladeshi infiltrators. Though the Assam agitation was started against
the undocumented migrants, over the time, it become violent and morphed
into a communal movement with anti-Muslim bias. The so-called Assam Accord
of 1985 did not end Assam agitation. It has continued under different garbs
and continued killing of Bengali Muslims and members of other minority

It has scarred the mind of the Assamese youth and deeply affected modes of
social exchange. The denial of humanity to the “other” has sprung from this
exchange. Even after the completion of the NRC process and rendering the
detected non-citizens as “stateless persons”, without any rights to
participate in politics of Assam, the problem will not be solved. As long
as the agenda of establishing total hegemonic control over all communities
and the entire territory of Assam is not achieved, the so-called
“emotional” outbursts against the threat to Assam’s “linguistic and
cultural identity” will happen again and again.

*Tapan Kumar Bose is associated with the South Asia Forum for Human Rights.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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