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India's northeast, made up of seven states, is a mini-India in many respects.

It is home to several
religious communities and 200 of the 430 ethnic groups in the country A geographically and
politically isolated area, the Northeast is sandwiched by Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar
(formerly Burma) with only a narrow strip of land - likened to the chicken's neck - and two roads
linking it to the rest of the country. Once known simply as a collective; Assam, today the
northeast is divided into seven states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya,
Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. In contrast to the main body of India, much of the northeast is
sparsely populated but at the same time it is also ethnically more diverse with an estimated 25
percent of the northeast's 31 million inhabitants being members of aboriginal tribal groups as
compared with the rest of India, where this figure is about 7 percent.
Not only is the North-East a reflection of mini India it also mirrors nearly all the problems that
the rest of India suffers from including armed resistance, anti-immigrant movements and
secessionist movements . Armed resistance and secessionist movements in the highly sensitive
northeastern region of India have had a long and bitter history. Their origins can be traced to the
fact of a fiercely independent people suffering colonial exploitation firstly under the British Raj
and then having to suffer utter neglect by its successor, the Indian government. The history of the
northeast region of India is an extraordinary tale of a gentle, secular, tolerant people - multiracial,
multireligious, multi-ethnic, multicaste, multiclass and multilingual in composition - turning
completely distrustful of the proverbial "other", be he a foreigner or another local tribal or just a
resident of the plains.
What motivates these struggles in the North East region?
According to many scholars most of the struggles in the north-east are in reaction to the
homogenising trend of the dominant 'one state, one nation' thinking of the Indian state and the
prevailing tendency "to take the degree of Aryanization as the measure of Indianisation". In
attempting to turn itself into a nation, the Indian state has often failed to respect the cultural
and ethnic identities of different groups who are original residents of specific geographical areas
nor has it often recognized that the original residents could have a culture and a religion of their
own. Such an attitude on the part of the Indian state is what according to many has often resulted
in the original residents reacting and violently; to the effort by the state to homogenize cultures
and monopolize their livelihood. Thus unlike the conflicts that have characterized most other

Indian states, barring Kashmir, self-determination at various levels, rather than religion or caste,
has been the main factor in the ethnic conflicts that have plagued this part of the country.
The movement in Assam differs very significantly from the secessionist movements in Nagaland
with respect to the fact that historically the greater part of Naga inhabited territory had never
been brought under British administrative control and thus the Nagas; by virtue of their being
relatively untouched by the freedom movement ; consider themselves to be culturally and
psychologically different from Indians ; resulting in them asserting that since they were never a
part of India, they should be given the choice to decide their future status. The same is not true
for the state of Assam which has had centuries of socio-cultural links with the rest of the subcontinent and whose involvement in the freedom struggle has been of no small measure.
Assam consists of nine districts containing 78,523 square kilometers of territory and is in both
area and population among the smaller Indian states. Assams western borders touch the Indian
state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. In the southwest is the small Indian state of Tripura, also
predominantly Bengali. Assam thus borders a region with a huge Bengali population, with the
Bengalis constituting the third largest linguistic group in Asia, after Chinese and Hindi speakers.
Militant separatism in the state of Assam has always presented a serious challenge to the nation
building process and has always been a test case for Indian federalism. But the focus of this
assignment is not on the separatist movement or ULFA. Rather the focus of this assignment is to
understand the set of factors that gave rise to this militant separatism and motivated it to come
about and sustains it. in effect this assignment seeks to trace the origins of todays separatism to
the anti-immigrant movement that gained much steam, support and vigor ;that characterized the
state; from the late 1970s onwards and preceded the secessionist struggle that one is more likely
to associate the conflict in Assam with today . I in no way intend to reduce the prominence of the
secessionist struggle in Assam or the ULFA but rather seek to give greater prominence to the sub
nationalist struggle that characterized the state (revolving around the anti-migrant and antiforeigner issue) of which secessionism is only a more radical and militant form; one that
emerged in recent times.
The fact has been that both politically and culturally, Assam is one of India's frontiers. The great
empires of the past never cultivated a more than nodding acquaintance with Assam. Even in the

late Mughal period, the economy of Assam was considered too poor and primitive to yield
enough revenue even to garrison it. Thus Assam was never politically integrated with the great
north Indian empires prior to the advent of the British. Throughout the history of Assam this lack
of political integration was the result of profound economic and social causes and whatever
internalization of super-structural forms was attempted could never wholly transcend specific
tribal and territorial qualities prevalent there. The beginnings of the Assam problem can be traced
to 1826 when the British conquered Assam, ending about four hundred years of independence.
Though previously Assam had successfully resisted Moghul domination nonetheless, in language
and religion Assam was distinctly Indian with Assamese itself being an Indo-Aryan language.
The British East India Company, with its center in Calcutta, gradually extended its control over
the entire northeast region and in 1838 Assam was incorporated into the Bengal Presidency. In
1874 the British separated Assam from Bengal and placed it under the control of a Chief
Commissioner with its capital at Shillong. The province included Sylhet district, a predominantly
Bengali Muslim area most of which is now in Bangladesh.
With the independence movement catching steam throughout the rest of the country; the
continuous process of nation building that united the rest of the country under the banner of India
and indianness was severely hampered by British subversion in Assam; ultimately resulting in
Assam geographically being the easternmost limit of this process and historically the last to enter
it. Even within Assam the process of Assamese nation building that went on under colonial and
semi-colonial conditions began with historically determined weaknesses that were economical as
well as cultural. Specifically the fusion of various tribes into one composite, Sanskritised nation
was very far from complete and imperialist agrarian policy and many important demographic
changes brought about by the British

exacerbated these weaknesses. These demographic

changes brought about by the British are particularly important in understanding the state of
conflict that today prevails in Assam as among these policies were (1) the British through various
policies arrested or reversed the historical process through which the tribes In Assam were
getting assimilated into the Assamese nation (2) the British imported lakhs of tribal workers
from Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Central India, the Madras Presidency and even the Bombay
Presidency to work in the tea plantations set up by the British. Not only were these workers
segregated from the indigenous population; the British also encouraged them to gather wood and
graze their cattle in what were common lands of the indigenous population creating tensions

between the Assamese and the plantation workers and (3) Finally, the British policy of
importation of lakhs of Bengali peasants (mostly Muslims) to settle in the un-cultivated riverine
tracts along the Brahmaputra resulted in the rise of severe tensions between the settlers and the
indigenous population. Assam being more sparsely populated than East Bengal these Bengali
Muslims reclaimed thousands of acres of land, cleared vast tracts of dense jungle along the south
bank of the Brahmaputra, and occupied flooded lowlands all along the river. In the next two
decades the Muslim migrants moved further up the Brahmaputra valley. Though some Muslims
had settled in Assam as early as the thirteenth century, this new influx rapidly changed the
religious as well as linguistic composition of the state. The result of this was a problem of land.
The Asamiya middle class believed - and British civil servants encouraged them to do so - that
their own people would be turned into a minority in their home-land unless the Bengali Muslim
peasants' incessant influx into the Brahmaputra Valley was checked. Ultimately the Asamiya
(indigenous Assamese) raised the cry of the Asamiya nationality and their cultural foothold being
in danger with a view to mobilizing the peasant masses behind them. They proudly recalled the
sphinx like reappearance of their language after prolonged suppression during 1837-73; while at
the same time also finding it convenient to identify the Bengali as the stumbling block in their
way to progress and cultivating a sense of grievance against him. This grievance was based,
amongst others, on the fact that the Asamiyas were under-represented and Bengalis overrepresented in the services and professions in the province.Soon the British were able to perceive
the contradictory Anti-Imperialist and anti-non-Assamese aspects of Assamese nationalism and
they naturally tried to destroy the former and encourage the latter. This resulted in the
development of a strong Assamese intellectual tendency which saw the imperialists as saviors or
at least as friends in the struggle against other Indians even as the British carried through policies
which were either not helpful or positively harmful to the development of the Assamese nation.
But the fact remained that despite all attempts by the British to the contradictory until about
1947, Asamiya little nationalism was not a cudgel and there were no language or racial riots as
there would be in the near future. it was only when the Asamiya middle class emerged stronger
and more ambitious than ever after Sylhet was shaken off its back during partition that the little
nationalism that existed started degenerating into chauvinism and minority-baiting
Subsequently the situation started to worsen when the demography of Assam further got skewed
at the time of partition when large numbers of non-Assamese moved into and settled down in

Assam particularly from East Pakistan. There was even a point where immediately after gaining
independence in the period of partition Nehru had to hold out the threat of cutting off financial
aid to Assam to force the Congress government in power there to accept hundreds and thousands
of Bengali Hindu refugees from the newly created East Pakistan .With partition and
independence Assamese Hindus became the sole majority in most regions of Assam though not
the absolute majority. The situation was compounded in 1947 and after. In 1947 the Assamese,
particularly the Assamese Hindu middle class, won control over the government of the newly
formed state of independent India. For the first time in a hundred and fifty years the Assamese
were back in power. They used that control to assert the supremacy of Assamese cultural identity
and to seek economic and social equality in relation to the Bengali Hindu middle classes-their
rivals for jobs in the administrative services, in the professions, and in the private sector. In these
struggles ethnic coalitions were formed and dissolved, state boundaries were moved, and the
central government was called upon by various groups within Assam for support or protection. In
1972, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) launched a movement to make the Asamiya
language as the medium of instruction up to graduate level in addition to existing English
language. Subsequently the Assamese-dominated government of Assam made Assamese the
official language of the state; established a policy of giving preference to "sons of the soil" (i.e.,
Assamese) in employment in the state administrative services; appointed Assamese teachers in
the schools; and pressed for the use of Assamese as the medium of instruction in schools,
colleges, and universities. The supremacy of the Assamese also found expression in another way
with riots soon breaking out all over the state against Bengalis with the rioters demanding that
Assamese be made the sole medium of education in schools and colleges. Worst hit at these
times were the Bengali Muslims many of whom were deported as Pakistani infiltrators or had to
vote for Assamese as their native tongue a census enumerator. Not only the Muslim Bengalis;
even the Hindu Bengalis were not spared in this onslaught of violence and terror that engulfed
the Brahmaputra Valley. The few Asamiyas who died in the violence were elevated to the status
of 'martyrs even as the violence and its consequent displacement of Bengali Hindus were
ignored silently. The victims of displacement remained virtually 'invisible' whereas the victory of
the emerging Asamiya nationalism was highlighted visibly in the Asamiya press. But this
violence did not succeed in stemming the inflow of immigrants.

Over the next few years more and more people started to move into settle down in Assam
particularly as a result of riots against Hindus in East Pakistan ; and the situation started to
worsen with increasing instances of conflict between the indigenous population and the
immigrants and increasing instances of such continuing conflicts that reached very violent
proportions. Despite this one can say that the true circumstances that accelerated the rise of anti
immigrant tendencies on previously unprecedented scales in Assam can be traced to a set of
events that happened from 1979 onwards.
The immediate circumstances for the violence of 1979 were as follows: The Government of
India announced that elections would be held from 14 to 21 February for the Assam state
legislative assembly and for 12 unfilled parliamentary seats. Two political groups, the All Assam
Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), declared they
would boycott the elections since the electoral lists contained the names of large numbers of
people who had entered the country illegally. Allowing these people to vote, they said, would in
effect confer citizenship upon them and that was the very issue that was in dispute between the
Assamese and India's central government. The Assamese demanded that all who entered the state
from Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) after 1961 be expelled from the state and that their
names be expunged from the electoral rolls. What particularly alarmed the Assamese was the
growth in the number of registered voters-from 6.3 million in 1972 to 8.7 million in 1979.1
During the many meetings held between the Assamese leaders and the Government of India in
New Delhi in the following years, the central government agreed to a March 1971 cutoff date to
determine de facto citizenship, implicitly agreeing to the deportation of all immigrants since
then. But they rejected the demand that those who entered between 1961 and 1971 be deported
or dispersed to other states.
Though many scholars would refuse to admit it the factors responsible for the demands that were
placed above were multifold. In fact they had nothing to do with the threat posed to the country
from foreigners. The reality is a section of the population in Assam; especially the rich; trying
desperately to assert their hegemony by whipping up traditional fears; particularly through the
press; of a huge influx of Bangladeshis and their assorted crimes. While detailing how the
indigenous people of Tripura and Sikkim had been overwhelmed by a flood of outsiders , to
depict to the people of indigenous people of Assam that they are in danger from outsiders ;

these vested interests are attempting to hide the fact that the real secret behind such mindless
ecstasies on their part is really in fact the fear that if the Muslims and other groups team up and
reduce the Assamese Hindu legislators to a minority in the Assembly, it will be impossible for
the latter to retain the lion's share of the loot from the state.
It was evidently this stalemate that led Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to call elections in Assam in
the hope that a new political leadership would emerge with which she could negotiate. The
central government's decision to call elections polarized Assam. The Assamese opposed the
elections. So did some of the indigenous tribal groups, especially the Lalung, who resented the
encroachment of Bengali immigrants into tribal tracts along the southern bank of the
Brahmaputra river. The elections were supported by the two major Bengali speaking
communities ; Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims. Both communities contain migrants from
the Indian state of West Bengal, immigrants who have come from Bangladesh (East Pakistan)
since 1947 and many who came from that area earlier, and the descendants of Bengalis who have
been entering Assam since the middle of the nineteenth century and earlier. The elections were
also supported by the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) consisting of indigenous tribals
known as Boro, who advocate the creation of an autonomous territory in the Boro populated
regions of the state in order to resist what they describe as the Assamization policy of the state
government. What thus began as an issue of illegal immigration soon grew to a broader conflict
among Assamese, tribals, and Bengalis.
At first there were attacks by Assamese against bridges, government offices, and even police
stations, and retaliation by the police. Thousands of state government employees who boycotted
the elections and refused to obey government orders were arrested, and polling agents had to be
brought in from other states. Leaders of the AASU and the AAGSP who had taken part in
negotiations with the central government were also arrested. On 14 February Boro tribals,
supporters of the pro-poll Plains Tribal Council of Assam, attacked Assamese villages at Gohpur
in Darrang district inciting retaliatory Assamese attacks against Boro villages that quickly
followed. But the worst killings took place in Nellie, a region along the southern bank of the
Brahmaputra, 45 kilometers from Gauhati, containing thousands of Muslim migrants from
Mymensingh district in Bangladesh. Mobs of Lalung tribals, along with some Assamese,
attacked the village of Nellie and several nearby villages with spears, swords, sticks, and guns.

The attacks carried out On February 12, 1983, left over 1,200 people; mostly women and
children; butchered to death. All the victims were Non Asamiya Muslims. Undoubtedly, the
Nellie massacre is considered to be one of the single largest and severest pogroms that the postsecond world war history has witnessed. Nellie was not the end, it was followed by the massacre
at Choulkhowa Chapori in Darrang district where the victims belonged to the same group as that
of Nellie. This was followed by another massacre that took place at Silapathar in Lakhimpur
district. Officials estimate the death toll at Nellie, Gohpur, and other affected areas at more than
4,000. Another 280,000 people were in refugee camps, and thousands more fled to West Bengal.
In this atmosphere of violence the state elections could not be completed in 16 out of the 126
constituencies, and in one constituency the election had to be countermanded because a
candidate was murdered. Elections could not be completed for seven of the 12 parliamentary
seats. The voter turnout was well above 50 percent in pre-dominantly Bengali speaking
constituencies and as high as 70 percent in several Boro populated constituencies. But in the
Assamese-populated constituencies the turnout was low: in some 25 constituencies less than 5
percent of the electorate voted and in another 20 constituencies the turnout was between 5 and 20
percent. Though Mrs. Gandhi's Congress Party won (90 out of 108 declared seats), the boycott
successfully prevented the emergence of a popularly elected Congress government that could
negotiate with the center on behalf of the Assamese.
The focus of most of the Assamese parties that boycotted the elections was simply with reducing
the number of Bengali voters, and therefore they advocated measures that did not distinguish
carefully between Bengalis from West Bengal and Bengalis from Bangladesh. The implications
for Bengalis of Indian citizenship of scrutinizing the electoral rolls did not trouble these
Assamese.
Subsequently with the governments resigning; the reelection in 1983 and the period of the
Hiteshwar Saikia government that followed; Assam saw a radical transformation in the
movement with the rise of the demand for secessionism and the call for the establishment of an
independent Assam by more militant elements who had started to come to the forefront;
accompanied by rapid inroads being made by the ULFA. Simultaneously the bourgeois-landlord
chauvinists of Assam; who were depressed with economic stagnation in the state ; believing that
elimination of Bengali competitors and non-Assamese settlers from the fertile Brahmaputra

valley was crucial to maintaining their continued monopoly over the lower classes; skillfully
used the press and other communication media to create an impression amongst the politically
backward sections of the people that the Bengalis, as a community, are opposed to the aspirations
of the Asamiyas, that they are all leftists and that all leftists in Assam are, in general, a mere
agency of Bengali expansionism in eastern India; further aggravating the anti-immigrant
violence that already characterized the state at his time.
Many Assamese intellectuals too at this time lent support to the movement, justifying it on
grounds of nationality, federalism and internal colonialism. At the same time it was apparent that
the Bangladeshis were not the only targets of the agitators. But the Assamese people in
Brahmaputra valley, who really believed that their identity was at stake due to large scale
migration from Bangladesh, lent all-out support to the movement and braved the police lathis
and bullets. The agitation continued for about five years and came to an end with the Assam
Accord in 1985. After an all party agreement, the parliament' passed the Illegal Migrants
(Determination by Tribunal) for detection of the foreigners settled in Assam. Subsequently the
Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), a political party floated by the leaders of Assam agitation, came to
power in the elections in 1986. With the Assam Accord and the victory of AGP, it appeared as if
the Assamese had won the battle. But within a few years, the Assamese found their hopes
shattered. The AGP government could not solve any of the basic problems of the people of
Assam but the new leaders proved that they were as inefficient and corrupt as their predecessors
had been. A government that had come to power on the foreigners issue found itself unable to
find many foreigners whom it could deport and soon faced confrontations from within the
Assamese communities and groups that had previously constituted its support base.
Conclusion:
Though the fact cannot be denied that there has been significant degrees of immigration into
Assam from India and from outside India over the years since independence that has brought
about significant demographic and other changes within the state; hence ratifying some of the
concerns posed by the Assam Movement; it is also necessary to understand that the solution that
is being demanded by the movement is politically unrealistic. While the People's demand that
Assam should not be burdened with further immigration from foreign lands and that all genuine
foreigners, who do not substantively qualify for citizenship in terms of law and Constitution,

should be detected and removed is legitimate (It was accepted in principle by the Central
government and all major Indian political parties by September 1979 and has been an
acceptance they have reiterated again and again ) Yet the dispute lingers on because the
movement refuses to admit even those immigrants who have stayed for, ten years or more in
India or are born in India - and whose parents or grandparents were born in undivided India thus substantively qualifying themselves for naturalized citizenship as provided for by our
Constitution. Secondly from the time the Assam government attempted to impose the Assamese
language, the Bengali citizens in the Barak valley started looking at every move of the people in
Brahmaputra valley with suspicion and caution. The attacks on the Bengalis during the Assam
agitation has only helped in further widening the gulf between the people of Brahmaputra valley
and the Barak valley. Far from supporting the so called anti-foreigners movement, the leaders in
the Barak valley criticized the ongoing attacks on the Bengali students and their agitation took
the form of a students agitation for a separate central university in the Barak valley, which
subsequently 'materialized in the year 1994. Thirdly the movement has resulted in the reassertion
of ethnic identities that have aggravated intra ethnic fears and prejudices resulting in exasperated
inter and intra ethnic tensions in the state that; if unchecked; could lead to the disintegration of
the state as it exists today itself. Finally the movement has resulted in the rise of militancy by
provoking national and ethnic identities. These militants are responsible for wanton and
gruesome acts of murder and destruction and through their actions have not only forced the state
to clamp down upon them with significant force but also alienated the public against them and
their cause. Therefore Contrary to what the postmodernists would make us believe, the
experience of Assam shows that identity politics need not necessarily be progressive or a radical
politics of the marginalized communities against the domination of hegemonizing forces. More
often than not, the much claimed struggle against exploitative Indian state or indifferent central
government ends up as fratricidal conflicts with other communities living in the state. Hence it is
more apt to say that the politics of identity in Assam is basically the politics of philistines,
trapped in the world of appearances, fighting imaginary enemies. It draws its strength from
prejudices and misconceptions of groups about themselves and others .Its ideology masquerades
class exploitation and ignores the material structures and forces responsible for their problems.
Feeding on the fear of the 'other', it pits one community against the other and mobilizes the
people along ethnic lines.

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