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Assam: The Accord, The Discord

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Published : Saturday, 7 September, 2019 at 12:00 AM  Count : 756
Reviewed by Abdus Salam

Assam: The Accord, The Discord

Assam: The Accord, The Discord

Tracing the current NRC saga to its genesis, the Assam Accord of 1985...
The publication of the final National Register of Citizens brings no closure to the vexed issue of illegal immigration to Assam yet. Those left out of the list aren't foreigners until the tribunals set up to determine their fate pronounces them so. Beyond that lies the question of what to do with the multitudes that are declared illegal aliens once the quasi-judicial process is done and dusted.
The administration is readying detention centres, but only a veritable 'prison state' can house such numbers. Options being bandied about include instituting a system of work permits, a renewed attempt to nudge a friendly government in Dhaka to take in some of the declared foreigners with appropriate deal sweeteners (though the Government of India has thus far maintained that the NRC update is the nation's internal matter, and Bangladesh has never acknowledged any illegal crossings across its borders), or 'friendly' State governments volunteering to share some of the burden.
No quick resolution
Assam - The Accord, The Discord traces the NRC saga to its genesis, the landmark agreement Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed with the All Assam Students' Union, the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad and the State government that was announced on Independence Day, 1985. The detection of foreigners and constitutional protections for the Assamese people were among the core promises of the accord that put a lid on the six-year-long Assam Agitation against illegal immigrants in the State.
Author Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty goes back in time to show that much in the State is hard-won, from its very existence as part of the Indian Union to the setting up of oil refineries, in a bid to illustrate how the intractable nature of dispute resolution and the need to juggle national perspective with sub-regional imperative combined with the dilatory tactics of New Delhi to cast a long shadow of 1985 on Assam. If 30 rounds of talks in Indira Gandhi's tenure preceded the Rajiv accord, its implementation has been thirty years and more in the making.
Of course part of the protractedness was self-inflicted; the sheer scale of dissension and bickering among students' union leaders-turned-Ministers of the Asom Gana Parishad government, especially between Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Home Minister Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, was a shocker considering the mandate it got and the hopes it evoked of a quick resolution to the immigration problem. Interviews with agitation leaders such as Atul Bora, Biraj Sarma and Zoinath Sharma - politicians barely known outside the State - lay bare the lust for power of a band of boys catapulted into sudden stardom from the modest hostels of Gauhati University.
The author also reads the Janata Party-Jana Sangh-RSS's efforts to combat the Congress after Emergency into Assam's anti-foreigner stir, and how it affected a subtle shift on AASU's part from 'bohiragata' (outsiders) to 'bidexi' (foreigners) as its target of ire.
Widening fault lines
Assam - The Accord, The Discord casts the net wide, dealing at length with the build-up to the 1979-1985 agitation, the six years of ferment, the AGP years, the secessionist movement, the three consecutive terms for the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress, right up to the BJP forming its first-ever government in Dispur.
In latter sections the author addresses the colonial background of Bengali migration, the infamous Foreigners' Tribunals, the long-held grouses of the Assamese against Bengal/Bengalis and the currently widening fault lines. The historical narrative is trodden territory, but enlivened with journalistic bits.
In her own words, Pisharoty fleshes out the complexities of the Assam story to serve a "national need", one of contextualising the issue for the rest of India. While the prequel and sequel to the Assam Accord have run their course, it's the endgame that worries the author. The impassioned Assamese in her takes the author to an 'Asom Basti' in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, a mausoleum in Dhaka's Lal Bagh Fort believed to be that of an Ahom princess, and to the Assamese Muslims of Dhaka. In her eyes, the BJP's bid to bring in a Citizenship Amendment Bill to protect non-Muslim immigrants left out of the NRC is a dangerous proposition, one that negates the denominationally-agnostic thrust of the anti-foreigner sentiment amongst the Assamese people wherein the basic differentiation is between a pre- and post-1971 immigrant.
Given the altered political landscape and the slow retreat of sub-regionalism in the face of Hindutva heft, whether the cautionary note of a 'daughter of the soil' to her fellow Assamese to not forget the moorings of their struggle finds takers is something only the coming months (and years) can tell.

Courtesy: THE HINDU

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