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On defining the Assamese

A friend of mine often relates to me of the surprising looks she invites whenever she speaks in Assamese in places other than North-East India. She surmises it might be because of her strong Mongoloid features. My experiences are no different. Whenever I venture outside the region, people find it hard to believe I am Assamese because of my well-built Caucasian looks.

Need we blame someone for this ignorance? For many people from the North-East, be it from any tribe, clan or community, it has become a habit to pass on the parcel to the so called ‘mainstream’ or the ‘Centre’. Let’s look at ourselves first. The reason behind such ignorance might be associated with lack of adequate representation, exposure, promotion or reluctance to celebrate heterogenousity. The world knows of the US to be the melting pot of different races. The intermingling is around 500 years old. But, this phenomenon dates back to around 5000 years in the case of Assam. And the world is oblivious of it. Till a few decades back, being American meant the English speaking White man. Not anymore. Likewise, generalization of the Assamese in terms of looks is not a reliable thing to do. For a heterogenous society, identity doesn’t repose in one’s looks. It is more about choice and the way one asserts himself or herself in the wider canvas.

The entire game of defining the Assamese identity was a shrewd tactic to retain the ‘vote-bank’ population which has been promoted for political gains since the post-independent era. On August 15, 1985, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) led by former CM of Assam Prafulla Kumar Mahanta signed the historic Assam Accord in the presence of the then Prime Minister late Rajiv Gandhi. The twist lay in Clause 6 of the Accord wherein was the provision for providing Constitutional safeguards to the Assamese people. Now the question, Who are the Assamese? The game plan received a shot in the arm when the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and some tribal organizations objected to the collective identity reflected by the term ‘Assamese’.

Initially, three options were suggested by the AASU --- (a) when British rule started in 1826, (b) when India became independent, and (c) when the Constitution of India was adopted. Later, the AASU decided that the persons whose names were enlisted in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951 should be considered Assamese.

The AASU could have saved much of its exercise in finding a definition of Assamese if the then ‘student’ leaders led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta showed a glimpse of wit. The entire ball game of defining an Assamese would have had a boomerang effect if the former student leaders asked for a definination of a Maharashtrian, a Punjabi, a Bengali or an Indian, in the lines of which a definition of an Assamese could be ascertained. But that was not to be. Instead, the issue has been dragged for as long as 25 years and more. As if round and round of talks were not enough, even the apex literary body of the state, The Asam Sahitya Sabha was also asked to search for a definition of Assamese. First of all, do we need to give so much of thought over an issue thrust by a ministry from beyond this region. We know who we are. Yet we are scrambling for definition. The only way out is to ask the Union Ministry to set definitions for the people of other states of India. Once that is done, Assam would follow suite.

For, if the Government of West Bengal is asked to define who a Bengali is, whom would the authorities point to? Would it be the tribal Santhal villager residing in Bolpur near Shantiniketan, or the former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu holding sway in the capital Kolkata? Again, if the Government of Orissa is asked to find a definition of Oriya identity, what might be the possible answer? Who would be called as Oriya --- the tribal Kandha in Kandhamal or Chief Minister Naveen Pattanaik, who happens to be a Brahmin? Same holds true for any State in India. In Tamil Nadu, who is the Tamil --- the Irula tribal or Mr. Iyenger of Chennai? In Maharashtra, who is the Marathi manoos --- the Kurku tribal in Amravati or the Tendulkar family in Pune?

Since more than the last two decades, the Union Home Ministry comes up with the issue of defining the Assamese from time to time. The same has to show the way by defining who an Indian is --- the Jarawa tribal from the Andamans or former Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil ; the Gond from Madhya Pradesh or Prime Minister late Rajiv Gandhi? Where does Indianness lie --- in the lifestyle of the likes of Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj or that of the tribal Bhil women?

The less the Assamese ponder over the definition of identity, the happier the society would be.

This is a form of crisis a multi-cultural, multi-racial society faces in the wake of mass migration over a prolonged period of time. Another group of people facing the same shakiness in identity since the later part of the 20th century are the British. In 2005, the Commission for Racial Equality published a report entitled ‘Citizenship and Belonging: What is Britishness?’ It was aimed to examine the way in which British people of different ethnic backgrounds thought about Britishness. The Commission reported that, “As White people involved in the study were asked to talk about Britishness, many immediately and spontaneously changed the topic of discussion slightly talking instead about a perceived decline in Britishness. This happened in all focus groups with White people. They attributed the decline to four main causes: the arrival of large numbers of migrants; the ‘unfair’ claims made by people from ethnic minorities on the welfare state; the rise in moral pluralism; and the failure to manage ethnic minority groups properly, due to what participants called political correctness.” From being Equally Scottish and British, to more Scottish than British, to more British than Scottish, to Scottish not British, or again to equally Scottish and British, identity equations has seen fluctuations in different periods of history in the island nation.

One of the best definitions of Assamese put forward by Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary, former Chief Information Commissioner of Assam and present Governor of Meghalaya goes like this, “Let us agree to define the Assamese people as those people of Assam whose languages, cultures, social practices and festivals originated/developed in the State and are exclusive to it, and who are ordinarily residents of the State in continuity of its historical heritage as distinct from others who are without these identities. It may not be the best of definitions, but it will include all the ethnic groups who need to promote, preserve and protect their cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage before they are submerged by the increasing waves of migrant population.”

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pallavibarua's picture


bishwajeet's picture

There is no need to define any community merely by look, colour or language. As long as people is attached with root of any culture and feel self-esteem in belonging to assam or any state, nothing can destroy the beauty of "unity in diversity".
Mitong's picture

Biswajit, That is what is written by the writer. The readers have to read it thoroughly to get the idea.
Simanta's picture

I think Bishwajeet should tell this to the Union Govt in Delhi.
Pallavi Barua's picture

This article titled, "On Defining The Assamese" has been written on the occasion of completion of 23 years of signing of the historic Assam Accord. The Accord is a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) signed way back on August 15, 1985. The most faulty and tricky area of the Assam Accord is the Clause 6 which nullifies all hope of identifying foreign nationals from Bangladesh who migrate illegally to the state of Assam. These illegal migrants get covert support from political parties for they form a commendable 'vote-bank'. In order to avoid a controversy, it is hoped that the readers (especially casual surfers)go through it carefully before posting any comment. For those who have a crisis of time, better skip the write-up.
Arindam Mani Das's picture

That's well said... love the last sentence...
bishwajeet's picture

I want to sum-up in the terms of author itself as "The less the Assamese ponder over the definition of identity, the happier the society would be." The immigrants problem is not new and GOI knows better than me about it.
Aiyushman's picture

Well-written story Pallavi.
HARSHA's picture

To Ms. pallavi.. The definition of Assamese: A person who speaks Assamese is an Assamese. Tell me Where is the controversy???. This is just like a person is a Bengali, Marathi or Bodo who speak those languages respectively.. Assam is a multi langual state. Why do you want to dilute this fact to satisfy your own interest.. Let people live in Assam as BODO, Bengali, Missing, Garo etc. Don't try to make them Assamese forcebly. That is the only solution for plagueing ethnic problem in Assam. If Assamese need constitutional safegurd, there should not any objection from any quarter. The Hard fact 1: Like today, Assamese as linguistic group in Assam was always minority in British Assam. In reality Assamese speaker in Assam is just about 35%. Official census (2001)shows Assamese speaker as 57% which bogusly includes some tribal group like missig, Rabha, Bodo, and around as 25% Bangladeshi Bengali Muslim migrants. Bangladeshi Bengali muslim migrants which comprises of around 28% of total population of Asaam speaks bengali but register their names in census report as Assamese. Hard fact 2: On paper Assamese are majority in Assam only due to the Bangladeshi Bengali Muslims. Otherwise Assamese are only 35% of total population. What a joke??
Pallavi Barua's picture

Dear Ms/ Mr Harsha, I have a lot of other things to do. And, I don't believe in giving explanations for what I write or I do to anyone. If the article disturbs you, forget it and move on. Everyone has the right to find one's own answer. Go ahead...
Rongmon Pegu's picture

Just like Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, Keralites, Gujaratis are all Indians, different communities/ tribes/ castes of Assam come under the umbrella of Assamese. Millions of Indians can speak English. But they are not Englishmen. Got it, Harsha? If Harsha happens to be an Indian, he will understand. But if he is a Nepali or Bangladeshi, he will never understand the concept. Infact he will keep criticising and create confusion for reasons best known to him. The problem of illegal influx in Assam has not been solved because of crooked questions put up by the likes of Harsha at the political level.
Simanta's picture

People like Harsha are hell bent on finding means to divide the tribal and non-tribal sections of Assam. Such people have always divided the tribal Assamese and the non-tribal Assamese.
HARSHA's picture

dear Mr. Rongmon.. I am sorry to say that people like you are very opportunistic. One hand you are very violent to demand separate Bodoland, Missingland etc, on the otherhand you will tell yourself Assamese. I am not agree with your theory. "Just like people of different linguistic group of India called themselves Indians but not Hindi... similiary people of different language group of Assam can be called ASOMBASI.. not Assamese. Mind it ..There is no language group or community called Indian like Assamese. " Would you like to called yourself as Hindi speaker rather than INDIAN???. This is my personal view... You may agree or Not !!!
Dewan NK's picture

Dear All After reading the this article I make a point here that a foreigner is a foreigner in any form. Nepalis though considered legal foreigners according to Indo-Nepal Frndshp Treaty 1950 are at the end of day foreigners. Gorkhas of Assam wants scrapping of clause 6 and 7 of the treaty so that the inflow of Nepali nationals is stopped. Bangladeshis all the way have been valid foreigners but not the Bangla speaking section. The case with Nepali/Gorkha (as granted in Constitution of India) speaking Gorkhas(vide Govt. Gazzetted Notification 1988) is different. The Sagooly Treaty 1815-16, Treaty of Titlia etc between stands as proof. Nepal stands a nation for Nepalis while Gorkhas have settled in India as Indians. i believe today Assamese has to stand as a composite Assamese society that would serve the interest of Assam as a unit. N K Dewan. AT Principal Correspondent
milk talukdar's picture

The day of siging the axom accord is one of the black day of axom's history. So nothing to celebrate the day.ji hokole axom shukti korile tekhet hokolk mathu prosondo ghrinare si si bulib pari. Those are asomiya who think themslves as axomiya not by words rather by actions, by take and give of culture attitude. No doubt pallavi is an axomiya. Thx for the well-thinking article. joi ai axom.
Rongmon's picture

Now I know the background of this HARSHA from the word 'ASOMBASI'. As I said, you won't understand this concept. It's better if we avoid divisive people like 'Harsha'. Enough is enough!
Satyen Brahma's picture

All people of Assam are not demanding a seperate Assam from India. Some misguided youths have joined militant groups out of wrong ideology or love of easy money. So also, all Bodo, Mising, Rabha etc. are not demanding seperate lands. Militants don't speak for an entire population. They are a group among a society. Harsha should get that right.
milk talukdar's picture

To harsha study axomiya history and get the harmonious relationship between the different ethnic groups fo axom. Ur this attitude is an obstacle of axomiya assimilation. First we are axomiya and then .... don't try to divide bangladeshi as hindu or muslim. Axomiya society is not based on religion. its very pity that ur knowledge abt axom is very poor. first learn more abt axom and take part open debate. u r welcome.
Agastyi's picture

Harsha needs to read Amartya Sen's 'An Argumentative Indian' where the concept of dual identities and even multiple identities have been wrote about in detail. Assamese is unique, in terms of language and identity. It is a liberal concept. For those who identify with Assam: One can use Assamese as the first language and be Assamese. One can use Assamese as second language and be Assamese. One may not know Assamese well, yet can be Assamese by virtue of being born and brought up in Assam. There lies the uniqueness of being an Assamese. Rest, why do we need to compare with the other parts of the world for identity and langauge as "Harsha" does? We are UNIQUE in our own way.
HARSHA's picture

To Shri Talukdar I needn't to learn history of Assam from anybody. My suggestion to Mr. Talukdar is to study the history of migration/ immigration of Assam in impartial way. If possible, read the history of your origin too. My opinion to the present problem of Assam is the superiority attitude of a particular community to the rest of the communities and the lack of skill to visualise/realise the present ethnic pattern of Assam by that community. I have lots of Love and respect for Assam and the Assamese community. To show that love I don't need certificate from anybody.. Lastly "To Love Assam and to think about the well being of Assam, one need to be necessarily speak Assamese only"
Kunal Goswami's picture

Can anyone tell me when did the confusion regarding the definition of Assamese start? Why on earth are we all confused? Why are we all victims and for how long?
milton's picture

really,u people are so unik... got time to think on it.. life is sort so,dear make it beautiful...
Morningkeey Phangcho's picture

Pallavi, well said.. and well written, so people find it hard to accept the reality and prefer to live in their own respective idle world.. keep the words pouring... nice one
Nip's picture

i think...u all r correct in ur opinions. but what i want to say is kachari,bodo,khasia,nepali and all other tribals living in assam are totally assamese. so plz dont try to make it an issue. we must think our major problems first rather than thinkin our minor home matters. ... if we all dont get united soon than dayz r cumin friends when we all hav to leave assam ...which will be dominated by bangladesh...bangladesh is 2nd china...their population r growin so rapidly...they nid assam.. plz rise friends ...bhitoruwa kajiyaa pasotu solve koribo pora jabo, seven sisters ene kuwa huwa nasil(now we have to become brother and sisters again) itz time..if we dont rise today den it will b very late to save assam ... rickshaw alai ajikali khatir nakare coz they r getting govt supports..... they know their value..."vote bank" so plz plz plz i urge every true assamese to save ASSAM... "no assam no assamese" so save assam and b a real assamese..without "assam" is there any value to be an assamese?? ..beside sayin i m assamese,prove it.. moi asu aru apunaluku mur logot ekeloge thio hobo buli asha rakhibo parune???? if my comments hurt anyone then i m really sorry 4r dat....think as ur brother and make me correct.just i m tryin to write my feelings, so may b i miss sumthin or make sum mistakes.....sorry again atlast thanx to sister pallavi barua for such a beautiful description of assamese and my fellow friends who write their feelings... goodbye..with regards !
Raktim's picture

Nip, first correction for you is that, Nepali is not a tribal community of Assam. It is a migrant community from the country of Nepal.
Nip's picture

i told b4 that i may make some mistakes while writing my Thanx ! to brother Raktim with regards ! for making meh correct.... plz let me know if u all don't agree with my posting and find more mistakes..... Jai Aai AXOM
Nip's picture

TO Mr Milk Talukdar, KOKAIDEU i couldnt understand some of these lines which u have send in ur previous article so plz make meh understand --> {The day of siging the axom accord is one of the black day of axom's history. So nothing to celebrate the day.ji hokole axom shukti korile tekhet hokolk mathu prosondo ghrinare si si bulib pari} apunar kiba bhitoruwa problem asil jen paisu prafulla mahantar hoite.... jodi apunak prafulla mahanta r holoni axom sukti rupayan koriboloi pothuwa hole apuni kenekua dhoronor huwa2 korile hoi? jonaale hukhi hom... "ASSAM SUKTI" huwar pasotu aji ai dosHa...nuhuwa hole sobei kheda khalu heten...rastai ghaate amak khub pitile hoi,aru religion change koribo logiyau hol hoi including language..... Aru apuni, moi aru hokoluwe.. hatot kur pasi loi mati korhiyabo jabo lagil hoi taku lungi kiba eta beyake kuwatu sohoj bt plz thik b4 r saying....
Dipankar's picture

The article gave me some interesting knowledge.. Thanx a lot and plez write more with some data too as it would be helpful for the educational purpose alongwith building true sense of our duty to do. Thanx..waiting for similar articles.
mongoloid's picture

Nepalis are migrant population(Nepal) Bengalis are migrant population(Bangladesh) Ahoms are migrant population (Thailand) Anyone left out please?

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