May 19, 2016

India: Politics of indigeneity - A Letter to the National Media from Two ‘Migrants’ in Assam (Mayuri Bhattacharjee and Anwesha Dutta)

The Wire, 17 May 2016

A Letter to the National Media from Two ‘Migrants’ in Assam
By Mayuri Bhattacharjee and Anwesha Dutta

The Assam assembly election results will be out soon and if the coverage we saw in the ‘national’ media during the campaign is anything to go by, we are likely to be treated to instant, distant and sometimes misleading analyses on what the vote means.

The last time Assam received so much attention was at the height of the media frenzy over the Indrani Mukerjea/Sheena Bora case – when national news channels camped outside Mukerjea’s ancestral house in Guwahati. In our hearts, we wished the same importance had been given to the devastating floods last year which affected nearly 3 lakh people in Assam, but the ‘mainstream’ media didn’t find that news meaty enough. The news of the floods was limited to only a few news capsules and on print it jostled for space with much more important updates about Indrani’s lifestyle. There is no way the news of severe water-logging in Mumbai or New Delhi would have been treated with the same apathy. This attitude of the national media is quite reflective of the general perception of mainland India which either views us as exotic creatures or as terrorists. And then the ‘nation’ wonders why the people of the northeast feel neglected or sometimes cry out for secession from India.

As if this traditional neglect weren’t bad enough, the way in which the media has displayed its ignorance about ‘indigenous Assamese’ and ‘migrants’ has been even more distressing.

Assam is an extremely heterogeneous society where the socio-economic and political dynamics are very different across Upper Assam, Lower Assam and the Barak Valley. But that didn’t stop TV channels from trying to reduce this complexity into neat data packages and Venn diagrams. In one of these programmes on a national channel, we were told that out of the 31.2 million people in Assam, 22 million people were “migrants” while the “Assamese” number just 10 million.

The politics of indigeneity

This astonishing – and alarming – claim reminds us of the infamous speech BJP leader Amit Shah delivered during the election campaign in Upper Assam, where he tried to hit out at Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi by experimenting with his knowledge of Assam history. He told the audience that the brave Ahom king Sukapha had defeated the Mughals 17 times and driven them away. He added that the same land is now being allowed to become the abode of “illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators” by the Congress government and accused Gogoi of protecting the “descendants of the Mughals”. What Amit Shah didn’t know was that Sukapha died in 1268, roughly 250 years before the advent of the Mughals.

But to return to the ‘Assamese’ vs ‘migrants’ claim, the channel said that the Assamese fall into five categories: Ahoms (2 million), Bodos (1.4 million), Christians (1 million), the Mising tribe (0.6 million) and “other tribes” (1.6 million). It is surprising that this classification of who is an Assamese comes at a time when the whole state is trying to answer these very questions. Sahitya sabhas across several communities – Assamese, Bodos, Rabhas, Misings and so on ­– have failed to arrive at a definition of ‘who is an Axomiya’ despite debating the issue for years.

Now, who are the migrants according to the channel? The Muslims (11 million), Bengali Hindus (6 million) and the tea garden workers (5 million). These figures paint a scary picture of Assam, that the state is under siege by migrants.

By this definition, both the writers of this article are “migrants” as we are Bengali Hindus. We speak, read and write both the languages fluently, but identify ourselves as Assamese first. One of us comes from a family that had settled in Assam since the early 1900s and the other had come during the partition in 1947.

If we go by the media’s classification then no Muslim in Assam is an Assamese. Which is a very odd thing to say, because historical records suggest Islam came to Assam in the early 13th century when General Mohammad Bin Bakhtyar Khilji tried to enter the state with his Turkish troops. It is assumed that a few Muslim soldiers preferred to live in Assam instead of going back and they married local girls some of whose relatives also converted into Islam. It is interesting to note that the Ahoms – descendants of the Tai people whom the New Delhi media calls the original Assamese – had also migrated to Assam during the same time. Moreover, several Muslim artisans came to Assam on invitation of the Ahom kings and had settled down permanently.

A second wave of migration occurred after the establishment of British rule through the treaty of Yandabo in 1826. The first such group were the literate Bengali Hindus who were brought to work in the British administration at subordinate levels. The second group of migrants were the tea garden labourers often referred to as tea-tribes or adivasis to work in the newly established tea plantations, and this was followed by landless Muslim cultivators who came to Assam and were mostly involved in settled agriculture, since most of the tribal communities like the Bodos were into shifting agriculture.

If the Muslims are migrants then so are the Ahoms. Now, let’s come to the Bodos who are ‘Assamese’ according to channel’s classification – despite the fact that the entire struggle for a separate Bodo homeland is based on the desire to carve out a separate identity for themselves which is distinct from being ‘Assamese’. We also say this from our personal engagement with the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), where one of us has been conducting her doctoral research since 2012.

Why the media needs to be careful

The word migrant in Assam can be a dangerous word as it is most often used in lieu of the term ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’. The ‘son of the soil’ politics was used routinely by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to gain political mileage and create a fear psychosis to mask the corruption within its ranks when the party was in power in Assam. Even now, the Assamese-speaking population is wary of a takeover by ‘outsiders’, and this fear resulted in violence against migrant workers from Bihar a few years back. This also resulted in violent clashes between the Bodos and Muslims, most recently in 2012 and 2014. So, this classification has the ability to flare up dormant ethno- communal tensions whose undercurrents run deep, creating divides in an already fractured society.

Sadly, the national media as a whole has been consistently under-reporting or mis-reporting us in the north-east. There are so many issues that cry for attention such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and Irom Sharmila’s protest for more than a decade. What about the land dispute between Assam and Nagaland or Nagaland and Manipur? What about rampant human rights violation taking place across Assam, Manipur and Nagaland? What about music, arts and tourism? How much has the media reported on the Hornbill Festival or the largest river island in the world Majuli? What about the deplorable plight of the tea plantation workers across Upper Assam and their struggle to be recognised as Scheduled Tribe? The only decent documentary on this issue we have come across has been made by the BBC last year.

When the national media fails to report on critical issues from our region, we beg it not to make matters worse by giving currency to misleading and divisive ethnic categorisations. Perhaps camping outside Indrani Mukerjea’s ancestral home in Assam is something the national media should stick to for now.

Mayuri Bhattacharjee from Tezpur, Assam is the Founder of the non-profit initiative Loo Watch and an NGO consultant.
Anwesha Dutta from Silchar, Assam is a PhD researcher at the University of Ghent who specialises in peace and conflict studies.