Defining the Assamese people

The 1985 Memorandum of Settlement, which has become known as Assam Accord, does not define the term ‘Assamese people.’ Its Clause 6 just seeks to provide safeguards to the ‘Assamese People’ It says:

"Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people."

Definitions of the ‘Indigenous people’ and the ‘Assamese people’ do not concur. There are differences between the two terms. Nowhere in the Assam Accord is the ‘Assamese people’ referred to as indigenous people.

There is no single, unanimous and unambiguous definition of the ‘Indigenous people.’ The generally accepted description of the Indigenous People is:

"The First People: Indigenous Peoples refer to the first to settle in the country, with other names such as aborigines.

Cultural Difference: In Africa and Asia where processes of conquests and colonial structures took place, indigenous peoples refer to groups that clearly distinguish themselves in the socio-cultural context from the surrounding population. They are characterised by a common culture and language, common spiritual ideas, an identifiable territory and a certain economic structure." ( Normally tribal peoples are referred to as ‘Indigenous people’ all over the world. In India the term, indigenous, is generally used to refer to the Scheduled Tribes. ‘Assamese People’, may be defined as the people who have registered their mother tongue as Assamese voluntarily in the census document irrespective of their caste, race, tribe, language, religion etc.

According to 1991 census Assamese speaking people were 12,958,088 out of the state’s population of 22,414,322. They are the largest linguistic community in the state.

If the ‘Assamese people’ are defined on the basis of the National Register of Citizens of 1951 and 1952, falling of many members of all communities including the Assamese community of the state outside the preview of the definition cannot be ruled out.

On the other hand, if ‘Assamese people’ are defined taking March 25, 1971 as the base year, then the lingual minorities and the different hill tribes, who are not Assamese but indigenous people of the state, will also come under this definition. This will lead to a new crisis in the state.

The Bengalis of erstwhile Bengali districts of Bengal incorporated into Assam are the second largest linguistic group in Assam. If they are brought under the definition of the ‘Assamese people’, it will not be acceptable to them.
It may be pointed out that Assam consists of the Brahmaputra Valley, the Barak Valley and the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills. The official language of the Brahmaputra Valley is Assamese while of the Barak Valley Bengali.

The total population of Assam was 266, 55,528 as recorded in 2001 census. Of them 3,308,670 persons are Scheduled Tribes, who constitute 12.4 percent of the total population. There are 23 notified Scheduled Tribes the Bodos being nearly half of the total Scheduled Tribe population. Almost all the tribes have their own languages, cultures, customs and traditions. They are also in need of safeguards. Moreover, the Assamese speaking people are made up of indigenous and non-indigenous people. It would not be appropriate to bring the non-indigenous people into the category of indigenous people merely because they speak Assamese language.

Assamese speaking people are not only the largest linguistic community but also the most dominating group in socio-economic and political life of the state and therefore, they do not fit into the definition of indigenous people. On the other hand, there is no justification for defining all the people of the state as Assamese on the basis of cut off year.

The primary objective of the Assam Accord is to detect and deport the illegal migrants. In view of this it will be in fitness of things to define only, who Indian citizen is and who is not, on the basis of march 25. 1971. If this can be done, then the problem of foreigners will be solved and with this, all apprehensions would go away. The demand for defining ‘Assamese people’ as ‘indigenous people’ under clause 6 of the Assam Accord is an innovation. It is fraught with danger. It should be forthrightly rejected in the interest of the state.