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Defining who is ‘Assamese’: Attempts, Challenges

Context:

Recently, the Assam government informed the Assembly that nearly 1.44 lakh illegal foreigners had been identified in the state until January 31 this year based on the 1985 Assam Accord, and around 30,000 of them had been deported to their country of origin. The government added that definitions of phrases mentioned in the Accord such as ‘Axomiya janagan’ (Assamese people), ‘khilonjia’ (indigenous) and ‘adi basinda’ (original inhabitants) were yet to be determined.

Relevance:

GS I- Population & Associated Issues

Dimensions of the Article:
  1. What is the Assam Accord?
  2. What are these expressions for which the definitions have not been determined?
  3. Why is the definition difficult?
  4. Have any definitions been proposed?
  5. What are the other terms for which no definition has been finalised?

What is the Assam Accord?

  • The Assam Accord is a tripartite accord signed between the Government of India, State Government of Assam and the leaders of the Assam Movement in 1985.
  • This accord led to the conclusion of a six-year agitation that was launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1979, demanding the identification and deportation of illegal immigrants from Assam.
  • The demand was for detection and deportation of migrants who had illegally entered Assam after 1951 – however, the accord  sets a cut-off of midnight of 24th March 1971, for the detection of illegal foreigners in Assam.
Who is a foreigner under the Assam Accord?
  • Anyone who had come to Assam before midnight on that date would be an Indian citizen, while those who had come after would be dealt with as foreigners.
  • The same cut-off was used in updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

What are these expressions for which the definitions have not been determined?

  • The context is Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which promises “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”, but doesn’t  provide clear cut definitions to identify who would be the “Assamese people”.
  • Clause 6 is important because many felt the 1971 cut-off was inadequate.
  • The Assam Movement had demanded 1951 as the cut-off.
  • Given that the cut-off for the rest of India is 1948, many noted that the Assam Accord would grant citizenship to a section of migrants who would be counted as foreigners elsewhere in the country.
  • Clause 6 was, therefore, seen as a protective provision which would guarantee certain benefits to the Assamese people, while excluding some sections among those granted citizenship on the basis of the 1971 cut-off.

Why is the definition difficult?

  • Because Assam’s demography has been shaped by decades of migration.
  • Many of the migrants had settled here during the colonial era.
  • While they might not be native speakers of an indigenous language, such as Assamese or Bodo or Karbi, the question was whether the definition of “Assamese” could exclude someone, for example, whose family might have lived in Assam for 100 years.

Have any definitions been proposed?

  • Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which aims to provide citizenship to several types of foreigners, including Hindus from Bangladesh, rocked Assam in 2019.
  • The committee was formed by the administration to put an end to the protests.

This committee designated the following individuals as Assamese:

  • Citizens of Assam who are members of the Assamese community
  • Any member of Assam’s indigenous tribal communities
  • Any other Assamese indigenous community
  • Any other Indian citizens who lived in the territory in Assam on or before January 1, 1951, and their descendants

In effect, this definition encompasses not only indigenous peoples, but also any other Indian nationals, regardless of mother tongue, who have ancestors who lived in Assam prior to 1951.

What are the other terms for which no definition has been finalised?

  • Khilonjia: In common parlance, khilonjia refers to all indigenous communities. The question is who would be considered indigenous. One line of argument has been that the definition should include various communities whose history in Assam dates back before the 1826 annexation with British India, but others contest this because of the groups that would be excluded.
  • Adi Basinda: ‘Original inhabitants’, as the phrase suggests, would mean the tribes who have lived for generations in Assam. Some in Assam want this to extend to tribal communities settled by the British during colonial rule, but even this is not a settled definition.

-Source: Indian Express

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September 2022
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