During my visit to Assam from August 14 to 22, 2018, I met a cross-section of Assamese youth in Guwahati, Darrang, Hojai and Nagaon. They touched me by their open heartedness. I could see through the hardships in academic career and uncertainties in jobs they are facing. But one thing pained me – the frozen thinking on the issue of Assamese identity and ‘foreigner’, a term coined 40 years ago and an image of ‘infiltrator’ built around it.
The man or woman on the street selling his/ her labour for cheap, is never an alien, never a threat to your culture or authority or demography. Go to any country, any corner of the world, hard working people, the farmers and laborers, despite their stark poverty, will welcome you as their own. Every worker is contributing each day at least half of his/ her labor to the wealth of the nation he/ she lives in.
In 1991, the world has entered the era of corporate or market driven economy. Big companies, national and multi-national, are freely moving around, hiring cheap labor across the nations, flooding the markets with their goods and selling them on their terms. They are controlling the media and influencing polity. The farmers, on the other hand, are owner of the lands merely on paper, the price of their produce is controlled by the market forces, the traders and the affluent, and it is too low. As a result, farmers all over the country are struggling for survival and fleeing the villages. The landless laborers are never your competitor.
Demography is a clever term, coined by the imperialists, to create a false notion among the people that by virtue of their majority they can prevail on the state. It has never happened. Majority never rules. It is only a few percent, controlling the economy and positions of authority, who rule. The only attribute of democracy is that there is some semblance of rule of law and public welfare. Ethnicity, like the one played by Hitler, may seem to give you power, but what happened? Hitler turned people into soulless slaves before embarking on extermination of Communists, Jews, Russians and so on, and eventually doomed himself and the nation. Ethnicity brings regimentation and regimentation is death.
Your worries to preserve your language and culture are genuine. However, the threat to Assamese language has not been from Bangla speaking masses but from the British imperialists and their descendant upper classes who forced English. The agrarian culture that has been based on truth, compassion, simplicity and cooperation for millennia is losing out to urbanization, mechanization, demonstrativeness and propaganda. You can arrest this decline if you build inner strength that comes through truth and compassion. More you undertake self enquiry, more you will develop affinity to the people living and working in the soil and feeding the nation with food and comforts. These are the real sons and daughters of the soil, children of India, be they Hindus or Muslims, speaking Assamese, Bangla, Bodo, Hindi or any other language. Their forefathers lived here for millennia. They never grabbed or robbed any one’s property, but fallen prey many a times to the exploiters and oppressors.
1757: The Beginning of Destruction of Textile Industry
Bengal was the highest textiles base in India before 1757 when East India Company took over reigns from Sirajuddaula. India’s contribution to world textiles trade/ export was 40%. Today it is 2.8%. British rule crippled the textiles cottage industry, subjecting Bengal to acute poverty, famine and outward migration. Many workers and marginal farmers, after British took over Assam from Burma in 1826, moved to Assam to grow jute and rice on marshes and chars of Brahmaputra. Bengal had higher percentage of Muslims among the landless labourers, hence their number in migrant workers was higher. They settled on barren lands or worked for landlords. Hence earned the right to live there.
Census 1871 to 2011
In 1871 census, Muslim population in Assam was 28.7%; in 1941, 25.72%; in 1971, 24.56%; in 1991, 28.43%; in 2001, 30.92% and in 2011, 34.2% (in total state population of 32 million). However, their percentage share in land ownership is less than 10% while in assets and business far less. Only 7.9 % of them in cities and 5.8% in rural areas are in the formal (organized) sector. For Hindus these figures are 23.1% and 12.3%. Rest Hindu and Muslim masses are in the low income informal sector. Lakhs of them had to move due to the erosion of 3 lakh hectare of land by Brahmaputra.
The Lessons from NRC
The final draft of the National Register for Citizens (NRC) in Assam, issued on July 30, 2018, leaves out 4 million working class people (in a population of 32.9 million). This exercise, under the Supreme Court monitoring, has busted the hysterical myth of Bangladeshi infiltration, propagated for decades by those currently in power. The drop outs are more Hindus than Muslims (a majority of them women) and most of them have some family members in the NRC, hence hope to be in. In Dhubri and Karimganj districts with 80% Muslim population, the drop out percentage is 7.5% against the state average of 13%.
Rights of Working classes
Partition of India can’t be made an excuse to attack the citizenship of working classes. The partition was merely the division of ruling authority – few states came to be ruled by the Muslim League and remaining by the Congress. People could live where ever they wanted. There was no consideration of the interests and plight of the working classes. Justice demands that any one among the working classes born in India be treated as Indian citizen. In fact the 2003 amendment (Section 3) to Citizenship Act 1955 says that any one (i) born between 1950 and 1987, irrespective of the citizenship of the parents, is Indian by birth, ii) born between 1987 and 2003, is Indian if one parent is Indian citizen.
Free enterprise and mechanization are going to stay as the basis of economy and government as the facilitator and provider of infrastructure and welfare. However, the nexus between the corporate sector and the state is acutely exploitative and our first task is to bring transparency and stop it.
Second, the excessively low pricing of farm produce and its wide fluctuations over small spans must be arrested.
Third, technical or professional courses must be integral part of curriculum in all streams of college education and be given at affordable costs. The MHRD order, asking the public universities to generate 30% funds on their own, must be withdrawn. Faculty must be regularized and research strengthened.
Fourth, the center must play pro-active role in sorting out regional imbalances. In Assam, 36% people are below the poverty line (against 26% All India average) and per capita income and growth rate are respectively 60% and 45% of the national average. The annual growth rate of wages during 1991-2000 has been -0.12% while for the country it was +3.36%. In last two decades sizeable people from Assam have migrated to Kerela as many locals from Kerela moved to Middle East. The center must provide special package of support to Assam to help it come at par with the nation.
Fifth, Many factories, e.g., the paper mills, have closed in the state in recent years. These must be re-opened.
The writer is a Professor of IIT, Delhi. He can be reached @ [email protected]