Ahead of the release of the final NRC, Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s book unpacks the complex history of Assam
When the winds of history blow, duck. With the abrogation of Article 370, an estimated 10 million people of Jammu & Kashmir have been elbowed out of their semi-autonomous status, and are now residents of two Union Territories. Elsewhere, in Assam, the citizenhood of 40 lakh people excluded from the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) — which aims to distinguish Indian citizens from undocumented migrants — hangs in the balance. The final NRC list is expected to be released on August 31. Re-verification hearings for those left out of the draft NRC are tales of tragic desperation — people struggling to be recognised by the government of a country they have until now called home.
The contentious moment in Assam’s political history is the subject of journalist Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s debut book Assam: The Accord, the Discord. BLink met Pisharoty in the Delhi bureau of online news portal The Wire, where she is a deputy editor, writing about culture, politics and the Northeast. Pisharoty speaks rapidly, sensitive to the nuances and details of each historical event — as well as its human cost. She understands the dangers of a single history.
“The thing about the Northeast is that most communities have been both victim and perpetrator, at least in each other’s eye, so writing any story about the region is very complex,” she says as she settles down in a chair. She places the book next to her on a table. Pointing to it, she sighs about being in an unenviable position — both as a first-time author and an Assamese journalist covering the Northeast. “When covering contentious subjects — such as the NRC, for instance — there is an increased expectation for one to be a spokesperson for one’s community,” she says. “But I am a journalist. My loyalties lie with the people at large, not any one community, and in holding accountable the government of the day.”
She reserves much castigation for various Central and local governments for perpetuating unrest in Assam. “Political forces have exploited fissures in society for their own gain. It has meant only suffering for common people,” she says.
Since the Indian subcontinent was shabbily sundered during the Partition, Assam has been the nucleus for anti-migrant sentiment, when refugees fleeing violence poured into the State, provoking alarm among the indigenous Assamese people and the various tribal communities. This boiled over into intense unrest in 1979, following the influx of refugees from newly-created Bangladesh. Students led protests demanding the detention, disenfranchisement and deportation of the migrants. After six years of violence, the agitation culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985.
“When migrants come to a place, it leads to assimilation. This was happening in Assam, which is why we have the term, Na Axomiya, which means new Assamese, coined by cultural icons such as Jyoti Prasad Agarwala,” she says. “When you talk of Assamese culture, you talk of the 15th-century reformer [Srimanta] Sankardev and the Sufi saint Azan Fakir who came to Assam to propagate Islam. The culture has always been a composite of the two, so what is happening now is tragic.”
Pisharoty explains the current impulse in the State to weed out ghuspetia or infiltrators in the light of three definitive historical events: The Partition, the Emergency and the Bangladesh Liberation War.
“Across the Northeast, there are small communities whose identities are rooted to the land. For some groups, the arrival of maybe even 100 migrants appear to be a threat. It kicks up a lot of raw emotions,” she says. “This has been the case, mainly in Assam, since the Partition has been largely presented in mainstream history as a Punjabi narrative or to an extent, a Bengali narrative. But the effect of the Partition on Assam’s demography, even that of Tripura’s, has been immense. Many — mainly the Bengali Hindus — suffered hugely but those narratives are missing from the popular Partition narrative.” The under-documented history of the partition of the Sylhet province from Assam, she points out, led to a refugee crisis in the State.