The Many Faces of Language

Subir Bhaumik *

The write up reproduced here is an excerpt from the lecture delivered by renowned Journalist Subir Bhaumik under the title "Northeast: A Thousand Assertive Ethnicities" on the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture on June 10, 2012.

Even linguistic preferences in India's Northeast have often shifted due to political considerations, concealing ethnic and religious divisions. In Assam, the migrant Muslim peasantry of Bengali origin chose to register themselves as Assamese speakers in every census since Independence, so that they could assimilate into the local milieu. The Assamese caste-Hindus co-opted them into their fold as 'Na-Asamiyas' or neo-Assamese, if only to ensure that Assamese speakers remained the largest linguistic group in the state.

Constantly haunted by the perceived domination of the Bengali speakers, it was important for the Assamese caste elite to retain the numerical preponderance of Assamese speakers in the state, since linguistic predominance provided the basis for ethnic hegemony. If Bengali speakers outnumbered Assamese speakers, they reckoned, the 'Assameseness' of Assam would be diluted. Since both the Bengali Hindus throughout Assam and the Bengali-speaking Muslims in the Barak valley were determined to push their language as an option parallel to Assamese, it was important for the Assamese-caste elite to win over the Muslim migrants of Bengali origin settling in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra valley.

With the support of the 'Na-Asamiyas', Assamese remained the major language in Assam and the caste elite sought to impose it on the Bengali-dominated Barak valley, leading to the language agitations in post-colonial Assam. Every year in the Barak valley and elsewhere in Assam, Bengalis observe 19 May as their Language Martyrs Day in the memory of those who were killed in confrontations with the police on that date in 1960, much like 21 February is observed in Bangladesh as the beginning of the language movement that finally led to the breakup of Pakistan.

In recent years, 19 May celebrations in Silchar have been graced by the visit of leading poets, writers and singers from both West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Muslims of Bengali origin in the Brahmaputra valley, however, have largely stayed away from these celebrations to emphasize their linguistic preferences and have rather used their religious identity as the defining point of 'we' and 'others'.

Physical security and fear of eviction from the land they own are the obvious priorities for the Muslim peasant migrants from the erstwhile Eastern Bengal who settled in the Brahmaputra valley. Unlike their brethren in Bangladesh and West Bengal, Tripura and the Barak valley, their passion for the Bengali language has been limited to the occasional folk song choirs in the char areas (river islands) during the harvest season.

Only after these Muslims were specifically targeted by the Assamese militant student and youth groups during the bloody riots of 1982-83, did some of them register as Bengali speakers during the census in what was seen as a return to roots. This led to a fall in the number of Assamese speakers in the last two censuses of 1991 and 2001.

In recent years, the question of illegal migration from Bangladesh has overshadowed other political issues in Assam. This, along with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has ensured that the linguistic mobilisation of the 1960s has been replaced by the politics of religious fundamentalism. Bengali Hindus in large numbers throughout Assam have started supporting the BJP and Assamese Hindus have joined them because they feel regional parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) cannot deliver on their promise of deporting illegal migrants (read: Muslim migrants).

The AGP-BJP political alliance in the 2001 state assembly elections, engineered by the state's governor, Lieutenant-General S. K. Sinha (retired), marked the high point of this new trend; that it prompted a backlash from the Muslims urging them to group together in a and vote Congress to victory.

With north Indian migrant communities like the Biharis and the Marwaris supporting the BJP in ever-increasing numbers, the process of religious consolidation has begun to affect the politics of Assam more significantly than ever before. After all, Assam has the second highest percentage of Muslim population among Indian states after Kashmir and the impact of global and national realities on Assam's politics cannot be wished away.

This has weakened the support base of Assamese separatism because the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) operates from its bases in Bangladesh and its soft stand on the migration issue has not gone down well with Assamese upper-caste Hindus. The ULFA is opposed to the politics of religious fundamentalism, but when it went to the extent of supporting the 'Kashmiri freedom struggle' during the Kargil War, the Assamese saw in it a not-so-subtle attempt to please the ULFA's main external sponsors.

Changing Trends in Migration

In the pre-British era, the population flow into what is now Northeast India originated almost entirely in the east. Closer to the highlands of Burma and southwestern China than to the power centres of the Indian heartland, this region was exposed to a constant flow of tribes and nationalities belonging to the Tibeto-Burman or the Mon-Khmer stock, one settling down only to be overrun by the subsequent wave. The direction of population flow changed with the advent of the British.

The colonial masters brought peasants and agricultural labourers, teachers and clerks from neighbouring Bengal and Bihar to open up Assam's economy. The trickle became a tide, soon to extend to Tripura, where the Manikya kings offered Bengali farmers 'jungle-avadi' or forest clearance leases. The move was intended to popularise settled agriculture in a largely hill state and improve the state's land revenues.

The hill regions were protected by the Inner Line Regulations, whereas the plains and the princely domains were not. The steady population flow from mainland India, particularly from Bengal, into the plains of Assam and Tripura, accentuated the ethnic and religious diversity and introduced a nativist-outsider dichotomy to the simmering conflict.

Partition led to a rise in the flow of refugees and migrants from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Tripura's demography changed within two decades as Bengalis became a clear majority. The pace of demographic change was slightly slower in Assam than in Tripura but it was pronounced enough to upset the 'sons of the soil', provoking both armed and non-violent mass protest movements and sometimes a mix of both. The fear that, like Tripura, the other northeastern states could be swamped by influx of outsiders has weighed heavily on indigenous peoples and early settlers throughout the Northeast and provoked the more militant among them to take up arms.

A tradition of armed resistance to invaders had developed in the region even before the arrival of the British. The Ahoms, who ruled Assam for several centuries, fought back the invading Mughals. The Manikya kings of Tripura not only fought the Bengal Sultans back from their hill region but also managed to conquer parts of eastern Bengal at various times in history. The Burmese were the only ones who overran Assam and Manipur, only to be ousted through the help of the British within a few years.

When the British ventured into the Northeast, they encountered fierce resistance in the Naga and the Mizo (then Lushai) Hills regions, in Manipur and in what is now Meghalaya. The Naga and the Mizo tribesmen resorted to guerrilla war, holding up much stronger British forces by grit and ingenuous use of the terrain. As a result of the fighting, there were parts of the Mizo Hills where entire villages were 'populated only by widows'.

After the departure of the British, the Indian nation-state faced uprisings in Tripura almost immediately after Independence and in the Naga hills since the mid-1950s. The communists, who led the tribal uprising in Tripura, called off armed struggle in the early 1950s and joined Indian-style electoral politics. Since the 1980 ethnic riots, Tripura has witnessed periodic bouts of tribal militancy, with the Bengali refugee population its main target.

The Naga uprising, the strongest ethnic insurrection in Northeast India, has been weakened by repeated splits along tribal lines. Talks between the Indian government and the stronger faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which were started in 1997, are continuing, but a possible resumption of Naga insurgency remains a preoccupying possibility in the Northeast.

Armed uprisings erupted in the Mizo hills following a famine in 1966. A year later, guerrilla bands became active in Manipur and Tripura. Since most of these rebel groups found safe bases, weapons and training in the former East Pakistan, the defeat of the Pakistani armed forces in 1971 adversely affected the rebels from the Northeast. For nearly seven years, they were deprived of a major staging post in a contiguous foreign nation. China, which trained and armed several groups of Naga, Mizo and Meitei rebels since 1966, stopped aiding them in the early 1980s.

By then, however, Bangladesh's military rulers had assumed power after the coup of 1975, in which the country's founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was killed. They promptly revived the Pakistani policy of sheltering, arming and training rebel groups from Northeast India. This policy, initiated by General Zia-ur-Rehman, has been continued by his wife's government more than twenty-five years later.

Fishing in Troubled waters

Almost all the separatist groups in the Northeast Nagas, Mizos, Meiteis, Tripuris and now those from Meghalaya have subsequently received shelter and support in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Indian agencies used the Northeast to arm and train, support and shelter the Bengali guerrillas against Pakistan in 1971 and then the tribal insurgents from the Chittagong Hill Tracts against Bangladesh. For a brief while in the early 1990s, the Indian external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), supported the Kachin Independence Army of Burma with weapons and ammunition.

Since the 1980s, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has also used Bangladesh to prop up some of the rebel groups from northeast India. A few of them have received weapons, specialised training in explosives and sabotage and even funds. Surrendered insurgents have reported that the ISI encouraged them to strike economic targets like oil refineries and depots, gas pipelines, rail tracks and road bridges. Burma and Bhutan have also been used as sanctuaries by some of these rebel groups but there is little evidence of official patronage from the governments of those countries. There are some unconfirmed reports of Chinese assistance to the NSCN, the Meitei rebel groups and the ULFA.

By the early 1980s, the entire region was gripped by large-scale violence. There were fierce riots in Tripura and Assam. Separatist movements intensified in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, later spreading to both Assam and Tripura. India's young Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, took the initiative to arrive at settlements with the militant students of Assam, the separatist Mizo National Front and the Tribal National Volunteers of Tripura. Other insurgencies continued, however, and new ones emerged. Whereas earlier separatist movements, such as that of the Nagas and the Mizos, had challenged federal authority, the recent insurgencies of the Bodos, the Hmars, the Karbis and the Dimasas directly confront the regional power centres the new states of the Northeast.

Although the Nagas and the Mizos fought for a separate country and finally settled for a separate state within India, the smaller ethnicities like the Bodos and the Hmars fight for autonomous homelands that they wish to carve out of states like Assam and Mizoram. The failure to achieve separate states radicalized the movements and made them turn to secessionist rhetoric. Territorial demands based on ethnicity in northeast India are very often sustained by historical memories of separate tribal kingdoms.

The Bodos or the Dimasas fondly recall their pre-Ahom kingdoms, when they controlled large territories. The Tripuris and the Manipuris look back at the long rule of their princely families to justify secession. A democratic dispensation like India's provides even the smallest of these groups scope to raise their homeland demand and since Delhi has conceded many of them, these ethnic groups have reason to feel they can obtain what they want with a little more persuasion or pressure, violence or manipulation.

Very often in the Northeast, a negotiated settlement with a separatist movement has opened the ethnic fissures within it. The Hmars, the Maras and the Lais fought shoulder to shoulder with the Lushais against the Indian security forces during the twenty years of insurgency led by the Mizo National Front (MNF). But twenty years of bonding through the shared experience of guerrilla warfare failed to develop a greater 'Mizo' identity.

As the common enemy, India, receded into the distance, Delhi came to be seen as a source of protection and the last line of justice by the smaller tribes and ethnicities. Now, the Hmars and the Reangs want an autonomous district council for themselves, like the Lais, the Maras and the Chakmas already enjoy. Both tribes have militant groups (the Hmar Peoples Convention and the Bru National Liberation Front) who attack Mizoram police and politicians, provoking fierce reactions from groups such as the Young Mizo Association.

The Bodos, the Karbis, the Dimasas and the Rabhas all joined the Assam movement to expel 'foreigners' and 'infiltrators'. But after the 1985 accord signed by the Assam agitation groups with the Indian government, these groups felt the Assamese 'had taken the cake and left us the crumbs'. The result: fresh agitations, often sliding into violent insurgencies, spearheaded by smaller ethnicities demanding separate homelands.

Within two years of the 1985 accord, the Bodos were on the warpath with a new slogan: 'divide Assam fifty-fifty'. Militant Bodo groups took the road of armed rebellion and terrorism, blowing up bridges, trains and buses, attacking troops and policemen, politicians and non-Bodo ethnic groups. Despite a settlement with the Indian government in early 2003 that promised to establish a Bodoland Territorial Council, some groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) say they are determined to continue their armed movement. Militant groups representing the Karbis and the Dimasas have also surfaced, promoting ethnic cleansing as the core of their political strategy to establish numerical domination over proposed and perceived homelands.

* Subir Bhaumik gave this speech at Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture on June 10, 2012 which was later published at Imphal Times
This article was posted on June 18, 2018.

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