Two highly sensitive developments have put the North-Eastern state of Assam in the spotlight by reviving the ‘insider-outsider’ debate. These developments – the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens) – are proving controversial as they are once again stoking the sensitive subject of immigrants in the state.
Over the last hundred years, different political powers have played the ‘immigrant’ card in Assam for economic and political gain, and with the issue being revived once more, it is important to view the controversy in its historical context.
Assam’s immigrant Muslim population from then East Bengal had been leveraged as an argument in favour of giving away the Assam region to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during Partition. And if it wasn’t for Gopinath Bordoloi, the map of India would have looked quite different.
Bordoloi didn’t just fight to make sure Assam stayed with India, he continued to work as an activist, raising his voice for the local Assamese people long after he had won the political battle. He was truly the architect of modern polity in Assam.
Assam gets its name from ‘asama’ or ‘invincible’, from the Tai-Ahom dynasty, which ruled the region for over 600 years from the 13th to the 19th century CE. Right till the 19th century, most of Assam comprised thick forests inhabited by different tribes, while the main urban centres were located on the banks of the Brahmaputra River.
Following the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, the British East India Company annexed Assam and made it a part of British India.
In order to maximise the economic returns from Assam, the Company started encouraging ‘outsiders’ to settle there, including large numbers of mostly Muslim farmers from East Bengal, as well as Marwari businessmen from Rajasthan.
By the 1920s, the number of immigrants from East Bengal into Assam had swelled so much that the British had to impose a ‘Line System’, demarcating certain areas where immigrants could settle while reserving others for ‘indigenous’ communities. This created disquiet among the Assamese and the Bengali Muslims, something that was exploited by the Muslim League to serve its own political agenda.
In the 1940s, there was a serious attempt to include not just Assam but all of North East India into the proposed state of East Pakistan, which was scuttled thanks to the efforts of Gopinath Bordoloi.
Born on 6 June 1890, in Nagaon district of Assam, Bordoloi completed his early education in Guwahati and earned a Master’s degree from Calcutta University. He also studied law in Calcutta but cut short his education to return home to take up a job as headmaster in a local high school.
Bordoloi later passed his law exams in Guwahati in 1917 and became a practising lawyer.
But he had other career plans. The young man had already been influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and felt he could make a difference as a politician who represented the interests of the people of Assam.
Embarking on the mission of a lifetime, Bordoloi joined the Congress party and quickly worked his way up the ranks. His biographer, Lily Mazindor Baruah, in her book Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi, An Architect of Modern India, highlights the pivotal role he played in bringing the Congress to Assam. Till 1921, the Assam Association was the only political organisation in the state but, that same year, Congress set up the Assam Provincial Congress Committee with Bordoloi as its secretary.
Bordoloi’s great rival was Sir Syed Muhammad Saadullah, an Assamese lawyer and the most important leader of the local Muslim League. In 1935, the Government of India Act proposed provincial elections in the country, and the very next year, the Congress won the state polls with a majority. Despite this, Saadullah formed a coalition government with other non-Congress groups and became the first Chief Minister of Assam. Bordoloi had to wait his turn at the helm; for now, he was a leader of the Opposition.
It was not long before Saadullah’s Cabinet was wracked with internal conflicts, an opportunity Bordoloi used to consolidate his position within the Congress and win the support of the people. Eventually, a no-confidence motion was brought against Saadullah, who had to resign in 1938.
Seizing The Reins
Bordoloi had to deal with the issue of the continuous influx of Bengali migrants into Assam, which had stirred resentment among the locals. The Line System of 1920 had been deliberately exploited by Saadullah and the Muslim League to bring about a demographic change that would suit their own political goals.
After Saadullah’s resignation in 1938, the Governor of Assam invited Bordoloi to form a new Cabinet.
As Chief Minister and with the strong backing of the state Congress, Bordoloi lost no time in introducing bold reforms as part of the Land Resolution in 1939.
Under this law, he stopped the payment of the Land Tax for the development of lands inhabited by recent immigrants (the tax had been introduced by Saadullah along with his Land Development Scheme); provided land to landless people to a regular holding of 30 bighas in the regular settlement areas and protected tribal settlements. These steps made Bordoloi a hero in the eyes of his colleagues as well as the Assamese people.
Journalist Sanjoy Hazarika, in his book Strangers of the Mist, writes: “Uppermost in his (Bordoloi’s) mind was the unspoken fear that these migrations were laying the foundation for a demand by Jinnah for Assam’s inclusion in a future Pakistan, by emphasising the size of the Muslim population and its close links with East Bengal.”
In 1939, World War II broke out, and due to its opposition to Britain’s war policy, the Congress was termed an ‘outlaw’ and many leaders were arrested. In 1940, Bordoloi and his Cabinet resigned on Gandhi’s urging, and he was arrested by the British. This facilitated Saadullah’s return to power as Chief Minister. It was considered a ‘return gift’ for Saadullah’s support to the British. The former went on to contribute Rupees 1 crore from the state revenue towards the war fund.
A year later, Bordoloi was released from jail but Saadullah had bolstered the status of Assam’s migrant population via various government policies. Bordoloi shared his concerns with prominent leaders such as C Rajagopalachari and Tej Bahadur Sapru, and started forming alliances with local organisations that shared his views on this matter.
Then, in 1941, Bordoloi pulled off a coup. Historian Nirode Barooah in his book Gopinath Bardoloi, ‘Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre, says that Bordoloi had forged an alliance with a local organization, the Nationalist Independent Group. Along with that, Saadullah’s funding of the British war effort had raised strong objections within leaders and students in Assam. This toppled Saadullah’s government and Bordoloi returned to power.
In 1941, massive protests rocked Assam due to the Land Development Scheme, which had allowed landless people who had entered the Assamese before 1938, to settle there. The then Governor, Robert Reid, thus scrapped the policy. A year later, massive support from prominent Muslim groups helped Saadullah return to power and he remained Chief Minister till 1946. During this time, his demand to merge Assam with East Pakistan received massive support. It was a period when Assam found itself in the line of fire, struggling between the Quit India Movement and World War II.
During the Indian provincial elections in 1946, the Congress in Assam won a whopping majority and Bordoloi returned as Chief Minister again. During this time, the Cabinet Mission had arrived, dividing India into three groups i.e. A, B and C. While the six Hindu majority provinces of Madras, Bombay, Bihar, Orissa, Central Province and the United Province of Agra and Awadh formed Group A, Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Provinces formed Group B. Assam and Bengal were clubbed together in Group C.
According to this plan, the Assamese representatives had to share their seat with the Bengali representatives in the Constituent Assembly. The Cabinet Mission's proposal was announced on May 16, 1946. The Assam Provincial Congress Committee, then in session at Guwahati, lodged an emphatic protest with the Congress Working Committee. A local body, the Asom Jatiya Mahasabha, even produced some secret papers to expose the designs of the Muslim League in Assam.
Senior journalist Daya Nath Singh, in his work, Gopinath Bordoloi, Who Saved Assam Becoming An Islamic State, says that on July 16, 1946, the Assam Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution where Bordoloi had directed his ten elected representatives not to sit in a section with any other province for devising the Constitution of Assam.
He argued that Assam was already a province formed on a linguistic and cultural basis and enjoyed provincial autonomy. He appealed for the separation of Sylhet district (now in Bangladesh) from Assam, and rejected the demand that the state become a part of East Pakistan as preposterous. It was now a moment of reckoning for the people of Assam.
Appeal To Gandhi
In her work, Revisiting Partition: Gandhi's Role In Integrating The Northeast With Independent India, Delhi-based journalist Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty says that Bordoloi sent two prominent leaders of the Assam Congress – Binoy Chandra Bhagwati and Mahendra Mohan Chaudhary – to appeal to Gandhi to help prevent Assam’s inclusion in East Pakistan.
Gandhi advised the people of Assam to protest against Saadullah’s designs in a non-violent way.
After prolonged negotiations between Bordoloi and Gandhi, it was decided that Assamese leaders undertake a ‘satyagraha within the Congress’, a non-violent protest against those who opposed the choice of the Assam Congress.
The Congress Working Committee had not taken a strong stand on this vital issue but it was the support that Bordoloi received from Gandhi that worked with other leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and J B Kriplani, who were initially against it. Eventually, the Cabinet Mission’s plan to group Assam with East Bengal was scrapped. The Congress high command had erroneously perceived Assam’s opposition to becoming part of East Pakistan as a roadblock to the independence of India. But that had not dimmed Bordoloi’s determination to keep Assam a part of the Indian union.
After Independence, Bordoloi continued to work closely with Sardar Patel for the protection of Assam’s sovereignty, including its continued separation from China and Bangladesh. He also worked for the rehabilitation of Hindu refugees, who had fled Assam during Partition.
Bordoloi went on to become chairman of the North East Frontier Tribal & Excluded Areas Committee, where under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, the incorporation of North-Eastern tribal communities such as the Chakmas, Mizos and Pawis was applied.
Bordoloi was greatly loved by the people he served and, in recognition of this, the then Assam Governor Jairam Das Daulatram honoured him with the title ‘Lokpriya’ (‘Loved By The People’). Bordoloi passed away while in office on 5 August 1950, having fulfilled the promise he had made to his people.
But India had not forgotten this beloved son of the soil. Almost 50 years after he died, Bordoloi was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1999, making him the only person from the North-East to win the honour until 2019, when legendary musician Bhupen Hazarika was also awarded the same title. In 2002, a statue of the great Assamese leader was installed in Parliament House.
Yash Mishra is a Delhi-based writer with a passionate interest in cinema and Indian history.
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