Revisiting Assam Agitation

How two police officers and RSS changed the script of the Assam agitation against outsiders in 1980s

When it started in 1979, All Assam Students Union’s stir was against Indians from other states, but it soon morphed into a movement against Muslim immigrants.

In 1979, the All Assam Students Union launched a mass agitation to evict outsiders. By outsiders, the union’s leaders meant Indians from elsewhere who were perceived to control Assam’s economy. In a few months, though, they changed tack and started railing against foreigners, specifically illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

This alteration in the course of the agitation has long been ascribed to the union’s leaders realising that the Assamese people were bothered more about Bangladeshi migrants than Indians from other states. Abdul Mannan turns this thesis on its head. He shows the change came about in no small measure because of the efforts of two senior police officers and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In his book Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement, published last year, the former professor of statistics at Gauhati University cites the forgotten memoir of one of the officers to show how they courted the union’s leaders and persuaded them to redirect popular anger towards Bangladeshi immigrants.

The officers were Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharyya and Premkanta Mahanta. The memoir Mannan draws on is Rajbhaganar Para Kal Thokalaike – the title roughly translates as “from dethronement to the plantain grove” – which Mahanta wrote and self-published in 1994. His intention behind writing it, Mahanta stated, was “to help historians with some truths” that might be forgotten.

Mahanta’s story begins in 1978, the year Golap Borbora’s Janata Party swept the Congress from power in Assam. The Janata Party was a medley of organisations, including the Jana Sangh, which would be rechristened the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980.

On October 1, 1978, the new government appointed Deputy Inspector General of Police Bhattacharyya to head the Border Police Division. It was a “historic event for Assam”, Mahanta writes in his memoir, as was his own appointment in the same division the following February.

Mahanta’s was not a routine transfer. He claims that Bhattacharyya “zealously…got me transferred from the post of Head of the Police Training Camp to that of the SP of the Border Police Division”.

By then, Bhattacharyya had already started identifying and expelling Bangladeshi migrants, Muslim and Hindu, from Nalapara, Mangaldoi and Tamulpur in Rangia, kicking off a political storm, Mahanta writes. “I affirm that...the six-year-long Assam movement [1979 to 1985] would not have taken place if we hadn’t come together at this point,” he says.

In March 1979, about a month after Mahanta joined the Border Police Division, the All Assam Students Union held a conference in Sibsagar, now Sivasagar, where Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was elected its president and Bhrigu Kumar Phukan the general secretary. The conference, Mannan notes, adopted 21 resolutions, one of which spoke of the “menace posed to the existence of the Assamese by the outsiders who controlled Assam’s economy”. The idea of Bangladeshi immigrants threatening the state’s cultural identity had not yet been formulated.

Fuelling the fire

That same month, Hiralal Patowari, MP from Mangaldoi, died, necessitating a bye-election. On April 27, 1979, the customary notice to revise the electoral rolls went out in Mangaldoi. The two police officers feared that Bangladeshi immigrants would try to get their names on the rolls – and use it to claim citizenship. To thwart them, Mahanta thought of sending a Border Police Division officer with every Registrar of Voters. The problem was, Bhattacharyya pointed out, there was not sufficient time to train them for such a task.

Bhattacharyya had another idea. He persuaded Chief Secretary RS Paramasivam to ask Chief Election Commissioner SL Shakdhar for more time to revise the roll. Shakdhar gave them an extra week. But instead of trying to prevent Bangladeshi migrants from enrolling as voters, Mahanta writes, Bhattacharyya “came up with the idea that since more time was granted, the names of foreign nationals on the rolls of 1978 might also be struck off.”

This was a cumbersome process. The rules demanded that for a name to be removed from a particular electoral register, a voter from that polling booth must submit a complaint in a form costing 10 paise and another voter from the same booth must second the complaint. Bhattacharyya and Mahanta figured that mobilising public opinion was the only way to achieve their goal, and they launched a publicity blitz. The media began tracking the identification process.

Next, Mahanta suggested that they should rope in leaders who could sway public opinion on the matter. So, Bhattacharyya hosted Purbanchaliya Loka Parishad’s Nibaran Bora and Asam Jatiyatabadi Dal’s Nagen Hazirka for dinner. Both were known to Mahanta from school. The memoir does not disclose what they discussed over dinner other than that they decided to focus on the students union leaders.

“Almost about the same time in March, the news of Sri Prafulla Kumar Mahanta being elected as president and Shri Bhrigu Phukan being elected as general secretary of the All Assam Students Union…was published,” Mahanta writes. “The 21-Point Charter of the AASU carried in it a significant point of the alarming proportion of the unbridled influx of outsiders into Assam. At our suggestion, the two student leaders were brought from their University hostels in order to drive home to them the problem caused by foreign nationals…We provided them with adequate data and information. Thenceforth, they agreed to give priority to the issue of foreign nationals and deletion of their names from voters’ list.”

Mahanta does not identify who organised his and Bhattacharyya’s meeting with the student leaders.

The two officers were successful in achieving their objective: at its executive meeting on May 23, 1979, the students union adopted a resolution calling for a 12-hour state-wide bandh the next month to press for the expulsion of “Bangladeshi infiltrators”.

In the meantime, as names started being struck off voter lists in Mangaldoi, Congress leaders complained to the Election Commission that “police had been hatching a conspiracy by indicting genuine Indian citizens as foreigners”, Mahanta recalls. The commission ordered a halt to the deportation of allegedly illegal migrants and deletion of their names from the electoral rolls. By then, however, complaints had been received about 47,658 voters and 36,780 of them had been identified as foreigners, Mahanta notes.

Mahanta, despite his candour, does not mention what became of these thousands of people identified as foreigners, Manan points out. “Were they driven out of Assam?” he asks. “Or is it that they are still in Assam? What is the status of their citizenship?”

All Assam Students Union leaders meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Photo via
All Assam Students Union leaders meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Photo via

A cause transformed

The controversy over Mangaldoi’s electoral rolls became a lightning rod for the Assam agitation. Successive governments fell, and the students union’s war cry was now “three Ds” – detection of Bangladeshi immigrants, deletion of their names from voter lists, and their deportation. Assam went into shutdown for nearly a year.

In April 1980, Union Home Minister Giani Zail Singh visited Assam to try and break the impasse. This was followed by a midnight call from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Governor LP Singh, asking whether December 31, 1965 as the cutoff date for identifying foreigners – anyone who could not prove they had lived in Assam before that date would be deemed a foreigner and expelled – would be acceptable to the people. It was not to the political leadership the governor turned to.

“The governor called Bhattacharyya and wanted to know if the student leaders would accept the proposal,” Mahanta writes in his memoir. “Bhattacharyya with certainty assured the governor that it would be accepted.” Clearly, the governor was well aware of Bhattacharyya’s relationship with the student leaders.

Bhattacharyya immediately went to Mahanta’s residence. “We were overjoyed, sensing the possibility of such a great success,” Mahanta recalls. “With rapture and passion we awaited the sun to rise. That night we imagined a bunch of thoughts and ambitious plans. Rented buildings of the Maruwari, where the office of the Border Police Division was housed whence the foreigners expulsion movement originated, we will purchase that and construct a memorial there.”

Of their own role in the movement, Mahanta declares, “If we two had not come together, the movement called ‘Assam movement’ would not have happened. I repeat it would not have happened.”

In 1981, Bhattacharyya was dismissed from service and imprisoned for a year under the National Security Act for his involvement in the Assam agitation. Subsequently, the Supreme Court set aside his dismissal and granted him post-retirement benefits.

But did the two police officers act out of their own conviction? Or were they merely puppets whose strings someone else pulled?

In the shadows

In those days, Bhattacharyya came across as an enigmatic personality. When the journalist Chaitanya Kalbag, then at India Today magazine, met Bhattacharyya in 1983, he lived in a luxurious house bizarrely called Wilderness. To Kalbag, Bhattacharyya cavilled against people who believed the Assam agitation against foreigners was communal. After Mangaldoi, Bhattacharyya claimed, 55% of the 5.8 lakh foreigners he had helped detect were Hindu.

Bhattacharyya was also vehemently opposed to communists. “Every Hindu [Bangladeshi] means a vote for the communists,” he told Kalbag. “The entire Brahmaputra valley, once an oasis of nationalism in this desert of insurgency, is surrounded by Marxist expansionists and Bengali cultural expansionists.”

Mannan believes Bhattacharyya and Mahanta were deeply influenced by the ideology of the RSS, which, alarmed at the Left’s growing clout in Assam, was willing to raise the spectre of “global multinational neo-imperialist forces”. Not only had the Left won 24 seats in the 1978 Assembly election, it was “ruling the roost” in the universities. The RSS wanted to smother its ideological rival in Assam, says Mannan.

In his book, Mannan quotes leaders of the RSS, the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad, the name the All Assam Students Union adopted to fight elections, to establish that the Hindutva forces were deeply involved in the Assam movement. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked there during those stormy years. “A well-known [former] BJP state president also revealed in one of his private conversations [to him] that during the Assam agitation, Narendra Modi used to move about as a pillion rider behind him on his scooter in many places in Guwahati,” Mannan writes.

But was it really the RSS that shifted the focus of the Assam agitation from Indian outsiders to illegal Bangladeshis? Yes, declares The Last Battle of Saraighat: The story of the BJP’s rise in the North-east by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha. The book’s foreword is by RSS leader and BJP general secretary Ram Madhav. The book identifies Shubhrastha to be working with Madhav’s office and Sethi as the political adviser of Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who left the Congress for the BJP in 2016. Considering such credentials of its authors, the Last Battle of Saraighat should be treated as an authoritative voice from the Sangh Parivar.

“RSS first transformed the agitation from being anti-bahirgat to being an anti-videshi movement,” Sethi and Shubhrastha write, using the Assamese expressions for outsider and foreigner. “In gradual course of time, the sentiments were further directed against the immigrant Bangladeshis and later against the Bangladeshi Muslims.”

It was precisely the trajectory the Assam movement took.

The transformation of the Assam movement into a communal enterprise happened in 1980, as Mahanta’s memoir and Mannan’s book show. The timeline provided in The Last Battle of Saraighat confirms this. “After a series of meetings, in 1980, the RSS stated its opinion that Hindus were sharanarthis (asylum seekers) and Muslims were anupraveshkaaris (infiltrators),” Sethi and Shubhrastha write. In this view, the Hindus had fled Bangladesh to escape religious persecution while the Muslims had slipped into Assam in search of better economic opportunities.

“Therefore, RSS cleverly delineated its position on the Bangladeshi migration issue,” Sethi and Shubhrastha write. “It took a severe position against the Muslim migrants, articulating its idea of selective protection to Hindu migrants in Assam.” In doing so, the RSS preyed upon the fear of Bangladeshi Muslims demographically colonising Assam. The fear was insidiously exaggerated, as the first part of this series shows.

The popular TV anchor and author of Assam After Independence Mrinal Talukdar was a foot soldier of the Assam agitation. “It has always been an article of faith in Left circles that the Assam movement was a CIA project called Brahmaputra,” he said. “The theory is that the Left had gained West Bengal and Tripura and Assam was in its crosshairs. The Left had to be checked. Obviously, it is just a theory, but there is no doubt that subnationalism killed the Left in Assam. In hindsight, there is a case for saying that the Assam movement was hijacked.”

The Left was indeed killed in Assam, but so were many people for a cause that was framed differently from how it had been conceived.

This is the second part of a two-part series.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.

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