For a long time, Assamese politics has centred on the hunt for “illegal Bangladeshis” who threaten the three pillars of “indigenous” Axomiya identity – jaati (ethnicity), maati (land), bheti (hearth or homeland).
Since 2014, when the Supreme Court pushed for the completion of the National Register of Citizens, the Indian state has spent over Rs 1,200 crore to identify “illegal immigrants” in Assam.
But it is not “illegal Bangladeshis” who have siphoned off Assam’s natural resources without consulting its people, imperilled the lives of Assamese people by imposing a draconian security regime, raided Assam’s verdant forest lands for oil, gas, coal, and thrown Assamese activists behind bars for exercising their democratic right to protest.
That has been the sole domain of the Indian state and its corporate allies, which have been in the business of extraction-appropriation-imposition for a long time.
From oil to ayurveda
Five specific instances from the past five years, three within the last three months, reveal the extraordinary threats faced by the people of Assam. None of them involve “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.
In April, a standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife gave the green light for coal mining operations in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest area, which sits dangerously close to the eco-sensitive Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Following a huge uproar, the plan was suspended in June. Soon after the April announcement, a Right to Information query revealed that coal mining operations were already going on in Saleki, in violation of existing laws.
After the public furore, the Assam government announced that the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary was to be upgraded to a national park. While this would ensure tighter protection of the subtropical rainforest – also known as the “Amazon of the East” – and permanently bar human activity within its boundaries, it would not have any impact on potential mining operations in the eco-sensitive zone around it. Local forest officials had already told The Sentinel that the prospective mining site in the Saleki Proposed Reserved Forest area does not lie within the wildlife sanctuary.
Second, on June 9, a well operated by Oil India Limited in Upper Assam’s Baghjan burst into flames after leaking natural gas and condensate for two weeks. Thousands have been displaced, houses have been razed to the ground, farmlands, the eco-sensitive Maguri beel (lake) and Dibru Saikhowa National Park have been devastated. Nearly a month later, Oil India is still struggling to douse the flames. But the catastrophe is not just a random technical lapse. The chain of responsibility goes straight to Delhi.
A recent report in The Wire claims that Oil India had skipped several public hearings on drilling operations in Baghjan and still managed to get approval from the Union environment ministry. Still, Oil India continues to be shielded by the government – Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal even expressed displeasure over a closure notice sent to the public sector company by the Pollution Control Board of Assam. It was withdrawn three days later. Oil India also continues to file fresh drilling clearance proposals in Assam.
Third, on July 2, the Assam government announced an ordinance to allow the conversion of land for medium, small and micro enterprises, stoking fears of land alienation, especially among communities defined as indigenous. Following an outcry on social media, the state government gave vague assurances that the ordinance would not affect “the land rights of indigenous people”.
Fourth, Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved was gifted 1,200 acres of land by the Assam government, as this two-year-old article in The New York Times mentions. A site manager at one of the operational factories also revealed how large tracts of forests were cleared and 88 elephants displaced to make way for the production unit. He also rambled on about how the people of Assam had “bad habits” and lacked “respect for the nation” – remarks that caused an uproar and forced the ayurveda mega-brand to apologise.
The Assam government seems to have been particularly generous to Patanjali. Since 2015, local civil society organisations and residents in Rowmari village, which lies within the Bodoland Territorial Region, have been complaining about the allocation of 485 hectares of land to Patanjali. The region is governed by an autonomous tribal council. The Bodoland People’s Front, which has held power here for years, is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the state government. The Bodo party claimed the land was given to Patanjali to prevent it from encroachment by “illegal immigrants”.
But who really is the encroacher here?
The real ‘encroachers’
For years, decisions to utilise finite natural resources (including land) have been taken in a top-down manner, without consulting the prime stakeholders and the ostensible beneficiaries. Fundamentally premised on a profit-driven and uncritical imagination of “development”, such an approach is usually designed to benefit the extractor, be it the state or its corporate associates.
Those who stand to be directly affected by the resource extraction process end up with the least say on who extracts, who benefits and how it is done. Local populations, especially communities that were already marginalised, have been left in the lurch.
Add to this equation an increasingly nationalistic state, particularly in the post-1991 liberalisation context. It sees resource extraction and development-oriented interventions in peripheral regions as effective pathways to resource nationalisation. Throw in the BJP’s distinct Hindutva nationalism, increasingly in play since the party won the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, and you end up with what academic Meera Nanda calls the “state-temple-corporate complex”.
Here, it is not just the state that benefits from resource nationalisation and extraction, but also its profit-making yet “patriotic” and “culturally compliant” corporate allies.
Thus, the real encroacher here are not hapless undocumented migrants who might have come to Assam from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in search of a better life or those from colonial East Bengal who settled in the state’s riverine peripheries a century ago.
These so-called illegal immigrants have, in fact, contributed to Assam’s agrarian and informal economies by revitalising the lower-tier labour ecosystem. Their investments have been local, much like the outcomes of their physical labour. It is the Assamese people, and not a minister or an entrepreneur sitting in Delhi, who have benefited from their contributions.
It is true that the Assamese have interrogated Delhi’s centralising, profit-driven model of development. Prominent intellectuals, such as the late Parag Kumar Das, have written extensively on the subject. As seen in the recent agitations over Dehing Patkai, Baghjan and land conversion for medium, small and micro enterprises, local civil society has repeatedly protested against reckless resource extraction by the government and corporates .
However, these interventions have been piecemeal and sporadic. The collective uproar over “illegal immigrants” continues to be the pivot of mainstream Assamese political consciousness.The entry of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which made allies of Assamese civil society groups and political parties such as the Asom Gana Parishad, has also diluted their resolve to interrogate Delhi’s extractive economy. The groups that remain at the forefront of protests, like the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, are being relentlessly hounded by the government and booked under trumped-up criminal charges.
Assamese subnationalism, therefore, continues to regress into the most malleable version of itself, baring its most exclusionary and chauvinistic, rather than its progressive, traits.
It is high time Assamese civil society and its intellectual allies recalibrate their priorities and concerns. If they really want to save their jaati-maati-bheti, they must start by recognising who the real threat is.
Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi, and former visiting fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.