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Thu, 20 Feb 2020

Northeast Today

What Makes Me A Lesser Assamese?

What Makes Me A Lesser Assamese?
April 04
12:22 2019


Maumita Mazumdarpens down a few words of agony that has hit her hard, thanks to the chaos and commotion created by the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which is an attempt to grant citizenship to those non-Muslims who have migrated to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan owing to religious persecution.

The Agony

I am 25 and all the 25 years of my life I have felt proud of being from the Northeast and most importantly being from the beautiful state of Assam. I was brought up in an environment of a mixed culture of the different communities residing together, celebrating their identities and those of others with equal grandeur all through the year. As such, I grew up with a cosmopolitan mentality and an identity which I have cherished the most. But very recently my identity has thrown me in a grave dilemma. My forefathers may have come to Assam from some other corner of the country; but after they settled here they blended well with the local cultures and even though they speak Bengali as their mother tongue, they, however, made sure that they are identified as an Assamese first and not by what they were before arriving in the state. And as generations evolved, the Bengali identity has marred down and we take pride in being identified as Assamese. But with this political hullabaloo around, today the perspective of identity seems to have changed!

The Question Probes in Why

I am, as I have always called myself a Bengali speaking Assamese, but by all means an Assamese. Coming back to the dilemma, it confuses me now to whether denounce my identity as an Assamese or as a Bengali, as I am both at the same time. And with the recent events taking place in the region I have been made to feel like an outsider, addressed as Bengali in a very derogatory manner and most importantly being counted amongst the illegal immigrants.

Going back to my ancestry, my paternal grandfather Manoranjan Mazumdar arrived in Assam in the 1930s as an employee of the imperial government in the British Oil company. He came from undivided Bengal and belonged to undivided India. The story of my maternal ancestry goes even beyond that as my great grandfather arrived at the region for his trade and later on settled like many others. So I do belong to a lineage of settlers who were not indigenous to the region. But eventually Assam and the different region they were brought into became their home, and their future generations will know it as their only home ever.

But why after ages am I concerned where my ancestors came from, the concern began with the initiation of NRC by the government which was devised to identify and validate the background of the non-indigenous residents of the state and to verify whether they actually belong to the country as a whole. After all, the chaos of collecting all the relevant documents of each and every member of the family and going through the tedious process half of my family members didn’t find their names in the list, followed by a series of routine visit to the NRC office.

What is worth mentioning in this aspect is that two gentlemen from my family my father Tapan Mazumdar and my uncle Satyaranjan Mazumdar were also left out from the NRC list, and ironically both have served in the central government and has served the nation by joining the Indian Armed Forces. In reward, the government reciprocates with an identity validation scheme which doesn’t contain their name, added on by the ill-treatment of the NRC officials owing to the one fundamental reason that both of them have a Bengali origin.

Is it a story specific to me or is common to a lot of others. Well, there are many and let’s go through some.

On the Similar Lines


While I was in this dilemma, exhausted and tired of taking ‘joked’ from those whom I have known for years and whom I have always considered as my friends, I came across Agniswar Mitra, a Guwahati-based cyclist and an insurance consultant.


“Being born to parents having both Bengali and Assamese cultural roots as the origin and being born and brought up in a cosmopolitan society, when I was growing up I have always faced this question about my identity. I have grown up in Dhubri where the language mostly is spoken is Bengali. My mother comes from a family of reputed Assamese litterateurs and it has always been a matter of shame for me that while I was in school I was unable to write to Assamese properly. Even though I was good at reading and speaking, the writing was a problem and when I joined Cotton College after my HSLC, it is here where I learned to write Assamese,” says Mitra in a candid chat while sharing his story.


“The question about my Assamese identity rose only due to the negligence of some ignorant people. I still remember the day I went for an interview in Kolkata, where one of the interviewers also shared my surname. ‘Agniswar Mitra, so you are a Bengali’, the gentleman had asked me. To this, I proudly replied, ‘No, I am an Assamese who speaks Bengali as his mother tongue’. Even though my father was a Bengali by birth, but I have never known him speaking in Bengali with my mother. In fact, in our family we always spoke Assamese,” Mitra further adds.


Adding further he says, “It is difficult to make a point clear to people who feel they are the authority in a thing about which they don’t know much. The Bengalis or the Marwaris or the Hindi speaking people who migrated to Assam during the British rule some 100 years ago are Assamese- both culturally and linguistically. It is just that in Assam we have different communities speaking various languages.”


“Who questions my Assamese identity by calling me ‘Bongal’, I proudly say them, ‘Yes, I am Bongal, but that does not make me less Assamese. I am an Assamese and I will always be one, no matter what’,” Mitra further says, adding, “The NRC and the CAB are political tools to create a divide and we must not be emotionally driven by these two acts/policies. The term ‘illegal migrants’ are for those who have entered Assam illegally, irrespective of their linguistic or religious beliefs.”


“For me and my Assamese identity, my mother tongue can never be the benchmark of judgment. I, on a personal note, don’t think I need to clarify those questioning my identity or making fun of me for me having Bengali roots. If they have issues, then they are open to prove it and I am least bothered to what they feel or say. They have not made me the person I am and hence I don’t give them the right over anything,” Mitra concludes.


While talking the discussion further, I had the opportunity to speak to Rhiddhis Chakravorty, a Guwahati-based journalist.


“Assam can be called a living museum. Here, people of different ethnicity live together. One can be an indigenous Assamese or ‘notun Asomiya’, all are Assamese to the core. By ‘notun Asomiya’ I mean those residents of Assam who have migrated to the land centuries back and made the state their home and if one is Bengali or a Marwari or of any other ethnicity, it does not matter,” he says while speaking to me in a candid chat.


“Now, a section of people have begun to call the Bengali speaking Assamese as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This is a sad narrative of some sick minded people who have their own vested interest in doing so,” he further says, adding, “My surname is Chakravorty and on several occasions, I have been asked if I am an Assamese or a Bengali. I simply laugh at such questions. The NRC and the CAB have been wrongly interpreted by some of us and this, I feel, mainly is due to their superiority complex that they are suffering from.”


“The most difficult thing in this world is to make someone believe at the right when they are blindfolded by some wrong conceptions and perceptions. Das, Goswami, Nath, Bhattacharyya, Mazumdar, etc. are surnames common both to the Assamese and the Bengalis and if we trace our roots then we will find that there exists a common thread connecting both the communities. Some person may have come to Assam from Bengal ages ago. But the generations thereafter are Assamese, irrespective of what language they speak.”


“After the 1947 partition, several people from Pakistan came to India, even though many of their relatives continued to live in Pakistan. Those who came to India are Indians. But do we question them? No. So why are the Bengalis of Assam being questioned? I strongly feel it is a way to create unrest in the state so that the motives of those in power are fulfilled. I have been very vocal of one thing- Assam is not against Bengalis but against those migrants who came to Assam illegally,” he adds on.


“If you ask me, the majority of Assamese have no bias against any of the ‘notun Asomiyas’ but the negative narratives of some ignorant people have poisoned the strong cultural fabric of the state and the society. And we will find such elements in every society. What they are trying is to do is break the camaraderie so that their vested interests are fulfilled,” he speaks further, adding, “To understand this camaraderie, we must look into our history and then we will see the contributions of every Assamese (irrespective of the language they speak) in building the greater Assamese society.”


“You are an Assamese to the core, as much I am,” Chakravorty concludes.


And then there is a friend of mine who is an Assamese- both linguistically and birth. However, since his surname is Goswami and his elder brother married someone from Kolkata with a surname Ghosh, during the NRC verification he was asked if they were Assamese Goswami or were from West Bengal? So can I say it’s all in the ‘surname’?


History Repeated


The British brought in people to the sparsely populated region of the northeast from the different parts of India as cultivators, traders government employees and many more. But as shrewd as they were it was made sure to not let these settlers to unite with the indigenous people as the unification could have been a threat to their rule. Thus they projected the settlers as land grabbing demons and the indigenous the victims in their own land.

Dr Amalanda Guha has elaborately worked on this issue and has given enough evidence on how the unity was never allowed to blossom which could otherwise have given way to a more peaceful co-existence of the different communities without endangering the culture of the other.

Quite a similar card is been played in the recent times to firm their hold on the chairs by the conspiracies of the different political agenda naming it as the NRC or the CAB, to fill their vote banks. The division among the communities creating chaos in the region could benefit in diverting the attention from the real problems and would engage the public in a way that might not let them think about it.

Blinded by ignorance and motivated by political agendas a fraction of the patriotic squad always end up fuelling a communal difference. Remembering the constitution of the nation which is no different for the state, which allows every Indian the right to settle anywhere in the country irrespective of their origin.

Ending Note

Illegal immigration is a genuine problem, what our country needs to work upon the loopholes which are allowing the immigrants to cross the border illegally, to seal the border with a little more proficiency, to find the inadequacy which offers them the chance to acquire all the important documents to prove themselves as an Indian citizen. As it goes the NRC and CAB have created more complications than before. I am no expert in this sphere but I am an ordinary citizen of the country who is facing a severe identity crisis. My government has failed to secure my identity and my own people are treating me as an outcast. Has our origin restrained us from not contributing to the cultural development of the region or promote the region?

It is fascinating how many from my generation does not know the Bengali word for the three Bihus which is a common festival celebrated by both the communities. How efficiently our vocabulary has adopted a mix of words from both the languages, just like til pitha has found its place in the platter of pitha during the festivities. How our body recognizes the bits of the dhol and pepa without any enforcement. It has become vehemently important for every Bengali origin bride in Assam to must have at least one mekhla chador in her wedding collection.  Bhupendra sangeet and Jyoti sangeet are learnt and cherished with the same enthusiasm as the Rabindra Sangeet.

There have been many from the Bengali speaking Assamese community of Assam who has contributed immensely in building the cultural fabric of the state and we cannot deduct them out on the basis of their Bengali origin. Would not it cut out a part of the cultural development? Bhupen Hazarika sang many Bengali songs and with the equal passion and does that makes him less of an Assamese. Coming to the contemporary age will the fans of Zubin Garg state they don’t enjoy his Bengali numbers which turned out to be hit?

The only question that probes in my mind now is- what makes a less of an Assamese?


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