What's Ailing Assam? Part III
After continuous constitutional and sometimes unconstitutional struggle, Assam has voiced its oppression and it was not a coincidence that the student unions in the state have been an inevitable part of the struggle all the way. If it did not catch your attention, we endeavour to tell you here how monumental the student unions have been to the basic societal and political fabric of Assam.
We traced through the long and yet unconcluded history of the Assam movement in our last 2 episodes on the Assam focus series (Also watch What's Ailing Assam? Part II and What's Ailing Assam? Part I) bringing you the various perspectives on the Citizenship amendment bill 2016. While the focus on the bill may have taken a backseat for now, given the closure of the last budget session, this is fated for re-emergence in the near future, or as experts foresee, once before the general elections 2019. This bill and the debate around it have brought, not just Assam but the whole of North East, to the mainstream. Much delayed though, the demonstrations, the stirs and the strikes bring the spotlight to where it should have been placed, if not by the citizens then at least by the governments at the centre.
Dr. Meeta Deka, Professor & Former Head, Department of History, Gauhati University, Assam and author of many books during a long writing career. Dr. Deka writes on the subject of rise and importance of student unions in Assam in her book 'Student Movements in Assam' published in 1996. We consulted her on some of the major evolutionary milestones of students in the history of Assam.
We also spoke to Dr. Kaustabh Deka, Professor of Political Science, Dibrugarh University, Assam and were lucky to get him to explain the dynamics for our readers on video.
Earliest student activism
Dr. Meeta Deka tells us, "In my book Student Movements in Assam, I have traced student activism to as early as 1853 when Asomiya students, led by Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, submitted a memorandum to A J Moffat Mills, the judge of the Sadar Court, Calcutta, on his visit to Assam, wherein inter alia they expressed the need for English education as students had to be sent all the way to Calcutta for the same. This petition counteracts Captain Butler's statement of 1838 that the upper class in Assam 'show no desire whatever to see the rising generation educated or made wiser than themselves…'This, no doubt, was the first step of student activism, and therefore significant, though it did not have any immediate outcome. It was also the first instance of the ventilation of public grievances through submission of representations and memoranda. Even Manik Chandra Barua's petition in 1899 to the Chief Commissioner Henry Cotton initially fell on deaf ears for the latter strongly believed that the educated Assamese 'cannot be independent of Bengal in their language or association' and that the slow progress of the state was often the result of ' a feeling of provincialism' among the people of the state. Against such imperialist resistance, Cotton College was established in 1901.
The next submission of petition by Asomiya students was to the Viceroy of India, Lord Northbrook, on behalf of the Asomiya Chatrar Sahitya Sabha ( Literary Club of the Assamese students) in 1871, wherein they pleaded for the development of the natural resources of the frontier state of Assam through the proposal of a railway line connecting the province with Bengal . So, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Asomiya students have been taking up issues like English education, economic development, etc."
Student Unions begot most of the prominent Assamese leaders
Dr. Meeta Deka continues, "Prominent leaders who emerged from student unions are galore! Gauri Shankar Bhattacharyya, Bijoy Chandra Bhagawati, Phani Bora, Nibaran Bora, Dulal Barua, Pulakesh Baruah, Atul Bora —all of whom I had interviewed for my PhD thesis! Ex-Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Late Bhrigu Phukan, Current CM Sarbananda Sonowal, Minister for Health and PWD Himanta Biswa Sarma, Samujjal Bhattacharjya, Tapan Gogoi and the list goes on!"
Social-political and cultural interlacing in Assam
For sake of better perspective, if we were to concentrate only on India to trace the impact of its student unions, we can clearly relate to some prominent ones like the Swadesi Movement of 1905, Non-cooperation movement of 1919, Quit India Movement , Naxalite movment of 1967, Chipko Movement of 1973, Anti-Mandal students' agitation of 1990.
Dr. Meeta Deka tells us why then the emergence of student unions in Assam deserves a special mention, "What is unique in the case of Assam, as opposed to other states in India, is its geo-political location as a frontier state. Geographically isolated from what is referred to as 'mainland India', overshadowed by the birth of Calcutta (Kolkata) as a major port and industrial capital under colonialism, and sharing international boundaries with Bangladesh, Burma, China and Bhutan which in itself has major and serious implications. The entire north-eastern region itself has diverse cultures and patterns of social and political structure and with attempts at homogenisation leading to low level of integration or disintegration. Such complexities have, perforce, made it inevitable that social and economic changes of the region be effected through student movements. This is what makes the case of Assam different from the other states. In fact, student movements have been integrated into the very political and socio-economic structure/framework of Assam and have been able to draw the attention of the national government in policy making on educational, political, economic and social issues that might otherwise have been ignored or neglected."
All Assam Students' Union – not a political outfit by principle
"AASU is supposed to be 'a non-political organization' but in the last few decades every political party has a student wing. In the 1950s, they did launch movements on the political question. In 1953, they launched a united struggle on the issue of integrating North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) with Assam at the instance of Communist Party of India (CPI) and Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) leaders, as well as protest against the West Bengal claim of merger of Goalpara with Bengal and other issues in 1955 before the States Reorganisation Commission, etc, but most of AASU-led movements were economic and social in nature which made a great impact in the 1950s-80s" adds Dr. Meeta Deka.
"However, with diverse democracy taking roots in the post-Independence period, in the last few decades in particular, and on the language issue, AASU began to lose its position as the umbrella organization of the region. Sadou Tai Ahom Chattra Sangstha and All Assam Adivasi Students Union rejuvenated while several organizations of the Mising, Tiwa, Dimasa, Koch Rajbongshi, Matak, Maran, Sonowal Kachari, Deuri, Karbi, Assam Chutia Students' Union, Gorkha, Sarania Kachari, Mahadi and Bodo came into existence. In the economic blockade against the Subansiri Hydroelectric Project in Dec 2010, the leadership of the struggle was under the KMSS, rather than AASU, In fact AASU was mentioned as one of the 26 other student organizations. Though common issues do help in building bridges across all differences and cultures, as was the case in the last agitation against the Citizenship Bill," comments Dr. Meeta Deka.
Student unions in Assam tabled all important issues
Language issue, opium prohibition, establishment of bridge, oil refinery ,Food Crisis of 1966-67, anti-eviction agitation, movement against the Subansiri Mega Hydroelectric Dam, and campus issues such as against fee hike, demand for more seats in colleges and universities, etc, these were some of the major issues that the student unions vociferously tabled. This exhibits the very active involvement of the youth in the holistic framework of Assam.
Hot on the heels of the bill's current lapse in the parliament
With the whole of Assam and North East keenly observing and preparing for the road ahead on Citizenship Amendment Bill, the most obvious question to pose was how will the government react to it after its current lapse in the last budget session? Dr. Meeta Deka responds, "Well, I guess the Government, with very little time at hand, will make every attempt to get it passed even if through the issue an Ordinance to give an effect to the Bill." It's just a matter of time then before the General Elections of 2019 and as we speculate on the moves of the two sides, we can't help but agree with Dr. Kaustabh Deka that this bill has, thought belatedly, "put Assam on the fore front at last".