On the morning of August 15 this year, when one of my friends who recently joined her new posting at a college in Barpeta district of Lower Assam had sent me several pictures of the Independence Day celebrations at her workplace, I was suddenly at a loss of words! This is the same district which has seen one of the worst affects of the demographic change that Assam has been witnessing over the years. The pictures from her college or rather what I would prefer to call them ‘institutional’ celebrations of Independence Day, struck in me immediately a fresh breath of air. I was nostalgic and happy at the same time. For a moment, I did not understand how to react; because, this was indeed a fresh change that had come about gradually in a state like Assam marred by some of the worst episodes of violence, which the so-called ‘mainland India’ still rarely talks about!
As a child whose father would come home and narrate his election-duty experiences amid calls for polling boycott, re-polling in booths, etc. the dark past that my state has been a witness to is still fresh in the mind of its people and will continue to remain ever so. If August 15 was about enjoyment and celebration in the rest of India, we the people of Assam were confined to the four corridors of our homes because of 48-hour bandhs declared by the gun-trotting dreaded militant outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which has now been declared a ‘banned organisation’ by the Govt. of India. It was a day of complete boycott of all pro-India activities by any group, organisation or institution.
In one of the most gruesome massacres carried out by the ULFA in the year 2004 in Dhemaji district of Upper Assam, a huge bomb explosion during the Independence Day celebrations on August 15 had resulted in the death of 18 people, mostly school children. The sight of the dead bodies of those little kids was horrific! The ULFA immediately claimed full responsibility for this attack on innocent civilians, and it was especially after this brutal incident that the common Assamese people feared stepping out of their homes on this day for several years thereafter. Assam is a state that has burned and suffered at the hands of several such unfortunate acts of dastardly violence time and again, giving further traction to the mainstream media’s love for painting the entire North-East as an ‘insurgency-infested state’.
Thanks to the ground-level hard work of the RSS swayamsevaks along with their sister organisations such as Seva Bharati and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram over the years, anti-India outfits such as ULFA and its ideologues failed to realise their dream of separating Assam and the North-East from Ma Bharati. However, much harm has already been done in the manner through which the Hindu past of the North-East and its several references in our historical texts such as the Mahabharata and the Puranas, have completely been erased off the chapters in the standard NCERT textbooks.
Insensitive decision-making on the part of the previous Congress governments at the Centre with respect to this region of the country further worsened things. It paved the way for Christian missionaries who gradually established a strong foothold in this region through their “charitable activities”. They smack of a malicious propaganda supported by the political establishment which has been aimed at eliminating all existing Hindu traditions and the local religious practices and native beliefs of this region.
Well, coming back to Assam, its history has been punctuated by several violent movements, demands of nationalities within nationality and a narrative that has been perennially dominated by the issue of illegal immigration from across the land border with Bangladesh. After six long years of massive student’s agitations led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), India’s first truly young students’ government led by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) came to power with Prafulla Kr. Mahanta as the Chief Minister.
The AGP’s rise to power was as much meteoric as its fall from glory in a short span of time. In its tenure from 1985-1990, the patriots-turned-politicians who filled the ranks of the AGP-led government had serious charges of corruption scandals levelled against them. Most importantly, the government failed to implement the Assam Accord (1985) and also deliver on its core promise of resolving Assam’s immigration crisis. Since the leaders smelt power at quite a young age, they became arrogant and selfish.
The fall of the AGP from the echelons of power saw the simultaneous rise of the ULFA. The charisma that had initially surrounded Prafulla Mahanta and his colleagues seemed to have been transferred to the ULFA cadres, whose pledge to complete the unfinished agenda of the AGP now emotionally appealed to the common Assamese sentiment. The ULFA made the case that political parties could not at all be trusted to protect the interests of their state. In fact, Paresh Barua, the commander-in-chief of the ULFA, lamented in a cryptic tone – “With the stroke of chance, they [AGP cadres] became ministers and we came to the jungles”.
It needs to be recalled here that both the AGP and the ULFA leaders were offshoots of the Assam Movement which was led by young, free-spirited lads motivated by the issues of illegal immigration, the step-brotherly attitude of the Centre towards Assam and exploitation of its resources against the interests of the state. In his oft-quoted work on Gopinath Bordoloi, writer Nirode Kr. Barooah suggests that Nehru had apparently defied the basic principles of federalism when it came to handling the peculiar problems of this border state of India. He also claims that Nehru adopted tough arm-twisting measures to force the state to toe Delhi’s line. Hence, the extremely serious political, cultural and economic issue of illegal immigration was pushed under the carpet to eventually become a big monster for the state in the years ahead!
Again, during the 1962 Sino-Indian war, when the Chinese forces had advanced upto Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, Nehru said ‘My heart goes out to the people of Assam’. Somehow, these words of Nehru deeply condensed in the minds of the people of Assam and it continues to stoke the flames of anger and frustration even today. They felt abandoned and demoralised for they were let down by their own government. In the words of Prof. Nani Gopal Mahanta, “This incident played a very pro-active role in popularising the secessionist thought among the new generations in the 1980s who believed that India had already left Assam and abdicated its responsibility to protect its own people.” The original genesis of the ULFA movement can be traced to this time, which is still very explicitly attached in the minds of the people here.
In its initial years, the ULFA had received substantial support in the form of money and material from the state machinery of the then AGP-government, so much so that the AGP had come to be perceived as an over-the-ground political arm of the ULFA. The organisation came to be based on a money-centric and arms-centric culture and it took state support for granted. Gradually, in a sustained fashion, a popular armed struggle with the objective of accomplishing genuine socio-economic and developmental goals for the masses deteriorated into mindless terrorism. It established links with several cross-border terror organisations in Myanmar and Bangladesh that completely depleted whatever remained of the ULFA’s popular support.
The reign of terror unleashed by the ULFA, which almost ran a parallel government without any semblance of rule of law, also cost the AGP and especially Prafulla Mahanta dearly. His second term (1996-2001) was one of total political chaos and violence from the very beginning. In fact, this period became infamous in the political history of Assam for ‘secret killings’, which dominated the discourse of the AGP government till the end of its term in 2001.
The Assamese civilisation, the ancient land of Pragjyotishpur and the kingdom of Kamarupa, all have deep roots in history going back to the Vedic times. Yet, at the same time, it is interesting to study and analyse as to why such a land with strong socio-cultural connections with the rest of India embarked on a visceral quest of identity and armed nationalism. The ULFA propagated a militant brand of nationalism that can best be summed up in the words of the ULFA Chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa himself – “Asom and Asom’s identity is not a part of India and Indian identity.” Later, Parag Das, one of the prominent faces and torch-bearers of the ULFA ideology, wrote in his book Rastradruhir Dinlipi– “We are not getting carried away by an emotional branding of Bharat Mata and hence propagate one unified India.”
The ULFA had its own inherent limitations that eventually led to its failure. Its biggest blunder was that it stubbornly appropriated Assam’s colonial and post-colonial history from the perspective of anti-Delhi-ism and sub-nationalism. It failed to understand the pulse of the people of Assam that had, for long, yearned to be a part of Bharatvarsha. It was against this backdrop that the RSS and its affiliates remained ever-committed to its cherished goal of a unified Bharat Mata and Akhand Bharat. Despite losing several swayamsevaks and pracharaks during the heydays of the ULFA agitation, the steely resolve and commitment of the RSS to achieve the goals of national integration is a story that has widely been left unattended to in the Left-inspired media narratives of Assam.
Coming to the present context from where we started, Independence Day celebrations this year across the state were marked by a new enthusiasm and patriotic fervour, although they were a low-key affair because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It was a very different feeling of belongingness identified with Bharat Mata that resonated deep inside somewhere, when almost all sections of the society from teachers and government officials to police personnel and army jawans, etc. came out and proudly hoisted the national flag of India within the premises of their workplaces.
A ‘Fit India Freedom Run’ was organised in Guwahati on the occasion, in which a team of ITBP officials and the local people too, participated. Art-competitions were also organised by several media houses and event-management companies based in the city of Guwahati. E.g. Swargojyoti Event, a Guwahati-based event management company organised a nationwide online art competition for children from August 4-14 titled ‘Chitrakaar – Celebrating Freedom’.
Although much more ground-work remains to be done in integrating India’s border states with the rest of Bharatvarsha, but since the last few years, the message from Assam has been simple and clear – We the people of Assam have understood the anti-human, hollow ideology of the ULFA cadres; We want to move away from those dark days of disturbance and conflict and are ready to look forward to more positive, optimistic and hopeful days ahead.
- Nirode K. Barooah. (2010). Gopinath Bordoloi, ‘The Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre. Guwahati. Bhabani Books.
- Nani Gopal Mahanta. (2013). Confronting the State: ULFA’s Quest for Sovereignty. New Delhi. Sage Publications.
- Rajat Sethi & Shubhrastha. (2017). The Last Battle of Saraighat – The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east. Penguin Random House India.
- The Assam Tribune. August 17, 2020.
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.