Meghalaya mulls ‘Assamese’ link

Shillong, July 23 : Who is an Assamese? As Assam faces the uphill task of answering this question, Khasi intellectuals in Meghalaya have offered varied views on the issue.

The comments of these intellectuals assume significance as Meghalaya was born in 1972 largely out of the indigenous communities’ protest against imposition of Assamese language on them in undivided Assam.

The intellectuals here have focused on various factors such as geography, language and demography while trying to throw light on the definition of Assamese. Some feel the definition of the term should be restricted to the indigenous people of Assam while others feel it should be seen in a broader sense.

Legislator Paul Lyngdoh, a former president of the Khasi Students Union, feels the definition of Assamese should be restricted to the indigenous people of Assam, that is the original inhabitants like the Khasis, who have made the place their home and hearth for along time. People who are just permanent residents cannot qualify as Assamese. “It need not cover the later settlers and definitely not the illegal settlers,” he said.

However, senior citizen Toki Blah feels it would be dangerous to define “Assamese” in the narrow sense of the term, that is focus on original inhabitants only, as some multilingual and ethnic communities residing in Assam are genuine residents too, and cannot be sidelined.

Admitting that it was a difficult task to define Assamese, Blah said any step in this direction would help to examine the genuine residents.

John Kharshiing, an expert on Khasi traditional institutions, said the indigenous communities of Meghalaya, Khasi, Jaintia and Garo, were also facing a problem identical to Assam. He said if one goes by the cut off year of 1971 (to detect foreigners) as per the Assam Accord, there would be a minimum of three lakh foreign nationals in Meghalaya.

He said a people sharing the same language, culture and tradition form a community and this is what should be taken into consideration while defining Assamese. But in reality, different indigenous communities use the Assamese language and practise Assamese culture.

He said if one goes by the fact that Assam was formed on linguistic ground, then it would be wrong to question who is an Assamese now.

According to Kharshiing, any attempt to define “Assamese” is irrelevant as the concern over foreign nationals should focus on their detection and deportation according to the cut-off year laid down in the Assam Accord.

The vice-chancellor of Martin Luther Christian University, Glenn C. Kharkongor, said when one defines Assamese, two categories of people should be kept in mind. “Assam should consider genuine groups, including tribes like the Bodos and the Karbis who form part of Assamese, and the non-tribals who came from other states or foreign countries like the Ahoms.” People from East Bengal who became part of the state are also Assamese.

“Assam is a basket of several identities and should not be defined by language alone,” he said, adding that it should be considered as a geographical entity comprising many people. He said the categorisation of genuine and non-genuine residents should be left to a political decision.