The Quit Northeast Movement

Who is this elusive and often-fictional “outsider” in the Northeast?

Much like Mughal-E-Azam was reproduced in colour, a sneak preview of the 2012 edition of the Assam Agitation is now available in technicolor. Some would like to call it Agitation (Season 2). The dialogues (slogans) and the actors are the same. Even the director (All Assam Students Union) is the same. The producers have roped in a few new names like North Eastern Students Organisation (NESO) and the location has spread to the states of Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh from its earlier backdrop of Assam and Meghalaya.

Aei jui jolise, jolisei, joliboi” (This fire that is burning and shall keep burning bright), “Bangladeshis go back, go back, go back”, “Ai aa Ulai aa” (Come out of your home and join us) and “Bidexi husiyar” (Foreigners beware). Agitators on the streets of Jorhat, Sibsagar and Guwahati screaming these slogans was nostalgia for most residents in Assam. For many, it was also a bitter reminder of losing two precious years to an agitation which delivered and achieved virtually nothing. The only difference is that the lakhs of people who came out spontaneously then, are more stage-managed now. Cameras, I am sure, zoomed in to get a tighter shot indicating a huge turnout. Emotionally-charged headlines of “Assam unites against infiltration” or some such, are slowly occupying space in local media.

Bandhs and rallies, now banned by the Assam government, ensured that prohibitory orders were in place in Guwahati, but the rest of Assam and neighbouring states observed a successful “bandh” which was a synonym for the Assam Agitation. (The government of Assam recently released some statistics on bandhs and strikes already observed this year: 71 days of bandh; 65 road blockades; 13 rail blockades. Manipur had a spectacular escape from its annual marathon highway blockade).

The props and sets remain similar. The tone and tenor ominously echoes the same assertion.

What is even more disturbing is that over the last one month even some journalists have started believing that the recent violence in Assam is a result of “illegal immigration”. The death of more than 100 and displacement of lakhs of people since July 20th this year in the Bodoland districts of lower Assam are being attributed to an “unabated influx of foreigners” from across the Bangladesh border. This is a most preposterous conclusion, and dangerous for the future course of these states.

The Bodoland violence has a history of Bodos violently countering any challenge posed to their demand of a separate state and their dominance in what is known as BTAD or the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District. The community that has been targeted this time has been effectively described as one which has a dubious record of infiltrating India, encroaching upon “indigenous” land and property and threatening the identity of the “locals”. This fear may be real. But inability to prove a case shouldn’t result in victimising an entire community and encouraging racial profiling.

The Congress, on a sticky wicket, is not sure how to address the mood generated by opposition parties and student groups. The Asom Gana Parishad which rode to power on this issue and was later disgraced by its voters for not being able to keep its promises, is rising like a phoenix with the return of “anti-foreigner” slogans. The militant outfits so often accused of conniving with Bangladesh are planning to use this platform to regain some of their credibility. In Manipur, the annual feature of militants issuing “quit” notices to “outsiders” have already started.

So who is this “outsider”? Relevant to the Bodo violence and to the history of northeast India in the last five decades has been this one word, an identity formation that resulted partially from xenophobia and partly from politics of exclusivism. The facts and inaccuracies of the Assam Agitation are known to most people. Reference to the Nellie massacre is the most obvious way to start a conversation on those years of black law, but there are individual stories of extreme harassment on many non-local communities particularly in Assam and Meghalaya. Upon saying this I had a Delhi-based reporter sceptically asking if I could provide a statistic for the number of families harassed or displaced. I don’t think anybody has maintained such a record in that anarchic state of affairs. That doesn’t necessarily mean one can forget the hundreds and thousands of cases of intimidation and humiliation just because one did not belong to the majority community. I have been told during the same time when Nellie occurred that non-Assamese villages in remote areas were erased out of existence.

One such village of Bengali Hindu families (it is unfortunate that communities have to be tagged with religion in a secular democracy) can still be found in Dhemaji in Upper Assam. They have renamed the village Tirashi (or in other words 1983) and there are children named Andolon (Agitation) and Campy (born in a relief camp). Religion was never the consideration. On the pretext of running an “anti-foreigner” agitation, Indian citizens were beaten, killed, threatened and driven away.

It was a chilly night in Shillong in October 1979, when the hills went up in flames and a decade of ethnic cleansing and genocide was perpetrated upon non-tribal communities in tribal-dominated districts. The dynamics of that changed from time to time. First the Bengalis were targeted and the Assamese enjoyed immunity. Then the Nepalese came under attack. Slowly it was an all-out attack against all non-tribals. There was an element of differentiating between Christian and non-Christian sections, but that was limited to the missionaries. It was an echo of what was fomenting in Assam. Anecdotes from those days are chilling, and when we hear the same slogans reverberating from the streets, we are forced to knock at our collective consciousness and remind ourselves of a bloodied past.

In Anjum Hasan’s The Lunatic in My Head which is based in Shillong where she grew up, what binds Firdaus, Aman and Sophie are that they are Dkhars or “outsiders”. A word that is used by locals for any non-Khasi person and is used almost as an abuse. In Manipur, the synonym for this is Mayang. In Assam, it’s Bohiragoto, but loosely Bongal or the Bengali from erstwhile East Bengal. Neither Meghalaya nor Assam wants to be reminded of the massacres that went unreported. In the cross-currents of xenophobia even if anyone raised an objection, it was too feeble to record.

Statistics can be useful but may also be misleading. No numbers, no amount of denials can take away the fact that the “non-tribal” and the “outsider” in India’s northeast have been attacked again and again. Jog your memory for the name of Gauri Dey, raped and killed in front of her husband and tied to a tree by her own neighbours. Her fault, she was an “outsider”. If you search her name on the internet you will find barely a mention today. All public transport that entered Shillong since the late Seventies would be stopped at Burnihat and the routine check by police meant that passengers suspected to be “foreigners” (read Nepali & Bihari labourers) would be asked to disembark.

During the years 2006-2009, a few 100 Bihari and Nepali residents and brick kiln labourers in Assam were shot dead in successive cycles of violence from Sadiya to Halflong (geographically from the upper tip of Assam to North Cachar Hills). This was preceded by the AASU campaign against Bihari candidates appearing for the Railway Recruitment examination. The silence of those hundreds of people killed and lakhs displaced is a travesty of justice; like the AGP in Assam who came to power with blood on their hands, the KSU (Khasi Students Union) also legitimised their violence and became a political force. The same is true for all groups, armed or technically unarmed to have carried out the most heinous crimes and then joined the “mainstream” after a “ceasefire” and “talks”.

The Bodo Liberation Tigers morphed into the BPF (Bodo Peoples Front), self-styled guardians of Bodoland and are only one amongst this long list of organisations who fought the Indian government and then managed to get wooed by the same government. It now runs its diktat on people, serves “quit” notices, decides on policies on its own, extorts its own people and claims to be doing all this in the interest of the region, state, ethnicity and identity. If it is “non-tribal” in Meghalaya, on Highway 39 inside Manipur the diktat is against the valley people or “Meiteis” and other “outsiders”. In the valley, it is against the “Mayang” or the mainland Indian. In Nagaland, even a vehicle bearing a registration of Assam is looked at with suspicion. Discrimination based on ethnicity has been an accepted culture in the entire region. That is against the law. Right to equal opportunity in matters of public employment, which is a constitutional right, has been violated in the region. All the rights to freedom in Article 19 have been denied in various ways.

“Nationalists” will doubt the intention of this article and accuse it of diverting the issue of “illegal immigration” when the nation and the various ethnicities are “threatened” by a silent attack by our neighbouring country. Unlike the previous agitation where instead of deporting illegal immigrants, genuine Indian citizens were displaced, this time one hopes the same story will not be repeated. I would also argue that the case of the “outsider” who is actually an insider is as grave and important as the agenda to cleanse the hills and valleys of the region from illegal occupation.

Assam and the rest of the region cannot afford a Season 2 of an anti-“outsider” agitation. The past still haunts the people of the state. “Insiders” and “outsiders” alike.  A study indicates that over the next 10 years an estimated 14 million people are expected to move out from the northeast region to the “mainland” in search of jobs. The number of people already working, studying and residing in other states is significant. Surely they will not want to be considered as “outsiders” in those places. Insane attacks, harassment based on language and religion and quit notices to Indian citizens can generate ugly reactions in those states. The Right to Life must be upheld.


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  • Prat.Delhi

    Good piece of analysis.

  • Ranjith

    Great job in bring these issues to the light.. I wish lot of people read this.

  • deep gogoi

    good piece to read… but to say that bangladeshi immigration is not an issue is a something i dont agree. there should be clear distinction between the immigrants and indians. but indigenous communities should not live in fear of being encroached in their own land. i think a pro active government will definitely be able to solve the immigration. and i am for a movement which safeguards the various ethnic communites in Assam.

    • Braveheart

      The actual Bangladeshi immigrants are receiving political patronage. Only Bengali Hindus are being systematically harassed. My father has a pre-independence birth certificate from present Assam registered within three days of his birth. His name is there in 1951 NRC and 1966 voter’s list. And even after that some of my co-workers (the so-called bhoomi-putras of Assam) at a central government organization where I work, treat me as a Bangladeshi. I am sure these so-called bhoomi-putras cannot produce any of the documents that I posses.