New Delhi: Close to dusk on August 15, 1985, and ahead of India’s 38th year of Independence, a group of student leaders from Assam etched their names in history.
Brigu Kumar Phukan and Prafulla Kumar, General Secretary and President of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), and Biraj Sarma, convenor of the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), became signatories to the Assam Accord along with former PM Rajiv Gandhi after a six-year-long agitation demanding identification and deportation of illegal immigrants.
The Accord brought an end to the Assam Movement of 1979-85 triggered by growing influx of migrants which were seen to be altering the demography of the state. AASU mobilised students and gave a call for the protection of Assamese culture and language. More then 800 people were reportedly killed in the ensuing protests and violence.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a recent intervention in Parliament said the historic agreement is the soul of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as it defined the criteria – midnight of March 24, 1971 – to verify citizenship in the north-eastern state.
Although all traces of the AAGSP in Assam’s socio-political landscape were lost with time, the AASU has continued providing steady intervention in matters of civil and political interest in the state – even in the demand to update the NRC.
Thirty years on from the day the Accord was signed, most of the first generation leaders of the movement have faded from Assam’s political discourse. But the AASU, continues to wield control over certain pockets of power in the north-eastern state.
The current chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, senior state minister and BJP’s chanakya in the north-east, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the to-be DGP of Assam Police Tapan Deka and many sitting legislators, activists, businessmen and bureaucrats are all ex-AASU leaders and lifetime loyalists.
While student politics has been the dominant platform for mainstream politics in Assam for over a century, contributing leaders like the first CM Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi and intellectuals like Sahitrarathi Lakshminath Bezbora, make AASU stand apart in the league. So much so, that it created a record when a whole set of its leader moved directly from university hostels to the state assembly in 1985.
A careful analysis of the life sketches of former AASU leadership reveals commonalities in various aspects of their lives in terms of family background, social status and educational qualifications.
Hitesh Deka of the Gauhati University in ‘All Assam Students Union and its Impact on the Politics of Assam Since 1979’ has presented a synthesis of arguments for the same.
“A majority of AASU leaders were from big families with a number of brothers and sisters. What this resulted it was struggle and peaceful co-existence, two vital characters that are found in leaders— social or political,” he said.
These leaders never had the privilege or luxury and thus, understood the pleasure of hard work. AASU leaders, who gave momentum to the movement of freeing Assam of illegal immigrants, belonged to humble backgrounds. Their parents were cultivators, freedom fighters, government employees, teachers, working for tea gardens, etc. – a strong reason why the Assam movement developed a close connection with the peasantry.
In terms of education, most AASU leaders studied in local schools. “This also resulted in their college life from their districts or native places only as most of the parents could not afford to send them to colleges in towns or cities, including Guwahati. However, a few of them came to Cotton College,” Deka explained.
Perhaps, the medium and form of education that AASU leaders were exposed to, helped the organization build a strong bond with rural students. It resulted in the quick proliferation of AASU branches in the early 1970s and 1980s, bringing support from beyond the towns and cities in the rural pockets of Assam.
“It is also noteworthy that the three-time general secretary of the AASU, Samujjal Bhattacharjya (and now chief advisor), competed his doctorate while being the adviser of the students' body. He is the first doctorate degree holder among AASU presidents and general secretaries,” Deka’s study observed.
It is because of this connect to the rural hinterland, along with the leaders' educational and family background that the AASU, despite being an apolitical organisation, was able to pass the baton of leadership to more than 25 persons in their 50 plus years of brief history. The same natural leadership that AASU instilled and harbored among its members has found its way into Assam’s political and social life.
The anthropology of emotion and culture has revealed that an individual remains at the ultimate seat of emotion while into or against a social and cultural pattern. Given AASU’s network, work and energies invested in the Assamese cause, emotion is locally reproduced and autonomous. Perhaps, that is why political scientist Sanjib Baruah has called the AASU “the most important segment of the new social space that has proved favorable to the growth of micro-national politics (in Assam)”.
Ahead of the final NRC, the AASU’s mobilisation of the ‘Assamese’ middle-class multiple times has borne fruit: from the language movement of 1972; the Oil refinery blockade of 1980, the food movement in 1966 to the Assam Agitation in 1979-85. The committed responsiveness of this middle-class commemorates the significance of AASU in the social narrative of citizenship.