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A dangerous Us and Them mindset

By Sudhanshu Ranjan

The Indian Express
21 November, 2003

The demand now being made by some of the more extreme elements in Assam, for 100 per cent reservations for the Assamese in Central government jobs in the state, is not new. However, it is not legally permissible.

It was to douse the fire of parochialism that the Parliament enacted the Public Employment (Requirement as to Residence) Act. Through it, all laws promulgated by states for giving priority to their citizens were declared null and void. If there cannot be any reservation for the state in the state services, how can there be a state quota for central jobs? The domicile provision attracts Articles 14, 16 and 19 of the Constitution.

Bihar is notorious for casteism but it has never been infected by the virus of regional chauvinism. After the Fazli Ali Commission’s report created a storm the chief ministers of Bihar and Bengal offered to amalgamate their tates in order to check the “linguistic madness”. But even in December 1947, when the Damodar Valley Corporation was being built, an interesting debate took place in the Bihar assembly. Members harped on the inescapable fact that a lot of land in Bihar would be submerged as a result of this project, while the benefits of flood protection and irrigation would go to Bengal. The then chief minister, S.K. Sinha, stood up and said, “It was only a few months back that we on August 15, 1947, made ourselves free and swore allegiance to India, to one India. None could realise that they would soon be forgotten that, if millions were benefitted in Bengal by flood protection works which did submerge a few villages in Bihar, those millions protected were as much Indians as those in Bihar who lost some land.”

Assam’s mindset was different possibly because of the high levels of migration the state had experienced. After the British annexed Assam, large population movements from the south have been a recurring phenomenon.

When the demand for partition was raised, it was suggested that Pakistan would comprise of the Muslim majority provinces in the west and Bang-e-Islam, comprising Assam and Bengal, in the east. Moinul Haque Chaudhury, M.A. Jinnah’s private secretary, had told Jinnah that he would “present Assam to him on a silver platter”. That, however, did not happen.

It was Bangladeshi migrations that fanned the All Assam Students Movement in the 1980s. But even before this, in ’66-’67, there was a movement known as “Bengali Kheda”, to drive out Bengalis. Now it is the turn of the Biharis. They, incidentally, constitute almost the entire workforce of Assam and it all began when the British imported Bihari labour for the tea gardens.

The situation in Assam today is extremely serious and does not portend well for either Assam or India. Both the Assam and Bihar governments, as indeed the Centre, must do all they can to defuse the situation immediately.