‘Axomiya or Bongali?’ What Growing Up Bilingual in Assam Taught Me About Its Fraught Past

When I first heard that five Bengali Hindus had been brutally killed by masked militants in upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, a familiar shudder went through me. I’d felt the same way just a few months before that, when my mother’s name didn’t feature in the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), temporarily rendering her an ‘illegal immigrant’.

The Assam police and experts in the region say the killings were the handiwork of the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I), an Assamese separatist militant outfit. The ULFA-I has denied responsibility for these killings, but just three weeks before this, the outfit claimed it was behind a bomb blast in Guwahati. Then too the targets were Bengali Hindus.

It’s not that this ethnic tension is a new phenomenon in this region, but a new Bill is shedding new light on old conflicts. The new citizenship amendment Bill (CAB) – which seeks to give Indian citizenship to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh – has resurrected an old cultural and political fault line. There have been widespread protests and bandhs over the last two months. The state’s dominant Assamese-speaking groups are against the regularisation of ‘Bangladeshi Hindus’ living in the state. Bengali groups, too, called their own bandh after the Tinsukia killing.

While the Assamese-speaking groups in the Brahmaputra Valley (who constitute the state’s linguistic majority) firmly believe that the controversial Bill goes against their interests, the Bengali Hindu constituencies in the Barak Valley are in favour because it protects them from deportation.

The outcome? Unprecedented ethno-linguistic polarisation across the state. Once again, the Axomiyas (how dominant Assamese-speaking groups refer to their own ilk) stand pitted against the Bongalis (how dominant Assamese-speaking groups refer to the Bengalis of Assam).

The battle over who is a ‘true Assamese’ rages on – in the state assembly, on the streets and across social media. Aspersions are being cast from both ends, Axomiya jatiyatabad (Assamese ethno-nationalism) is on a new high, and old, rusted guns are being trained again.

On a personal level, all of this puts me in a position that is both awkward and unique.

I was born in Assam to an Axomiya father and a Bengali mother, and grew up in a lower Assam town with a heavily mixed population. Both of them were born and brought up in Assam.

For most of my childhood, these were mundane details. As kids, after all, we hardly ponder over the politics of our families, language or immediate spaces. We internalise what we see or hear, and take our lived experiences for granted.

And so, I did not know what it meant to have an Assamese father and a Bengali mother in Assam; speak both languages fluently, or even grow up in a town where Assamese Hindus, Assamese Muslims, Bengali Hindus, Bengali Muslims, Bodos, Koch Rajbongshis, Marwaris and Biharis lived together.

Those were the days of naiveté. My home, my family, my town were still non-political constructs in my mind. The chaos and the violence outside only registered as meaningless background noise.

But entering adulthood changed all that. It brought along academic studies in history and conflict, a job in political analysis, and of course, earth-shattering hindsight.

Having revisited Assam’s fraught history in this way, I feel both unsettled and privileged. Unsettled because I came to the realisation that my parents’ communities share a bitter ethno-linguistic rivalry. Privileged because, in so many ways, my mixed parentage defies the social binaries that characterise this bitter history.

As a child, however, my parents did not tell me that their matrimony was politically problematic, a countercultural phenomenon that went against the grain. So, the first question that hit me like a truck when I began to get a clearer picture of Assam’s ethno-linguistic politics was:

How did my father, an Axomiya Hindu, and my mother, a Bengali Hindu, manage to tie the knot during one of the most violent decades in Assam?

“Must be a love marriage,” was the most common comment I heard every time my mixed parentage cropped up in conversation. And it was. Surprisingly though, convincing their parents was a cakewalk (or so they claim).

Although I didn’t fully understand the significance of those comments as a child, later I realised people’s assessment was correct – because the political climate then made an Assamese-Bengali arranged marriage a virtual improbability in Assam at the time. After all, the mutual disdain between the two is the product of a long history of social, cultural and political antagonism, predating India’s independence.

In fact, this bitterness created the very foundations of Axomiya jatiyatabad. The dominant Assamese-speaking group could mobilise support along ethno-linguistic lines and systematically hegemonise itself in Assam’s post-independence society and polity precisely by othering the common enemy: Bengali Hindu migrants from East Bengal (later East Pakistan).

In simple words, the majority Axomiya constituencies in Assam wanted the state to be a homogenous homeland for the Axomiyas. The Bengalis were not a part of their nationalist imagination.

Somehow, my parents navigated these differences deftly when it came to the personal sphere of their wedding and marriage. I don’t have many details, thanks to my parents’ obscure storytelling. The little that I know is that the wedding included both Axomiya and Bengali Hindu rituals. Khati (from the land) Nalbariyas (my paternal family hails from a village in the Lower Assam district of Nalbari) mingled comfortably with the quintessential Kolkata bhadralok (my maternal side is mostly based in Kolkata, but partly hails from erstwhile East Bengal).

Here, it might suffice to say that I have only attended two Axomiya-Bongali weddings in my eighteen years of living in Assam. So, when I take pride in the marriage that led to me, it is not for no reason. In hindsight, I also take full pride at the way my extended families treated each other without any overt hostility.

Every time we visited my paternal home in Nalbari, which was a joint family household back in the day, I saw my Assamese-speaking jethas (father’s elder brothers), jethis (father’s elder brothers’ wives), khuras (father’s younger brothers) and khuris (father’s younger brothers’ wives), pehis (father’s sisters) and pehas (father’s brothers-in-law) accept my Bengali mother like one of their own.

Yes, they occasionally made a jibe or two at the random Bongali words that interrupted my otherwise fluent Nalbariya Axomiya dialect, but that was always in good humour.

It is, however, a different matter that no one in my Axomiya paternal family could speak Bengali. Conversely, those in my Bengali maternal family who grew up in Assam or later settled there could speak Axomiya with ease, some even with great fluency

In a similar vein, my Bengali mother speaks fluent Axomiya, with a slight dash of a Bengali accent. But my Axomiya father still cannot speak Bengali with the same fluency that my mother brings to his native language. In fact, my mother often directly addresses my father in his language, but my father almost never addresses my mother in her language.

I now realise the sociopolitical connotation of these linguistic asymmetries in my family.

Besides the deep-rooted patriarchal undertones of a typical Indian marriage that pressurise the wife into complying with the husband’s interests, the peculiar linguistic dynamic between my parents also reflects something more, I believe: the majoritarian dominance of Axomiya over Bengali.

The average Assamese-speaker in Assam, as a member of the dominant linguistic group, has never felt the need to learn Bengali. The opposite, however, isn’t true. The Bengalis living in the state, particularly the Brahmaputra Valley, had to learn Axomiya to integrate with the majority population. This is also partly true for other non-Axomiya indigenous communities living in Assam.

Herein lies that perennial antagonism between the two groups in which the Axomiya, due to their structural majoritarian dominance, had a clear advantage over the minority Bengali migrants. The Axomiya hegemony was so subsuming that large sections of the Bengali Muslim migrants from East Bengal reported their mother tongue as Assamese in 1951.

Fair to say that this structural dominance has played a central role in shaping the state’s contemporary popular discourse, right from the Assam Movement to the NRC. Majoritarianism always needs anchors, and in Assam, the NRC has been an ideal mooring for Axomiya jatiyatabad to prosper. The CAB, by empowering the minority Bengalis, has only strengthened Assamese ethno-nationalism: a project of identity creation that is inherently based on othering.

So, when I learnt that my father’s name appeared in the NRC’s final draft, but my mother’s didn’t, I was compelled to think along ethno-linguistic lines. This is not to say that the exclusion was motivated as such. But after the Hindu Bengalis’ killings last month, Assam’s divided and violent politics appeared to be creeping in close to home.

But, I will forgo the cynicism here.

I am immensely proud of my parents for what they did. I am also proud of their families for defying the toxic political constructs of their times. To me, my mixed parentage will always signify the best of Assam. In fact, I am Assamese precisely because I carry two cultures within me. There is, after all, no other way to be an Assamese but to take pride in a fiercely multicultural tradition.

Angshuman Choudhury is a senior researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi