Ethnic movements in India – Assam and Gorkhaland movements


Ethnic movements are enacted with the intention of promoting or resisting social change. They are organized by groups who differ in origin, culture, language, religion, territory or phenotype. The word ethnic has been derived from the Greek word ‘ethnos’ which refers to a community of common descent.

Ethnic movements are common in multiethnic societies and these people demand identity, autonomy, rights and power. It is a highly debated topic among sociologists. Some believe these movements are a result of the modernization of the society while some others argue by saying that traditional India, too, had this divide and hierarchy. In India, the two most famous of these movements are that of the Assamese and the Sikhs in Punjab. Let’s discuss the two of them in detail.

Assam movement:

The ethnic conflict in Assam has come into the limelight in the recent past. This movement involved three parties: Assamese, Bengalis (who were both Hindus and Muslims) and the local tribal groups. During the late 1900s, many people fled from Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan)and infiltrated into Assam through the porous borders. They were both Muslims and Hindus. The Hindus in these Bengalis could acquire the top-level jobs, given their higher education as compared to the locals, since they were comparatively more eligible.  On the other hand, the Bengali Muslims (who were considered illegal), who were originally peasants, started cultivating the land (especially that on the southern bank of river Brahmaputra). This led to the minority outclassing the majority in the number of jobs they held and in education. They also grew in numbers and this led to the spread of Bengali language. But the tribals who lived in Assam and were less developed than these two ethnic groups were exploited by the Assamese and the Bengalis. This higher positions of the infiltrators angered the middle-class Assamese who consequently started an ethnic movement wherein they demanded for their identity which was on the verge of being lost.

The Muslims who came from Bangladesh and were considered aliens were staunch supporters of the Congress party and Ms.Gandhi reciprocated by favouring them. Congress leaders made the names of these people appear on the electoral roll irrespective of their citizenship. Due to this, many agitated people resorted to violence by destroying public property. Many massacres were committed by various ethnic groups on the others. The tribals killed members of either of those ethnic groups that owned a higher share of land in their respective regions. The movement took place due to the underdevelopment that Assam was dwelling in. The indigenous people were afraid of losing their identity to the people who came in great numbers.

Gorkhaland movement:

The movement to liberate Gorkhaland from West Bengal is the first movement intended to achieve statehood in India. This movement is based on language. The conflict is between Nepali speakers and Bengali speakers. Gorkhaland has Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling, Kalimpong etc. These people’s culture is very different from that of the Bengalis in West Bengal. This land consists of the fertile Terai region of West Bengal which generates revenue through its tea and scenic beauty. The identity crisis of these Nepali-speaking people and the issues of underdevelopment and poverty are also reasons behind this movement.

In 2013, the unanimous passing of the bill that bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, the people demanded for separate statehood again. Later, in 2017, the government of West Bengal decided it would impose Bengali as a language in all schools in West Bengal from class I to X. This hurt the sentiment of the Gorkhas even more and was considered the imposition of an alien culture on the people.  Since, even after numerous protests, the government did nothing about it, the people started demanding for a separate state again. Most of the residents of these areas also believe they should gain independence in order to preserve their culture and they want the region to be named Gorkhaland. This agitation led to the shutdown of schools, government offices and tea gardens. Internet was shutdown for about a month. A lot of public property was also vandalized by the agitators. The response of the Central government was delayed and this led to necessary items not being supplied to the common people.

The people of Gorkhaland don’t find themselves compatible with the Bengali speakers. They believe they are both different both culturally and socially. They are also dissatisfied by the fact that the government doesn’t really work for their development.

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An undergraduate student of Arts, Uma Sathwika is studying in the University of Delhi. She is ardent about writing things- things that truly matter with great intricacy