Assamese Associations in North America

The first recorded Assamese indviduals to come to the United States were Dhoniram Lucy N. Hayden and Sibaram James Tripp, converts to Christianity that the American Baptist Missionaries were trying to spread in Assam in the 19th century. The missionaries had gone to Assam in the 1840s and had established several schools, a printing press, and had published a magazine by the name Orunudoi, or Sun Rise. Hayden and Tripp were students at the Mission School in Nowgong. They started their travel on the 28th of December, 1848 from Calcutta by ship. They were accompanied by Miles Bronson, a missionary and a well-wisher of the Assamese language. They arrived in Boston on the 5th of May, 1849.

The US Congress had explicitly excluded immigrants from the Indian subcontinent in 1917. It had relaxed the laws slighlty in 1946. However, it was practially impossible for anyone in the Indian subcontinent to immigrate to the US until the passage of the Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Before that the numbr of Assamese who had come to the USA, either on missionary business or to study, were negliglbly small. However, starting the 1960s, some Assamese people have immigrated to the USA and settled here. The early immigrants were mostly physicians or engineers. Many of them came during the Vietnam War when there was need for these professions in the US because a lot of young American males were fighting the war in Asia. Later, many students, mostly in technical fields have come to the US. Recently, in the middle to late 1990s, some young Assamese individuals in the field of computers have come to work directly in the US. Still, the number of people of Assmese origin in the US is very small. It is estimated to be about 1000 individuals including chidren.

At the present time, there are several Assamese organizations in North America. The oldest among them in Asom Sangha. It was informally organized in the 1960s in the New York-New Jersey area of the United States. This is because most early immigrants to the USA from Assam had settled in this area. A large percentage of the older Assamese people in the USA at the current time had lived in this area one time or another. Asom Sangha was formally created in 1973 when an executive committee was elected and a President, a Vice-President and a General Secretary took office. In most other parts of the USA, the number of Assamese people were minuscule and a need for local or national organizations was not felt. Asom Sangha held picnics, Bohag Bihu and Bhogali Bihu celebrations. It also organized Sankar Deva Tithis in the Fall. The annual meetings were held in various parts of the Northeast, namely in the states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 1981, it adopted a constitution and decided to adopt an English name, Assam Society of America, in addition to its Assamese name. The then Chief Minister of Assam, Prafulla Mahanta was invited to attend the annal convention, named Assam Day, held at Princeton, New Jersey, in 1989. The Chief Minister had accepted the invitation, bought his plane tickets, but had to cancel his plans at the last moment after having traveled to Delhi from Assam, due to a fateful bomb blast by a terrorist organization, one in which many people were killed.Starting 1990, its annual conventions have been in held in various parts of the USA. It has undertaken many charitable activities such as giving scholarships to students in Assam, "adopting" children in Assam, donating books to Assam's colleges and universities. ASA has chapters in various parts of the US although ASA did not start creating chapters till the late 1980s.

Another major organization of the Assamese people is Assam Association of North America. It was started in Houston in 1980, since ASA was concentrated in the Northeast and did not care to organize the Assamese people elsewhere. The number of Assamese people had grown outside the Northeast and another organization could be sustained. From the beginning, the main activity of AANA has been organizing a yearly convention. The early conventions were small although lately, an attendance of 150-200 people is normal. One convention, the one held in Toronto in 1989 attracted a large participation of about 250-300 people. AANA also has chapters in various parts of the US. AANA started creating chapters right from its inception, only later ASA followed the practice. The people who are involved in AANA as an organization have also formed two other organizations, Assam Foundation of North America and Assam Sahitya Sabha, US Branch. Many people who are in ASA object to the characterization of the branch of Assam Sahitya Sabha as one that represents all the Assamese people of North America. This is because ASA has been an affiliated organization with Assam Sahitya Sabha from 1983.

Trouble started in the Assamese comunity in North America in the early 1980s when AANA wanted to form a chapter in the Northeastern part of the US, where ASA has been the only organization for alomost a decade. ASA did not want to go beyond the Northeast at this time and AANA had set its goal in having presence all over the country. Based on reasons that are not publicly known, a group of ASA members came out of ASA and formedtheNortheast Chapter of AANA. This single event has been the source of problems for the community since. Many attempts have been made to unite the two organizations into one. This is because the number of Assamese people in the US is minuscule and there is tremendous wastage in the limited resouces from undue competition. In addition, because there are two convetions a year, the community remains divided.

In 1991, a mail poll of the Assamese people in North America showed that more than 90% people wanted to dissolve ASA and AANA and form one organization. This forced both ASA and AANA to have the first joint convention in Philadelphia. ASA, in its annual meeting, prior to the joint meeting, decided to dissolve itself if AANA also decided to do so. ASA's resolution said ASA is willing to dissolve itself to form a new organization of all Assamese people either in 1991 or any time in the future. But, AANA's annual meeting, prior to the joint meeting, was tightly controlled and a discussion on its dissolution and the formation of a new organization representing all Assamese people in the US was not allowed. However, since joint meeting of all Assamese people was already scheduled, AANA came to the meeting. The meeting was presided by the then Presidents of ASA and AANA. The meeting focused on dissolution of the two organizations and formation of a new Assamese organization. It went on for serveal hours when many opinions were heard from the Assamese people from across North America. The Chief Guest, Lakshminandan Bora, the noted Assamese author, also requested the assembly to pass a resolution dissolving ASA and AANA and forming a new organization, right in the meeting. Informal opinion in the meeting was overwhelming for such an historic action. After considerable discussions, the two presiding Presidents declared that a vote by raising hands will take place to decide on these two important questions. At this point in time, AANA's General Secretary walked to the podium and declared on the microphone that dissolution of AANA will not be allowed under any circustances. Following this, AANA's General Secretary and President walked out of the unfinished meeting along with a part of AANA's membership. Everyone was stunned. An historical opportunity to unite the Assamese community in North America was lost.

Many members of AANA who were dissatisfied with the action of its leadership decided to continue with the joint meeting and the cultural program that followed. Some of these people along with ASA decided to continute working for the unity among the Assamese people in North America. A section of the people who left AANA and other like-mided people formed a non-profit organzation a few months later. It is called United Assamese Organization of North America (UAONA) although currently it is interested in working behind the scence. UAONA is a small organization and its members say that they will dissolve it when the Assamese community in North America becomes united. UAONA wants to keep a low profile and involves itself in promoting better relation among the Assamese people in Assam and educational and cultural activities in Assam.

Since 1991, ASA has reiterated in its annual meetings its support for a united Assamese community in North America. However, AANA has also reiterated that it is not interested in unity. Year after year, ASA has invited AANA to a joint convention of the two organizations which AANA has refused fearing unity of the community will be discussed. In return AANA has passed resolutions year after year, inviting all Assamese people to its annual convention. It also has invited ASA's members as individuals to its annual convention, but it has not invited ASA as an organization and AANA makes it a precondition that there neither is a joint meeting of the two orgnizations nor is an non-organizational meeting of all the attendees of the convention. ASA has spurned requests because it is not invited as an organization. ASA also has said the people who attend the convention should be allowed to have a meeting to discuss issues of importance to the community. Such a meeting should not have any organizational label.

Following the mood of the Assamese community, starting the 1996 annual convention at Stanford, California, ASA decided to downplay its role in holding the conventions. The duties of organizing the conventions since then have been left to a local organizing committee with minimum interference from ASA. In the 1997 convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, ASA's role was downplayed again, trying to make it a convention of the Assamese community at large. In the 1998 convention in St. Louis, this was continued. The1998 convention was held jointly by ASA and UAONA, but the names of the two organizations were not displayed in terms of posters except inside the separate meeting room where ASA's organizational meeting was held. The signs everywhere said "Assam Get Together" with any reference to ASA or UAONA. During the cultural program, the participants performed as individuals without identifying their organizational affiliation. This has set a good example to the Assamese community in North America. Most feel that an organization of the Assamese people is needed to publish newsletters, magazines, arrange a convention, and undertake charitable activities, but the organization should not take a central place in the community since they have bought divisions in the past.

In 1998, in ita annual meeting, ASA decided to show flexibility by not declaring a location for its 1999 convention. A problems in the Assamese community has been that both ASA and AANA declare sites for the next year's convention a year in advance and then don't budge from their position. This also has been a reason for not being able to have a joint convention. That is why ASA decided to not decide on a location for the 1999 convention a year in advance. According to AANA, they have to declare their convention site a year in advance due to constitutional requirements and there can be no flexilbilty with regards to that. In 1998, AANA has invited ASA to a joint convention for the first time. However, AANA has set several conditions including that there be no common meeting of the two organizations, no non-organizational meeting of the attendees, and no discussion of of unification of organizations. However, it is still an excellent sign. AANA, for the first time, has consented to a joint convention of the two organizations, ASA and AANA. This in view of the fact that ASA did not declare a site for the 1999 convention shows a synergy between the two organizations. Both organizations need to be equally commended. However, it is too early to tell (as of middle of July, 1998), whether there will be a common convention of all North American Assamese people in 1999.

In 1996, an organization called IFAA (International Forum for Advancement of Assam) was formed after discussions among the Assamese people in the assam (also called luitporia) electronic mailing list. It is headed by Khanin Pathak, then of England, and now of the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, Bihar, India. Its activities are limited to giving small scholarships to talented but economically disadvantaged high school students in Assam.

Finally, the most useful and inclusive non-organization of Assamese people in North America is an electronic mailing list called assam or luitporia. It includes about 300 Assamese people from around the world, primarily in North America. It doesn't require any monetary contribution, it champions freedom of speech where any topic of interest to Assam and Assamese people can be discussed by anyone. Its membership include members of ASA, AANA, UAONA and unaffiliated members of the North American Assamese community in addition to members from the UK, the Netherlands, the Middle East, Japan, India, Assam, Australia and other countries. Although it is not an organization, it is the only forum where all Assamese people in North America meet without any organizational division. It is doing what organziations such as ASA and AANA have not been able to do.

Written 7/17/98

Referenece:
Dilip Kumar Dutta, Aamerikaat Prothom Axomiya, Amerikar Axomi, published by Assam Society of America, August 1994, Chandra Prakash, Tihu and Guwahati, Assam, pp. 1-3.

"In India, an Arranged Marriage of 2 Worlds", New York Times, July 20, 1998, page 1.