Thinking like Feminists: Nationalism in Contemporary Assam
September 11, 2019
“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
These famous words by Virginia Woolf perfectly fit the present political situation prevailing throughout the world. Assam too is no exception, as it seems to be perpetually engulfed in a discourse of creation and re-creation of the ‘other’ and the subsequent fear of the ‘other’. And most often than not, the women of these marginalised communities are at the receiving end of this dehumanizing discourse as that makes them bear the double burden of their gender as well as their belongingness to a vulnerable community. Their otherness is based on communal lines, language parameter and is class based. In recent times, the women of the ‘miyah’ and ‘adivasi’ communities are case in point. For instance, the ‘miyah’ women who are a source of cheap labour, nonetheless on the other hand, their language does not fit the ‘acceptable’ definition of Assameseness nor their attires and their religious affiliation is an issue that does not fail to evoke anxiety and threat. To think as feminist in present nationalist times is to locate this debate within the intersections of language, religion, class, caste and so on.
The imposition of homogeneity by a dominant group results in implicit and explicit violence on any form of identity. But before proceeding further, as a backdrop to this piece, we would like to cite an anecdote that occurred around two and a half years back. This was at a conference which was focusing on the ‘Northeast’ of India. In one of the presentation, an Assamese upper-caste female anthropologist dressed in a Mekhela-Chador went on to accuse the presenter of not being informed about the ‘real’ ‘Assamese’ woman. According to her, this ‘real’ ‘Assamese’ woman is defined by her ‘real’ dress and that it is the only way in which her womanhood can be defined. Of course nowhere in the presentation, it was propagated that women should give up on wearing any particular attire, including the Mekhela-Chador. But as most of us would agree, neither womanhood nor any other identity can be described in a unilateral homogenous manner. Questions of class, caste, religion, community, language, location are all intertwined to it. To one of us, her remarks seemed to be opinionated from an upper caste-class experience. Moreover, if one harps on such homogenous imagery of womanhood and a culture, it amounts to committing the same errors as the western white feminists, who regarded the ‘third’ world women as a homogenous group without taking into account any of the intersectionalties.
Such instances are not one time affairs but rather are an effect of an elitist, casteist and patriarchal dialogue on ‘real’, ‘authentic’, ‘Assameseness’ and ‘Assamese’ womanhood. The major problem of these notions is that Assameseness is understood as a given homogenous static entity. But attires, language, art, literature etc belonging to any identity are always in flux. However, the dominant cultural group most of the time disparages another culture on these notions, setting the oppressor-oppressed dialectics of othering a community into action. To this extent, the ‘other’ women, their attire, language and their lives are never considered within the mainstream Assamese imagination even though the under paid and cheap labour that they provide is indispensable to anyone who identifies themselves as part of the dominant Assamese population. On one hand, these ‘other’ women in recent times are struggling amidst their daily lives as poverty-stricken wives, mothers and manual labourers and on the other hand, the burden to prove their legitimate belongingness to Assam does not seem to end. Their sufferings borne out of the loss of life, livelihood and land seem to have no end.
But how does one define Assameseness? The idea of Assameseness is deeply rooted in the questions of the class and ethnicity and the moralising aspects of gender that are intertwined with these questions. From the colonial times there was state-sponsored consensus around the idea of homogenous identity based on ethnic lines. For instance, when the language movement had taken its grip in the tea gardens of Assam for the first time in the early 20th century, then popular newspapers like Sadiniya Axomiya and Tindiniya Axomiya had actively promoted the language debate. The language movement in the press was guided by Harendra Nath Sarma, then editor of Tinidiniya Axomiya. An article titled “Introduction of Assamese Language inside Tea Gradens” published in Tinidiniya Axomiya on 22nd February 1938.The article had put across that the labourers of Pabhoi Tea Estate in Darrang district were trying to learn ‘Assamese’ culture, rituals and language. That the migrated ‘coolies’ were trying their best to follow ‘Assamese’ culture like ‘Good Axomiya Hindus’ was considered by many as a good sign for the ‘Assamese’. It was thought that they were gradually realising how to live a ‘civilised’ life, to get up early, not to have pork and hariya (local alcohol), take bath every day and even keep their hairstyle like an ‘Assamese’ ‘Bhadra Lok’. As such, when the ‘Axomiya’ intellectuals criticise the historical cultural hegemony of Bengali ‘Bhadra Lok’, they must keep in mind the upper caste patriarchy prevalent among them too, similar in nature to their Bengali counterparts. They also reported that the ‘Assamese’ doctors, teachers and babus were trying to provide education in the ‘Assamese’ language. Thus, it is much clear that an attempt was made in the colonial times to transform the adivasi labourers to ‘Axomiya’ Hindus which was equally resisted by the educated adivasi student communities. In contemporary times too, the adivasi student unions, civil society and trade unions are countering this upper caste driven Assamese Hindu nationalism.
The ‘Axomiya’ press and media still function on the communal and patriarchal lines. The regressive media trial of Miyah poets is a recent example. Such trials that casually victimises a particular community, religion, class or gender are possible only because they operate on the basis of hard-core regionalism with a strong patriarchal undertones. It appears that this is becoming a part of the right wing masculine discourse that speaks about homogenous ‘Axom’, in the same fascist language of ‘Akhand Bharat’. Women have no place in such a discourse, except when they are needed as the sacrificial metaphors of womanhood for nation-building. The present politics of identity, belongingness and language is rendering women and mostly the women of the vulnerable communities almost indiscernible.The recent example attacking the Miyah poets in the name of ‘Assamese’ nationalism, also in 2007 the case of Laxmi Ornag who was stripped naked during broad daylight on the streets of Guwahati has become a distant memory for the Assamese consciousness.But it is not surprising as the subjective experiences of a community, class and gender are being pushed aside rendering their sufferings invisible. The ‘Axomiya’ identity gets manifested as an imperial construct, which is based on discrimination of caste, class, gender and religion. Assam is significantly composed of caste Hindus and the caste and gender insensitiveness only signifies the casteist masculine attitudes that are structurally propagated in everyday lives, but rarely acknowledged. Sadly, the Savarna homogenization logic of assimilation by and large is prevalent till date.
When there are such communities who are extremely vulnerable and exploited, we can very well imagine what happens to the women of these communities. In such a scenario, defining legitimate belongingness to a nation is an exercise of division and segregation based on gender, caste, religion and language. Nonetheless, the patriarchal construct of the idea of a nation is nothing new. The nation itself has survived while using women as its symbol. However, who pays the cost of these constructs and for whom, are questions that all of us need to ponder, especially in time when people who identify as ‘us’ are harping on a lopsided construct of the ‘authenticity’ of a community or a culture. Sadly and in the most tragic manner, the fear of the ‘other’ based on such constructs of ‘us’, ‘authenticity’, ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ is driving the fate of Assam and its historically vulnerable communities. These renderings on ‘our women’ and ‘their women’ have survived through the patriarchal societal practices combined with state politics and parochial meaning-making of ‘culture’ and its manifestations. To reiterate, in this context, it is the women and most explicitly, the women of the historically exploited communities that suffer the most.
When the idea of what constitutes ‘Assamese’ identity is itself debated vehemently, the questions of what constitutes an ‘Assamese’ woman cannot be sidelined for the cost of making a homogenised masculine, upper-caste driven nationalist identity. Thus to think as feminists in present nationalist times is to locate this debate within the intersections of what renders legitimacy and equality to a community, culture, ethnicity and how womanhood is related to it. But, why should we think from a feminist stand at the first place? To answer this we would like to conclude with the words of feminist theorist and philosopher, Nancy Hartsock- “Feminism as a mode of analysis leads us to respect experiences and differences, to respect people enough to believe that they are in the best possible position to make their own revolution.”
First published in Counter Currents.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.