• Can Assam Look Beyond Ethnic and Regional Politics?

    Suraj Gogoi and Rintu Borah

    January 10, 2020

    On 12 December 2019, while presenting the ground reports on Kashmir and the National Register of Citizens in Washington DC, Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, warned that “preparation for a genocide is definitely underway in India,” as the persecution of Muslims in Assam and in Kashmir clearly hints of an upcoming stage of “extermination.” Following this, the United Nations Human Rights office also raised concerns over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 for its “discriminatory” nature in targeting Muslims. 

    If we go by Stanton’s famous ten stages of genocide paradigm, we may be near the ninth stage, extermination, having surpassed earlier stages such as classifying an ‘Other’, characterising that Other as ‘foreigner,’ followed by discrimination, dehumanisation in terms terrorists or animals, political organisation against them, followed by polarisation, preparation and persecution.

    Today, the crisis of global migration is unsettling the logic of territorial sovereignty and citizenship that underpins the modern nation-state. How do we collectively respond to the global migration crisis, which is pitting the ‘moral’ against the ‘legal’, the universalism of human rights against the particularism of political rights within bounded nations? While this ‘unbridgeable gap’ in political philosophy marks the paradox that lies at the core of nation-states, it in no way validates the growing hostility against migrants globally. The new geopolitical border regimes, the detention camps, sea-based interventions and new laws that criminalise the movement of people across borders are symptoms of this hostility. India is not an aberration where these experiences are being felt.

    India’s NRC-CAA ensemble has resurrected these historical paradoxes, only in more sinister terms and sparked protests across the North-east states and in universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. The CAA raises two sets of concerns. The first is its exclusionary nature, which threatens the principles of secularism that are enshrined in the Constitution and alters the very idea of citizenship. Second, this act reflects the colonial attitudes of the leaders in New Delhi in the way they disregard federal principles, especially around India’s frontiers. We are more concerned with the second aspect, which is the epicentre of the NRC-CAA ensemble, and its effects have recently unfolded in Assam. 

    The gradual welcome of Hindu nationalism in Assam—as is evident from the recent parliamentary election results—coupled with the perpetual playing out of ethnic politics in the state raises serious fears about the extent to which the stages mentioned above have been crossed. Anti-foreigner sentiment is not new in the region; present as much in the history of the Assam Movement as it is in the everyday discrimination against the suspected ‘foreigner’ face in the North-east. The body of ‘Bangladeshi’ is often this ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ who is made to bear the brunt of hate and othering. 

    History is witness that the brahmanical discourse of Assamese nationalism and ethnicity has always displaced aspirations of the less numerous ethnic communities. Such discourses are manufactured and kept alive by the leaders and sympathisers of Assamese nationalism, for it helps them assert their legitimacy and accords to them the power to decide what is a part of Assamese culture and what is not.

    In the same way, by disregarding the federal principles through CAA, the Indian state legitimises the political positions of the traditional power structures. This will open the doors for the caste-Hindu hegemons to further their supremacy. These leaders ought to be brought under the microscope; also for shifting the blame only on to the right wing forces but refusing to acknowledge their own role in fostering Assam’s hierarchical society. In the name of rescuing Assamese society, these class actors have concentrated power in the hands of a few who dictate what Assamese culture is and push their brand of nationalism. Before we show the narrowness of the present form of Assamese culture and nationalism consider its pluralistic form, first.

    Imaginations of a Plural Assam

    One of the most encompassing definitions of Assamese culture is provided by Bishnuprasad Rabha, the “cultural icon” of Assam. He sees Nagaon [district] as the epicentre of Assamese culture and calls it the ‘pulse’ of its society. But more significantly, he accepts the cultural debts Assam owes to all the small and big societies that are part of contemporary Assam, the societies that surround it and beyond. 

    A rough translation of Rabha’s essay, ‘Assamese Culture’, goes as follows: 

    “…In the pulse of Nagaon, there is the pulse of Assam. Hence, in Assamese culture the contribution of Nagaon is not negligible… In this same Nagaon, there are Mikirs, Nagas, Khasis, Lalungs, Morans, Rabhas, Garos, Dimasas, Koch, Manipuris, Brahmins, Kayasthas, Kaibartas, Hindus, Christians, Assamese Musolmans, Sylethis, and Meymanshings, among others. So, Nagaon is the small Assam of the bigger Assam. If one knows Nagaon, Assam becomes familiar.”

    Rabha then acknowledges a cultural debt to all these groups in the formation of “Assamese culture”. Participating in this culture lights up the world of each and every group he mentions. 

    Our understanding of Assamese culture is as Rabha imagined it. His idea is supported by another doyen of Assam, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, who stressed that every culture should worship beauty; in the worship of the eternally beautiful, he said, culture becomes possible. Only ‘anti-social’ (duxkriti) elements oppose beauty and thereby corrupt culture. This anti-cultural element is dangerous for it seeks to annihilate culture. 

    The hate that we witness today, the people whom we see assert their dominance by insisting that Assamese language and culture has greater distinction than the heterogeneous Assamese culture that Rabah presents, will qualify as “anti-social” in Agarwala’s world-view. 

    It is important to rekindle the syncretic understanding of Assamese culture of Rabha and Agarwala’s imaginations, for they are being appropriated by the anti-cultural forces—both the nationalists and the Hindu right wing—in Assam. It is not enough to call them heroes. They need to be closely and impartially read so as to understand what these cultural icons thought about culture and not just ‘our’ culture.

    Assamese nationalism and its cultural yardsticks

    We define our society not only through historical knowledge but also our own experiences of being part of it. This is also not to say that people who are not part of Assamese society cannot understand it. This last sentence is our point of departure from many self-styled saviours of Assamese nationalism and from mainstream liberals who misrepresent, under-represent or even fail to understand our grounds. We are critics of Assamese nationalists’ untenable claim that people from outside the North-east cannot understand the life and culture of the region.

    Assamese identity is the amalgamation of many kinds of cultural entities in the region. Culture is also crucial to understand Assam Movement and Assamese nationalism. The reasons for considering culture rests on two reasons. Firstly, the main character that defines Assam Movement is a cultural one. Secondly, the popular call for saving Assamese culture rests on three broad categories—Jati (culture), Maati (land/resource) and Bheti (homes/hearth). 

    Culture accommodates language, which is the basis of Bongal Kheda Andolan that led to the language movement in the 1960s. Language also provides the foundation to Clause 6 in the Assam Accord, which provides for protection and promotion of Assamese Language and envisages saving its culture. The Assam Accord signed in 1985 between the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and the central government brought an end to the six years long anti-foreigner movement, known as the Assam Movement. 

    Assam is historically a multilingual and multi-cultural space which have seen migration flows of various groups. It is worthwhile to ask why is Assamese then the only language that the Assam Accord highlights? Most importantly, how did such a status of Assamese language become possible?

    Answering that question is not easy, but is crucial for understanding Assamese nationalism. The Assam Movement changed the nature of politics in Assam. For the first time, people from all sections of society participated in this movement. The movement introduced the fear of the Bangladeshi in the public space in Assam. The AASU leadership could successfully cement this idea that it is the Bangladeshi who passes through the porous border between India and Bangladesh and settles in the fertile valleys of Assam. All kinds of backwardness associated with economy, politics and culture was successfully passed on the body of a Bangladeshi. Lack of jobs—it must be them. Lack of land—they are certainly grabbing them. The identity and body of the Bangladeshi was turned into a public thing to be despised, hated and expelled. 

    We critique this narrow Assamese nationalism and measurement of culture that has almost always subsumed other nationalisms in the region. It projects a homogenous Assamese culture and society in place of plurality. We are not against Assamese culture and multiple other ethnic groups in Assam in a sociological and anthropological sense of culture, society and rights.

    Regional politics in Assam

    With the language movement and the anti-foreigner movement, Assam Sahitya Sabha and AASU visibly turned the tables in cementing a very rigid and caste-Assamese identity that centres Assamese identity over every other group. Assamese culture and language was used to invoke a sense of unity to fight for the “homeland” to protect these two categories from the encroaching foreigners—the Bangladeshi.

    But one must also acknowledge the role played by many regional parties for ASS and AASU to spread their narrow version of Assamese identity and culture. In that light parties such as Purbanchal Luko Parishad (Democratic Peoples’ Party, PLP), Assam Jatiyotabadi Dal (Assam Nationalist Party, AJD), Ujani Assam Rajya Parishad (Upper Assam State Council, UAPR) and Assam Yuvak Samaj (Assam Youth Society, AYS) made significant inroads in grounding distinctions between ‘indigenous’ and migrants. These organisations made sure that they take this politics of hate for the ‘outsider’ to every nook and corner of Brahmaputra Valley when both AASU and ASS were at its nascent stages or did not exist.

    With the Assam Movement, the foregrounding of a caste-Assamese culture that sidelined all kinds of heterogeneity, to which each could claim a belonging and feel at home, was completed. Narrowing the Assamese identity also projected all other tribal and non-tribal cultures as inferior to Assamese. The multiple life-worlds of tribal and non-tribal that did not resonate with this newly-legitimised caste-Assamese identity were subsequently made invisible from this core identity. The proposal to make Assamese the official language of Assam with exceptions to Barak, Bodoland Territorial Area Districts and Hills districts of Assam creates hierarchy of languages spoken in Assam.

    In conclusion

    Discourse in North-east India seems stuck on ethnic politics that forever hinges on a critique of settler colonialism. Making new attempts at critiquing these discourses does not imply erasing or invalidating tribal histories of inequality, exploitation, violence and injustice, or subverting marginalised ethnic communities’ socio-political positioning. It only means to cut the narcissistic circuit of ethnic and regional politics that discounts the face of a victim. These victims suffer persecution twice—first, at the hands of the colonial state and second, at the hands of the ethno-nationalist. Moreover, right to self-determinism cannot come at the cost of violation of universal values.

    Now is the time for the Assamese people to pause, collectively think and deliberate on the kind of politics we will rally behind before we involuntarily give in to the eighties’ brand of politics again, before our struggles end up maintaining status and capital of the same class and caste of leaders whose politics always failed to bring in fresh plural thoughts about culture, the economy and religion into the socio-political praxis of the region.     

    Any new politics must accept that in every claim of citizenship, community, or ethnic, there is an ingrained inscribed idea of the ‘Other’, who is not given cultural membership. Ones language, culture and identity exist and becomes meaningful because they are already in a relationship to someone else’s language, culture and identity, as Rabha has shown. In other words, these entities cannot function in a vacuum and they ought to be beautiful. It is only beauty that will protect us from the anti-cultural forces. 

    Only by meaningfully addressing this primary relationship that exists in our society, which is founded on difference, can we imagine a plural society, an Assamese culture that Agarwala hoped for. This respect for ideological and religious differences, along with other differences, were highlighted by him for a future Assamese society. This lack of respect for cultural differences is what causes intolerance in our society. When we start questioning the plurality of our society we move towards a dogmatic and homogeneous identity. This was precisely what Assamese nationalism did to Assamese culture and identity in the form that we find them and experience it today. 

    Machine-like procedures of NRC are harbingers of a future where it may become routine to criminalise migrants in extreme ways. Will we uphold the exclusivist notions of nationalism having colonial origin that left us with the ill-defined nation-states. Max Horkheimer, the towering figure of the Frankfurt School, once noted that nationalism is a superstition proper to the nation. Our biggest struggle is to fight this superstition which is manifested by Hindu nationalism, fascism or even little nationalisms. 

    Whatever be the point of departure, our new struggles must draw its energy from a politics of love for difference that does away with the primary emotion that drives us now—fear. And at all cost they must uphold the values of universal social justice.


    Suraj is a doctoral candidate in sociology at NUS, Singapore. Rintu is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at IIT-Bombay.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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