Assamese nationalism, the genesis of which is usually traced back to the resistance to the Hindu Bengali middle-class hegemony in the state post its annexation to British India in 1826, is thankfully dead. Or is it? Because instead of vanishing into eternal oblivion, this regional nationalism died by its willing merger to the Indian national Nationalism. And so once in a while, it is struck by occasional bouts of nostalgia which, as we know, is good only for poetry and music.
So it was at a Bihu concert in Guwahati that Assamese linguistic nationalism was momentarily outed. The Assamese rockstar Zubeen Garg was singing one of his Hindi numbers when members of the organizing committee stormed the stage and buttonholed him, forcing the concert to end prematurely since Zubeen neither relented nor apologized for his heresy. Before walking off, he just took the microphone to remind the bully that he has sung just about sixteen thousand Assamese songs in the last twenty-five years.
Zubeen Garg, as the generation that grew up clutching onto his music through the turbulent 1990s and 2000s would tell you, cannot be defined. It is hare-brained to suggest that he was promoting Hindi imperialism in Assam by singing one of his old songs. But even if he was, it is ridiculous to see well-fed Bihu-committee tearaways hoisting the flag of a linguistic nationalism that was exclusive, chauvinistic and, more importantly, unbendingly middle-class from the word go. So, if it indeed were a clash of ideologies on the stage on Friday night, it would be a clash of chauvinisms, nothing more. Whether Zubeen Garg satisfies the guardians of Assamese nationalism or of Hindi, a large section of the state’s population identifies with neither, and is gradually drawing the maps of its economic and political future away from this historically-scripted ring fight. Because by now they know that while these behemoths throw waterballoons at each other for entertainment, both throw their grenades in the same direction.
The politics of indigeneity as is done in Assam is a means of livelihood. The rules have always been kept very simple. Be on camera from time to time, recite the names of a dozen indigenous communities living in the state, invoke a couple of medieval saints and take a vow to never hand over the beautiful state to foreigners. Since this politics was never organic, it was always a matter of time before it gleefully and triumphantly sold itself off to the wave of Hindutva nationalism. Today, many of its takers form an English-educated half-estranged middle class, who find Assamese identity politics handed down to them by their begetters who were involved in the Assam Movement, and prefer it to Hindi-Hindu nationalism, as the latter sounds a little uncool and unsure for the time being.
But it’s all in the family, at the dining table, in good humor.