How Global Academia Represents Assam & Northeast India: A COMMENT

Recently, I came across a statement by 81 intellectuals and activists from Assam spotlighting the ‘disinformation’ published as part of a Call-for-Papers for a journal. Assam is a place with a complex political history and scholars do mix up issues from time to time. Therefore, the writing of the statement is a welcome step in the direction of understanding the state and the multitude of voices that it enkindles. It is in the same spirit of polyphony and dialogue that I write my comment.


The statement rightly demands a rigorous understanding of Assam’s history and concerns. It is, then, only natural that one would expect of it the same level of diligence and attention to subtleties.

The document, however, rings hollow. It uses the word ‘indigenous’ 16 times in the body and 17 times in total. “If the CFP is concerned about settlers rather than the indigenous people, then the distinction should be made clear,” it says. Anyone working on Assam knows that the vexed question of indigeneity is far from any resolution in the state. In his brilliant work on student organizations in Assam, Dr Kaustubh Deka notes the All Assam Students’ Union’s shifting position regarding the term. “The word ‘indigenous’ does not feature in the Assam Accord of 1985. Its subsequent prominence in the politics of Assam creates a lot of tension and controversy,” he quotes the organization as saying in 2005. In fact, one of the signatories of this statement invoked this unsettled debate in an interview with Akhil Gogoi in December, 2016 and wanted to know the latter’s opinion to which Akhil said that the base year for demarcating ‘the indigenous populace’ from the rest should be 1971. Organizations like the All-Assam Kochari Samaj believe that “non-tribal communities living in Assam can never claim to be ‘khilonjia’ or indigenous” and that Ahoms – who entered Assam in 1226 – are non-indigenous. Yet, many fix the date at 1826 while some others believe that 1951 is more reasonable. On the same day that this letter was written to Prof Stanton, another letter was published in Amar Axom, a prominent Assamese daily. Written by the poet and academic Kamal Kumar Tanti, the title of the edit-page letter asks a pertinent question, “Must one be ‘indigenous’ in order to live with respect in Assam?” Tanti writes that the Adivasi Tea-Garden Labourer Community of Assam – the community he comes from – is not indigenous to the state and it is useless to forcefully (jorkoi) try to be. Commenting on the larger issue, Tanti writes, “To give oneself the title of ‘khilonjia’ is a weapon for the subnationalists (jatiyotabaadi), the extreme subnationalists (oti jaatiyotabaadi) and the jingoist subnationalists (oogro jatiyotabaadi) in their politics to gain power. Rest, the nationalists also occasionally take advantage of this.

Since the statement does not even take cognizance of this long-drawn discussion in modern Assam’s political history (even as it cares for “the fragile peace and delicate multi-ethnic ethos of the fronterised regions of Assam and the Northeast of India as a whole”) and uses the terms ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler’ definitively, one wonders if the signatories actually care a fig about – to borrow their phrase – complex historical and political terms.

Nellie and the question of ‘hostility’

In 1973, in an article titled Origins of the Assamese Middle Class, Dr Hiren Gohain talks about the fear of domination by the ‘outsiders’. He writes that the reaction to the rapid increase in the number of educated unemployed has assumed the form of ‘acute xenophobia’. In 2017, in a detailed interview with Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, Dr Gohain looks back at the history of the Assamese middle class society that was, in his words, ‘inherently illiberal, undemocratic’. “While on the one hand, they were not allowing the tribals to come up, on the other, they were afraid of non-Assamese people overwhelming them, getting power. They were afraid of the Bengalis and the official language movement was considered a triumph over the Bengalis. At that time, I was studying MA in Delhi, I also fought for Assamese language. I thought it was a great glorious thing to do, didn’t think much about the tribals,” says the scholar. So, when the statement in question suggests that the British declaring ‘Assamese or one of its variants’ – whatever that means – the official language of Assam would have been a step in the right direction, it is unfaithful to the very framework that it insists on: that “a study of inter-community relations in the context of Northeast India would mean the relationship between the dominant communities and marginalized communities, like different tribes”. When the Assam government recently decided to bring a law to make Assamese compulsory in all schools except those in Barak Valley, Bodoland Council and other Sixth Schedule areas, a very important piece written by Manoranjan Pegu was published in The Hindu. “The ‘Assamese nationalists’ are of course happy. Some are even demanding for it to be made compulsory in the exempted areas. However, none of them is talking about what effects it will have on communities such as the Misings, Deoris, Rabhas and the other smaller tribes and their mother tongues,” opined Pegu. The author does recognize the threat that infiltration poses to local languages and cultures, but refuses to buy ‘the politics of fear’ that lays the ground for homogeneity. That the statement emphasizes on ‘anxieties against settler colonialism’ but keeps away from the many decade-long politics of great resistance to Assamese hegemony and chauvinistic politics leaves a lot of questions unanswered. More so because it bestows upon itself the crucial responsibility of schooling the ‘global academia’ on the nitty-gritty of the protracted ethnic politics that has informed the state.

In this context, the statement’s convenient simplification of the relationship between migration and access to land and resources also conceals more than it reveals. It also invalidates a body of scholarship that has laboriously been built on the issue over the years. One remembers how Sanjib Baruah begins Chapter 8 of India Against Itself with a letter by Lakhi Kachari published in The Sentinel in January 1991. Baruah reports, “Lakhi Kachari asked what gave ULFA – which represents only the upper-caste Assamese – the authority to demand an independent Assam? ULFA, he said, has no right to demand Assam’s independence. Assam, in fact, is “illegally occupied” by the “so-called Assamese”. He refers to them as “so-called Assamese” because they, or rather their forebears according to him, were immigrants from Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. They came to Assam in search of “economic salvation” and have dominated the “local Assamese and aboriginals” ever since. It is time for “the tribals and aboriginals” to seek “freedom” from the illegal occupation of Assam by the “so-called Assamese”.

If the statement had clarified – like Akhil Gogoi in the aforementioned interview – that it believes 1971 (or any date) to be the base year for both indigeneity (something that the statement swears by) and citizenship (and thereby rights), it would not have been as confusing to understand its vantage point, regardless of whether one agrees or not.

The document rightly corrects the CFP and reminds its writers that NRC in Assam was a process overseen by the Supreme Court of India. “The NRC in Assam was not based on religious identities,” it points out. Importantly, it also cites the support that the “migrant Muslim communities” gave “when the NRC process in Assam started”. Very cleverly and disappointingly though, the story in the statement ends here. I would hesitate to remind the signatories of the indiscriminate objection that the ARN (Application Receipt Number) bearers with names that sounded Muslim or Bengali-Hindu to them were subjected to in December, 2018 since it is a history widely reported in both Assamese and ‘national’ media and in fact many of them had condemned this ordeal themselves at that time.

Curiously, in November 2018, two well-known scholars from Assam who endorse the statement in question had co-written a response to a pamphlet “prepared expressly with a national audience in mind” with a hope to “convince the reasonable observer to take a sympathetic view of the devastating effects of migration on indigenous society and culture”. The scholars begin by summarizing the central argument of the pamphlet that they set out to lambaste, “The authors trace the roots of the problem to, on the one hand, colonial land policy that sought to convert wastelands into revenue producing agricultural land by settling Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants from Sylhet and Mymensingh districts (in present-day Bangladesh); and on the other, manipulative vote-bank politics and nefarious bureaucratic corruption in the postcolonial period.” Incredulous that the fact of the SC overseeing the NRC process seems to give the pamphleteers “a measure of comfort that it will not be manipulated by vested political interests”, the piece examines keywords like colonialism, migration, ethnicity and hostility and remarks, “The document hardly stands out for its literary ingenuity, even less so for its political vision. They present a narrative that has been the staple of Assamese nationalist discourse, available for consumption at least since the late-1970s and extremely popular during the Assam Movement. Unfortunately, for the authors, they are not living in 1982. In reproducing this discourse today, they also reinforce the blind-spots that have afflicted this fantasy of a harmonious, multi-ethnic pastoral Assam, rudely intruded upon by colonialism and outsiders. Their single-minded obsession with the “Bangladeshi” gives the impression that the antagonism towards Bengali-speaking Muslims is because of their presumed place of origin. The desire to make them the problem obscures a situation where the hostility towards the community is one aspect of a far more complex terrain of ethnic conflict that has shaped the lives of communities in the region at least since the 1980s. One may even say that it is precisely the authors’ inability to consider Bengali-speaking Muslims as an ethnic community of Assam—and by extension, tied up in its ethnic political discourse—that compels them to think of migration only as a “Bangladeshi problem”.” One wonders what changed so radically in Assam’s society and politics in one-and-a-half years that the scholars now find themselves upholding the very structure and ideas that they had called a “desperate return to the purported scene of the original sin of colonial migration policy”.

If anyone tends to think that the episode of mass filing of ‘bhuwa apotti’ or false objections during the NRC process was an aberration, I would like to refer to an article written by Parag Kumar Das and published in Prantik in February, 1987. Titled Char Anchalar Bastab Chitra Aaru Bidexi Xamasyar Mulyayan (The Real Picture of the Char Areas and an Assessment of the Foreigners Issue), the article says, “A responsibility as important as raising objections against foreigners was, as if, left to young schoolchildren. And they too treated the entire issue as if it were an exercise in fun and indiscriminately raised objections to each name. But, no learned person came out to remind us how such inconsiderate actions will have a long-standing impact on the process of building a nation/identity (jaati gathan). Complaints were raised against more than fifty thousand voters in the Baghbar constituency alone; out of them, only about two thousand names were left out of the voters’ list eventually.” Replete with many such examples, the piece also talks about internal migration of the Bengal-origin Muslims that is often mistaken as cross-border immigration, “There is no limit to hardships faced by them during the rainy season. Because the rain inundates most of the places, these people have to spend days with little or no food in the stilt houses built on high terrains. The struggle in the search for cultivable land begins as soon as the water level recedes. The dwellers of chars that are completely eroded by the water sometimes have to go en masse to other areas in search of land. In the new place, for the ‘Assamese’ population in the vicinity, they become ‘new faces’.

On August 8, 2012, one of the signatories here had written an important commentary on the ongoing violence in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Chirang. “It cannot be simply assumed that the BTAD leadership and the mainstream Assamese society are innocently mistaken in believing that all Muslims inhabiting this area are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Rather it is a conscious “mistake” laced with communal undertones. The rhetoric of “illegal” migrants flooding the region that appears to be fuelling the attacks is backed largely by what seems to be paranoia about the perceived growing numbers of Muslims in the area, all of whom are assumed to be “illegal” migrants,” wrote the author. Later in the article, with the help of census figures from 1901 to 2001, the essay methodically decimates many preconceived and often paddled notions about a continuous flow of immigrants from Bangladesh. “It is a well documented historical fact that a large number of peasants from erstwhile East Bengal migrated and settled in Assam in the early decades of the 20th century. However, in the prevailing atmosphere of jingoism and xenophobia, it is not enough to just state that migration of East Bengali Muslim peasants in the early decades of the 20th century is a well documented historical fact. This historical fact needs to be reiterated today,” the author continues before adding, “By now it should be clear that simplistic propositions like ‘Bangladeshi illegal migrants are the root cause of the violence’ not only prevent us from understanding the complex reality of the situation but also reek of communal propaganda. The demographic reality of western Assam is a mosaic of different ethnicities with their own claims of identity and territorial aspirations.” The piece had ended with a few pressing questions, “What informs this fear of the growing number of Muslims? How are these fears of the swamping of the ethnic and cultural identity of the Bodos being fuelled, and by whom? How and when did all Muslims in the area get classified in the public mind as “illegal migrants from Bangladesh”? Eight years later, the questions linger. One hopes that the author has not given up the pursuit for answers.

Recently, Adil Hussain was in news for representing the people of Assam and speaking about the floods that have ravaged many parts of the state. As we hailed him as the ‘pride of Assam’, I went back to his 2012 interview where he mentions this badge of honour. “My house is on the border. All my friends were Hindus. I also joined the students’ movement. One day at the meeting of AASU (All Assam Students Union, which spearheaded the agitation), the leader said, Adil, please go out. One of my friends later told me they don’t trust you anymore. They think you are from the other side. My father said, you better leave the State. I had to be sent outside the State when the Nellie massacre happened. Muslims who speak Bengali are usually targeted. We are such an old family there, every time I got to Assam, local channels describe me as the pride of Assam but my brother’s daughter whose mother is the granddaughter of the legendary filmmaker Pramathesh Barua, who made the first silent film in India, is listed as a doubtful voter,” Adil had said in the interview.

The statement claims that “the communal binary of mainland India is not a frame of reference for Northeast India”. Talking about the reference made by the CFP to the recent violence in Delhi, it further claims that a discussion of religion-based violence “points towards unnecessary but provocative and incendiary arguments that have no basis in the communitarian discourses in the Northeast”. This is a very strong claim to make, and Makiko Kimura, author of the book The Nellie Massacre of 1983: Agency of Rioters, does not seem to agree. “…When one considers the death count, one sees that most victims were the Muslims of East Bengal origin (Baruah 1999: 132). This is also a prominent feature of communal violence in other parts of India. Whenever anti-Pakistan or anti-Bangladesh sentiments arise, the Muslims are targeted even though they are genuine citizens born in India. The Muslims are always suspected of their loyalty to the country. Such notions are deeply embedded in the history of Partition and nation-state formation in India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh). In that sense, although the antiforeigner movement was not explicitly against the Muslims, the issue of citizenship tended to be connected to the issue of religion, particularly against the Muslims,” says Kimura in a section titled Muslims as the “Important Other” in Assam: Citizenship and Religion in India. In the same chapter, she also talks about how Hindutva “took advantage of the Assamese fear of Muslims and thus was partly successful in gaining some organizational basis in Assam“. I would not want to discuss individual incidents of targeting of people based on religion except one where one Shaukat Ali was beaten up, made to kneel down and forced to eat pork. I choose this incident because, after all, it was one of the signatories who had written a stellar report detailing this ghastly episode for Newsclick. It is interesting to note the let-us-be-very-clear line of reasoning adopted by academicians, activists and litterateurs regarding issues where there is absolutely no clarity, consensus or denouement, not least in the way that they would like to imagine and claim.

I would never be able to wrap my head around what the statement says with regard to Nellie, “People in this region have lived under the shadow of armed forces.  This is where the tragic 1983 Nellie massacre needs to be located. This period of violence also saw indigenous people from Assam being killed by migrants.” Whereas this line of argument is not entirely unfamiliar – whenever 2002 is discussed, many point to the fire inside the Sabarmati Express or when reservation is discussed, they point towards the rich Dalits – one also wonders if it extends to other incidents- to Gohpur, to Khoirabari, to Chaulkhowa (on which one of the signatories has written a seminal short story titled Barmajhili), to Bansbari and to Khagrabari.

24 years after Nellie, in 2007, Dr Devabrata Sharma wrote,

Until the day the Assamese nation (jaati) stands on the plains of Nellie and weeps in deep remorse, the 21st century process of building the Assamese nation/identity (jaati gathan) will not take off.

By taking recourse to an ahistorical contextualization of Nellie, the statement stands for absolution, not apology.

Some errors in the CFP are correct. By pointing them out, the statement does take one important step forward. But, impassioned by the urgency to chastise the ‘global and Indian academia’, it takes two steps back.

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Jyotirmoy Talukdar Written by:

Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a Senior Writing Fellow at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University. He is also a freelance journalist regularly contributing to HuffPost India, The Wire and various Assamese dailies.

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