How Global Academia Represents Assam & Northeast India

Writing the Northeast India, often leads to misrepresentation, distortion, misinformation of the places, peoples and resources. These are not merely floating around in popular mentality, these stereotypes are consciously constructed and maintained in films and also in academic discourses. This particular Call for Paper (CFP) for a journal issue, entitled “Assam: A Citizenship Battleground” (Cached link)to be published under University of York project entitled Rethinking Civil Society: History, Society, Critique caught our attention and quite a few of us discussed it and decided to address the issue.

The result was a statement of concern, which is not about a closed academic discussion but more about placing the northeast of India, Assam in particular in a more complex frame of reference for a global readership. This was also making people of the region aware of the developments taking place in academic circles in the West. The NRC and CAA has captured a lot of global press and as it happens, the margins get distorted in the generalised narrative.

The original Call for Papers  cannot be accessed now, because after we sent our letter of concern to  Prof. Timothy Stanton, The Chief Investigator, Rethinking Civil Society: History, Society, Critique, University of York, the original call was taken down and it seems they are working on a new Call for Papers.

Screenshots of the original announcements and the original Call for Paper document which are no longer available online.

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If you have any concerns about the statement, please address them to concernedcitizensofassam@gmail.com

OUR STATEMENT OF CONCERN

Prof. Timothy Stanton,
The Chief Investigator,
Rethinking Civil Society: History, Society, Critique
University of York

Date: 14 July, 2020

Subject: Note of urgent concern regarding the proposed journal titled ‘Assam: A Citizenship Battleground’ under your project

Dear Prof. Stanton,

The Call for Papers (CFP) for a journal issue, entitled “Assam: A Citizenship Battleground”, published on various social media platforms by Dr. Rudabeh Shahid, a Research Fellow in the project ‘Rethinking Civil Society: History, Society, Critique’, of which you are the Chief Investigator, has come to our notice. The authors of this CFP are, Dr. Shahid and Dr. Mohsin Alam Bhatt, Associate Professor at Jindal Global University, India.We the undersigned, are alarmed at the disinformation and manipulation of facts pertaining to not just the Northeastern state of India, Assam, but the laws and state processes that the journal purports to examine academically.

Through this statement we would like to highlight the disinformation and collapsing of complex historical and political terms into seemingly falsified categories intended to create misleading narratives, which will in turn only work against the fragile peace and delicate multi-ethnic ethos of the frontierised regions of Assam and the Northeast of India as a whole. Below we list out in detail the multiple issues with the framing and construction of the CFP which leads audiences to certain preconceived biases against a large chunk of people in South Asia consisting of many indigenous communities.

  1. The NRC (National Register for Citizens) and the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) are separate legal processes. They are clubbed together as if they were conceived of by the state together. The NRC in Assam again is completely different from the proposed all-India NRC. The authors misleadingly state that ‘the government had already implemented NRC’ in Assam. The NRC in Assam was a long standing demand from all sections of the society going back to the mid 1980s. The NRC was started under direct supervision of the Honorable Supreme Court of India, and under the then Congress led state government in Assam. The current government in both the state and the centre, do not have any role in the implementation of the NRC in Assam. It is the Supreme Court which initiated and oversaw the whole NRC process till its culmination in 2019.
  2. The authors state in the CFP that ‘critics have argued that these policies are discriminatory and violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution that prohibits arbitrary targeting based on religion’. While there may be justified reasons why the religious minority communities in India oppose the all India NRC, the argument presented by the authors are misleading. The NRC in Assam was not based on religious identities or was constructed to identify people on the basis of their religions. It is the CAA which has been rightly critiqued as being discriminatory since citizenship is being offered to refugees of neighbouring countries on the basis of their religion. It seems there has been an apparently casual but, a deliberate mixing up of two different laws to suit a confirmation bias which goes against academic ethics.
  3. The authors repeatedly combine the NRC and CAA as if they are the one and same process. It is thus important to state once again that the NRC in Assam is due to a long standing political demand by the people of the state which was finally approved by the Supreme Court of India and which had the political consent of all political parties and organisations operating from Assam. This process started during the UPA rule in India. The all-India NRC and the CAA were devised by the current BJP regime under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
  4. The history of conversion to Islam and migration is not uniform across India. And migration from erstwhile East Bengal, later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh does not affect parts of India as it does to Northeast (NER) India. While the CFP does not critique the current Modi government for its policies it goes on to call Assam as a battle ground for citizenship. To conflate the political stance in Assam with the larger and more sinister communal design of the BJP is a dangerous generalisation. We are sure not all Americans of New York believe in the racial politics of President Trump.
  5. The authors signpost the violence in Delhi in February 2020 as a warning of future such events that may harm the secular characteristic of the Indian nation-state. What remains unclear is how is this explicit religion based violence in Delhi being linked to Assam or the NER. This CFP purports to be about citizenship in Assam, but the authors remain clueless on the issues that are of concern to Assam and the NER when it comes to citizenship. If the authors are interested in discussing the  inter-community relations in Assam or the NER, there are several entry points to it. But first let us be very clear that the communal binary of mainland India is not a frame of reference for Northeast India. A study of inter-community relations in the context of Northeast India would mean the relationship between dominant communities and marginalised communities, like different tribes. Thus, this conflation of religious based violence in Delhi to Assam points towards unnecessary but provocative and incendiary arguments that have no basis in the communitarian discourses in the  Northeast.
  6. The authors’ arguments on ‘hostility’ and ‘resentment’ against communities deemed to be Bangladeshi, hides much more of the political and cultural struggles in Assam than they reveal.They argue that this is a resentment which has been witnessed since the last three decades. What the authors do not reveal is that the indigenous people of Assam have expressed their anxieties against settler colonialism that was in force ever since the British colonial administrations started on the colonial extractive economic policies in Assam and in the rest of the Northeast by the late 19th  century. This is the period where the British declared the official language of Assam to be Bengali rather than Assamese or any of its variants, the common lingua-franca in the region and it remained so for forty years. This was due to the British settling middle rung colonial administrative employees in Assam from Bengal. The British annexed the Bengali majority Sylhet district in East Bengal to Assam in the 1870s without consultation with native indigenous communities of Assam. In the mid 20th century, the East Bengali political and religious leader Maulana Bhashani, publicly exhorted East Bengali peasants to forcefully occupy lands in Assam. Under the highly controversial Grow More Food campaign, British officials followed the policy of settling more peasants from East Bengal into Assam by arguing that there was always abundant land to settle in the immigrants. Village commons were categorised as ‘wastelands’. The indigenous people are opposed to undocumented and illegal immigrants for very valid reasons like scarcity of lands and resources.This movement of people did not stop with partition, it continued over the decades.Contrary to what partition narratives speak about, not all of them were refugees. Speculation on land continued even after 1947. The earthquake of 1950 changed the course of the Brahmaputra leading to massive erosion and landlessness, due to which many indigenous peoples had to ‘encroach’ on forests and live in forest villages. There are even many contemporary examples of how present government policies have forced landlessness upon indigenous communities who have been forced to live in relief camps for years. One example is that of two forest villages inside Dibru-Saikhowa National Park–for due to unavailability of land, the government has failed to relocate the indigenous Mising villagers though they were promised relocation two decades ago. Thus, this is not hostility or resentment against settlers, but more of anxieties of indigenous people of Assam who are faced with a loss of natural resources, including land.
  7. Violence became a marker of the postcolonial period in Assam due to the struggles of the marginalised people against the more powerful Indian nation-state. Several draconian laws were enforced and people killed arbitrarily over the issues of ethnicity and identity. This violence was marked in almost all the states in the NER and not just in Assam. 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. This period also led to a massive state repression where officially over 800 Assamese youth were killed by the Indian state, with many more maimed and left physically handicapped for life. The post-colonial politics also led to the rise of the insurgent group ULFA in Assam, which ultimately led to many deaths, including Assamese people in the decade of the 1990s up to the early 2000s. An honest academic assessment of the violence in Assam in this period would beg for a look into the whole history of violence and trauma among the many different communities in Assam. These facts are crucial and they do not take away from the other fact that the BJP does indeed engage in anti-minority politics not just in Assam, but across the country.
  8. We also would like to point out the false equivalences that are being drawn in context with the illegal immigrants/undocumented migrants and the Rohingya situation. The NRC in Assam is not based on religion as pointed out repeatedly. Such an articulation, we believe, borders on ‘fear-mongering’. If such violence were to happen as has been predicted by some vested interests since the last two years, it has happened in Delhi in 2020 not in Assam. Bengalis are already the dominant community in Tripura, another state of the Northeast where the indigenous communities now have been reduced to a miniscule proportion of the demography.
  9. The first resentments against the settlement of the surplus-oriented Bengali Muslim peasants emerged in western Assam’s Barpeta in 1930s. The Gorkha graziers and local farmers registered strong protests when the colonial government appropriated public commons under a land development scheme to open these lands for capitalist commercial agriculture by settler peasants from East Bengal. In the process of imposing the grid of ‘wastelands’ on public commons and opening these lands for “productive use” the revenue-oriented colonial government glossed over the local usufructuary history of these lands as grazing and local itinerant farming (pam kheti) tracts, which contributed in sowing seeds of conflict between the local land users and immigrant settlers from East Bengal. Another example of this sort of conflict, one of the earliest, can be traced to 1920s when Gorkha graziers in Burpachapori Professional Grazing Reserve of erstwhile Darrang district were evicted by the then Muslim League government of Assam to settle Bengali Muslim immigrant peasants on the grazing lands. Historian Amalendu Guha in his Planter Raj to Swaraj notes that between 1930-1936, 59 such grazing and village reserves were opened for settlement of immigrant Bengali peasants. These settlements, it is not hard to conceive, curtailed existing usufructuary rights on these lands. When looking at the “hostility” towards the Bengali Muslim peasants, one has to take into consideration this historical context. Besides, Guha also notes forceful occupation of forest commons by Bengali Muslim peasants under the leadership of Maulana Bhashani under the program “Direct Action” just before the partition. In the process, in many areas, the Bengali Muslim settler peasants enchroched on local land/forest use rights in one way or the other. Therefore, framing this conflict  as a “three decade of hostility against the Bengali Muslim peasants” is not only misleading, one-sided and out of the context, but would tantamount to instrumentalist and selective use of history.
  10. We note a glaring disregard for the questions of frontierisation and militarisation which has plagued the Northeast in both the colonial and postcolonial period. What is explicitly argued in the CFP is a concern for bilateral relations with a complete disregard towards the violence and trauma that the constant militarisation has unleashed on the indigenous peoples of Assam as well as the rest of the Northeast. This CFP disregards any self-determination movement by the people of these frontier regions and thinks of them as a ‘law and order’ situation which needs cross border assistance to inflict further violence. The cycle of violence has claimed a generation of indigenous youth of Assam and the scars remain in the psyche of the people till date. Even as recently as December 2019, there was widespread militarisation of the state due to the protests against CAA which led to anxiety among the indigenous communities if the violence of the 1990s were to return. We are shocked at this casual dismissal of the violence and trauma by academics purporting to express empathy for the marginalised. The lens of looking at marginalisation needs to be broadened for this study, religious binary as proposed by the CFP is too simplistic as a frame of reference for understanding Assam. One needs to locate ethnicity and resource use as key entry points.
  11. Lastly, even with the potential sub-topics, we would like to ask what does the umbrella term, Muslims, really mean. Because for the indigenous Muslim communities of Assam, such as the Goriya, Moriya, Deshi etc, the NRC was  welcomed and even today there is mass support for the NRC. If the CFP is concerned about settlers rather than the indigenous people, then the distinction should be made clear. There was also consensus among the migrant Muslim communities when the NRC process in Assam started.

Through this statement, we would like to make it clear that we do not oppose any academic engagement with Assam and its multitude of issues including the NRC and CAA. What we strongly object to are the bad-faith arguments leaning heavily on confirmation bias. We are aghast at this misleading agenda of the authors and would request you to kindly re-look and re-frame the objective of this project.

 

Yours’ Sincerely,

  1. Holiram Terang, Veteran Karbi Leader, Political Activist
  2. Harekrishna Deka, former DGP of Assam and Sahitya Akademi Award winning author and public intellectual
  3. Rajeev Bhattacharyya, Senior Journalist and Author, Guwahati
  4. Moinul Islam, General Secretary (i/c), Sodou Axom Goria Moria Deshi Jatiya Parishad (An Indigenous Assamese Muslim Body)
  5. Nhkum Nongpion Singpho, Vice-president Pan Singpho Student Union, Margherita, Assam
  6. Jayanta Kalita, Independent journalist and author; former Associate Editor, Hindustan Times
  7. Santanu Borthakur, Senior Advocate, Gauhati High Court
  8. Kamal Kumar Medhi, Poet, Social Activist and Spokesperson for Assam Pradesh Congress Committee
  9. Kamal Nayan Misra, Teacher and Cultural Activist, Assam
  10. Upamanyu Hazarika, Senior Advocate and Convenor of Prabajan Birodhi Manch, Assam
  11. Kishor Kumar Kalita, Advocate and Writer, Guwahati
  12. Sanjib Pol Deka, Assistant Professor, Department of Assamese, Tezpur University
  13. Dwipen Bezbaurah, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Gauhati University
  14. Suryasikha Pathak (Faculty, Centre for Tribal Studies, Assam University)
  15. Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya (Independent researcher from Assam)
  16. Sandipan Talukdar, Science Consultant and Researcher
  17. Indraneel Agasty, Assistant Professor of Petroleum Engineering, Presidency University, Bengaluru
  18. Kaustuv Saikia, District Museum Officer, Diphu, Karbi Anglong
  19. Shaheen Ahmed, PhD Candidate (Cultural Studies), Monash University
  20. Bidyum Medhi, PhD Candidate, Department of Modern Languages & Literatures, Johns Hopkins University
  21. Gaurav Rajkhowa, Research Fellow, Dept. of Cultural Studies, Tezpur University
  22. Sujata Hatibaruah, Assistant Professor, Puthimari College, Assam
  23. Bonojit Hussain, Independent Researcher & farmer, Nalbari, Assam
  24. Tonmoyee Rani Neog, Doctoral Fellow, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  25. Sabina Yasmin Rahman, Assistant Professor, MGAHD-TISS
  26. Ankur Tamuli Phukan, Independent Researcher
  27. Sarat Phukan, Professor, Department of Geological Sciences, Gauhati University
  28. Gargi Gayan, Assistant Professor, Krishna Kanta Handiqui State Open University
  29. Rimpi Borah, Doctoral Fellow, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  30. Shyamjyoti Saikia, PhD Candidate, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  31. Abhijit Kamal Bhuyan, Chief Convener, Assam People Action Committee
  32. Chinmoyee Das, Doctoral Fellow, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  33. Abhishek Chakravarty, Advocate, Gauhati High Court
  34. Daisy Barman, PhD Candidate, Gauhati University
  35. Anonymous
  36. Kuldeep Patowary, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Gauhati University
  37. Anonymous
  38. Meenal Tula, Senior Research Associate, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati
  39. Kaustav Padmapati, Assistant Professor, The Royal Global University, Assam
  40. Himangka Kaushik, Research Analyst, TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi
  41. Dhanmani Kalita, Assistant Professor, Dept. of History, Bikali College, Assam
  42. Kaushik Talukdar, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Philipps University, Marburg
  43. Rhiddhis Chakravorty, Journalist
  44. Noihrit Gogoi, Student, Delhi University
  45. Rituraj Dewan, Co-founder, 7WEAVES Social Pvt Ltd,Guwahati Assam
  46. Beda Prakash Dutta, Junior Research Fellow, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  47. Akhyai Jyoti Mahanta, MPhil Student, Dibrugarh University
  48. Lizashree Hazarika, PhD Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  49. Indrani Baruah, Architect, Designer and Visual Artist, San Francisco/Berkeley Bay Area
  50. Simanta G. Sharma, Healthcare Professional
  51. Anonymous
  52. Silpisikha Baruah, Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  53. Neil Baruwati, Finance Consultant
  54. Arijeet Boruah, Energy Consultant, Assam
  55. Reme Boruah, Deputy Manager, GIC Re, Mumbai
  56. Hrideep Das, Educator and Social Activist
  57. Jahnabi Chakravarty, PhD Scholar, NIT Meghalaya, Shillong
  58. Tarun Gogoi, Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  59. Shikha Moni Borah, Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  60. Nikhil Malakar, Doctoral Candidate, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  61. Homen Saikia, MA Student, University of Hyderabad
  62. Sanghamitra Gogoi, MBA student, Assam Don Bosco University
  63. Raj Shekhar Nath, MA Student, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  64. Subrat Talukdar, Political Activist, Guwahati
  65. Ajitabh Hazarika, PhD candidate, Tezpur University
  66. Aniruddha Bora, Public Health Professional, Assam
  67. Porosha Sonowal, PhD candidate, Tezpur University
  68. Bornil Jonak Phukan, PhD candidate, Tezpur University
  69. Piyush Joshi, Energy Sector Professional
  70. Syed Shakeel Imdad, Management Consultant
  71. Chinmoy Madhurya Deka, MA Student, University of Delhi
  72. Shruti Bora, Student, Calcutta University
  73. Jayanta Gogoi, Software Engineer, Mumbai
  74. Shilpi Sikha Das, Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  75. Aryan Baruah, IT Professional
  76. Dimpi Saikia, Engineer
  77. Munmi Pathak, PhD Candidate, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  78. Aditya Bakshi, Student
  79. Kuldeep Bhattacharjya, Independent Researcher based in Delhi from Assam
  80. Afrida Hussain, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, INSIDENE
  81. Bidit Deka, Advocate, Delhi High Court

 

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