[ARCHIVAL DEBATES] Assam Agitation: Blind hostility is no solution

An essay by Hiren Gohain published 34 years ago in SUNDAY magazine

This article was first published in Sunday Vol. 10 Issue 33, 6 -12 March 1983. Sunday, was a political weekly published from Kolkata by Ananda Bazaar Patrika group and M J Akbar was its founding editor. Dr. Hiren Gohain’s essay is reproduced here for educational purpose from the private collection of Guwahati based senior journalist and commentator Haidar Hussain.
Bonojit Hussain

HIREN GOHAIN, a leftist intellectual, does not support the Assam movement as he considers it impracticable and dangerous. However, he feels that if peace is to return to this north-eastern state, the genuine and long-standing fears of the Assamese people must be set at rest.

People who take pride in their scientific outlook seem as prone to irrational opinions and prejudiced views as the allegedly unenlightened masses. In fact, they appear to be quite incapable of examining with dispassionate application and searching honesty positions to which they find themselves committed as consequence of some ‘line’ adopted collectively. Such advocates of scientific realism are so carried away by the prospect of total support among their colleagues that they debunk any critic of that privileged view as a coward or a traitor. One does not begrudge such people their right to indulge in vicarious heroics. But surely one may be allowed to express some reservations about their strange notion that courage is a product of organisation. Indeed, one does not know how such scientific people distinguish complacent acquiescence in the opinion of others from courage to conviction, which is capable of resisting pressures of organised (and at times armed!) opinion.

I have become aware of such unpleasant truths while trying to understand the Assam Movement. My views on Assam movement are known. I have never supported its objectives or taken any part in its programmes. Since interested circles are already busy spreading slanderous rumours, I should like to affirm in all humility that I had taken the initiative in organising the first serious resistance against the movement through a paper that survived against all odds for two years, funded out of public donations and my small resources. In consequence I faced and am still facing a lot of persecution, social ostracism, and physical risks. Only a distaste for dramatising suffering and the kind of synthetic charity it seems to attract, has kept me silent on the extremely vicious nature of these persistent and atrocious persecutions. Ironically, I now find myself facing a kind of crude propaganda from leftist circles because I do not swallow their hook, line and sinker.

Briefly, my position is that while democratic people must condemn chauvinism in Assam, they ought to recognise the fact that Assamese chauvinism is an unhealthy reaction of the Assamese against the oppression of more powerful forces. True, the middle-class leadership in the class-interest has distorted the national protest into chauvinist and communal forms. Further, this Assamese chauvinism has in its turn oppressed other minorities. But the Assam movement has not been confined to the middle-class alone. It has a fairly broad-based rural support. Land-pauperism, indebtedness, un-employment among rural youth, have all contributed to rousing the peasantry to solid support to the movement. Yet the peasantry is not organised on class lines. At the present stage of development national forces in Assam are more powerful and influential than class forces. The Assamese peasants would make common cause with the Assamese middle-class rather than with the immigrant peasants. While the left may be able to overcome these differences eventually, the present contradictions may also completely frustrate their aims unless national forces are recognised and properly guided. There is an entire historical backdrop to this problem which conditions the Assamese awareness of it. Of course, the nationalist forces in Assam either ignore or soft-pedal the structural roots of this problem of underdevelopment and backwardness. The left is under no obligation to follow them here. But underdevelopment in the peculiar conditions in our country has also led to all kinds of pressure building up against the Assamese. Whether in trade or industry, or in agriculture, or in the higher rungs of the bureaucracy, the Assamese find themselves outclassed and outmaneuvered by ‘outsiders’ as has already been pointed out by many objective non-Assamese observers.

Hiren Gohain / SUNDAY by Raiot Webzine on Scribd

It will not do to dismiss the movement as a CIA-inspired conspiracy. The CIA appears to be in any major Indian movement or upsurge in recent times. But if the leftists realise that the present Akali movement cannot be understood in such terms alone, one fails to appreciate why the Assamese alone are to be awarded that dubious honour. In March 1980, I had read a paper entitled ‘On the Present Movement in Assam’ in a seminar on national integration at Calcutta University. When it was reported in a section of the press that I had called it a CIA-engineered movement, I at once sent a correction pointing out that my view was rather that the CIA had set a match to a situation that had been deteriorating for decades and had now become explosive (Jugantar, 5 May 1980). I had also pointed out that all along the central government had patronised the chauvinism of the Assamese middle-class instead of ensuring real economic development of this region. Apart from the CIA, the influence of certain indubitably Indian forces needs to be taken into account. At any rate since the alleged successes of the CIA imply both objective and subjective weaknesses of the left in area like Assam, should not the left and democratic forces also engage in some self-criticism?

On similar grounds I refuse to christen the movement as an exercise in secessionism. However one may disagree with them none of the demands of the movement seems to smack of outright secessionism. To give the devil its due, the movement leaders had at least raised no objection to giving citizenship rights to immigrants of the period 1951-1961. To affirm the fact of the central government’s callousness towards Assam’s problems with some vehemence or to reject certain suggestions of the central government on parochial ground is not necessarily secessionist. Of course, the spectrum of opinion in the movement includes a secessionist band as well. If it gains the upper hand, that will be due to wrong political handling of the movement. Since the demands of the movement derive their strength from historical urges and basic grievances, even though the demand themselves are irrational, a solution will require tact, patience and a proper perspective on the part of the union government. Unfortunately, the latter may fall back upon repression if the issues are trivial or irrelevant in its eyes.

But the limitations of such an approach may be seen at their most glaring in Manipur and Nagaland. Secessionism will in that event be the illegitimate child of an unimaginative policy of repression. The tripartite talks when leaders of opposition parties were associated, were a sound step taken rather late. And why is it that Assamese leaders of such parties and groups have not been invited to such talks?

One would have thought they would be able to communicate with the movement leaders better. Has not the central government been a party to decision that gives the student leaders from Assam the status of leaders of some alien nation? I still feel that not enough has been done to persuade the movement leaders, and that both the leaders of the movement and the central government representatives have been guilty of endless legalistic quibbling. Secessionism is a consequence of alienation, and not merely of some monstrous CIA plot.

This alienation, however, however has deep historical roots. The Assamese have never felt an identity separate from India, unlike the Nagas and the Mizos, who have, after all, little in common with the Indian heritage. But Assam has also been marked by certain features that distinguish her. Though she is so close to Bengal, the character of the Vaishanava movement in Assam had been quite different from that of the Vaishnava movement in Bengal. Assamese Vaishnava institutions, for centuries had a more central role to play in society. The satras or monastries were not retreats, but centres of learning and culture, and discharged important social functions. As the eminent historian, Sir Edward Gait, noticed in the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the Assamese Hindus were tribal converts assimilated in phases through the ministry of the satras, (Introduction to Census Report on Assam, 1891). Besides, Assam managed to retain her independence from the successive medieval empires ruled from Delhi down to the 19th century. These two facts are most vital for any appreciation of the character of the Assamese nationality.

Yet the stunted growth of native capitalism in the colonial setup failed to generate the forces for complete assimilation of all the various ethnic elements in the area. The caste-Hindu elements in the vanguard of Assamese nationalism were never as secure in their hegemony as their counterparts in other regions in India. The Assamese nationality has had a troubled time since its inception. To cite only a few instances, the tribals had already threatened to break away before Independence. In the Sixties the Ahoms started a movement for separate state in upper Assam and the plains’ tribals also started a similar campaign. Both these movements had powerful grassroots support. The fear that the Assamese nationality may disintegrate is a persistent anxiety for the Assamese middle-class. In my paper On the Present Movement in Assam I had pointed out how the chauvinist movement had, ironically, brought about those very changes that the Assamese feared so much. Yet it is known outside Assam that the tribals are sensitive to immigration as the Assamese Hindus, and powerful tribal organisations lie the Bodo Sahitya Sabha had never withdrawn their support to the movement.

During its growth and development the Assamese nationality has had to overcome several nearly insuperable obstacles, which have left a legacy of bitterness and anger. First it was an alien language that was imposed by the colonial rulers as the official language. Then they tagged on to Assam large Bengali-speaking territories without any regard for the sentiments of either nationality, and actively encouraged jealous bickerings and tensions between the two linguistic group for decades. Amalendu Guha’s From Planter Raj to Swaraj provides plenty of instances of imperialist hatching of such national jealousies. The infamous partition of Bengal not only threatened to obliterate the separate identity of Assam by merging her with East Bengal, but sowed the seeds of aggressive communal politics by introducing to the Muslim leaders of East Bengal, the idea of turning Assam into an extension of a Muslim Bengal. The colonial rulers at first encouraged immigration of East Bengal peasants to Assam for economic reasons, e.g. putting under the plough vast stretches of ‘waste’ land, raising food for plantation labour, and promoting commercial crops like jute for the mills. But in the Thirties, they gave the problem the familiar communal twist. The census commissioner of Assam, in 1931, used inflammatory language against immigration in an official document to frighten the Assamese, but other Englishmen in the Legislative Assembly of the province posed as friends of the immigrants.

The League ministry in the Forties certainly encouraged immigration from the point of view of communal politics. To cap it all, the cabinet mission recommended as a part of the plan for independence the ‘grouping’ of Assam with Muslim-majority provinces. Noted freedom-fighters of the Thirties, like Mahadev Sarma and Krishna Sarma, led a movement against immigration. Feelings ran so high that later even the Assam branch of the CPI adopted a resolution against immigration from East Bengal. (Guha, Amalendu, Op cit.) The movement against the ‘grouping’ in the late Forties was led by no less a person than Gopi Nath Bardoloi, the undisputed leader of the freedom struggle in Assam. Even in the constituent Assembly, Assamese leaders were speaking in aggrieved tones about the indifference of the all-India leaders to Assam’s plight and the fears of the Assamese.

Speaking on 16 June 1949, Kuladhar Chaliha not only urged the constituent Assembly to favour assimilation of the minorities in Assam, but sounded a note of warning against suppression of the rights of the provinces; “If you suspect the provinces and take greater powers for the centre, it will only lead to undesirable results … If you take too much power for the centre the provinces will try to break away from you,” (Proceedings, Constituent Assembly of India, Vol. VIII, p. 919). This appears to be a secessionist threat, but it actually reflects the rising Assamese middle-class’ fear of constraints. A weak, underdeveloped bourgeoisie in dread of the power of a rival (the all India bourgeoisie represented by Delhi) considers it natural to impose its conditions on weaker national groups. But one had better not forget how this regional elite also led militant peasant movements against colonial rulers in the late Thirties and Forties, and the ’42 movement witnessed a tremendous upsurge in the countryside of Assam. The pattern here is conspicuously different from that of Bengal. There is a continuity between the movement against grouping, the movement for a university in Assam in the period before Independence, and the movement for the oil refinery and the official language in the post-Independence period. And that is a national union of all classes against central authority, Assamese nationalism has not yet become a spent force, nor lost all its creative elan if only because the nationality itself is still in the process of growth.

Stalin’s contribution on the national question is generally acknowledged as of primary theoretical significance. Yet Stalin had repeatedly warned his doctrinaire comrades against the simplistic theory that all national ideals are reactionary. Speaking to the students of the University of the Toilers of the East on 18 May 1925, Stalin underlined “the absolutely correct proposition that universal proletarian culture does not preclude, but rather presupposes and fosters national culture”. He also made a significant remark on the varying historical stages of development represented by different nations of the U.S.S.R. “The comrades who commit this deviation fail to understand two things. They do not understand that conditions in the centre and in the ‘border regions’ are not the same, and far from being identical. They do not understand, furthermore, that Soviet republics of the East themselves are not all alike, that some of them, for instance, Georgia and Armenia, are at a higher stage of national formation, while others, such as Chechnya and Kabarda, are at a lower stage of national formation”.

Stalin’s cautionary remarks on the need to keep in mind the concrete situation and especially the stage of development of a particular nationality, ought to apply to different Indian nationalities as well. It will therefore be foolish to put the Assamese middle-class in the same category as the Bengali or the Maharashtrian middle-class and imagine them to have the same traits. The Assamese middle-class still cherishes hopes – some will say illusions – of establishing itself as a dominant national class, while the Bengali middle-class has already resigned itself to playing a subsidiary role, either behind the Indian big bourgeoisie or the working-class. The oppression of the big capital as well, as the unrest among the peasantry have threatened these hopes. At this critical moment it has been surprised by the challenge of the richer and better-educated sections of the immigrants and the tribals. The desperate tactics it has adopted to save the day can never appeal to the democrats. But it is hardly fair to assume that repression is the only proper response to it.

From about 1970 onwards I have been trying, with the help of my friends among the leftists, to fight Assamese chauvinism from a humanitarian and democratic point of view. The struggle has forced me to give some thought to the origin and character of the problem. In 1970 I wrote in an article in Frontier; Roots of Xenophobia in Assam, trying to grasp the misgivings and anxieties behind the chauvinist upsurges. In fact, I even soft-pedalled the chauvinist tendencies there in my sympathy for the underdogs. But the reading did not go deep enough. In 1973 I returned to the question in the wake of the widespread and impassioned movement to make Assamese the sole medium of instruction for higher education. Since the Assamese middle-class was at the helm of affairs in such movements I studied the Origins of the Assamese middle-class in the Social Scientist in August, 1973. Until then it had been the tendency among the leftist intellectuals to consider the different regional middle-classes as identical sections of the all-India petit-bourgeoisie rather than as embryonic regional bourgeoisie, since economic criteria seemed to support the former view. I took the line there that the Assamese middle-class can be better understood as an embryonic bourgeois class stunted in colonial environments and with its progress further blocked by the growth of big capital in India after Independence. Its aspirations for equal development have been frustrated by the monopolistic tendency of Indian big capital, and its semi-feudal moorings have been threatened by rising peasant militancy. The consequent chauvinist reaction of the Assamese middle-class, I concluded, could not be overcome except through prolonged working-class struggles leading the peasantry. But the importance given to the middle-class in that article itself cried aloud for a conclusion that I failed to draw at the time: the regional middle-classes should be sympathetically handled as long as this did not endanger the long-term aims and plans of the working-class. But such a conclusion had more or less been implicit in that reading, as the very first paragraph of the article will show.

While reviewing Amalendu Guha’s Planter Raj to Swaraj in the Economic and Political Weekly in April, 1978, I expressed strong reservations against Guha’s incidental remarks (in an otherwise important and well written book) that one-sidedly blamed Assamese chauvinism. These bear repetition today:

“Thus his treatment necessarily fails to throw any light on the exact relationship between the regional bourgeoisie and the ‘national’ big bourgeoisie. Guha also fails to be sufficiently critical of the class character of the Congress leadership on the national scale. Hence, while he makes much of the chauvinist tendencies in the Assamese middle-class, he is unable to see that this can be connected with the failure of the all-India leadership to solve the national question with wisdom and foresight. The tendency to dominate and browbeat the aspirations of the small national groups was there among a considerable section of the national leadership from the very beginning. Guha does not draw the relevant conclusions from the data supplied by himself… For instance, on many occasions the Assam leadership failed to agree with the views of the national leadership … This may of course be considered in terms of the vested interests of the provincial leaders. But a more pertinent point is the inability of the national leadership to appreciate the difficulties of a neglected, backward and weak national group … Against such a backdrop, the fears and the worries of the Assamese are understandable.”

There is thus no contradiction between my defence of the rights of the minorities in Assam and my plea for a sympathetic approach to the national aspirations of the Assamese. Instead of encouraging minority chauvinism in the interest of short-term political gains, the central government had better urge the minorities to make certain sacrifices and adjustments. On the other hand the Assamese masses should be weaned away from a chauvinist outlook through a sincere implementation of their reasonable and practical demands and firm discouragement of chauvinist perspectives. Leftists can take upon themselves the task of monitoring this programme and prevent it from sliding into apathy in the usual manner. Since the mudslinging cleverly directed against me paints my present position as that of a renegade, I had better quote here what I had written in Economic and Political Weekly on 24 May, 1980:

“All this is true enough, yet it will be lunacy to dismiss the explosion of popular passion as something trivial and useless. Unless the leftist and democratic forces do something about it the tide of feeling will turn against them and sweep them far from their present moorings. For the ardour, the spirit of sacrifice, and the zeal of the participants – thousands upon thousands of them – can scarcely be ignored or overlooked. The backbone of the movement is the militant rural youth …”

That article, thereafter, went on to point out how that militancy had been squandered in fraticidal violence because of the false choices of the leadership. Neither at that time nor at any time later have I found it necessary to support the Assam movement. But a blind hostility to it will not lead to a solution. It may be courage in the eyes of some people to stick to some dogmatic assertions, especially if these are echoed automatically by other people. The sooner one dispenses with this kind of courage, the closer one may move towards the truth of a complicated situation.

Before rounding off this creed I should like to point to certain striking facts to explain why immigration has become such an explosive issue. To forestall the slanders from high-minded leftists I better put on record here that while immigrants in Assam have long been seen as a nuisance, I tried for the first time to correct the picture by quoting official sources and pointing out their services to Assam’s economic growth as early as 1972 (Bastava Swapna, a collection of essays in Assamese). I have also protested recently against the unfortunate slant in the officially sponsored and otherwise well researched Political History of Assam Vol. III, where immigrant Muslims are shown as communal by nature, and where their role has been painted in black. Mrs. Anwara Taimur’s government ignored this protest, probably because it was preferable to let such misunderstandings thrive! but this stand against communalism need not deter us from examining why immigration has assumed the form of a nightmare to the Assamese.

It transpires that 50 per cent of the total population of Goalpara, 33 per cent of the total population of Kamrup district, 49 per cent of total population of Darrang district, 54 per cent of the Nowgong district and 57 per cent of the Dibrugarh district is constituted by people of immigrant origin, i.e. by people who entered Assam in the wake of the British annexation in 1826 (P. 65, unpublished Ph.D thesis by Dr. Manomohan Das in 1980). The great majority of them are yet to accept the Assamese way of life and, indeed, may be persuaded by certain political elements to reject it explicitly eventually. Another facet of the problem is that the proportion of Muslims in Assam rose from nine per cent in 1921 to 23 per cent in 1941. Concurrently there was an increase in communal tensions under indirect government patronage. The proportion of Assamese-speaking people declined from 49.2 per cent in 1911 to 42 per cent in 1931. The present high figures for Assamese speakers in the last census, held in 1971, are largely due to the decision of the immigrant Muslims to declare themselves as Assamese speakers. While the saner sections of the educated immigrants consider the decision irreversible, certain political groups are already canvassing a retreat from that position. All this is bound to increase Assamese fears.

In the late nineteenth century the Assamese gentry supported British plans for colonising the province by immigrants. But by 1920s the tide had turned. Moving a resolution against the continuing immigration in the provincial legislature, Mahadev Sarma, respected Assamese leader and Congressman, said on 23 July 1927: “A piece of land is the only source of wealth for the ordinary people. They have no idea or ideal of industrialism. If, however, no provision is made for preserving lands for future development, our future will be jeopardised for lack of new avenues.” The traditional system of agriculture in Assam and the wellbeing of Assamese peasantry depended on availability of fallow land, for grazing purposes, winter crops, as well as for cultivating plots by rotation. This system was threatened by the arrival on the scene of lakhs of immigrant peasants who squatted upon such land. Nor did the local peasants receive assurance of an alternative. There were increasing clashes between peasants from two communities recorded in confidential official documents. These are events of recent history and may not be ignored in wishy-washy fashion. It would now seem that the compromise arrived at during the long congress rule in the state postponed rather than resolved the crisis.

Once again, let me repeat that I do not support the actual demands of the Assam movement, as I consider them impracticable, inhuman and dangerous. There is no question of pandering to intolerance and aggressiveness. But if peace is to return to this unhappy state, the genuine and longstanding fears of the Assamese people must be set at rest. All the political parties that have realised the danger of progressive alienation of the Assamese, must come together to persuade the various groups settled in Assam against taking inflexible and self-centered positions, and for the moment must give up all thoughts of petty political gain. This will have to include assuring the Assamese of a secure national future, both economic and political, within the Indian federation. The repressive instruments of the state must be used with moderation. Or the hotheads among the youths and the psycopaths among the journalists will hold the saner elements in the grip of fear and lead our people on a suicidal march towards chaos.



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Hiren Gohain Written by:

Dr. Hiren Gohain (born 1939) is a Marxist literary critic, poet and social scientist from the Indian state of Assam.

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