What does it take to build a nation? Hiren Gohain and Sanjib Baruah once had a prolonged debate on the stakes of nationalism during the Assam Movement in the 1980s. Professor Gohain, broadly skeptical of the Assam Movement, argued that it was a bourgeois reaction to the consolidation of communist organizing in the region. Professor Baruah, more sympathetic, suggested that it was a strategic mobilization responding to India’s continued treatment of Assam as a colony. Revisiting that debate, one is struck less by their disagreements— which were many and profound—but by the impossibility of that argument today. This is partly because of the intervening forty years, of course, especially the collapse of the organized Left, the rise (and betrayal) of ULFA, and the saffronization of nationalism, such that even imagining it could be an emancipatory vision seems ludicrous these days. It is also because, as both Professors Gohain and Baruah emphasize in their recent books, the rest of the country never grasped the sheer novelty of the Assam Movement. Most of us today remember the Assam Movement only insofar as it led to the Assam Accord, which we in turn blame for the NRC and the CAA. Read together, Professors Gohain and Baruah offer us an important corrective to that narrow and self-serving narrative, even as they highlight different aspects of the complex history and consequences of that moment in Indian history.
Author: Nandini Ramachandran
Nandini Ramachandran is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center currently doing fieldwork in Shillong. She can be found online as @chaosbogey