Axomiya Nationalism is Dead because it was Axomiya

I just read an article published in Raiot a couple of weeks ago titled ‘Axomiya Nationalism is Dead’. Once, Prof. Sanjoy Hazarika had told me an anecdote from his days as a young journalist in the eighties. Prafulla Kr Mahanta and others had just taken office and ‘Bodofa’ Upen Brahma, along with other tribal leaders, had gone to meet their comrade-turned-minister friends. They were in, though, for an indecorous reception, by being kept waiting for hours before they could see the new office bearers. Emerging, Brahma prognosticated a future where never again will any tribal community and leader believe the caste-Hindu Assamese politics and politicians.

One can of course read similar, but more cultivated statements  Karbi leader Jayanta Rongpi and others in the newspapers of 1985-86. If consolidation of Axomiya nationalism started in the 1880s, it reached its high noon in the 1980s, only to see a steep nosedive post the Assam movement. This was anything but unforeseen. The assertion of the different tribes and sections of people in face of the caste-Hindu Assamese hegemony is old, and each time that these sides came together on common grounds, like in 1947 and 1985, the disenchantment that followed only became more acute and immutable.

Axomiya Nationalism is dead precisely because it was ‘Axomiya’. From its genesis in the fight for the status of the Assamese language confronted by Bengali in the 1830s and the memoranda to Moffat Mills by Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan and Maniram Dewan among others – if not in Xankardeb’s efforts of democratizing knowledge by bringing different castes and tribes under the Vaishanavite umbrella – it has been a nationalism which is strictly linguistic and almost equally staunchly caste-Hindu. Lex talionis followed towards the second and the third decades of the nineteenth century, with the formation of not only independent Koch Rajbongshi, Bodo Kachari and Sutia organizations but also umbrella organizations like the Tribal League to counteract the dominant Assamese middle-class. The nescience and lordliness of the Assamese, for Sanjib Baruah, is an “inevitable consequence of the very logic of language-based subnationalisms and the cultural grammar of the nation-province in India”. The smug, supercilious superiority of language also subsumed under it the varieties of Assamese spoken in the not-so-opulent sides of the state. Standard or national languages are anyway always maintained by dominant bloc institutions from the upper middle class of the upper caste of the upper-rank-holding places with natural and (post)colonially intellectual resources which in the case of Assam was upper Assam. The nationalistic process of false consciousness and absorption succeeded to the degree that Goalporia and Kamrupi became permanently redundant.

Most political commentators and scholars by now concede that the All Assam Students’ Union and Axom Xahitya Xabha, two of the most prominent corps of Axomiya subnationalism, are inherently stiff-neckedly Axomiya, despite saying Assam/Axom in their names instead of Axomiya. So has it also always been with the Axom Gana Parixod, or the AGP, that came out of the All Assam Students’ Union and the Assam Movement. Pronounced and interesting debates exist, though, about the nature of nationalism espoused and endorsed by the United Liberation Front of Assam, or the ULFA. Many like Udayon Misra and Kaustubh Deka argue that ULFA’s approach was more inclusive and catch-all, but the fact that the All Bodo Students’ Union would in 1987 demand protection from ULFA’s ‘political assassination and determinism’, calling it an ethnic Assamese organization, showed its limited appeal among the tribes and other indigenous peoples of the place. Also, ULFA’s insular and parochial emphasis on the ideal, historical Ahom Assam as an exemplum and parable straight from the Gospels did not hold attention and euphoria for long and it lost relevance just like the other ethnic Assamese groups.

But, as the article rightly suggests, Assam is as yet not a home to Bharat Mata Ki Jai wholly and if in parts it is, it is because of the chanters’ sense of painful vacuum, of an upsetting nihilism. Reading any newspaper in Assam after every election where AGP fails miserably, be it the 2011 Assembly Elections or the 2013 Guwahati Municipal Corporation Elections or the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, would show people venting their disdain and dienchantment with the regionalist party and their desire for   an inclusive and sensitive brand of subnationalism of the people of multiethnic and polyphonic Assam.

That is why it is great news indeed that Axomiya nationalism is dead. It is dead for a good reason. The sooner this cultural and hegemonic Leviathan is irrevocably obliterated, the better. Before the monster of religious fundamentalism and Hindi-Hindu upper India misogynist nationalism completely mops up the historically heterogeneous state, a regionalist politics of the people(s) of Assam will manifest itself, as distinct from, if not in a showdown with, borderland-hating Indian nationalism. Hopefully this happens sooner rather than later. The demise of Axomiya nationalism has just laid the ground for it.


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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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