Citizens of a Hindu Rashtra: Stirring the Ethnic Cauldron in Assam

Sanjoy Barbora, Guwahati;
Joydeep Biswas, Silchar
Bidyut Sagar Boruah, Guwahati
Debarshi Das, Guwahati
Sanjib Deblaskar, Sonai, Silchar
Anshuman Gogoi, Guwahati
Gaurav Rajkhowa, Guwahati
Ankur Tamuli Phukan, Guwahati
An Assamese version of this article appeared in Amar Asom on November 23 as a joint public statement, with the above authors as signatories

The government’s intention of amending the Citizenship Act via the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 has been met with anger, anxiety, and unrest across Assam. Faced with a strident opposition to the proposed amendments from across Assam in the last few weeks, the BJP—with the support of a number of Bengali organisations as well—has reoriented its strategy by calling on the Bengali-speaking community to identify themselves as Assamese-speakers. Key leaders such as Himanta Biswa Sarma have advocated the assimilation of the Bengali-speakers of Barak into Assamese linguistic and cultural identity. Others have suggested that they “become Assamese” while maintaining their linguistic identity, and yet others have called on them to return Assamese as their mother-tongue in the Census.

This represents the latest attempt by the RSS to reconfigure Assamese-Bengali relations in Assam (the amendments themselves are consistent with the grand vision of the RSS of the Akhand Bharat, the homeland of the Hindus). Such call to a linguistic nationality to “disappear”—or more politely, “assimilate”—into another cannot but be reactionary and divisive in nature. In multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Assam, every community has the right to protect and develop its culture and language. Furthermore, the popularly elected government must be held to account for its failure to enable the conditions for the same. Against this democratic principle, leaders of the government in power have taken to justifying publicly the blatant usurpation of the cultural and political rights of its citizens.

The Hindutva agenda in Assam is unfolding, on the one hand, by forging a unity of Assamese and Bengali-speaking Hindus against Muslims, even as they concurrently call on the Bengali-Hindus to give up their linguistic identity. On the other, it forces upon the Assamese the anxieties brought on by the communally motivated Citizenship Bill. Against this sustained effort to push Assam towards violence, the right of all Bengali-speakers to protect and develop their language and culture must be upheld. For this very reason, the idea the government would offer them the promise of safety and security, on the pre-condition that they give up their linguistic and cultural identity is atrocious. Further, the state’s duty towards their safety cannot be subject to the pre-condition that they uncomplainingly welcome the persecuted Hindus from across the border. With every new statement by the BJP and their extended family on the issue, their humanitarian sympathy for their “brethren” across the border rings hollow. Their promise to rescue the persecuted minorities is always—always, conditional on a restriction of the democratic rights of all.

Not unlike fascists around the world, the Hindu Right is little concerned about people’s linguistic identities and their cultural resources—except when they can be brought together in antagonisms that forward their Hindutva agenda. It is not, surprising, then, that the most chauvinistic elements of linguistic national identities have periodically gravitated towards the sun of Hindutva—the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra being a case in point. When an Assamese-speaking BJP MLA calls on the Bengali-speaking population of the state to give up their language in favour of Assamese, it must also be understood as part of their conscious effort to cultivate and ally with the most virulent and violent forms of linguistic and ethnic identity across the country.

Hindutva’s inherently Brahminical politics, coupled with India’s historically skewed Centre-State relations come together to create a situation where various regional elites are forced to articulate their claims in ever more exclusivist terms as they struggle to hold their own against a domineering Centre. The imminent rebirth of the most chauvinistic forms of Assamese and Bengali linguistic assertion cannot be seen in disjunction to the BJP’s cynical pursuit of Hindutva nationalism. The real effects of this political calculus, however, are always borne by the most disadvantaged amongst these communities.

In this charged atmosphere, it is imperative to assert the strong historical relations between the Bengali and Assamese-speaking communities in Assam. Concerted efforts by chauvinists within both communities notwithstanding, there continue to be extensive cultural exchanges between them. In the Brahmaputra Valley, the Bengali community uses Assamese as language of common language of social intercourse; many Bengali-speakers have studied in Assamese-medium schools; some have even chosen Assamese as their language of literary expression. Similarly, many historical developments in the Assamese language can be traced to fertile periods of exchange of ideas and practices with Bengali literary culture. Yet, none of this required that Bengalis must become Assamese, nor that Assamese be considered a minor stage in the forward march of Bengali language and culture. Such demands only close off the possibilities of continued relations of mutual exchange and learning.

Through the last two decades, some progress was made towards establishing a difficult but democratic consensus against such a political atmosphere. During this time, ethnic communities across Assam have challenged the chauvinistic excesses of linguistic identity assertions. Social, political and linguistic demands are being made with increasing assertiveness. The lumbering elephant of Assamese nationalism was forced to account for its pernicious hierarchies of caste and conservative authority. It is not surprising that the State has met this surge of democratic demands by riding out on Hindutva’s chariot, with chauvinistic linguistic nationalism as its trusted sarathi (charioteer). Bengali linguistic identity too had undergone significant transformations in the last few decades, as there is an ongoing trend to identify as Bengali-speakers from Assam or the broader north-east, with their distinct cultural history. Against such efforts, the government has chosen now to raise the spectre of the “Bengali Hindu”. This is an attempt to communalise the secular dimensions of Bengali linguistic-national identity, even as it disavows its deep-rooted casteist underpinnings. The attempts to “resolve” the long-standing tensions between Bengalis and Assamese under the flag of Hindutva cannot but affirm and entrench the domination of caste elites within the two communities. Against this, the only alternative is to transform the Bengali-Assamese relationship through a combined and shared critique of the Brahminical ground that supports Bengali and Assamese nationalism.

Finally, a word on the proposed amendments themselves. In an article in The Hindu, Joydeep Biswas has pointed out that, “Most significantly, however, this Bill does not actually give citizenship to anybody. It only proposes to enable the post-1971 stream of non-Muslim migrants to apply for Indian citizenship via the route of naturalisation; they are proposed to be decriminalised by lifting the prefix ‘illegal’ before ‘migrants’” (“Citizenship on a Divisive Agenda”, November 4). This move will only encourage and embolden the most casteist and regressive elements within the Bengali Hindu community. Some supporters of the proposed amendments have argued that insofar as a large number of Bengali Hindus belong to the Namasudra community, the proposed amendments will benefit them the most. Such words of new-found sympathy for the lower-caste peasant, however, ring hollow in the mouths of Hindutva chauvinists who have until today resisted the democratic demands of the anti-caste struggle in the Bengali Hindu community. We fear that as ethnic tensions become more confrontational, the burden of consequences will fall upon the Namasudra community rather than the Brahminical elites, who will always find a sympathetic ear in Nagpur.

The government, for the most part, has chosen to not address the deep seated anxieties of the indigenous communities of Assam. Its only gesture towards allaying these fears is a vague promise to displace and re-distribute en masse the migrant population across the country. That the state wishes to implement such a move is very much in doubt, and more so its ability to accomplish the same. If historical precedent is anything to go by, the burden of accepting such migrants will ultimately fall on the smaller and weaker states alone, and will once again create new points of confrontation in those regions. We find ourselves unable to extend our support to any such attempt on the part of the government, to simply shift the site of ethnic conflict brought on by its proposed amendments, without really resolving it.

The Indian nation-state looks to administer its frontier regions through a two-pronged approach that makes calculated use of the discourse of citizenship and homecoming even as it realises the promise of legal citizenship through extra-legal threats and enticements, the Indian nation-state looks to administer its frontier regions. In such a situation, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will actually have the paradoxical effect of rendering Bengali Hindus as second-class citizens—their legal status notwithstanding—while at the same time making strategic use of the humanitarian claim to defend the rights of persecuted religious minorities. Such selective invocations of the discourse of persecution and succour can only establish themselves by trampling on the democratic political aspirations of all linguistic and cultural groups in multi-ethnic Assam.

Steadfast in the belief that the people of the Barak and Brahmaputra Valleys will come together to take forward the fight against forces of casteism, communalism, and linguistic chauvinism, we call on democratic organisations and concerned citizens across the country to strengthen the barricades against Hindutva fascism.




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