As a writing instructor and professor of rhetoric, I came to appreciate the immutable power of words. Once articulated, they travel the world, get transformed, translated, and sometimes, twisted and cited out of context: for example, I occasionally find researchers citing my published ideas out of context or reframing my observations to suit their own arguments. It is natural for words to take on a life of their own or mutate in meaning once they are out among the readers, but when this life is not the one envisaged by their creator, it is liable to make the creator, the writer, feel powerless. However, as someone who has the tools to advocate for those who have been silenced, and the language to articulate the necessary (even if unpopular) truths, it is the writer’s duty to carry on despite these challenges. The necessary words must be uttered and they must be written, albeit cautiously and with due deference to their power to transform lives, relationships (both individual and collective), as well as social structures.
When the people’s movement against the amendment to India’s Citizenship Act started in 2019, I was commissioned by a leading international news outlet to write an essay to reflect my views on Assam’s passionate reaction to the amendment and the wide allegations of xenophobia being made against the people of Assam. My essay took the shape of a letter to my son who was as fearful as I was, when connectivity with our family back home was disrupted while curfews were imposed and mass protests took place. I wanted to explain to him – and the outside world – how Assam’s distinctive reaction to the new citizenship rules was a cry for help, a struggle for the survival of marginalized, and mostly indigenous, communities in a frontierized region of one of the world’s largest democracies. In doing so, I connected Assam’s struggle to larger struggles all over the world: for indigenous rights and anti-racism, against climate change and brute political power. My editor described it as a “beautiful, gentle, powerful piece”.
However, just before it was due to be published, the South Asia editor of the news outlet stepped in and killed it. It wasn’t polemical enough and didn’t subscribe to the binary narrative of anti-Muslim hatred that the rest of the world (and especially the Indian mainland) wanted to ascribe to Assam. While I do not dispute the prevalence of anti-Muslim hatred in Assam – which becomes alarmingly more pronounced every day – my argument has always been to view this hatred in connection with the long history of marginalization and militarization that entrenched hypermasculinist forms of violence here, and in the rest of the Northeast. If we have any hope of bringing our conflict-habituated societies in the Northeast back from the brink of the ethno-fascism that we’re already being accused of, we must trace our everyday acts of violence – be it innocuous name-calling (‘invading hordes’, ‘illegal’ humans) or dehumanized, inhuman brutalities (like an official photographer stomping on a dying man shot at by the police during an eviction drive) – back to their source: this history of militarization, that is characterized by the use of the politics of fear and a rhetoric of hate as technologies of governance.
In my essay, I had cautioned my son and the future generations of Assam to guard against this rhetoric and challenge the collective amnesia surrounding our long, troubled history. Only when we remember our own historical marginalization and victimization (instead of uncritically aligning ourselves with the centers of power) can we stand in solidarity and sisterhood with those who are also victims of the same history. My words were ‘killed’ (in media parlance) before they could reach a discerning audience but my essay – that letter to my son – has been floating around, taking many forms. When invited to speak to law students at the Citizenship and Statelessness Clinic of the Jindal Global Law School, I decided to read it to the future citizens, leaders, and policy- and law- makers with the hope that my words would speak to them. Subsequently, I used every emotion I had infused into this heartfelt piece to develop a book-length critical commentary on marginality, hypermasculinist violences, and organic, feminist peace in Assam and similar other conflict-habituated geopolitical peripheries across the globe. Gendering Peace in Violent Peripheries: Marginality, Masculinity, and Feminist Agency is out of the press now, the first in the Routledge Advances in Feminist Peace Research series.
As a feminist scholar, I understand the importance of emotions in research and writing, and also advocate for centering them in all endeavors. It is emotions, after all, that humanize these endeavors, and us. But it is also emotions that are weaponized to turn humans against each other. This is done through the use of rhetoric: words have the power to articulate and manipulate powerful emotions. In Assam, a narrative of fear and the rhetoric of hate is used to inspire among the indigenous and autochthonous peoples the shared negative emotions of contempt, disgust, anger, and revenge against migrants. These shared emotions comfort people by giving them a sense that their ingroup ties are strengthening, and this is definitely reassuring in the immediate aftermath of violent intergroup conflicts. The prevailing anti-Muslim/anti-migrant sentiments in Assam must be traced back to these conflicts and addressed in conjunction with a host of allied concerns that go beyond religious binaries into ethno-nationalist politics, resource alienation, loss of livelihood, demographic changes, linguistic and cultural transformations, environmental degradation and the impact of climate change, among others.
This can only be done through critical thought and engagement. Emotions become weapons when expressed in uncritical language or incited among those who are disengaged from analytical inquiry. To this end, the people of Assam must analyze their public/political rhetoric with the intention to change their use of language reflexively and consciously. For example, they must stop labeling an entire community of human beings as illegal invaders and criminal land-grabbers because the use of such language gives the presumed legal sons-of-the-soil the license to victimize and persecute that community. This dehumanizes the migrant community as a whole denying them human qualities like individual agency. But, at the same time, it also brutalizes the indigenous and autochthonous groups freeing them from remorse and a commitment to moral strictures, allowing them to justify violence and acts of aggression.
Critically reflecting on their own mutation and the erosion of compassion amidst their conflict-habituated environment can inspire people to change the narrative of violence and aspire for peace. When blinded by hate and aggression, they are not troubled by their unmet human needs and fail to critically examine the problems of everyday governance and the lack of workable systems. Shaping the prevailing public, political, and intellectual conversations around historical truths and traumas, reparation and justice, inclusion, and future directions will empower people to work together toward a humane future. This would be a future characterized by fair and equitable immigration and land laws, disaster management systems, and rehabilitation policies that uphold the human dignity of citizens and non-citizens alike. To this end, a rhetoric of sisterhood and solidarity must be introduced into the public discourse and it must be practiced at both the personal and political levels. Writers must facilitate this change, given the intimate and emotionally strong connection they share with their readers.