How to Make and Unmake India and its Northeast

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.

Professor Baruah’s new book, In the Name of the Nation, is (in my reading) the final book of a trilogy that began with India Against Itself. In that book, he discusses extensively the trajectory of the Assam Movement, starting with colonial mapping and settlement policies and concluding with the rise of SULFA, the demand for Bodoland, and the fracture of what he calls (in that work) Assamese sub-nationalism. His next book, Durable Disorder, expanded the discussion to contemporary northeastern India more broadly. It ends with a justly famous (and prescient) call for layered sovereignty and a political order that recognizes rights on the basis of both residence and origin— a new “grammar of citizenship” that undoes the imperial association between territoriality and indigeneity.

In the Name of the Nation is Professor Baruah’s most wide-ranging and erudite book yet, offering a sweeping denunciation of both “development” and “border security” as oppressive frameworks through which to view the region. The conceptual core of the book, however, remains his unflinching interrogation into the question of homelands: can we theorize a politics of indigeneity in places where the claim to aboriginality is impossible to establish? How do nations, those unwieldy amalgamations of people and places, get built and dismantled? How was it that, for a few decades in the middle of the 20th century, someone could be Assamese and Ahom, Assamese and Bodo, Assamese and Miya? Can we recapture that lost imagination? Should we? Can a political concept as tarnished as self-determination achieve anything besides further fragmentation?

Assam, Professor Baruah reminds us, is as complex a construction as India itself. It can be useful to think of nations as forms of political gravity, drawing communities together into a mutual frame of reference. At its height, the Assam Movement incorporated caste-Hindus, Assamese Muslims, Plains Tribes, Hill Tribes, (some) Tea Tribes, and Miya Muslims. The movement identified, rightly or wrongly, a shared set of grievances (dispossession) and isolated certain causes for it (migration) around which an agitation was mounted. Much of the debate between Professors Baruah and Gohain back then was about the validity of this causal reasoning, the stratification within the movement, and about the nature of the violence the movement engendered. They certainly agree, however, about the fact of dispossession— and that the Assam Accord has been unsuccessful at addressing it. In the decades since, the coalition underpinning Assamese nationalism has fallen apart, resulting in considerable bloodshed as well as some remarkable Constitutional innovations, such as the extension of the Sixth Schedule to the Bodos, a plains tribe (bypassing the ethnographic logic of the schedule itself, but that is another essay.) In any case, the center did not hold, and we now live in the shadow of that fallen hegemony. Yet, as we all know, the center never holds; what is interesting, rather, is the scatter pattern it leaves in its wake— and it is here that Professor Gohain has such rich insights to offer us.

Sanjib Baruah, Author & Political Scientist, 2018, Shillong

Struggling in a Time Warp is an anthology of Professor Gohain’s essays across the last three decades. It is an eclectic and fascinating glimpse into a powerfully curious mind, including essays on matters as diverse as the Bhakti movement, Rabindranath Tagore, and Marxist theory. Most of the book, however, is proof of Professor Gohain’s sustained and granular engagement with Assamese history, especially after 1930. He is thus deeply attuned to the fault lines of Assamese nationalism: why it was, for instance, that it bolstered the fortunes of certain communities (such as Assamese Hindus), left others unsatisfied (such as Bodos) and sacrificed some (such as Miyas). “The history of the Assamese middle class” he writes in one essay “is one of tragic deformation under imperialist rule.” In this way it remains, as he reiterates in several essays, a mirror to the Indian nationalism which it both challenges and incorporates— and it is just as plagued by sanguinary anxieties about purity and unity.

The broad contours of Professor Gohain’s argument resonate with the famous Naxal thesis that India is a “prison-house of nationalities,” though the conclusions he draws from that analysis are very different from the armed insurrection advocated by earlier generations of radical thinkers. Tempered by decades of insurgency, his essays urge us, rather, to imagine new forms of solidarity that are less hampered by the violent exclusions of nationalisms. The depredations of global capital, he reminds us, are neither distributed nor contained by nation-states— a fact that the pandemic has made even more evident— and neither should we be. The way forward demands a return to our shared past, so that we may write fresh histories that include people formerly relegated to the footnotes.

In the introduction to Time Warp, Professor Gohain describes the formation of the Plains Tribal League in late colonial India and the pivotal role it played in Assamese politics during the turbulent decade before Partition. First allied with the Muslim League, which formed the provincial government in 1937, the Tribal League shifted its allegiance to the Indian National Congress after the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946, thereby making the INC the dominant actor in local politics. Without this support, northeastern India might well be a part of Bangladesh today, or even, as the British once intended, remained a crown colony. Yet this crucial political intervention was quickly forgotten, as racist stereotypes about the “primitive” tribes of Assam were restored in the imagination of the new nation— a forgetting that, unfortunately, the Assam Movement did little to remedy.

Hiren Gohain

Nations are betrayed even as they are imagined, and Professor Gohain documents the manner in which the Assam Movement was steadily co-opted from the moment of its inception: by electoral politics, class opportunism, and the central government. He teaches us, further, that such patterns are neither random nor inevitable: history sediments, but it does not repeat. Nations might be forged by incorporating existing communities with distinctive networks of association and exchange, but no nation leaves either those networks or those communities unchanged. One of the great flaws of nationalist historiography is essentialism: it first posits the timeless unity of the nation it seeks to accomplish and then assumes it. In doing so, it disguises the compromises and changes national inclusion demands, blinding us to the reality that when nations fall, they leave behind new histories and utterly transformed political communities.

It is in the fate of nations to fall. This is easy to forget when one conflates nations with nation-states, which combine the fragile imaginary of nationhood with the sturdy apparatus of statehood. Yet, to paraphrase Foucault, when the nation first spoke, it spoke against the state. This is the legacy “sub-nationalisms” remind us of: that there is no such thing as a natural nation that survives history unscathed. Nations are constantly being imagined, contested, betrayed, and ultimately forgotten. India has been re-imagined countless times in the decades after Independence; as we are all bitterly aware, we are living through a comprehensive reinvention of what it means to be Indian. Yet the solution to our present crisis isn’t to be found in a nostalgic return to an older “idea of India” that was magically more inclusive or less cynical— both these books demonstrate that it absolutely was not. India breaks Assam to build itself, and it is doing so yet again. In the months and years to come, we will undoubtedly debate how we can build a better nation, and even whether we should. But perhaps the question to ask first is: what did it take to build the nation we have?


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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

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