Hareswar Barman interviewed by Ankur Tamuli Phukan, video transcribed by Himalaya Bora. 14 March 2021, Rangia and Goreswar, Assam.
Hareswar Barman is a candidate from Raijor Dol from lower Assam constituency of Rangia. He has been an important political organizer in Assam for many decades, jumping into active political life since he was in school in standard eight. He had been associated earlier with URMCA (United Revolutionary Movement Council of Assam, formed with the initiative of CPI-ML-PCC Vaskar Nandy group), when the question of ethnic community assertion, autonomy, federalism, class-based mobilizations and so on, were particularly stark in the 1970s and 80s. As a part of URMCA, he principally opposed the dominant Assamese subnationalism’s chauvinistic strains. Later on, he was one of the architects of the Abodo Suraksha Samiti (Committee for protection of non-Bodo communities).
The interview is in the context of a debate among forces opposed to the RSS-BJP in Assam as placed in the upcoming 2021 assembly elections. On one hand is pre-poll alliance of six major non-BJP parties, the Mahajot-bandhan of Congress, CPI(M), AIUDF, BPF, CPI, CPI-ML-Liberation. On the other, are two new formations formed post anti-CAA mass movement in Assam last year, which include Raijor Dol and AJP (Assam Jatiya Parishad). With the failure of pre-poll alliance of these two poles of politics in Assam, both formally opposed to BJP, questions have been posed on both sides.
The interview is one of the first clarifications from one of the candidates of Raijor Dol on the same.
Note on ‘Raij’: can be variously translated as the common people, the masses, the public. The etymology and popular reception of the word in Assam, compared to synonyms like ‘jonogon’ or ‘janta’, is of an earlier time with continuity in the present. During colonial times for instance, the word can be seen to be associated with Raij Mels, or popular assemblies of peasant populations, especially during rebellions. Raijor Dol would mean a party of this popular mass.
Ankur Tamuli Phukan (ATP): Welcome. We are today with one of the important political voices of Assam, a voice of struggle, Hareswar Barman. Hareswarda, the first question that we want to ask today is that, you have been standing with the interests of the common people of Assam for the last 30 to 40 years, and this is the first time that you have entered the electoral fray or have stepped inside the system. Will you say a few words on the same?
Hareswar Barman (HB): No, I have taken part in the electoral system earlier too, though this time the nature of participation is different. It comes at a time when I think we are going through a complex political situation in our country, particularly Assam, where we need a kind of social alliance against communal fascism. And if we approach (fast forward) this question of social alliances with a methodological perspective from a radical standpoint, we will not get the desired result. Because those social segments which are needed to be brought together against fascism, they will not arrive at it from a radical standpoint immediately. Currently, it is through parliamentary processes that these social forces seek to weaken the fascist force.
At this moment, if someone came up with a radical answer to this problematic, then personally, I will accept that option, not the first. I do not think that these social forces whom we want (to mobilize), will come together with me in unanimity with such a radical standpoint. People want that we should resist this kind of force, which is against the very interests of the jati (nationality/nation), through parliamentary processes. And this is why I am here. This is the first reason.
Secondly, Raijor Dol is a new kind of political concept. The name itself inspires people – that yes, this is our party. So this is the nature of emotion and inspiration. Even though it is emotions itself that take people to such an state that – for the last seventy years, we have been running after leaders. But now, this new political force Raijor Dol or the political terminology it is representing, has given the people such strength that people are now thinking, that this time we will make the leaders run. And I am thinking of availing this organizational scope through joining this process. I will attempt to take people to a level that netas are compelled to run after us, the raij.
ATP: You are saying that Raijor Dol will not work only in the conventional traditional party system manner?
HB: Yes, absolutely radically. I have already said that now we are right now going through a lot of election-centric activity, so it might not be easy to take up all aspects, but we are aware that after election, we will definitely have to take up such questions (of democratic accountability). We will aim to radically rewrite our agendas including our party constitution and agendas, and put them forward creatively.
ATP: There will be some creative form to it?
HB: Yes, and if that avenue does not exist in parliamentary democracy, then at least we for one cannot do anything for sure.
ATP: Are you saying that this is not a tactical question only but a question of strategy or principle?
HB: Yes, yes, absolutely, it is a question of principle. In this question of principle, even if we become reluctant, the people will compel us. So, we have posed the question in such a manner that our own initiative will go into the hands of the raij. And I think, if we at all believe in some ‘real democratic’ processes – this is what should happen, where leaders themselves open up the doors for mass protests, mass views and opinions, doors and windows for peoples struggle to enter into moulding public life. And the concept of Raijor Dol is briefly this. We are telling them it is your party – come and join and intervene. Do your own job!
And we have a historical basis to this in Assam, especially in this region (in lower Assam), Rangia. During the 19th century British colonial rule, we have had a major rebellion against increasing land revenues by the British colonial administration in Rangia, what we refer to as Raij Mel uprising of the 19th century. The organizers who organized that rebellion gathered opinion of the people by sitting among the people in the Raij Mels (popular assemblies). And we call that Rangia’s Raij Mel. The three leaders of that rebellion were from three different social sections – one was the Satridhikar of the Barbari Satra, Kana Goswami, and the leader of the Muslims was Rahmat Khalifa, and the leader from the Bodo people was Parasuram Boro. So these leaders representing three different social identities, organized people across villages in Raij Mels and taking public consent thus, told the British that we are not going to obey the order of any foreign ruler, and we will not give the increased land revenue. So that is the tradition. And we think that Raijor Dal is upholding that same tradition of Raij Mel.
ATP: The next question that is being asked from various quarters is that: to oppose the BJP, there already is a pre-poll alliance of the Congress, and some left parties, CPI, CPI(M), CPI-ML(Liberation), etc. And especially from the CPI(M) there is a question, that since on behalf of the Mahajotbandhan, there is a candidate from the CPI(M) in Rangia, then why is Hareswar Barman from Raijor Dol fighting elections in the same constituency? They argue that this breaks the struggling unity, that is the question being raised.
HB: I think this question is actually completely meaningless. Meaningless in this sense that – let me briefly give you an example. For the last phase, some new names have been given like Moha-jot bandhan, or some other bandhan, and so on. What does one say, these are really meaningless. Because, you see, Congress, who is really the big brother of the Jotbandhan, was there any increase in the number of party members to this party in the last phase? Have they been able to add even one additional member to their party organization? I mean, after BJP came to power, have they been able to increase at least one member for their party? Instead, they are in a continual state of erosion. All the workers who have been in the party for 50-60 years, their President, minister at that time, Bhubneswar Kalita who had a good name of being a loyalist to the Nehru family – that man has gone to BJP. When the head of the party himself has gone to over to the BJP, all others below him – lalu-panju-ninga-feskatu – where are they now? They are also in line to join BJP now. That means all Hindus are in BJP now – the Congressi Hindu voters. The Congressi Muslims are still there, but they do not need to be in Congress to oppose the BJP – it sufficient to be a Muslim for that.
Now lets take CPI(M). This party in the last election garnered around 11-12,000 votes, and the Congress got around 25 to 26,000. If your argument is that we have to resist BJP by hook or by crook, then logically Congress should take this seat. All said and done, going by their own logic, they are doing all this with a calculation of the votes, isn’t it? We are not doing this with vote calculations only.
ATP: Since you’ve said that you are posing a different form of politics?
HB: Yes, because from the standpoint of the political party, you cannot resist the BJP. Because organizationally, other than the BJP, not a single party can claim that some kind of expansion we have been able to effect in the past 5-10 years. That’s why I am saying that this is a meaningless question, nobody would understand it.
ATP: You are saying that CPI(M) doesn’t have much mass base here (in this constituency)?
HB: No, it doesn’t. And if I don’t stand in the elections, then CPI(M) will pave this big (opens his arms) a way for BJP to win, that people will be demoralized.
Now when I’ve become a candidate, I have a social approach. What I’m positing is raij. In this raij, someone can be Congress, or CPI(M), or Raijor Dol, or AJP, there can also be those who do not do any organization, there can be various identities. Last year, this BJP government created this cage in Bodoland precisely to created artificial conflicting identities of Bodo/A-bodo. They too are included in the overall definition of raij. So all of them combine to make up raij, and if raijgets together, only then can BJP be stopped. The arithmetic that they have done, it cannot be normative school arithmetic, it has to be a political arithmetic.
ATP: In politics, it is not the same calculations.
HB: Yes, it cannot be. If we combine one thousand zeros, it wont be 1, will it? It will only be a big zero. I won’t call them zero, but they are not sufficient to resist BJP. And if today, the Mahajot-bandhan (united front of Congress, CPM, AIUDF, BPF) opposes BJP, then its not their candidates who will oppose BJP, but it will be the raij who will do so. The raij will just take this as a something to hold on to when just about to drown, as a floating straw. If they achieve becoming this straw somewhere, then well and good. Though instead of a straw, if there can be a strong plank, then of course that’s better for the raij. I’m considering them a straw and myself as a strong plank, since I represent raij. I think this is an aspiration of people. This is a question of struggle.
And what we have seen in the last phase, the mass movements against the BJP government, including the mass movement against CAA – which are those parties who did them? It is this raij who did so, it is the entire jati (nation/nationality) who did continuously. There were five martyrs – Sam Stafford, Dipanjal, Dwijen, Ishar Nayak, Abdul Alim – who’s members were they? Were they AASU members? No. Were they our members? No. Were they members of Congress or CPI(M)? No, in fact Congress, CPI(M) did not even think this was an issue to do movement against. Initially, it was Krishok Mukti (KMSS) who created hullaboo over CAA, then AASU was forced to join, and only then did these parties join in.
And so, the real resistance against the BJP has to come from this raij. And this is a practical question. Actually, before 2014 elections, hardly anyone in Assam had heard of this party called BJP, especially not the Assamese. Their vote bank was sections of Marwari, Bihari and some sections of Bengali Hindus. After 2014, the Assamese nationalist camp influenced with emotive nationalist sentiment voted for the BJP. That’s how they came into power. Now, this Assamese nationalist camp has to wean away from them, if at all they have to be defeated. Who will do this task? Can Congress do it? Can CPI(M)? Can AIUDF?
And that AIUDF too cannot do this task, we see an example here in Rangia itself. Six parties have come together to form this Mahajot. But what we see in CPI(M) offices, is that there are three flags – Congress, BPF and CPI(M). The flag of the AIUDF, the lock and key, is absent. Why? That means they know that if the Assamese Hindu people see the lock and key, they won’t give us any votes. This is vote calculation back bending. And politics, which claims to represent interest of the common people and of the country, cannot run on such chicanery.
So I think while the Mahajotbandhan demands that we support them unconditionally against the BJP, they never even one consider the fact that the social power of the masses is the primary force, and not the party leaders.
I think of myself as nimitto (insignificant). When I went to file my nomination papers, some 3000 to 5000 people came along. Now I know that not even 5% of those people are my party people or cadres. So, that is why I say that I believe completely in the raij. And with raij, these kind of Mahajot or Prakandojot (big or mega electoral coalitions) terminologies or formations will not work.
ATP: So what you are saying is, the problem that is in front of us, it won’t go away tomorrow morning even if we defeat BJP?
HB: Of course, that is given. I’m also saying that defeating BJP electorally is also necessary. Though the way in which they are thinking of defeating BJP, that will not work. If raij do not resist BJP, if they do not come out on the streets, BJP will not be defeated. And this bringing out raij on the streets, the Congress, CPI(M) or AIUDF cannot do. We do agree that they have presence in certain definite pockets. So we from Raijor Dol have only decided to contest and gave candidates in around 25 seats in the 126. We have in fact left the rest of the seats to this anti-BJP big coalition. So please go ahead and win those. In the few seats that we have given candidates, why don’t you stay in solidarity with raij. You will also get a taste of what we’re saying.
They (Mahajot) on the other hand, are thinking that we will get the big leaders, the aeroplanes and the works, people will come in droves to see the flying saucers, and we will take full flight with our speeches. This is not something we believe in.
ATP: You are saying that only with electoral politics, the present…?
HB: Traditional electoral politics is not the answer to the present situation. This is my understanding.
ATP: Is this Raijor Dol’s understanding as well?
HB: Yes. The thing is, they (Mahajot) do not understand that what the BJP is doing today is that they are mobilizing communities. But that is for all the wrong reasons, for a fascist purpose. We have to remobilize communities for a better purpose. And to do so, and to save the jati (nationality/nation), you have to move away from traditional party politics. Also this bossism of the traditional leaders, the dhuti-kurta wearing, three times daily perfume and blackening hair, positing an image, these hollow gestures won’t help. And the raij I know do not buy these gestures. With the reactionaries, it is another matter. Today, the BJP is giving upto Rs.1500 as daily wage to a person who attends their rally gatherings. Those who do daily wage will take that money, that itself is not a problem. And we also know among them 80% do not vote for them, that too we know. So they will do their gatherings. But I cannot provide the same.
ATP: Thank you for your time. It has become clear with the conversation that instead of traditional manner of politics, if one has to actually defeat BJP, then with a certain combination of struggle and traditional politics, and that the question of leader has to be a question of the people itself…?
HB: Yes, in the sense it will not be party politics dominated. If it is dominated thus, then that will actually go in favour of the BJP. We can also see what is happening in West Bengal with this party-bazi. They (Congress, CPIM, ISF coalition) are trying to show with big gatherings how they are the third biggest pole. Naturally there too, in the conflict between Mamata, and CPI, CPI(M) and the Congress, BJP will be the gainer. More than the interests of the people, the party-baazi is important for them. This is quite clear.
ATP: Thank you. Best wishes for your endeavor. We hope that in coming times, we will be able to see this struggle in a more expansive form.
HB: Thank you.
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