Once upon a time, in a land of lush fields and bountiful harvests…
Perhaps in not as many words, but the Axom Nagarik Samaj’s (Citizen Community of Assam) recent pamphlet, “NRC and Why is it Important?,” seems to have gone with the tried and tested narrative template of Assamese nationalist discourse. A forum of prominent intellectuals including writer and former police officer Harekrishna Deka, journalists Ajit Bhuyan and Prasanta Rajguru, and academic Dr. Akhil Ranjan Dutta among others, Axom Nagarik Samaj claims to represent the legitimate demands of the “indigenous communities” of Assam for protection against the “heavy influx” of illegal migrants from Bangladesh that “threatens their political, economic and social space.” In the past, they have spoken out on against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
Their recent booklet on the NRC has been prepared expressly with a national audience in mind. Aiming to dispel the misconceptions of those who accuse the Assamese of being anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant chauvinists, they offer a historical account of the “immigrant problem” in Assam that they hope would convince the reasonable observer to take a sympathetic view of the devastating effects of migration on indigenous society and culture.
The authors trace the roots of the problem to on, the one hand, colonial land policy that sought to convert wastelands into revenue producing agricultural land by settling Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants from Sylhet and Mymensingh districts (in present-day Bangladesh); and on the other, manipulative vote-bank politics and nefarious bureaucratic corruption in the postcolonial period. To establish their case for the exponential rise in immigration from present-day Bangladesh, especially between the 1940s and the 1980s, they enlist the credibility of statements by colonial officials and Indian bureaucrats and the veracity of official Census figures and intelligence reports.
They go on to assert the popular basis of the NRC initiative, arguing that it was the result of a difficult but enduring consensus amongst the communities of Assam that emerged at the end of the Assam Movement, and finds expression in the “compromise” that was the Assam Accord. The updating of the NRC, they feel, would help concretise the key Accord clause regarding “detection and deletion of foreigners.” That the NRC updating process is being overseen by the Supreme Court seems to afford them a measure of comfort that it will not be manipulated by vested political interests.
The document hardly stands out for its literary ingenuity, even less so for its political vision. They present a narrative that has been the staple of Assamese nationalist discourse, available for consumption at least since the late-1970s and extremely popular during the Assam Movement. Unfortunately, for the authors, they are not living in 1982. In reproducing this discourse today, they also reinforce the blind-spots that have afflicted this fantasy of a harmonious, multi-ethnic pastoral Assam, rudely intruded upon by colonialism and outsiders. Their single-minded obsession with the “Bangladeshi” gives the impression that the antagonism towards Bengali-speaking Muslims is because of their presumed place of origin. The desire to make them the problem obscures a situation where the hostility towards the community is one aspect of a far more complex terrain of ethnic conflict that has shaped the lives of communities in the region at least since the 1980s. One may even say that it is precisely the authors’ inability to consider Bengali-speaking Muslims as an ethnic community of Assam—and by extension, tied up in its ethnic political discourse—that compels them to think of migration only as a “Bangladeshi problem.”
Their desperate return to the purported scene of the original sin of colonial migration policy betrays a refusal to confront the complexities of migration today. As such, they present an incomplete picture of migration in Assam, especially the last three-four decades. Handicapped by a superficial understanding of the forces, opportunities, constraints, and problems of migration in postcolonial Assam, most notably they fail to take into account the dynamics of internal migration within Assam and migration from other Indian states. According to official estimates, development-induced displacement for projects including hydroelectric power projects, setting up of industries, army camps, etc. have displaced more than 343,000 persons, while unofficial estimates put the figure at 1.9 million. Another factor responsible for massive migration within the state is displacement due to ecological devastation. Reports with the Water Resources Department show that riverine erosion alone was responsible for the loss of 3,860 sq km of land was lost since 1954, wiping out more than 2,500 villages and 18 towns. Taken together, these factors produce an extremely complex picture of both the scale and dynamics of migration in Assam, which cannot be captured through analyses of census data that try to prove the rise in population through narrow comparisons and simplistic projections.
Finally, it is amusing that they put their weight behind the process as an intervention that would protect indigenous communities of Assam from land alienation and political disenfranchisement. But it causes these flag-bearers of the Accord no embarrassment that dissident voices (https://raiot.in/do-the-tribals-of-assam-have-an-opinion-on-nrc/) have begun pointing out the complicity of caste-Hindu Assamese elites in the colonial and postcolonial experience of land alienation and political disenfranchisement.
Beyond these specific points of criticism, we find most disconcerting the abiding faith the authors place in a legal resolution. Deceived by greedy politicians and outmanoeuvred in “vote-bank politics” for too long, they find succour in the safe arms of the law. Ever grateful to the courts for having ensured the updating of the NRC, these concerned citizens are now repaying their debt by becoming the moral guardians of public discourse in Assam. Being a Supreme Court-monitored process, they consider the matter to be beyond any political debate on the procedures, provisions, intentions, or effects of the NRC initiative. For hardnosed patriots like themselves, all such objections are what they would call “philosophical and humanitarian concerns” that can await our indulgence until after the “foreigners” have been enumerated.
We are neither philosophers nor humanitarians, and there are a few political lessons learned in the Assam of the 1990s we cannot but recall today. The post-Accord years marked a period when urgent concerns that had been pushed to the margins of the Assam Movement returned as articulate political critiques that fuelled a period of intense political debate. Assam’s place in regional, national, and global capitalist networks was re-evaluated. Demands were made for separate states, for inclusion in scheduled lists, for national independence. The shifting political terrain of the time taught us two things. First, we discovered the many ways in which the state occupies the ground that separates “democracy” from the “rule of law.” Second, we understood that far from abolishing the hierarchies of caste and ethnicity that marked Assam’s political culture and society, the figure of the citizen was only their shadow. If nothing, the 1990s convinced us of the impossibility of civil society, of nagarik samaj.
The Indian state has since traded its militarist mask for the developmentalist one as it tries to contend with these new political voices. And while the members of Nagarik Samaj renew their vows of loyalty to the Indian state, the rest of us can turn to the more urgent task at hand—namely, understanding what, since the 1990s, has changed and what has remained the same. Does the state not continue to operate in that ambiguous periphery of the law where it sustains structures of social power and hierarchy? At the same time, is not the very terrain of ethnic identities being rearticulated under a new regime of market and development?
True, it is difficult to answer such questions definitively at the present moment. But a clear beginning can be made by asserting against the prevailing consensus that the NRC initiative actually draws its lineage not from the demands of the Assam Movement but from the paradigm of depoliticization adopted by the state through the 1990s and 2000s. Further, the historically exclusionary character of Assamese nationalist political discourse puts into question any consensus amongst “all communities of Assam” on the NRC and represented through the Accord. In fact, this forced closure of the “immigrant issue” is what makes it impossible to arrive at a consensus on the effects of capitalist development, which transforms ethnic-cultural difference into conflict and competition. The most urgent task now is to resist the debilitating effects of this consensus—it does not just obscure the problem, it is precisely part of the problem.
The contours of a new political discourse will, no doubt, be shaped by conflicts and disagreements between the many voices that stand against this prevailing consensus. There may even be moments of coming together in solidarity. How this could happen is a question with which we all continue to grapple, but of one thing we can be sure—the “coming together of disparate voices” will be nothing like the Nagarik Samaj, which affords us the tragic irony of bringing together a former DGP of Assam Police and a firebrand journalist who famously called the Indian state a “paper tiger.” For all their mistakes, the many political voices of the whirlwind 1990s were able to establish a critique of the state that could sustain the imagining of new political futures. The opportunism of the Nagarik Samaj’s “constitutionalism,” we are convinced, holds no such promise.
Ankur Tamuli Phukan
Uki Research Collective, Guwahati
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