The controversy sparked by the BBC documentary on aggresive anti-poaching legislation in the Kaziranga National Park provides an occasion to look at the mutually constitutive history of conservation of the one-horned rhino and certain conceptions of modern Assamese nationality.
The one-horned became the state emblem in 1948 and in the year 1971, the public sector undertaking Assam State Transport Corporation used this emblem widely and thereby helped spread the popularity of the animal. The one-horned rhino was also used as the mascot of the National Games—the humanoid rhinocerous called Rongmon—that were held in Guwahati in 2007. More recently, it was used in the form of the baby rhino Tikhor, the mascot of the 12th South Asian Games that were held in Guwahati and Shillong in early 2016.
However, the metaphors that have been used to depict the rhino in narratives of Assamese nationality have changed in response to the shifting trajectory of nationality politics in the state. In 1984, during the turbulence of the six-year long agitation against the alleged presence of Bangladeshi infiltrators in Assam, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) opposed the central government’s decision to translocate rhinos from Kaziranga to a national park in Uttar Pradesh. The AASU’s opposition to move the animals out of the state was based on the idea that the animal was exclusive to the region and therefore a necessary constituent of Assamese nationality. This happened at a time when exploitation of natural resources from the region came to be seen as an instrument of perpetuating underdevelopment in the state by a hegemonic centralised Indian state. The AASU’s opposition to translocate the rhinos can be understood in light of the discourse of exploitation-by-outsiders that was nurtured by the organisation whose members also blocked the flow of natural resources like crude oil from the state to other Indian provinces. Therefore, during the Assam movement, the use of the animal reached a new stage in which concern for the animal was no longer articulated merely in terms of a commitment to save the endangered beast but was appropriated to meet the agenda of the anti-foreigner upsurge pushed by the middle-class leadership who thought of economic oppression solely in terms of the insider-outsider binary. The coupling of the rhino with the specific construction of Assamese nationality being conceived during that time alienated the animal from its own interests by displacing its value onto the mystified realms of the symbolic in a politically turbulent time. The animal unfortunately came to inhabit a world that refused to grasp its existence as an end in itself and consequently it was absorbed into the structure of relationality through which its use was seen as residing in the ideological function that it fulfilled.
To return to the present, in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in one of his campaign speeches in West Bengal that there was a clear connection between the presence of “illegal” Bengali Muslims in and around the Kaziranga National Park and the ongoing killings of rhinos in the Park. Moreover, in another symbolic act, the Assam BJP organized its first meeting after the 2014 Lok Sabha victory in Kaziranga National Park to send a strong message to the alleged “illegal migrants” who according to the party have been encroaching on the national park for quite some time. The local media was quick to pick up the trend of portraying Bengali Muslims as a threat to Assam’s cherished animal and the same rhetoric was seen in local media coverage of the eviction drive against Bengali Muslim “immigrants” in forestland adjoining the Kaziranga National Park in September last year in which two people from the resisting crowd were killed in police firing.
The new government that came to power in Assam in mid-2016 won a massive electoral victory by focusing on a single issue—the need to aggressively take on the so-called Bengali Muslim settlers from Bangladesh who were perceived as a serious threat to indigenous communities living in the state. Nevertheless, the BJP’s image of a Hindi-speaking Hindu party had to accommodate the regional aspirations of the Assamese and the party did it with an effortless tweak: they couched their Hindutva agenda in the familiar idiom of the burning need to check infiltration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh to Assam. To this concoction was added another smouldering issue—the need to check poaching of rhinos—in a manner such that all the elements of the assortment fitted with and complemented each other. The BJP’s campaign to deal with the Muslim infiltrators with an iron fist chimed with the people’s concern to protect their indigenous identity as well as with a broad consensus to stop the killing of the vulnerable beasts.
In this conjuncture of efforts to define modern-day Assamese nationality within the broader framework of Hindu nationalism on one hand, and rising voices to end poaching of the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga once and for all, on the other hand, what is at stake is the animal’s own interest. The usefulness of the rhino must be grasped not in terms of instrumentalism but in terms of its existence being immeasurable against something else. The value of the animal ought to be determined for being what it is in and for itself rather than what it is in relation to something else. The vocabulary in which ongoing conservation efforts are couched inevitably amounts to the repression of the animal’s usefulness. The use of the rhino ought to connote non-relation and its value must be situated in the material properties that comprise it in its singularity. As rhinos continue to be poached, it is time that the usefulness of the animal is envisaged as a break with, and dissolution of the structure of relationality that has so far governed the state’s conservation policies.