The Bounds of the Nation

Comment on In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast, by Sanjib Baruah; Stanford University Press, 2020.

A “war of all against all” is a constant possibility in what the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature. In the Hobbesian state of nature, individual human heads risk being chopped off any time because a coercive and singular sovereign head is yet to arise, through a social contract, to rule over people. Hobbes famously described life in such a condition as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. The concept of the state of nature might appear hypothetical or a thing of the past, but Hobbes was sure that one of its examples was to be found among “the savage people in many places of America”, who, he claimed, “have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner”. These days, political commentators use the phrase “war of all against all” mainly to describe violent group conflicts, rather than strife among supposedly self-interested individuals. In so doing, many of them tend to imply that the actors caught up in these clashes also belong in a war-prone state of nature.

This premise is not uncommon for the representation of events in Northeast India. Reflecting on the horrific Nellie massacre of 1983 —which had left more than 2000 people dead – an editorial in The New Republic once declared: In much of the “third world”, “[t]he idea of the nation competes with the idea of the tribe. In places like Assam it is losing the competition”. Swinging haphazardly between news analysis and political theory, the editorial emphasised that “Indians do indeed have an obligation to their constitution”. “But”, it asked, “what is a constitution to a place like Assam?”

One need not only be a high-hat constitutionalist to arrive at such questions – or conclusions. Many opinions converge on the proposition that the roots of violence in Northeast India lie in the fierce communal loyalties that drive the locals. Since the belligerent “natives” are by nature averse to modern democracy – it seems to be assumed – a social contract remains elusive. Such commentary, however, has offered astonishingly little other than stale conjectures about the inherent tribalism of certain communities.

What if the violence suspected to be symptomatic of an alleged state of nature is also caused, in no small part, by the demands of the constitutional nation-state? One way to read In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast (Stanford University Press, 2020)– the latest book by political scientist Sanjib Baruah – is as a compelling account of how that may have been the case in India’s Northeast.

In a section titled “Structural Violence and Spectacular Violence”, Baruah discusses the lead-up to the extraordinarily imposed state assembly elections of 1983 in Assam. The elections brought with them devastating inter-ethnic violence that swept through the Brahmaputra valley, with Nellie being one of the worst-affected areas. The decision to hold the widely-resisted elections, Baruah suggests, was a textbook case of “the way structural violence plays out”. What is embedded in structural violence are highly unequal relations of power. “The very essence of such relations,” Baruah argues, “is the reliance on the fear of force”. Violence, anthropologist David Graeber once wrote, has a unique capacity “to allow arbitrary decisions and thus to avoid the kind of debate, clarification, and renegotiation typical of more egalitarian social relations”. Nevertheless, it is this capacity of violence, Graeber contended, is what makes those subjected to the decisions “see procedures created on the basis of violence as stupid or unreasonable”. But what appears to be missed still in critical analysis is the fact that such structural – and often physical – violence enabled by the state could also temporally precede civil strife.

Not surprisingly, the ethnically-motivated massacres of 1983 were characterized in the media as “a Hobbesian war of all against all” — suggesting, among other things, that these took place on a terrain beyond the parameters of the state. Yet, “unlike the Hobbesian state of nature” – Baruah steps in to correct, building on the work of Marshall Sahlins – “this was the effect of sovereign coercive power, not its precondition”.

Although made in passing, this observation is congruent with a larger insight that can be gleaned from the book. The conflicts that have rocked Northeast India reveal not so much the lawlessness of the frontier as the gaps and tensions built into the very ideals and laws of the political form that is the territorially bounded nation-state.

Consider, for example, the case of the tumultuous Assam Movement (1979-1985) – the populist mass agitation that grew with the demand for the exclusion of noncitizens from the electoral process. To be sure, the causes and consequences of the Movement is only one among the many issues covered by the book, as it spans the history of postcolonial India’s troubled relations with the region that came to be identified as “the Northeast”. Baruah reflects on a wide range of themes from the future of Naga sovereignty to the political economy of ethnic homelands. Yet, the book arrives at a moment when the question of citizenship has shaken national discourse in India, with Assam as a key focus of national and international attention. In the Name of the Nation points helpfully to a much longer history of regional politics, going back to the colonial era, for an understanding of India’s current citizenship imbroglio.  The Assam Movement – that unfolded in what Baruah perceptively frames as the “Partition’s long shadow” – is a crucial flashpoint in this history.

The book however does much more than that, given its focus on the limitations of “the territorially circumscribed postcolonial nation-state as an institutional complex”. Thus, even when the long history of colonialism and the eventual Partition of India is considered, what needs critical attention – Baruah appears to suggest – is how the immediate context for the epoch-shifting Assam Movement was shaped by the norms and forms of a constitutional authority no less than the Election Commission of India.

In 1978, S. L. Shakdher, India’s then Chief Election Commissioner, made a series of public statements, reporting the “large-scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls” of Assam. In a rare display of alarm, the commissioner went on to warn that “a stage would be reached when the state [Assam] may have to reckon with the foreign nationals who may in all probability constitute a sizeable percentage, if not the majority of the population”. Shakdher drew attention to “the disturbing…demand made by the political parties for the inclusion in the electoral rolls of the names of such migrants who are not Indian citizens without even questioning or properly determining their citizenship status”. This he called “a serious state of affairs.”

Assamese civil society organizations interpreted this “state of affairs” as the most recent and glaring instance of what they considered a longstanding indifference of the Indian political establishment to the state’s concerns. In the ensuing public deliberations in an embittered Assamese public sphere, the memory of various regional struggles of the preceding decades was invoked. In popular memory, the most significant among these was the battle fought by the Assam Provincial Congress leaders for the inclusion of the province within the Republic of India at Partition, as against the competing plans of the Muslim League. By now, to a large segment of Assam’s citizenry – historian Ramachandra Guha once described – the state’s place in the republic appeared to be nothing more than that of “an ‘internal colony,’ supplying cheap raw materials for metropolitan India to process and profit from.” The Chief Election Commissioner’s words thus provided ample fuel for a volcanic eruption of what Baruah, in this book, calls “regional patriotism”.

Ironically, the stance taken on unauthorized immigration by leaders of what became the Assam Movement was, for all practical purposes, almost indistinguishable from that of the Government of India until the early 1970s. Assam was already identified by several agencies of the Government of India as facing “the problem of illegal immigration” from present-day territories of Bangladesh – erstwhile East Pakistan – ever since Partition. In 1964, the Government of India introduced a judicial process for the suspected unauthorized immigrants by enacting The Foreigners (Tribunal) Order. Unchecked immigration into Assam through the porous international borders thus had all the ingredients forconsiderable conflict, especially considering the continuous assertions and counter-assertions of Assamese and Bengali activist groups over the linguistic identity of Assam. Yet, a lid was put on the issue by the ruling Congress Party in Assam, Baruah contends, once “the tensions over refugee settlement in the immediate post-Partition years subsided”. They did it through creative management of what Baruah terms “the ambiguities of citizenship”. This involved the adoption of a “nondiscriminatory and open-to-all approach to the franchise”.

What the statements from the Election Commission and the public reaction to them did was flag an under-noticed legal fact – “the exercise of franchise in India does not depend on formal certificates of citizenship,” to quote Baruah. For the longest time, a wide variety of documents, including the “ration card”, could qualify a person to exercise franchise in India. What this meant for Assam has been described by political scientist Kamal Sadiq in the following way: “Bengali speakers were overwhelming Assamese-language speakers, and as a result of the successful illegal immigration of Bengali Muslims, they were influencing regional elections in modern Assam, an indication of their full membership as suffraged noncitizens”.  As political theorist Niraja Gopal Jayal once observed, “kinship networks and money were reasonable guarantees of registration on the electoral rolls” for such suffraged noncitizens. “Assiduously courted by the Congress Party,” Jayal noted, “the vulnerability of these people on account of their religious identity had made them Congress sympathizers and eager voters”.

The moral foundations of a movement calling for the electoral disenfranchisement and subsequent deportation of “suffraged noncitizens” – in order to protect indigenous identity, land, and resources – remained debated throughout. However, “the fault lines between the normative definition of citizenship in Indian law and the actual exercise of franchise being based on rudimentary documents”, Baruah writes, became “the epicenter of a veritable political explosion”.

Fundamental to the Assam Movement was the opposition to the holding of elections in Assam without a corrected voter list. This opposition was soon fused with demands for greater local control over land and natural resources and the protection of the identity of the Assamese people. The matter of who all constitute the Assamese has unsurprisingly remained contested till date. Be that as it may, according to the agitation leaders, not less than 4.5 to 5 million people in Assam – which would constitute 31 to 34 percent of Assam’s population in 1971 – were “illegal immigrants”. The leaders claimed that the state’s electoral rolls were filled with names of hundreds of thousands of unauthorized foreigners.

The Movement’s key demand being the deletion of the names of such persons from the electoral roll, its ideologues and leaders based their arguments in good part on India’s legal and constitutional frameworks. However, this presumed legality did not prevent the appearance of dangerous schisms in the Brahmaputra valley, the geographical theater of the agitation. As Baruah notes, “the labels that gained currency – Bangladeshi, illegal immigrant, and foreigner –sounded menacing to many.”

With the intensification of the Movement came repeated rounds of President’s Rule to Assam. By December 1982, it somehow appeared to the Congress’s national leadership that the party stood a chance of returning to power in the state if the elections were held then. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi soon called for the elections to the Assam State Assembly. A political resolution to the issues raised by the movement was yet to be reached, including that of the revision of electoral rolls. Agitators who had lost their lives were by then declared martyrs. “To almost no one’s surprise, the leaders of the Assam Movement called for a boycott of the elections,” notes the book.

The book presents a reported conversation – from when the elections were about to be announced – between a journalist of a New Delhi-based publication and a senior national leader of the Congress Party. The Congress leader, a close political associate of the Prime Minister, confidently claimed that people wanted elections in Assam. The journalist – alert to the reality of the political situation – replied in disbelief: “But who told you that? There will be bloodshed”. The Congress leader however shrugged off the journalist’s concerns and said: “If you put 5,000 of them in jail for the election period, the problem is solved. It is only the mischief-mongers you have to tackle. The rest of the people will have a sigh of relief. You don’t know how powerful the government can be”.

The alleged “mischief-mongers” – recognized more widely as the frontline leaders of a mass movement —were indeed put in jail. While the leaders of the Movement deemed the election boycott as Assam’s “final fight for survival” and characterized the resistance in a regional patriotic idiom, politicians of the national parties framed the migration-centered conflict in Assam predominantly within, what Baruah would call, “the Indian discourse of “communalism” – the bureaucratic euphemism for Hindu-Muslim conflicts”. In the run-up to the election, New Delhi-based politicians arrived in Assam and made fervent speeches – and not infrequently in violence-provoking language – for and against the election.

In its official pronouncements, the central government cited “constitutional compulsion” for holding the elections. The manner in which they were imposed patently flew in the face of the constitutional ideal of “free and fair” elections.

The elections were indeed held, despite the popular boycott in the Brahmaputra valley.

Carnage followed.

“[A] blood-spattered vindication of a heartless government’s sudden constitutional piety”, was how an India Todayreport on March 15, 1983 characterized the violence. On May 31, 1983, the magazine carried a detailed investigative report that described the events in these words:

In Nellie Lalung tribals killed Bengali Muslims; in Kokrajhar subdivision Boro Kacharis fought Bengali Hindus and Muslims; in Goreswar and Khairabari Sarani and Boro Kacharis fought Bengali Hindus; in Gohpur Boros fought Assamese Hindus; in Dhemaji and Jonai Mishing tribals fought Bengali Hindus and Muslims; in Samaguri Muslims killed Hindus; in Dhaila and Thekrabari again Muslims killed Hindus; in Chawlkhowa Chapori, Assamese Hindus and Muslims together killed Bengali Muslims. And each community that was a victim in one place was the predator in another.

This latter report concluded with a pessimistic assessment: “The elections in Assam mark not the culmination of a process but just a milestone: should they prevail, they shall certainly become a precedent. Hence it is that if the Assam elections survive, democracy cannot.”

Prof. Sanjib Baruah

The kind of democracy the people in Northeast India have experienced over the last several decades forms a core concern of In the Name of the Nation. As Baruah notes, for the subsequent political history of Assam, the year 1983 turned out to be a critical turning point. After all, it was only after 1983, the secessionist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) began to see a dramatic expansion of support. In the words of one of its former leaders, quoted in the book, when “brute state power” was unleashed to defeat a popular movement and bulldoze through an election, “the youth rejected Indian-ness altogether”. However, organizations like ULFA, the book argues, “are not born as “insurgencies””. Even if ULFA claimed a much longer history of political and economic injustice toward Assam, its rapid coalescence into a formidable political force in the 1980s follows a familiar pattern – the argument continues – that “of “the repression of legitimate and deeply felt grievances”, resulting in the escalation of support for radical militancy”.

While the militant ULFA took up the cause of self-determination, imagining a new nation-state for Assam, the existing sovereign state responded to it with its full might in the name of the nation that is India. To combat its rise, the Government of India declared Assam a “disturbed area” under the extraordinary-yet-constitutional Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in November 1990. ULFA was weakened by the fierce counter-insurgency operations that continued over the following years; but this came, the book stresses, at the cost of significant human rights abuses. In fact, the government’s very approach to peace, Baruah observes, began to be significantly shaped by the counter-insurgency doctrine of the Army. The counter-insurgent approach to peace building relied not only on Army operations, but also on creating what the former top police official E N Rammohan – whom the book quotes – characterized as “a mafia out of ULFA defectors”. They were “allowed to keep their weapons and operate as gangs under unofficial patronage”, Rammohan had noted. The overall result, according to Rammohan, was “an indignant populace, who were further alienated and a police force who had become terrorists themselves”.

The insurgent-counterinsurgent violence of the 1990s – hardly an indirect consequence of the events of the Assam Movement – makes visible the life of self-determination in what Baruah calls the “actually existing world of postcolonial sovereignty”. But even when the insurgency is left aside, the events of 1983 are in themselves a direct illustration of the possibilities of violence that are embedded in the very procedures of electoral democracy. Yet, such violence could occur, at the scale in which it did in Assam, only when the bounds of the nation-state are tested. 

Even if “the citizen/foreigner binary is foundational to the contemporary global political imaginary—a part of “the national order of things””, as the book observes, not everywhere does the political-legal project of maintaining that divide acquires the same kind of energy as it has in Northeast India. In Assam, the passions for this political project came indisputably from the regional patriotism that had emerged out of what Baruah characterizes as the region’s “long and embattled history as a settlement frontier”. Since British colonial times, he argues, “Assam has stubbornly resisted being regarded by its rulers as a land without people—or, with very few people”. Yet, what requires attention is the how this rebellion could gain constitutional force in the postcolonial republic, as its goals converged ultimately with “the impossible desire for walled sovereignty” – to borrow a phrase from the book – that the nation-state itself sought to realize. And any such effort for walled sovereignty would build on the tortuous quest for a firm line between citizens and noncitizens, which could, among other things, put a stop to the practice of voting by suffraged noncitizens. The book sheds crucial light on the fraught afterlife – political and juridical – of the Assam Movement, as the limits of the national order of things have continued to be put to the test.

In this milestone text, formed out of the author’s decades-long intellectual engagement with Northeast India, this peripheral region emerges as an unusually productive site to examine the world of territorially circumscribed nation-states. It is a crumbling world for many, not least for those whose citizenship has permanently been in question and thosestruggling to recover from devastating wars fought in the name of the nation. The book holds a mirror up to the adherents of the myth that the lawful order of the sovereign nation-state has nothing to do with disorder on its frontier.


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Tanmoy Sharma Written by:

Tanmoy Sharma is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Yale University

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