When The Indian Ideology Trips On Assamese ‘Xenophobia’

The authors are members of the Guwahati-based Uki Research Collective

The long anti-CAA movement has seen lakhs of people coming out in protest across the country. However, many have also noted a number of political voices that have begun to find themselves sidelined within the movement. Over the last few weeks, a liberal interpretation of this uprising has become the loudest and most visible, spoken for by the country’s most English-articulate and globally-networked voices in the media and academia. Increasingly, the liberal agenda has sought to police voices that are not an echo of its own—“Inshallah” slogans at protests are inappropriate, but expressing solidarity with the persecuted Kashmiri Pandits helps prove the secularism of Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh; Chandrashekhar Azad’s defence of Ambedkarite values becomes a defence of the Constitution as an abstracted ideal; and the Assamese perspective on citizenship and migration is too chauvinist to affirm the idea of India. After the initial euphoria of solidarity in the face of police repression had died down, the liberals have returned to their comfort zone of defending the “secular values of the constitution”, brought to life by songs, slogans and quirky placards, and energised by their selective empathy and outrage.

For protestors across Assam, CAA is most urgently about demanding a redressal of the problems related to long-term, large-scale migration into Assam. What one needs is an engagement with the problematic of political economy of migration since colonial times and Indian nation-state’s governmental attitudes towards resultant issues.But, instead of addressing the socio-historical issues at play, the left-liberals are merely interested in flaunting an ahistorical and politically myopic perspective on migration that only helps to smoothen their self-image of being cosmopolitan.They combine the arrogance of their disengagement with a self-righteous multiculturalism that dismisses the anxieties of the indigenous as misplaced, and their protest misguided. Any number of #Standwith hashtags or solemn statements in solidarity with struggles elsewhere in the country, it seems, is unable to allay suspicions of a chauvinist lurking behind all the solidarity talk.

It is not so much a question of feeling aggrieved, for we see this as a political encounter rather than a personal one among friends. We take this opportunity to call attention to some misrepresentations that have come to enjoy much currency, and demand an end to the politics that seeks to do so.

The Idea of India

In the current wave of protests, there has been a tendency among the metropolitan left and liberals to judge alternative imaginings of nation and nationality as provincial at best and xenophobic at worst. There are also those who claim to stand against all nationalisms – Indian and Assamese. But both these positions seem to miss some key questions – first, the relationship between nationalism as an ideology and the emergence of nationalities as a modern social form; and second, the trajectories of political struggle arising out of this lack of ‘fit’ between the nations and nationalisms.

The colonial encounter with modernity had wide-ranging effects on land ownership, trade and industry, administration and social reform.They had an important role to play in the process of nationality formation in Assam too. The effects included changes such as land becoming commodity; rapid expansion of mercantile capital; administrative unification and bureaucratic standardisation across the subcontinent; and a conservative social agenda. While this set in motion a process of simultaneous expropriation of the means of labour and concentration of capital, it nevertheless always had a caste/community character to it, with limited effects of mobility and democratization. Alongside the expropriation of the labouring castes, we have the formation of an upper caste elite, which eventually became the class that developed all-India political and cultural networks, fleshing out over time its hegemonic discourse—the ideology of an Indian nation, in its Gandhian, Hindutva and Left forms.

This process played out in Assam as well, such that the colonial period can be understood as the rise of Hindu upper-caste class rule.Along with it, a culturalist idea of Assamese nationalism that emphasised tradition, unity, and culture became dominant from the late nineteenth century onwards. There was, however, a point of difference in the rise of the Assamese upper-caste elite. Whereas the ideologues of India were connected by their all-India cultural networks, the Assamese upper-caste elite emerged out of an antagonism with the Bengali-upper caste elite, who had themselves become entrenched in the colonial bureaucracy precisely upon the strength of the already developed nineteenth-century national networks. However, this upper-caste idea of nationalism is itself only a part of the broader process of Assamese nationality formation. Never mind the former’s vociferous claims of representing the whole Assamese nation, the period of nationality formation itself saw the emergence of an Assamese-language public sphere with the participation of a wide range of concerns and voices, especially the critique of social hierarchy and the universal import of the ideas of equality, dignity and justice. Nationalism, then, was only one among many political positions and discourses that were shaping up in the new Assamese language sphere. This became the space in which, and through which, the social antagonisms arising out of colonial modernity and nationality as a social form were formulated, discussed, and challenged.

The period of Congress mass mobilization in the 1930s was fraught with a troubled relationship between Assamese and Indian nationalism. We see, on the one hand, the emergence of a caste-Hindu elite Congress leadership in Assam; but their place within the Indian upper-caste social networks was always precarious. This is reflected in their ambivalence regarding the place of Assamese culture in the grand Indian civilizational narrative, even after the Gandhi-led Congress leadership had agreed to organise the party along the lines of linguistic provinces. On the other hand, the new closeness to the Congress movement also led to the silencing and marginalising of other cultural-political projects that were being imagined at the time within the Assamese-language political discourse.

The departure of the British saw an all-India upper-caste Anglophone elite take control of state power, bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, and industry. The Nehruvian ideology of state-centric development, naturally, was their ideology of choice—simultaneously securing and rendering invisible the class rule of this new Anglophone upper-caste elite. And a centralised state apparatus was their instrument of choice. The political weight of the regional vernacular upper-caste elites was co-opted within a diluted federal structure after the States Reorganisation Act, 1956. However, with regard to Assam, the Commission expressly recommended not reorganising the province along linguistic/ethnic lines in order to prevent the rise of self-determination sentiments in a strategic border region. Thus, structurally, upper-caste rule in post-colonial Assam was maintained, but was to be a shared affair between the Bengali and Assamese upper-castes—a relationship that periodically broke out into conflict throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In tandem with this, we have a post-colonial situation characterised by an extractive, exploitative economic relationship with metropolitan centers and the centralised Indian state; the suppression of political demands and aspirations of national identity for democratisation of political power and society; and the newly acquired legitimacy of a chauvinist upper-caste Assamese nationalismthat sought to find a way out of its fringe position in the national elite by articulating a culturalist definition of Assamese nationality, and suppressing imaginaries that envisaged Assamese nationality as a political community.This chauvinism eventually revealed itself in its most violent form towards the end of the Assam Movement.

But the struggle against this upper-caste Assamese chauvinism has also been ongoing, speaking sometimes in the language of Assamese identity, at other times against and outside it. This came to a head particularly in the years after the Assam Movement, and the post-Accord years marked a period when urgent concerns pushed to the margins returned as articulate critiques that revaluated Assam’s place in regional, national, and global networks of social, political, and economic power. Demands were made for separate states, for inclusion in scheduled lists, for national independence. The demand for a separate state on the northern bank of Brahmaputra valley was accompanied by a renewed assertion of the Bodo nationality. Around the same time, Karbi Anglong and the then North Cachar Hills District saw a different articulation in the form of a demand for an autonomous state within the Assam itself, emerging out of a critical engagement with the idea of a broader Assamese nationality. By the late 1980s, alongside the critique of the Indian state, the ethnic and linguistic issues of Assam were also analysed and the struggle against Assamese upper-caste hegemony was foregrounded  from the vantage point of a federalist politics for the region.

The point of this long description is to show that historically, the idea of Assamese nation is not homogenous—it is riven with contradictions, which make it a social form that is in process. In other words, the historical development of the Assamese nationality is an ongoing process of democratisation of social life, which is being obstructed by the Indian state under the class rule of the all-India Anglophone upper-caste elite. Now, while the metropolitan left-liberals, representatives of this latter class, devote their singular attention to the dominant upper-caste Assamese nationalism, they are oblivious to other voices that have engaged with the idea of an Assamese nation. In the process, they also miss the conjuncture in which this chauvinism (and its critiques) have emerged. Consequently, one must ask why this narrative of ‘the chauvinist Assamese’ has such currency amongst the liberals. We believe there are two reasons for it. First, it helps them in overlooking their own complicity as the upper-caste Indian elite in the emergence of this very chauvinist Assamese nationalism. And second, they can happily remain oblivious to the non-Brahminical articulations of Assamese nationality and thus deny political assertions of such articulations.

Migration and the State

Even more misplaced than the left-liberal description of the chauvinist Assamese is their understanding of migration in the region, which vacillates between ‘the migrants are productive members of society’ and ‘migration is a natural process of human history’ and ‘turning back migrants violates our basic humanity’. Such conceptions are understandable, given that they are sprouted in a liberal ecology. But these lessons in human morality and universal kinship have not accounted for one crucial aspect that differentiates migrations in the last three centuries from all other such movements in human history—namely, they take place within an imperialist political economy of capitalism’s march across the continents. Academic history as well as popular memory bear testimony to the complete transformation of existing regimes of land ownership and use with the expansion of the British empire into today’s north-east. This set in motion a massive process of expropriation of land—either through physical dispossession or by being forced into a new regime of settled agriculture, private property and land revenue. This process was exacerbated by the colonial policy of settling revenue-paying peasantry involved in cash-crop production such as jute, etc. And in so far as ethnic categories were central to the ordering of colonial Assam, this was true in the new land market and expansion of mercantile economy as well. In this restructuring of land, nature, revenue, and property, the indigenous peasantry were conceptualised as primitives, either to be dispossessed or adopted in the colonial epistemic, legal-administrative terms. In the expansive movement of capital, they were relegated to a frontier zone to be annexed and appropriated.

This pattern of dispossession, competition, and conflict took on added dimensions in the post-colonial period. In addition to the oft-named factors such as the Partition, the Bangladesh war and redrawing of state boundaries, one must also note the expanded regime of forest/wildlife protection; natural resource extraction; development-induced displacement; erosion-related displacement; and accelerated sale/purchase of land – all of which created conditions for massive internal and external migration in Assam. The postcolonial state has chosen to deal with these massive displaced populations through the framework of ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘encroachment’. Thus, here too, we find a cycle of dispossession that has its legal and illegal aspects, both of which are directed or sustained through the state. As far as this mode of state-directed dispossession complements the state-directed model of Nehruvian capitalist development, both of them must be understood as part of the class rule of the Anglophone all-India upper-caste elite.

Thus, the historical development of the indigenous-migrant antagonism has been driven not by some deep-seated racial hatred.It is rather the statist visions and state policy that ultimately placed communities in relationships of conflict, competition, and domination. And in all this, the onward march of capital is secure, as it differentially exploits both the migrant and the indigenous—the former amid the precarity of cash-crop production in the chars and flood plains of the Brahmaputra; and the latter smothered by moneylender-traders through whom they are linked to an international commodity market. No doubt, since this process has always played out through an ethnic dynamic, indigenous political discourse too has vacillated between protest against the state’s failure to control migration and the targeting of migrant communitiesfor eviction, discrimination, and violence. And even as we must resist with all means such physical attacks and threats of disenfranchisement, it is equally important to realise that it is impossible to do this with talk of migration and cultural exchange as the essence of human society. In the shadow of their all-embracing universalism, the left-liberal narrative of progress has always considered the indigenous—and their anxieties—an anachronism. And despite noble intentions, these niceties only serve to perpetuate the denial of the real effects of the immigrant-settler antagonism in the historical development of the Assamese nationality.

Returning to the Present

We believe that the debate about citizenship that has emerged in the course of the anti-CAA protests cannot avoid the question of the status and rights of smaller nationalities within the Indian union, just as Assamese nationalism cannot ignore the rights of communities that it claims to be part of the nation. In the context of the protests happening in Assam, this question is all the more urgent. For us, the question of the rights of the Assamese nationality is important for two reasons—first, it challenges the Indian ideology that posits ‘India’ as the only composite nation (and thus political entity) and all others as ‘organic’ (cultural) communities.And second, historically the formation of an Assamese nationality has been a site where Brahminical social power is being resisted and pushed back. Even beyond Assam, it is not surprising that the most serious critiques and debates on Brahminism have taken place not in English but in the vernaculars. It is outside the metropolis that the cultivated networks of the Anglophone upper-caste elite find themselves without defence against the variety of anti-Brahminical forms of resistance.

However, a new ruling bloc has emerged within the upper-caste formation with the ideology of Hindutva. The left-liberal rhetoric of secularism and enlightened humanism sought to render invisible the upper-caste consolidation, while maintaining the Anglophone elite’s hold over the same. The present ruling block has a language of hegemony and dominance marked with resentment, situated in the gap between the mass people and the liberal elites. It would be completely wrong, though, to assume that Hindutva does not provide a unitary rhetoric and strategy. One can notice that the Hindutva bloc is much more flexibile vis-a-vis the vernacular sphere than the Anglophone elites. In Assam, Hindutva has been unfolding in two ways. First, not unlike in the tribal areas of Gujarat or Chattisgarh, the Sangh has been active for decades with social service, education, and cultural activities. It has been working among communities like Mising, Karbi or the tea tribes that have been marginalised in mainstream Assamese cultural politics for long. Second, in recent times, Hindutva organisers have ingenuously coupled its social experiments with the expanding markets and social relations therein—not without significant help from the state’s apparatus of targeted welfare. Through these activities, the RSS-BJP has sought to bypass the deep conflicts that constitute Assam’s social life, and has sought to set up a coalition that brings together the caste Hindu Assamese, indigenous tribes, and the settler Hindu communities across plains and the hills. Of course, in so far as Hindutva is but another version of the Indian ideology, the old project of maintaining these identities as mere culturalist articulations continues. The RSS-BJP has engineered a complex depoliticization of difference through the idea of Hindu essence and superficial ethnic-linguistic difference.

However, the accelerating demand for being part of the Hindu Rashtra has also created situations where the old fissures have re-emerged. The challenge to the Hindutva project would also be situated in such fissures, as we have noticed in the occasional opposition to the Sangh’s socio-cultural activities in Assam. As the CAA initiated a legal-political framework for the Hindutva state, we have noticed the first eruption in Assam against the state apparatus from the indigenous perspective. While tackling the initial upsurge of the movement with ruthless tactics, the government has since sought to ensnare political demands within the labyrinth of weakened community/territorial councils, community welfare measures etc into tools of governmentality. One thing is certain, that a return to a ‘secular’, multicultural state is no longer possible. One must instead take the route of engaging with the political aspect of identity assertions. This engagement has to take into consideration the contentious legacy of the Assamese nationality—in its present multilayered form of internal oppositions as well as new identity formations. Against its dominant culturalist articulation of Assamese identity, we believe that the discourse of nationality/ethnicity must be a space where the existing structures of power within and amongst communities may be confronted and resisted. This is an essential step in moving towards formulations and strategies that are different from Indian leftist, Gandhian, Hindutva or elite Assamese formulations of national identity; for it is in the churnings of nationality/ethnicity that the struggles of the people have found, and will continue to find, their expression and not in the abstractions of liberal humanism. That the government is targeting the progressive peasant organisation KMSS with a singular tenacity is but a backhanded recognition of this history and its possibility. Any formation, that confronts the present fascist regime and is serious about emancipatory politics, must too recognise such possibilities.

In this context, against the sentiment of defending the spirit of the constitution, we affirm the need for its restructuring, such that it acknowledges the rights of nationalities to determine the course of their political future. A total critique, premised on the recognition of the rights of repressed nationalities and identities is the only way forward, the only way to bury for good the Indian ideology.




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Members of the Guwahati-based Uki Research Collective

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