Assamese nationalism

Print edition : October 14, 2016

August 15, 1985: Home Secretary R.D. Pradhan exchanges documents with leaders of the All Assam Students Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad after signing the memorandum of settlement in the presence of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Through academically relevant and well-illustrated arguments, this volume does an admirable job of examining the issues relating to sovereignty in the context of Assam.

THE book under review is a rich and methodical collection of chapters presented with intentness on the subject of a sovereign Assam, an issue that has rarely taken into account the nuances of nationalism and sovereignty and the interconnectivity between sovereignty and Assamese nationality. The book has been arranged systematically into several sections. Section I sets the tone to uncover the origins, basis, implications and legitimacy of the claims for an Assamese national identity (page 6). The chapter raises several other interrelated questions, for instance, on the geopolitical realities of such claims (page 6). The disconcerted efforts to settle the impasse on the Assamese nationality question, examined against the backdrop of the armed insurrection of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), make the volume relevant for readers seeking answers to possible conflict-resolution mechanisms on the problem of sovereign ethnic homelands in Assam.

The theoretical avenues are presented in Section II titled “Situating the Debate: Interface of Sovereignty and Self-determination”. It begins with the philosophical underpinnings on sovereignty and self-determination discussed in detail in Chapters Two and Three. Ashild Kolas, in Chapter Two titled “Sovereignty at the frontiers”, discusses how the conventional notion and practices of absolute state sovereignty are being negotiated continuously in the context of globalisation, associated with new modes of governance and the global interconnectedness of trade, businesses and non-governmental organisations.

Nevertheless, the issue of sovereignty, as the chapter argues, is central to debates ranging from aboriginal politics—for instance, the contestation over minerals and sacred sites in relatively peaceful and developed Australia —to debates on secession in war-torn Sudan or the sovereignty debates in the frontiers, the hinterlands of north-eastern India, with “lucrative shadow economies and transnational underground networks” often challenging the sovereign state (page 22). Contestations over sovereignty in north-eastern India between state agents and parastate actors have been viewed using two parallel dimensions—political representation, which refers to the mechanisms of exclusion and protection of hill areas in response to their ethno-nationalist claims, and the monopoly of legitimate use of violence.

How far, then, can the origins of the idea of an Assamese nation or conformism be traced to ethnic proclivities and the contestations on sovereignty, nationality or self-determination? Some of the earliest vestiges of Assamese nationalist aspirations stemmed from early 20th century imaginings of an independent self-reliant Assamese nation, expressed through a number of writings (page 35).

Ambikagiri Roychoudhury’s exposition of the notion of the Assamese nation as jati in relation to the idea of India as a mahajati, or Asomiya Swaraj and Bhartiya Swaraj, in the Assamese weekly Chetana and Jnananath Bora’s writings during the 1930s published in Awahon illustrate the radical viewpoint of Assamese nationalists (page 35). Nationalist predilections, both radical and moderate, are premised on state sovereignty and the affirmation of the right to self-determination, most often espoused in territorial terms that reinforce the state as the epitome of sovereignty. The prevailing discourses on Assamese nationalism elucidate the discord between the civic and ethnic variants of nationalism defined by a common language, inheritance and culture of the Assamese-speaking people.

Assamese dissident nationalism construed in ethnic terms, therefore, came much before the rise of Indian civic nationalism, corresponding to homogeneity, a cardinal feature of development of an organic nation-state.

Chapter One briefly touches upon this debate while trying to draw a distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism in the context of the nationality question. However, as a cautionary note, as long as Assamese ethnic nationalism is accompanied by the politics of cultural standardisation across smaller multiple nations, where the attempt is to bring about ethnic homogeneity through language and cultural practices, ascribed not by blood or descent but by generational practices, the drawing of boundaries between civic and ethnic nationalism would seem to be futile. The complexities of applying the doctrines of territorial self-determination in the presence of a multiplicity of ethnic attributes and numerous smaller ethnic nations perhaps emerge out of these contradictions.

Rubul Patgiri’s chapter delves into these debates and the problems associated with applying the principles of self-determination in a multi-ethnic State like Assam, where different ethnic groups resisted the imposition of a nationalist project in Assam in the 1960s when the Assam Legislative Assembly passed the State Official Language Act, which made Assamese the sole official language.

Shubhrajeet Konwer’s chapter examines the contentious claims on territoriality and sovereignty made by the ULFA, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) demand for an independent Bodoland, and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) championing the cause for a Greater Nagaland. The chapter succinctly explains the collisions and changing relations between the ULFA and the other two groups, particularly the NSCN (I-M) since the late 2000s when the ULFA showed signs of forming an alliance with the latter group in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, where the NSCN (I-M) had a strong presence and where the 28th Battalion of the ULFA had been proactive. The chapter also dwells on the role of extra-regional forces, perhaps pointing to the ULFA’s income-generating projects in Bangladesh and its operations from bases in Myanmar that undermine the security and stability of the north-eastern region.

On a different note, Uddipan Dutta writes about the importance of understanding the sovereignty issue by investigating how public discourse shaped by vernacular narratives influences the upsurge of nationalist imaginings. Dutta assesses three different texts written in the Assamese language that represent distinct discourses on the issue. The first, written by Parag Das, focusses on the geographic and ethnic differences between Assam and mainland India and is a reflection of the militant nationalist discourse. The second, by Kanaksen Deka, legitimises the rule of the Indian state and counteracts the claim of sovereign Assam, while the third, by Devabrata Sharma, questions both the legitimacy of the Indian state and the sovereignty claim of the ULFA and advocates decentralisation of power to the lowest level of administrative hierarchy.

What also contributes to the nationality debate is the issue of immigration, which occurred under particular historical conditions, its impact on citizenship and the Assamese nationality consciousness among the indigenous people of Assam, a subject of discussion in Section III of the book titled “Migration, Contested Citizenship and the Assamese Identity”.

Chandan Kumar Sharma’s chapter in this section entails a discussion on immigration of peasants, mostly Muslims from East Bengal, especially from the district of Mymensingh, to Assam in the late 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th century leading to about 40 per cent growth in the population in districts like Goalpara, Berpeta, Kamrup and Nagaon, including Mangaldai subdivision. During Partition in 1947 and the merger of East Bengal with Pakistan, the flow of Hindu immigrants was followed by an influx of poor, landless Muslim immigrants in the mid 1950s, and in the 1970s the separatist movement in East Pakistan forced lakhs of East Pakistani citizens to enter Assam as refugees (many of them failed to return to the newly created state in Bangladesh).

The chapter incorporates factual representations of census data and goes into the politics around the revision of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, the anti-foreigners agitation in the 1980s and the dissensions surrounding the Illegal Immigrants Detection Tribunal (IMDT) Act, 1983. Rumi Roy draws from scholarly foundations on the notion of citizenship and the construction of the identity of the migrant based on a distinctive citizenship regime and practices unfolded by the provisions laid down in the IMDT Act of 1983, which was finally scrapped by a Supreme Court judgment in July 2005.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was very much part of the process of political mobilisation led by student organisations and literary bodies in Assam. While elucidating the role of the All Assam Students’ Union, formed in 1967, and the Asom Sahitya Sabha, formed in 1917, in shaping nationalist consciousness, Protim Sharma, in the section titled “National Consciousness: The Role of Students and Literary Bodies”, recounts the formation of an Assamese ethnic identity and solidarity founded on linguistic nationalism, which percolated through the activities of student bodies and middle-class organisations in Assam. This proved to have strong ramifications.

As Sharma puts it: “The hegemonic attitude of the middle-class Assamese elite was responsible for the segregation and disintegration of the composite Assamese society, and this typical middle-class mentality of the Assamese elite got reflected in the activities of the Assamese student community [page 138].”

Ivy Dhar, in her chapter, historically analyses how language identity, which became a symbol of representation, assertion and politics of the Asom Sahitya Sabha largely in the post-Independence period, was challenged by the divergent ethnic identities of Assam.

The concluding part of the book, “Part IV: Civil Society, Indian state and conflict resolution”, seeks to probe, albeit tacitly, the implications of armed insurrections on human rights of non-combatants, and follows it with an analysis of the role of civil society as a facilitator in conflict resolution. For Dilip Gogoi and Uddipan Dutta, it is important to take note of the failure of the state in preventing human rights violations during counter-insurgency operations or “non-productive armed interventions” under the Unified Command in north-eastern India and Assam in particular, documented by extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths and secret killings.

Human rights

As supportive evidence, mostly collected from secondary sources, the chapter documents several incidents of human rights violations committed by the Unified Command. Among them, the mysterious killings of Ajit Mahanta, a resident of Tinsukia, in February 2006, and Dulen Baruah in Sibsagar in April 2008, and the mass graves at the ULFA camp in Lakhipathar near Digboi uncovered in December 1990. In a nutshell, the chapter reveals how state sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security concerns take precedence over human dignity and physical security in insurgency-ridden areas like India’s north-eastern region, which in a way fed into strong separatist feelings.

This is, however, just one side of the story. The chapter is visibly silent on the issue of random violence committed by insurgents, often aimed at generating fear, visibility, compliance and as acts of vengeance towards the non-combatant civilian population, which sometimes even surpass state atrocities. Insurgent violence is undeniably a disturbing feature that seriously needs to be addressed while assessing human rights abuses and conflict resolution in post-insurgency situations.

Truly, the horrors of gross human rights violations compel one to seek constructive ways to resolve protracted armed insurrections, including those witnessed by India’s north-eastern region. Akhil Ranjan Dutta’s essay brusquely highlights the role of ethnically based as well as trans-ethnic civil societies (representing various ethnic communities), for instance, the Asom Ganatantrik Nagarik Sangstha (Assam Democratic Citizens’ Association) in the 1990s, the People’s Consultative Group in the mid 2000s, and the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan (United National Convention) in 2010, as a facilitator in the peace talks between the ULFA and the government of India. The final chapter in the book, titled “Postscript: Ending the Impasse and Reintegrating Northeast India”, by Dilip Gogoi, presents an alternative institutional design, which he labels the “Common Ethnic House”, a trans-ethnic federating unit within the broader framework of consociational democracy advocated by Arendt Lijphart.

Overall, while the arguments in the book are academically relevant and well illustrated, some of the chapters are repetitive and leave the reader in the dark with regard to subtlety of analysis or the provenance of the tools or the sources used. Despite these gaps, the book is a contribution to debates on sovereignty and nationality, and the author does an admirable job of examining the issue of sovereignty in the context of Assam, an unheeded hinterland. There is still the possibility of a future study by meticulous choice of particular case studies problematising sovereignty, nations and nationality from varying perspectives.

Pahi Saikia teaches Comparative Politics and International Relations at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati.

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