Re-imagining the Assamese identity under the shadow of NRC

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Cultural worlds are fluid, and so are humans. Assimilation and migration are intrinsic to any society. Thus Assam is not an aberration. Anyone studying Assam knows how complex and layered its history is. So it is obvious that the articulation of Assamese identity has also undergone multiple changes.

The Assam Movement was primarily a cultural movement. It defined the measurements of the “son of the soil” and an outsider. On its aftermath, Assamese and Assam were viewed through certain fixed categories and a homogeneous self was projected through the movement. It also defined the migrant as an “illegal” or “alien” entity, who as a common enemy defined the Assamese self.

I wish to share some time with the idea of culture in general and Assamese culture in particular, as articulated by two stalwarts of Assamese cultural and social world, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha. In their articulation of cultural worlds, one finds a fine balance of political emotions and freedom.

In his novel Our Village, Agarwala writes: “Culture can distribute light in society.” For him, those deeds, those thoughts, those actions that make one’s contemporary life beautiful and meaningful are culture. On the other hand, those acts, thoughts, actions and behaviors that degrade people, that make people’s life sad, corrupted, sick, unhappy, one that turns humans into demons, are against culture.

The human journey is a cultural journey toward light and beauty. Agarwala thought that in worshiping that beauty we decorate our culture. “Worshiping beauty is culture,” he writes. In this context, he recognizes the role of an artist in creating beauty. In his definition of an artist, even an intellectual may find a place for opposing cultural forces, for in their opposition, they protect beauty.

Hemanga Biswas in his essay “Jyotiprasad, an Artist of Life” narrates about a meeting with Agarwala in Tezpur. In that meeting, Agarwala expressed the need for a new kind of “cultural conscience” without which freedom would not be possible. He insisted that every language is his mother tongue. In invoking such an idea of the cultural world and its association with people, he resonates with many humanists that we know of.

Agarwala’a celebration of beauty is pregnant with pluralism and devoid of religious distinctions. Instead of distinctions, he seeks to cultivate beauty and worship it. Only in the worship of beauty is full human potential realized. He bestows freedom in a human being to create beauty and happiness, even if it is at the cost of creating new norms of culture.

Rabha’s understanding of the Assamese cultural world is not far from Agarwala’s. Rabha recognizes a syncretic Assamese culture that embraces Satriya, Bhatiya and Janajati traditions. In his essay “Assamese Culture,” he accepts with all humility the role of hills and plains, of rivers and wastelands, of tea gardens and mountains, of the great traditions and little traditions in constituting what we call Assamese.

In his understanding of Assamese, the Nagas, the Meiteis, the Mizos, the Khasis, the Jaintias, the many tribes of Arunachal and Assam and people from different religion find a place. He recognizes the cultural debts of all the groups and places alike, and frames Assamese as a cultural complex with is heterogeneous and accommodating nature. For him, Assam is a place of flow and a cultural landscape that is touched by various contiguous groups and in its practice, it lights up many cultural worlds.

The farmer, the daily wage laborer and the poor found a special place in the thought processes and activism of Agarwala and Rabha. For them, if a culture or society is to develop or become beautiful, we need to think of the downtrodden the most. Rabha writes in the same essay that “craft, culture and civilization are not in the hands of the poor … but with the daily wage laborer and farmer, with the poor Assamese.”

They were nationalist, of course, but they also celebrated humanity, and their measurements of social boundaries were as broad as they can get. They showed us that accepting cultural debts opens up a culture, enriches it, not the other way around. It saves us from being chauvinistic and fascist.

They belong to a state that later was torn apart by questions of language, ethnicity and uneven development. Under such a predicament, the cultural worlds also took a toll. The caste Assamese nature of the Assam Movement and everyday politics redefined the boundaries and measurement of the Assamese identity. That constructed identity is far away from what Rabha and Agarwala imagined. The identity that the All Assam Students Union or other cultural, literary and political organizations draw for us today is narrow and selfish.

Anthropologist Johannes Fabian notes that sharing time in the field, and with interlocutors, makes (ethnographic) knowledge possible. Many contemporary anthropologists see it as a political act of finding “possible worlds.”

I believe such sharing of time “intentionally” with historical characters, their articulations, events and texts also carries the same potential of thinking about who we are and find possible worlds. Rabha and Agarwala offer such possible worlds, and re-articulate the measurements of Assamese identity, appreciate the cultural debts and imagine a culture that may distinguish itself from another, but doesn’t necessarily turn that difference into hate.

Can we re-imagine an Assamese identity, a possible world and “cultural conscience,” through these two stalwarts of Assam?

This article was first published in Asia Times. Click here for the link.

Suraj is a doctoral candidate in Sociology, National University of Singapore and tweets at char_chapori.


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