As we stand in the third decade of astructural economic reform, we must question every side of the coin about their intentions before taking any particular side. The same should be done to the populist leaders of Assam who have sparked protests across the state on the issue of Citizenship Amendment Bill.
It’s interesting how history is on the verge of repeating itself, and I am afraid of being silent if another Nellie, Silapathar, or ChaoulkhowaChaporicomes our way. My assumptions can be as futile as the promises by the central government, but if it has some amount of truth, we as a race, should be afraid. Assam, post the movement, have with time been able to control the volcanoes of agony, and prejudice, and to take a journey towards a secular, and peaceful state. But, the new movement that is knocking can change it all again. So, I am afraid.
The protest, as claimed, is against the entire unconstitutional framework of the bill, but will it continue itself if Assam was given a special preference and was excluded from the list of places where the new citizens will be relocated? Or underneath the cloth of national benefit, there is a chauvinistic ethno-nationalist, (or sub-nationalist) agenda, where the only purpose is to use it as an antidote to their xenophobia, and somehow, to box their language from foreign (Bengali) influence? These are some serious questions, we as citizens, must ask.
The tendency of the ethno-nationalists has always been to drape the communal instincts in constitutional and legislative language. During the Assam movement, the elections and the unregistered voters issue was used as a cover to justify the mass massacre of a particular community, and this time, maybe, it is the communal approach of the bill, sidelining the Muslims from citizenship alongside the political influence of the bill. Behind the curtains of the progressive, liberal mindset lies a paranoiac mind which fears linguistic, and ethnic plurality, as it strives for absolute domination- which is unconstitutional at so many levels. The paradox of the ethno-nationalists lie in their anti-communal stance when religion is in picture, and their communal one when a linguistic or ethnic group is in picture.
I remember few days back, I was with few of my friends, when the question of the Bill came up, and all agreed that it is a scheme that will destroy India. Then, one of my friend, X (unnamed), said, “Assam will be the most affected.” To add to his statement, another friend of mine said, “These Bangladeshis will capture our lands, and language”. Ragingly, Z stood up from the bench, and with his instinct of aggression claimed, “They will make us their slaves. These Bengalis will take our language. We will never let them take our language, and our lands. We will die for our lands, and for Assamese language, if blood is needed, we will feed on it. Our Heng-Dang is still sharp enough to cut through them.”
Now, that was the point, I realized that it was not in secular interest of the people, but in interest of violence, and blood. With these kind of toxic ethno-nationalistic propaganda propagated through social media there is a major chance of someone getting impacted, and taking a bold step. Why am I saying so? Because, the state is a home to different languages and culture- one of which is Bengali, and the word ‘Bengali’ is often used to denote an antagonist language, positioning it against Assamese, as if it were a war. For many leaders, and the mass, there is no difference between ‘Bengali’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ which is terrible to its core. Also, history is in my side when I make my assumptions of future devastation that provoking ultra-regionalist sentiments can cause.
The argument of secularity seems hypocrisy of the ultra-regionalists, because treating religions equally is not enough for secularity if you can’t treat communities with the same dignity. My idea of a region is a geographical one where all the cultures that inhabit become a part of it, so will all the people, and languages. There is another floating argument that the language will get extinct. It is laughable, and is nothing more than a fallacy to mobilize the sentiments. When the British ruled India, they did give us English, but were they able to take away any of our languages? It seems a 0.01 percent probability that people will leave their mother-tongue for any other language. To consider the current scenario, with the objectives of linguistic dominance, it seems a strategic move altogether. It has been decades since the Assam Movement dried up, and till date, it is ‘Assamese’ which holds the position of administrative state language, and is widely acknowledged as the most prominent language of the state. Astonishingly, the Assam movement also wanted to protect their language, and resulted in many linguistic massacres in the state. But, if the terms of separating the indigenous from immigrant weren’t worked on till the recent NRC, how can Assam still have Assamese as their major language considering the immigrant flow never stopped?
Though, both the cases of the Bill being Anti-Muslim, and Anti-Assamese might sound similar, it is not. Anti-Muslim nature of the bill is credited to the xenophobic central government who wants to be the messiah of Hindutva. But, the Anti- Assamese (as a language) myth is the result of the history of Assam post independence. When I say so, I do believe, the bill is unconstitutional, and is anti-India, be it for any stage. It raises serious questions on the economy, employment, education, healthcare sectors which have failed to serve the present Indians, and their plans to provide for the new set.
What makes me tremble here is the prevailing xenophobia that it will trigger to sustain under the cover of a legislative language. There are many examples of the same. The NRC has been turned into a tool to assault a few particular communities with fake objections, and also, the ridiculing of the ‘Miyah Poetry’ and F.I.Rs against the poets indicates the same, as I claim. In a report of The Hindu, AAMSU advisor Azizur Rahman said- “Religious as well as linguistic minority people are being harassed in the name of NRC. Members of some organisations such as the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) took signatures of villagers on blank forms and then filed objections in their names against the inclusion of people from minority communities in the complete NRC draft”, showing the vanity of the secularist stand of the ethno-nationalist.So now, when asked to, how can I believe that the same Assamese nationalist forces are true to the Indian fabric this time, and will not use it to run assaults on a few communities? Simply, I can’t. Also, what puts my doubt on an accelerator is that maximum numbers of NRC objections were filled against Bengalis, to be precise-Bengalis of a particular religion, and all of a sudden they want to protect the same religion that they were willing to send to detention camps if months back. These kinds of transformations are fairytale. Also, does it mean it is because of the language again? I don’t know. Whatever this is, parties following ideology might get an upper hand in the next election like in the 1980’s.
Another important aspect of it is the sloganeering, and the high voltage of linguistic hatred in it. When you pass by any protest on the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants, one of the primary vocabulary is ‘Bongali’ (Bengali), often used to discriminate people on the basis on language. One of the most common slogan is “Assam’tBongaliradhipoityanasalibo” (In Assam, there can be no rule of Bengalis), which in no way separates the immigrants from the native Indian Bengali people, thus creating a situation of perplexity and division. The music and lyrics have elements of hatred penetrated through the imagery of LachitBorphukan and the metaphors of culture. SurajGogoi, and AbhinavBorbora argues, “Such a popular culture serves ruling class politics by disseminating a monolithic Assamese identity which can only be identified by use of the symbols of LachitBorphukan and the gamusa (an Assamese attire). To “save one’s motherland” and create an enemy out of a “Bangaldeshi”, it creates a homogenous Assamese identity, destroying plurality and all other forms and issues of resistance”, while speaking of the role of art in sermonizing the evil of discrimination, and hatred.
This might not end with simply the rift between Bengalis and Assamese with fundamentalists of both the communities trying to grab the opportunity to secure a political career. The last time during Assam Movement, though it started with the killing of Bengali Muslims, it led to several attacks on Assamese people by Bodos supporting the Plain Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) at Gohpur, in Darrang. The Assamese retaliated with armed attacks on the Bodo tribe, thus tearing Assam into multiple pieces. By the time Taimur came to power, the Muslim support of AASU in the movement started questioning the intention of the organization due to the colossal amount of mass murder of Muslims, and the leadership in AASU of the particular religion criticized and demanded correction in its ‘Hindu tilt’. AmalenduGuha, described the purpose of the movement to be a servant of the Assamese middle class, and divided in into three standard sects- (i) Elimination of Bengali and other competitors (ii) Opportunities of intensification of labour exploitation, unhindered by trade union (iii) Unhindered control over the state administration for the creation of bureaucratic capital of which the Assamese upper classes could be made beneficiaries. (B Das; The Assam Movement and the contest of citizenship)
I know, by now I might have boiled the bloods of many, and believe me- I want myself to be as wrong as you want me to be. But, when lives are at stake, you don’t gamble. You seek for the right option. How do we do it? The best way seems through questioning, and that’s what is present here- questions. The state is not in a state to take the damages of another Assam Movement, and so this time, I don’t think people should die for their language, religion, or culture.
This infection is as bad as the Hindutva one if not more, and has burnt the bodies of several in the past decades. And, if you truly wish to do something for India, and Assam, unite, unite on the basis of geography, unite for the land you live in, and that will make the numbers thrive. Language divides, land unites. So, don’t let people to divide Assam in the name of language again. Don’t start the ‘ethnic’ disorder again.
Assam and the current movement against CAB should vanguard cultural and linguistic plurality and acceptance, while protesting against the bill. There should be no Bodo, Mishing, Rabha, Bengali, Bihari, Axomiya or any other community. This time, we all shall stand against the dictatorship and negligence of the government as ‘One’, as geographically ‘Assamese’, undivided internally.
(You’re free to not listen to me)
Sutputra Radheye is a poet and commentator who delve into the themes affecting the socio-eco-political scenario. His works have been published in prestigious platforms like ‘Frontier’, ‘Countercurrents’, ‘Janata Weekly’, ‘Culture Matters’ (UK), and many more throughout the years.