Co-Written by Bhargabi Das and Sutputra Radheye
In a remote village in lower Assam, a thio naam performance (a type of devotional song performed while standing, developed by the Vaishnavite movement in Assam by Srimanta Shankardeva and his disciple Madhabdeva) unfolds. This introduces one to a story about Sita and Dashrath from the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’. The story is about how when Sita abandons Ram after returning from 14 years of exile, King Dashrath passes away. Though all his sons offer ‘pindo’ (rice balls offered to the dead) at his funeral, Dashrath’s soul fails to leave the earthly abode. It is only when Sita, his daughter-in-law offers her ‘pindo’ that his soul finds freedom.
It is not uncommon for the epics to be re-interpreted through local legends, rumours and contextual understanding. Hence, the re-imagination of the Ramayana along such narratives speaks volumes about the Vashnavite culture’s understanding of the role of women in society.
At a time when the ‘jatiyotabadis’ (ones that espouse regionalism), particularly those led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) have once again gained centre-stage in forwarding narratives of opposition to the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act, it is sad that their appropriation of Vaishnavite cultural symbols (including naams/devotional songs) lacks any real voice of the women. This understanding of jatiyotabaad (regionalism) then erases such narratives and essence where there is a conscious politics to let women’s and other marginalized voices and opinions to concretize. This piece will try and deconstruct how the AASU led and imagined ‘jatiyotabaad’ that has largely defined and controlled the public consciousness and politics of Assam for over four decades now is not just propagating a politics of hate and xenophobia but also is extremely hyper-masculine and heteronormative, focusing particularly the lack of women’s voices in it.
With the Anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests in play, India is showing signs of creating an anti-thesis to the patriarchal hierarchy of power. The voices that were considered ‘the other’ for decades now, have finally taken the mainstream role, and are leading the ‘populist’ movement. What is more intriguing is that in Indian politics finally the common subaltern voices are looking for proper representation, and not mere ‘appropriation’. Women protesters are leading and shaping narratives of opposition and resistance, be it in universities in Delhi or the streets of Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kerala, Kolkata or UP. Shaheen Bagh is not simply about Muslim women claiming public spaces but also shaping public consciousness, politics and debates. These women are bringing in their politics of positionality that is they being lower class-Muslim-women, and their historical and decades of lived experiences of marginalization and violence of every kind when they voice out and lead narratives of opposition to the NRC-CAA-NPR. These narratives of opposition can never come out in protests led by men for their history or lived experiences can never imagine that kind and amount of marginalization. This is exactly the problematic of the AASU-led anti-CAA protests in Assam.
AASU as an organization has failed to consistently provide a context and a political environment where women of varied backgrounds be it caste/language/ethnicity/sexuality/class have led movements of any kind, consistently hold positions of authority within it or added any voice of value to the political climate of Assam and debates surrounding ‘jatiyotabaad’ particularly. This is an organization of caste Hindu Assamese men, for caste Hindu Assamese men, propagating a politics surrounding ‘jatiyotabaad’ developed and carried forward by caste Hindu Assamese men. Women are merely for token value, meant to hold trays while guests are being felicitated, or sing in choruses or at best mirror Barsha Rani Bishaya (Assamese film actress) who is only forwarding the narratives of the caste Hindu Assamese men. So, women who are ‘allowed’ to lead in these protests have really the false consciousness of being a leader.
Though AASU observed ‘Women’s Day’ as part of their ‘schedule of the anti-CAA protests’ or boosts of participation of large numbers of women, these are simply for rhetoric. On 21 December 2019 at such a protest at Latasil ground by AASU, it was disturbing to see how an organization led by caste Hindu Assamese men have ‘let women protests, have accommodated women in their schedule of protests and have literally given space to women to protest.’ Even the way the protests were structured spatially with women sitting and men around them ‘overseeing’ them and leading the slogans only goes on to show the toxic paternalistic nature of AASU, its anti-CAA protests and their politics surrounding ‘jatiyotabaad’. Hence unlike the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh, women participating in these protests are simply ‘fillers’ in the otherwise ‘men-led’ protests and are equally heteronormative, violent, sexist and xenophobic. Revoking symbols of ‘Hengdang’ (the traditional Ahom sword) and ‘bidekhi khed’ (chase away the ‘foreigners’) in their slogans narrates this.
The question that arises is- where are independent women leaders? Where are women leaders who are representatives of a heterogeneous Assamese culture, belonging to varied caste, class, sexuality, ethnicity, language etc? One is not surprised that the AASU led protests are participated by mostly upper caste Hindu Assamese women and brings no rupture to the caste Hindu Assamese men monopolized narrative of opposition to the CAA. Women are of token value because they have failed to bring in their particular and diverse politics of their positionality to these protests. This is also the reason why the protests in Assam are not opposing the NRC. For only a transgender, an East-Bengal origin Muslim woman residing in the ‘Chars’or a lower-class, lower-caste woman who hardly posses any documents and now lives under fear of detention camps can bring forward the anxieties and the petty politics of documentation regime that the upper caste Hindu Assamese men or women will never really relate and the ‘chest-thumping’, hyper-masculine, heteronormative ‘jatiyotabaadis’ can never accommodate.
Even the women leaders in the movement, mobilizing their cadres are suffering from a false consciousness, which is making them think as if they are the leaders. But, it is the paternalistic top strata of organizational power that is actually pulling the triggers. Imagine this in the school, where the class monitor used to always think of herself as the leader, but it was actually the teacher who was exploiting her labor by allowing a false sense of leadership in her. The monitor would organize the forces, and do the task ordered by the teacher, thus, serving the purpose of the teacher. The same is happening in this situation where a few women are the monitors, and the post-holders of AASU are the teacher.
But, is it new to the fundamental characteristics of AASU? It’s not, and it never was. Historically, the political consciousness of the organization never valued the presence of subaltern leadership in the highest chambers of power. Women, despite being a salient factor in the AASU led movements, were never offered proper representation. If AASU believed in equality of leadership, why were there no women participant in the meetings between the leaders, and the central government? Why there is no signature of a woman representative in the Assam Accord? Also, no woman held the office in the central committee of All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad. Tilottama Misra is one such critic of this patriarchal hierarchy of power who defined the Assam movement, and the power struggle of women in ‘Assam- a new phase’ as “…the AASU-AAGSP leadership could always rely on women to come forward under any circumstances. Yet, the leaders never considered it necessary to give women proportionate representation in the upper echelons”, after reading different aspects of the struggle closely. Neither were the demands of the women considered with dignity, nor were there any attempts to redraft the structural dismissal of voices.
It was during the Assam Movement that Makhela chaddar was imposed on women- students and teachers as a compulsory dresscode by the paternalistic leadership. Many of the leaders of the movement dealt with a sense of identity crisis as they were sent back to the private department of managing households, primarily. Their assertion of a subaltern identity was rejected as none of the populist women groups had a vision for gender equality and rights. All they did was being the fuel of a larger, ethno-nationalist meta-narrative. With their organized labor force, they promoted the ideas of AASU door to door in the farthest corners of Assam, but at the end were cheated with a exploitation of labor.
The same dynamics is visible when the incorporation and involvement of religious minority, or linguistic minorities is studied. The linguistically chauvinist ethno-nationalism followed by the AASU has acted as the instrument of division as various tribes like Misings, and Bodos have fueled movements for self-rule, considering their lack of representation. In the words of Arun Shourie, who reported from Assam in 1983, “each community that was a victim in one place, was the predator in another”. Even Sanjib Baruah and Myron Weiner wouldn’t have disagreed. (SANJIB BARUAH- INDIA AGAINST ITSELF : ASSAM AND THE POLITICS OF NATIONALITY; MYRON WEINER- The Political Demography of Assam’s Anti-Immigrant Movement) The formation of AAMSU as the voice of the marginalized, and the formation of Anwara Taimur’s government also deconstructed the Hindu-Assamese inclination of the movement. Under her government, the Muslim population started reconsidering their participation in regards to the number of Muslims victimized. Also, within AASU leadership, there began a demand for correction of the “pro-Hindu communal tilt”, thus exposing the communal instincts of the organization to the public of the marginalized sections.
These are not mere accusations, but an indication of the short-comings of AASU as there is a lack of proper representation of marginalized sections within the organization, and thus, the lack of heterogeneous perspective in their demands and policies till this date. AASU, as a preacher of an ideology has never been through the process of scrutiny, and therefore, stands stagnant following the policies of “appropriation”, without valuing the pluralistic culture of Assam. In this context, pluralist culture is not mere the existence of different cultures and communities, but also an intersection between different genders, sexual orientations, economic classes, religious sects, and castes, which dictates the act, and consciousness of an individual. Thus, without proper voices from different sections, there can never be a democratic organization in the truest sense of the word.
In a democracy, representation matters. But, the AASU’s political dynamic has been of majoritarianism. It is the middle class or upper class, Assamese, Hindu male dominating the decisions without any importance offered to the subaltern voices. And, like majorities often act, the male members of the organization have desperately attempted to safeguard their status. For they fear that post all their oppression, and tyranny, if a proper representative of a minority holds the power, their right to oppression and totalitarian strategies shall fall like autumn leaves. To be direct, AASU is a tree that under the current homogeneity of ideas shall never be able to see a spring again.
But then do we give up hope of a spring? Hope can linger only when a diverse population representative of Assamese society permeates the AASU and not simply as foot-soldiers but as leaders who bring their politics of positionality. And going by present trends, this is difficult. So we need an organized alternative politics founded on principles of collaboration- Collaboration among varied subaltern voices that allows even dissenting and minority opinions to be listened and acted upon. An alternative politics where minorities of varied intersections lead. Only then can we see a politics which is beyond and away from the hate-mongering, machismo language, ‘Othering’ everyday practices and narrow Chauvinistic understanding of Assamese as a people and a society.
Bhargabi Das is a doctoral student at the National University of Ireland, Maynoot.
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.
 Please note that the authors acknowledge the deep-seated patriarchy that has permeated Vaishnavism in Assam in its practices. But local legends like these need to be underlined to show a diverse view too.