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Co-Written by Angshuman Choudhury & Suraj Gogoi

Dear Professor Chomsky,

Hope you are well.

Please allow us to introduce ourselves. We are two young academics from the Northeast Indian state of Assam.

[Angshuman is a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (New Delhi) while Suraj is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore.]

We are both great admirers of your work, from which we have learnt immensely. Your sharp and unsparing sociopolitical critiques of the modern society have constantly reminded us of fairer and brighter possibilities that don’t, but must, exist today.

We were happy to see your solidarity message on the dire situation in India in response to Richard Kamei’s email. We learnt of it from an article that Kamei wrote for East Mojo, a digital news portal based in Northeast India.

We were particularly intrigued by your brief comment on how the “Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) poses intolerable threats to the indigenous people” in response to Kamei’s elaboration of the specific opposition of the people of Northeast to the law, the narrative of “settler colonialism” and fears about demographic change in the region due to influx of migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, we believe that the email sent to you presented a grossly limited, selective and rather misleading narrative about the Northeast. Please allow us to elaborate.

Before we do so, we would like to state that both of us categorically stand opposed to the communal CAA, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), National Population Registry (NPR) and the Hindu supremacist/fascist politics of the current regime. We also stand opposed to draconian laws, such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), meant for military dominance of “peripheral” regions like Kashmir and the Northeast.

At the same time, we categorically oppose the chauvinist, xenophobic, and oftentimes, violent politics of ethno-nationalists in Assam and other Northeastern states. We see it no differently than the Hindutva supremacist project of the BJP, and believe that it has done more harm than good to the “indigenous cause”. In fact, regional ethno-nationalism in the Northeast has routinely deployed, and rather politically weaponised, the term “indigenous” – which remains open to interpretation in the myriad contexts of the region – to delegitimise the identities and existence of other smaller, less advantaged groups. We must see the region’s dominant approach to the NRC and CAA through that lens.

Here, we feel compelled to make it clear that our critique of ethno-nationalism in the Northeast is not to be seen as a dismissal of the “indigenous”, but rather as an attempt to revise the frames through which the term is seen and understand how the sociopolitical elite in the region has built a hegemonic consensus around it. The ethno-nationalists ignore the internal differences and discrimination that they cast upon the other (primarily the ‘Bangladeshi’) and romanticise the indigenous by presenting a pure self of the latter. This is precisely what Professor Sherry Ortner warned us by rightly charging it as ‘ethnographic refusal’.

This brings us to the various tangible processes of segregation and othering that majoritarian ethno-nationalism, particularly in Assam, has created. The following directly relates to the current nationwide opposition against the CAA and NRC.

It must be noted that an NRC exercise has already been conducted in Assam over the last three years to identify “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Legally, everyone who arrived in Assam from Bangladesh on or after 24 March 1971 is an “illegal immigrant” and is not to be included in the NRC. This cut-off date came out of the Assam Accord, signed in 1985 between the Indian federal government and ethno-nationalist groups from Assam who had been agitating since 1979 to identify and expel “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.

The final NRC list, published in Assam in August 2019, left out 1.9 million people, effectively rendering them stateless (since Bangladesh too doesn’t accept them as citizens). It is simply this Assam NRC model that the BJP government now wants to expand to the rest of the country.

The whole NRC exercise caused extreme anxiety and trauma amongst the primary suspect group i.e. Assam’s Bengali-speaking minorities (both Hindus and Muslims), particularly the poor who lacked the financial or material means to produce documents or defend themselves legally. Many even killed themselves, unable to bear the indignity or psychological burden of being forced to prove their Indian identity. The UN has rung the alarm bells on this on several occasions.

But ethno-nationalists in Assam have firmly supported the NRC process, arguing that the exercise would bring “closure” to the “immigration problem” and protect the rights of the “indigenous”. In doing this, they take a narrow view of indigenous rights while completely obfuscating the social and psychological trauma that the NRC process had on vulnerable minority groups (such as Bengal-origin Muslims, who are widely suspected as being “illegals” in Assam). The email sent to you is one case-in-point.

The tragedy in Assam, in fact, goes far beyond the recently-concluded NRC exercise. Assam has a uniquely twisted citizenship determination system since the 1980s – comprising of Foreigner Tribunals and detention camps – that is designed to detect and detain/deport “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Thousands have become victims to these arbitrary processes over the last two decades, with many being randomly declared foreigners either due to lack of proper documents or on pure whims of the tribunals. Hundreds are languishing in detention camps in Assam after being declared foreigners by tribunal judges who don’t even have judicial training or experience.

Worse, the BJP government has introduced hundreds of new tribunals in the state and completed the construction of a new standalone detention camp in western Assam, meant to house more than 3000 “illegals” (you can see the picture of the camp here). What we see here is a grand custodial infrastructure for prolonged arbitrary confinement similar to the ICE-run system in the US.

All the three components – NRC, tribunals, and camps – are direct products of demands raised by Assamese ethno-nationalists since the 1970s to expel the “aliens” and protect the “indigenous identity”. More importantly, the BJP-led government is only building upon the existing infrastructure of segregation and marginalisation that the Indian state created in direct response to the vociferous political persuasions of Assamese ethno-nationalists to “cleanse” Assam of “infiltrators”. Taking cue from Assam (and ignoring the social pain of minorities), ethno-nationalists in other states of the region, such as Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya, too have raised demands for their own state-level NRC exercises.

This brings us to the critical questions of the “indigenous”, demographic change, and what was put by the author of the email sent to you as “settler colonialism”.

India’s Northeast has a layered and complex history of migration, identity formations and competing assertions of the “indigenous”. The term is fluid and open to interpretation, depending on what historical position one looks at it from. The British colonial policies of segregating and limiting the region according to administrative convenience, while bringing in Bengali Muslim peasants and Bengali Hindu workers to Assam Province from East Bengal, fueled competing assertions of identity and ethno-nationalist anxieties amongst the local social elite. Through the post-independence decades, these anxieties were galvanised by the Assamese-speaking political and civil society elite towards forging an ethno-linguistically homogenous state and building walls around the otherwise fluid Assamese identity. Both the Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims fell on the short end of majoritarian Assamese ethno-nationalism, which peaked during the 1970s.

The core motivation behind this limiting form of ethno-nationalism was to label the Bengali-speaking minorities as “illegal immigrants”, “infiltrators”, “outsiders”, etc. One can understand how ruthless this project of otherisation was by looking at three specific instances in the recent history of Assam – Bongal Kheda Movement (1950s/60s), Assam Movement (1979-83) and Nellie massacre (1983). All of these saw popular-level violence against Bengali Muslims and Hindus, perpetrated by the Assamese-speaking middle classes. Organisations such as the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Assam Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Society) played a crucial role in galvanising public sentiments against “illegal immigrants” and taking the xenophobia to a popular level. We see the aftershocks of these events in the political landscape of Assam today, as influential civil society leaders continue to call for the ethnic sanitisation of Assamese society.

Further, ethno-nationalists in the region routinely cite colonial authorities to argue that the region is facing a “settler colonialism” problem. They particularly cite a certain statement by one British census superintendent, Charles Seymore Mullan, who in 1931 wrote about an “invasion of a vast horde of land hungry Bengali immigrants; mostly Muslims, from the districts of Eastern Bengal”. They use archaic, colonial narratives such as this to argue that Assam continues to face a “settler colonial” problem. This is grossly misleading. The migrant transfer happened almost 80-90 years ago under the British government. Thereafter, there have been no systematic, organised or militarily-backed project by any third party to settle Bengali migrants in Assam, least of all by Bangladesh. It is simply preposterous to frame poor, landless migrants crossing the border for a better life as “settler colonialists”. In fact, it completely belies the very definition of “settler colonialism”.

Further, it is to be noted here that the Bengali Muslim peasants who arrived in Assam during the colonial period primarily settled in riverine geographies of the mighty river Brahmaputra and its many tributaries. These geographies could be categorized as ‘wastelands’, or as John Locke would say, non-economic spaces. These muddy, silty, dirty, malaria-ridden, smelly places were brought into cultivation and use by these peasants. In almost all cases, these geographies that are termed as ‘char-chaporis’ in official registers are never surveyed in terms of the land, because these spaces shift and change with every flood, rendering them as “non-colonising settlements” in many ways. And as we are aware of the frequency of floods in the Brahmaputra, the river which carries the maximum sediments, such shifts in the geography of char-chaporis is imminent on an annual basis. This primary fact about the land relation remains shockingly ignored when the ‘settler colonialism’ discourse is thrown around.

It won’t be an exaggeration to call the ‘Bangladeshi illegals’ in the region, and particularly these peasants and ones who belong to the lower castes, the Jews of India’s Northeast who remain othered, humiliated, and racialised in daily life. Take the recent example of how Assamese ethno-nationalists/chauvinists took issue with and filed criminal charges against a set of poets from the Bengal-origin Muslim community of Assam (derogatorily called ‘Miyahs’) for writing political poetry in their own unique dialects, expressing their longstanding grievances on the discrimination they have faced in Assam for decades. Earlier, both of us had written about this when one of Assam’s most prominent leftist intellectuals, Dr Hiren Gohain, wrote an editorial against Miyah poets: https://www.firstpost.com/india/what-hiren-gohains-bitter-criticism-of-miyah-poetry-tells-us-about-assamese-nationalism-6931041.html

We sincerely hope that we have been able to convey our arguments and critique of the prevalent hegemonic discourse in the Northeast on citizenship, indigenous rights, belongingness and demography. As you might already be aware, the Northeast is a highly pluralistic region, perhaps even a perfect microcosm of the diverse Indian tapestry. With this pluralism, comes the co-existence of many identities, narratives and imaginations. We see Assam as a peculiar geographical and ethnographic domain that has accepted myriad identities through every phase in history, and it is in these processes of continuous historical assimilation and intermingling that the real beauty of Assamese lies. Hence, we believe that the simplistic discourse of “indigenous rights”, as currently seen by the majority in the region, does not do justice to the striking complexity of the region and its many peoples.

To restate our previous point, we categorically oppose the CAA and NRC (including the Assam NRC), for a singular reason – they are communal and divisive policies that have no place in a secular, democratic country like India.

We hope you have a happy and productive 2020, and we look forward to reading more of your work. Attached below is a short compendium of some of our published pieces on this issue to give you a more detailed context of our arguments.

With warm regards from India,

Angshuman Choudhury & Suraj Gogoi

Selected publications:

 

    1. 17 Dec 2019: https://www.firstpost.com/politics/citizenship-amendment-act-and-nrc-are-two-sides-of-same-coin-both-seek-to-alienate-indias-muslims-7781461.html

    2. 24 Oct 2019: https://caravanmagazine.in/photo-essay/four-cases-that-illustrate-the-arduous-struggle-for-inclusion-in-the-nrc

    3. 12 Sep 2019: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-narrow-nationalism-again/article29394298.ece

    4. 6 Sep 2019: http://southasiajournal.net/counting-to-segregate-behind-assams-national-register-of-citizens-nrc/

    5. 19 Aug 2019: https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/9/17427/National-Register-of-Citizens-NRC—A-Synonym-for-Deep-Anxiety

    6. 17 June 2019: https://countercurrents.org/2019/06/re-imagining-the-assamese-identity-under-the-shadow-of-nrc

    7. 14 Oct 2019: https://www.himalmag.com/the-nrcs-spillover-effect/

    8. 16 June 2019: https://www.newslaundry.com/2019/07/16/mainstream-progressives-in-assam-are-actually-liberal-hegemons?fbclid=IwAR1OgM9JqtEObT2jRBkZPTpDiqZXnaeWx9tHraE48am5mH8OcATbuuznSTc

    9. 20 Oct 2019: https://www.firstpost.com/india/psychology-behind-nrc-mirrors-narrow-dominating-side-of-assamese-language-and-its-fragile-nationalism-cultural-identity-7526031.html


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