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Epiphany of an election: Who is an Assamese?

By The Assam Tribune
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Suraj Gogoi, Soneswar Narah

Can speaking a language be enough to become part of a community? Ambikagiri Raichoudhury (1885-1967), a prominent Assamese nationalist, did think it was possible. He had appealed to the new migrants from erstwhile East Bengal to start ‘speaking’ Assamese. By taking up Assamese language, he argued, one can become ‘Assamese’. History, and more recently the NRC process, would tell us a different story of how the political life of the Assamese community is organized. It would reveal different cultural measurements which made one eligible to be a part of the community and mere ‘speaking’ did not give equal membership to a community.

Ambikagiri had a very narrow and selfish vision of the Assamese community. His ideas did not question the material basis of the Assamese community or power structures that drew measurements of the community. His primary goal was to increase the membership of the Assamese linguistic community, and hence, the call to become Assamese. Was it a ‘fear of small numbers’?

Anxiety about the census data of linguistic speakers in Assam preoccupied the minds of Assamese literate and new middle-class. His call to ‘speak’ and ‘become’ Assamese was also caught in this mosaic of politics to make Assamese the language spoken by the majority. Like any other member of the Assamese literate and new middle-class of his time, he too was anxious.

Asking to speak a language is one kind of political move. It signals a few things. One, it can mean that either you speak, and if you don’t you will become an outsider to the linguistic community called Assamese. Two, related to the first, it can also mean that by turning individuals who do not wish to speak into an outcast will expose them to many kinds of vulnerabilities (in the form of social insult, boycott, intimidation, mockery, physical injuries, and even racism). Third, making one language the marker of showing fidelity to a culture destroys the heterogeneity and multiplicity of culture. Ambikagiri’s appeal is a historic witness to such a call to fidelity and the process of making Assamese identity a homogenous identity whose criteria of belonging and survival were anchored around the Assamese language.

The great African novelist Chinua Achebe once wrote: “When language is seriously interfered with, when it is disjoined from the truth…, horrors can descend again on mankind.” The idea of Assamese culture/language being under threat is often played by different kinds of Assamese nationalists. It is nothing but political rhetoric that carries tremendous emotional appeal. Those emotions have paid rich dividends for the caste Assamese middle-class and they continue to invest in such political tactics.

The dubiousness of the claim of ‘threat’ becomes more questionable when we start looking inside of the culture, the different parts which constitute and complete the Assamese culture and identity. One might ask why there is a continued demand for autonomy by various tribal communities within Assam. Who are they demanding autonomy from? Can it be brushed aside by saying it is purely related to more direct economic benefit and less to do with self-rule? First of all, the various tribal constituents of Assamese culture are demanding autonomy from the hegemony of caste Assamese middle-class. They are demanding autonomy as they have felt left out, humiliated, and unequally treated as members of the cultural community. The collective perceptions of a Mising, Karbi, Bodo, Sonowal-Kachari, Deuri, or an Adivasi in Assam by the caste Assamese middle-class rip apart the unitary and peaceful presentation of the Assamese identity. By observing such discomfort shared by so many members of the collective Assamese identity, one can sense how Assamese culture had become unhealthy and ill from the inside.

This is the kind of threat that Achebe was referring to. Such a threat and illness of culture was manufactured by the Assamese nationalists. They meticulously, forcefully and consistently destroyed the multiple ways of belonging to the Assamese society and culture. They have distorted the call to inclusivity and the radical path to constitute the Assamese community and culture along the lines Bishnu Rabha and Jyotiprasad Agarwala wanted. This admission is also seen in the writing of historian Amalendu Guha. The cultural debts the Assamese culture owe to multiple linguistic groups and the cultural world in the region were completely sidelined. In turn, it foregrounded a very masculine Assamese nationalism which is not only hell-bent on the issue of ‘foreigner’ but at the same time treats the tribals, Adivasis and other minorities as lesser human beings. One can see that ‘anti-cultural’ elements that create conflict within a society, what Agarwala called duskriti, are produced both locally and nationally. We should not forget that fact.

Historians such as Jayeeta Sharma have noted that the peasants from erstwhile East Bengal contributed significantly to the increase in total agrarian produce and cultivation in Assam. The Adivasis and tea tribe communities have also been pivotal to the political economy in the region. Without the surplus which they created, it would have been impossible to not only start the tea industry but to continue it. The Misings whose self-sufficiency and contribution to the local economy are immense as their sense of agrarian time given by Ahu cultivation is different from the other plain communities in Assam. They fill that agrarian gap with sustainable agricultural practice. Why are such communities who contribute so much to Assamese culture not thought of as equals in the domain of collective life?

In the final analysis, who is an Assamese then? Who can be an Assamese? The search for the answer to that question has made an anxious journey from the census documents to the NRC Seva Kendras. Moreover, just speaking Assamese did not translate to being treated as culturally equal, nor did it guarantee inclusion to the Assamese community.

The upcoming Assam Assembly elections can be an epiphany to the questions we ask. Let’s hope we will take this as an opportunity to really question our cultural measurements of community and deliberate a discussion that will make our collective life healthier.

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