When the first draft of Assam’s National Register of Citizens was published in 2018, proponents of the exercise pointed triumphantly to the absence of public disorder. The list, meant to be a record of all Indian citizens in the state, left out over 40 lakh applicants. Assam remained mostly peaceful when the final draft was published on August 31 this year, excluding more than 19 lakh applicants, who now risk losing basic rights of citizenship.
But does peace means absence of violence?
Sociologist Max Weber describes the modern state as the only entity which can use legitimate force and decide what is legitimate. By extension, it can decide who is legal, who is not, and enforce it. Force was indeed used in the NRC, which was an exercise of state power.
A majoritarian consensus
Often, the lack of public disorder is used to draw a theory of consensus in society. Certain public intellectuals and stakeholders in Assam have chosen to interpret the relative calm as proof of support for the citizen mapping exercise across all sections of society. Even the former Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, who heard NRC cases in the Supreme Court, mounted a defence of the exercise. The NRC, it would seem, had become an article of faith because it was the product of public consensus.
But the NRC in Assam was not a voluntary process; it was compulsory. Participating in it did not amount to consensus.
Public intellectuals in Assam seems to invoke a majoritarian spirit: if a majority agrees to something it becomes a consensus. This represents a collective thinking which hides minority voices, it projects a sense of concord regarding a process that actually reflects deep fault lines. Talking about consensus helps downplay the discriminatory and exclusionary dimensions of a process that has led to numerous suicides, dispossession, trauma and anxiety.
The idea of consensus helped legitimise the creation of different legal provisions for different bodies. Beyond legal definitions, these distinctions often take the shape of abuse. The bodies treated differently by the state become “illegal”, “termites”, “miyas”, “gedas” and “rapists”. Some of these abuses have surfaced in political speeches. Some appear in online hate speech on platforms such as Facebook, which the recent Avaaz report pointed out. Graffiti in many public places in Guwahati city portray so-called foreigners as ants, rats and crows while protest songs and popular music attempt to show a unity of the “indigenous”.
A secret history of violence
The consensus that is frequently reiterated by Assamese nationalists is the product of a process of socialisation that has historically worked to mute dissent and extract compliance by inflicting violence on the recalcitrant “others” of Assam.
Every major artefact of Assamese nationalism – the Official Language Act of 1960, which made Assamese the state’s only official language; the Assam Accord of 1985, which provided for the detection of so-called foreigners, the deletion of their names from electoral rolls and their eventual deportation; the updated citizens’ register, which aims to separate “genuine citizens” from “illegal immigrants” – stands on a foundation stained with violence. The complicity of the press as well as the silence of victims has helped expunge this violence from popular history to build a myth of consensus.
It is often made to seem as though the Nellie and Chaulkhowa Sapori massacres of 1983 were the only excesses committed in the name of Assamese nationalism. More importantly, there is a tendency to look at them as isolated exceptions. But violence of varying degrees has been used to corral support for the different projects of Assamese nationalism. The so-called consensus for the NRC has to be understood as a product of this history.
In the decades after Independence, Assamese nationalists launched campaigns to assert their language and secure their place in the commercial economy of the state. In principle, such an exercise could be accepted as long as they retained their democratic and liberal character. But in the garb of democracy and victimhood was sanction for violence. The Bongal Kheda Andolan (Evict Bengalis Movement), the Bhaxa Andolon (Language Movement) as well as the Swabalombi Andolon (Self-Sufficiency Movement) eventually descended into arson of Bengali commercial establishments and organised intimidation of Marwari trading communities.
These campaigns were followed by a movement to introduce Assamese as the medium of instruction at universities in the 1970s. In the course of this campaign, there were numerous assaults on Bengali students, in university hostels as well as on the streets of Guwahati. Attacks on students continued into the next decade as the Assam Movement, directed against “outsiders” who were believed to be encroaching on Assamese land and “infiltrating” electoral rolls to change political futures, gained ground after 1979. In the 1980s, young leaders from Assamese nationalist groups would often round up students from linguistic minorities and force them to recite the numerals up to seven. Phonetically, the number seven is pronounced as “xaat” by the Assamese but as “shaat” by Bengalis. The second pronunciation ascribed a degrading connotation. Such speakers were often roughed up.
The brutal attack on Hiren Gohain, then a professor at Gauhati University, by young activists on account of his political opposition to the agitation is well known. These attacks were part of a broader design to quell political opposition to the agitation. The volunteer corps of the All Assam Students Union was alleged to have systematically targeted leaders and cadres from political parties opposed to the agitation. The period saw some of the most ruthless attacks on students affiliated to Marxist parties in Gauhati University as AASU activists began to take control of its hostels.
Public memory has been structured in such a way that such phases of our history have virtually been erased. While the state and its different socio-cultural bodies commemorate the 855 martyrs of the Assam Movement, we hardly recall the fate of activists like Ranjit Barua, Mukut Das, Rohini Saikia and Likhon Lahon, who were brutally killed because of their association with the Congress party. Congress party leader Sishuram Hazarika, father of BJP Minister Pijush Hazarika, was assaulted by supporters of the movement and left for dead in a gutter. Anjan Chakravarty, a medical student, was murdered in Guwahati Medical College in 1979. The next year, Robi Mitra, a geologist with Oil India, succumbed to his injuries after being attacked by a mob in Duliajan. Saurav Bora, a student leader at Dibrugarh University, was gunned down in 1986.
Hegemony, not consensus
As intellectuals in Assam attempt to interpret devices like the accord or the register as outcomes of public consensus, it does not occur to them that the character of support produced for these artefacts may indicate hegemony rather than consensus.
Such hegemonic Assamese nationalism pervades all aspects of life in the state today. Not identifying with it leads to political as well as social exclusion and marginality. The enthusiastic support extended by the various Marxist groups towards the NRC seems to be motivated more by a desire to avoid political alienation of the kind they faced during the agitation.
The Muslim community in Assam may have been the biggest casualty of this hegemonic nationalism. The stigmatisation attached with the label, “Miya”, has induced a near complete split among Muslims on the basis of language – Assamese versus Bengali – and ancestry – “khilonjia”, or those defined as indigenous, versus those originally from East Bengal. “Khilonjia” Assamese Muslims or “Na-Asamiyas” have joined the bandwagon as underwriters of the caste Hindu hegemonic project. The consequent fragmentation has further served to ghettoise and silence the “non-Na-Asamiyas”.
Assamese Muslims often justify their distance from Bengali-origin Muslim through tropes of indigeneity and nationalism. But the threat of losing social capital and respectability due to association with “Miyas” plays no small role in creating this distance. Such fissures are also part of the hidden hegemony of Assamese nationalism which oozed out during the debate on Miya poetry, when an FIR was filed against Bengali-origin Muslims who wrote poetry about the discrimination they faced in Assam.
With this history on our shoulders, it would be reasonable to understand that our support for a process might not be synonymous with consensus but rather with the inability to dissent. To return to Weber, that the hegemonic culture enjoys a certain legitimacy becomes clear with NRC. Rightwing politics is served by the illusion and impetus of consensus. What is more, this consensus subsumes parties and individuals with other ideologies and political commitments, which papers over fissures in society even as it deepens them.
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