Suddenly Stateless Conversation Series V: “Procedure as Violence”

In our specially curated conversation series Suddenly Stateless, The Polis Project takes an in-depth look at the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) through conversations with various scholars, reporters, writers, artists, historians, anthropologists and political scientists. The final NRC list – an exercise to update the citizens’ database – in Assam was published on 31 August 2019. It excluded around 6% of the State’s population. The government now wants to conduct the same exercise across India to identify undocumented immigrants.  

The Polis Project’s Suchitra Vijayan spoke to Suraj Gogoi,  a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore. His doctoral project looks at riverine areas (char-chaporis) and people to understand state-making in contemporary Assam. He is interested in the social and political life-worlds of Northeast India, citizenship, speculative ontology, non-philosophy, ethnography, tribal philosophy and de-colonial thought. He has published his works in journals such as Exemplar: Journal of South Asian Studies, EPW, Critical Asian Studies and Asia Ethnicity. His work has appeared in Firstpost, Hindustan Times, Fountain Ink, The Telegraph, Himal South Asian, Asia Times, The Wire, Scroll, Newslaundry, India Cultural Forum, LSE South Asia and Sociology Blog, and The Hindu, among others. He is also a part of the Pangsau Collective which manages an academic blog on Northeast India. 

Suchitra Vijayan: Suraj, could you lay out for our listeners what the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is and what this process entails?

Suraj Gogoi: Sure, the NRC was a document that was prepared in the State of Assam in 1951. It was meant to be a rough notebook, which listed out names of people in Assam at that point of time; it was carried out by certain enumerators, but it was not meant to be used in any form. But later on it became the basis of NRC Assam as we see in its current form. The intent of this whole process was to identify “illegal immigrants” or rather illegal citizens or people within Assam. And, these so-called illegal people or citizens were primarily thought to be migrants from erstwhile East Bengal, present-day Bangladesh. 

Now, NRC Assam took a long time. Close to 60 million documents [were produced] to identify whether one is legally or illegally living in the State of Assam. This process also witnessed a lot of events in the last 2-3 years. The whole process was carried out in Assam from 2015 onwards. 

Right now, as it stands, we have about 1.9 million people who are left out of this register and their citizenship remains uncertain. The NRC now becomes the basis for the National Population Register that the Indian State is planning to carry out in the entire Union of India. I suppose this sort of exercise is going to cause a lot of trauma and pain. Also, it costs heavily for people who are poor. 

Now, no one imagined that such old documents will be of such value in the future, so much so that your entire existence, your civility and your political rights and economic rights will rest on these documents. People who are poor, are also document-poor, and NRC is an exercise which rests heavily on documents. In the NRC exercise in Assam, we had something called the Legacy Data, which consisted originally of about fifteen documents that could be your electoral rolls,  land and tenancy records, citizenship certificate, refugee registration certificate, your birth certificate, and educational documents from the State or universities. In Assam, permanent residence certificates, bank records were a list of documents considered to be valid documents to prove one’s citizenship. There was a timeframe which decided someone as a citizen of Assam. So, that timeframe was from 1951 to 24 of March 1971. So, this timeframe is when all these documents would then be verified to locate whether your ancestors did belong to Assam or were part of Assam or India is known as Legacy Data. As  you can see, there is a retrospective understanding of looking at a body or a citizen which is highly dependent on documents. Now, no one imagined that such old documents will be of such value in the future, so much so that your entire existence, your civility and your political rights and economic rights will rest on these documents. 

The NRC process is not only procedurally overwhelming,  but the process is also deeply flawed and unconstitutional. The NRC changes in legal terms the very basis of citizenship which makes it very problematic,  perhaps even unfair and illegal. It changes the basic structure of the Constitution itself, in terms of how the idea of citizen is formulated. It changes from jus soli to jus sanguinis. This carries a lot of implications. 

The first implication is that the proof of one’s identity or citizenship now solely rests on something called the family tree, which will be traced back to the legacy documents: […] someone is supposed to prove one’s citizenship based on documents and not on one’s birth. It’s rather based on one’s ethnic lineage or one’s family lineage. So, it’s no longer just based on the person that is the first point of departure. So even if someone is born in 1972 in Assam, it is not necessary that that person is a citizen.  

Second, we can see India is shifting towards a very patrilineal understanding of citizenship where the family tree is the father’s family tree. It’s not the mother’s family tree. So, you see another point of departure here, whereas earlier in jus soli we see a person’s identity being the core of one’s citizenship. Here, your identity, your own being become valueless unless you can prove and show that you belong to a family which carries some kind of documentation between the two dates of 1951 and 1971. 

Now, to get back to your specific query in terms of how it is unfair, one has to consider the history of Assam, and if you talk about the political history of Assam we do have to go back to the Assam Movement. NRC in itself didn’t fall off from the sky. It was a certain desire of a certain section of people and in this case, in Assam, it is the Assamese nationalists who wanted a certain kind of society, culture, language to be embedded (with)in its political boundary. 

And, so this Assamese nationalism demanded something like NRC. The soul of NRC is to be located in Assamese nationalism, framed with a very distinct idea of belonging – who belongs to Assam, who is an Assamese, who is not, who is an outsider, and who is illegal. So, this history of Assamese nationalism that defined different measurements of culture, identity, language is solely responsible for having NRC in the first place. 

You see the different kinds of hatred towards outsiders, the stigma that is carried against the outsiders. “Bangladeshi” here in the majority are Muslim Bengalis. So, you see a kind of gaze being constructed around this foreigner that finds legitimate expression through NRC. And this NRC in a way then legitimizes the kind of hatred, the kind of stigma that is present within Assamese nationalism. And this is the root of all evil. 

The philosophy of bias then gets legitimized through something like the NRC machine, which is operated by different levels of bureaucracy. At each level, we see a penetration of that kind of sentiment which these officers share. There are of course a lot of sympathizers to that kind of imagination of society and culture and language. If someone from Barak Valley or Muslim-dominated districts go and file an application for NRC process or appears before the judge in a Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) — the moment you see and identify that one is a Bengali and one is a Muslim, there is a certain stigma already attached. This system then becomes automatically a machine that differentiates people and distinguishes people.

Now, oftentimes we hear that people who support NRC would say that NRC is a Supreme Court-mandated process. Yes, it is a Supreme Court-mandated process, but that does not take away the fact that it is a legitimate expression of Assamese nationalism which is biassed towards a certain section of people. I think that this is crucial in terms of how we frame, understand or even explain the bias that is inherent in the NRC process.

SV: A lot of Assamese scholars and those who are in favour of NRC point out that the mainland perspective on NRC is very flawed. One of the arguments is that there is an inherent difference between mainland scholarship and Assamese scholarship. That this “mainland” scholarship while talking about Assamese nationalism, even ethnonationalism, refuses to understand the genuine fears of the Assamese people and the fear of erasure of their identity and history and politics, of being linguistically, politically marginalized. 

SG: This is a very pertinent concern that sympathizers of Assamese nationalism share and I personally stand against this binary. I don’t think that there is any rational and reasonable basis on which these arguments are made. Let me try to show how this whole assertion and complaint of Assamese intellectual discourse points to that sort of argument.

To start with, we often come across a very typical argument that people accuse us academics [of not being] grounded enough, your data doesn’t speak of the ground realities. If we are saying that you are being xenophobic, you are chauvinistic then they would respond by saying that, no, you don’t understand us. There is this often-quoted statement that you don’t understand our emotions, you don’t understand our grounds.  

In terms of settler colonialism, one of the other presuppositions is that it is not an event. It is more of a structural issue: along with sovereignty, they want to assert control over the land.First, they resort to something called “settler colonialism”. Bengali peasants settled in different parts of the Brahmaputra Valley in the early decades of the 20th Century and this didn’t happen in a decade. The migration pattern is spread out. Now the Assamese nationalists often suggest that these people are settler colonialists. Now, the very premise of settler colonialism assumes or rather presupposes two things if not more: that, they are powerful – the settlers – and that they come with an intent of capturing the land and they assert their independence or sovereignty in those lands. Second, in terms of settler colonialism, one of the other presuppositions is that it is not an event. It is more of a structural issue: along with sovereignty, they want to assert control over the land.

Now, if you look at the kind of settlements that took place in Assam, strictly speaking in terms of Bengali peasants, it was neither [of the above]. They have never asserted sovereignty nor have they  tried to own legal control over the lands they cultivated. And these people who migrated, if you look at their profile – they are and were the social underclass. They migrated from erstwhile East Bengal which was then part of India for various reasons. And at that point of time, Bengal had the Zamindari System, Assam had a different kind of land regulation, which was thought to be less exploitative. There was also, of course, a lot of political interest in settling these people or rather allowing the settlement in the Brahmaputra Valley. But, at the same time, these were poor and landless peasants. So, they certainly didn’t have any power in terms of their assertion on land or political assertions of other kinds.

If you look at the areas of their settlement which are in Assamese known as Char Chaporis, these are riverine areas in the Brahmaputra Valley. If you look at the composition of these areas, they are constantly flooded areas and they keep shifting and changing with every flood and the Brahmaputra is a river known for its floods  multiple times in a year. Most of these areas have never been surveyed by the government. There is no revenue survey done on these areas, there are no land documents of these areas. How can settler colonialism function when there are no land documents for most of these places where these so-called settlers settled or cultivated? This is one of the first myths Assamese intelligentsia tried to build over time and this is not just the current intellectual discourse that we find. This was seen from historians who were trying to re-write Assamese history through the lens of Ahom history from the early decades of the 20th Century.

That sort of an intellectual tradition is inherited by a lot of writers in Assam today. For me, they have been very dishonest with the kind of history. This dishonesty is also seen in terms of how they blur and also romanticize the identity of the indigenous. Romanticism for me, as many authors have pointed out, is also when someone ignores the internal differences and internal hierarchies that exist in our society. It is written in almost all kinds of critical writings on Assam, be it history, in political science, sociology, one of the main characters of Assamese identity is that it is highly driven by a particular middle class who are upper caste. So often you see this statement by caste Assamese middle class. That this identity is being preserved is hidden by this intellectual class in asserting a certain kind of indigenous identity, a kind of ‘son of the soil’ identity where they tried to glorify a society that we find here in indigenous terms, where all other diversities that make up Assamese political, cultural landscape gets erased in the process. At the same time, the domination of a particular class and caste of people within Assam remains, which this intellectual class have tried very hard to hide.

We remain critical of the gaze of the Indian State and the “mainland” about the region, of the racial gaze on the region, it should remain a point of critical enquiry and criticism.There is no denying that this whole argument about how mainland India or the mainland gaze on a large section of literature or society on North-East remains problematic. How even the Indian State has treated the region also remains deeply problematic and divided. People like Bimol Akoijam and Prasenjit Biswas have written about this ‘exceptionality’ of North-Eastern India. We remain critical of the gaze of the Indian State and the “mainland” about the region, of the racial gaze on the region, it should remain a point of critical enquiry and criticism. But at the same time, the dishonesty of the intellectual class in hiding their own domination, their own hegemony and also presenting a very sanitized history remains problematic. 

SV: Can we quickly move to this idea of procedural violence and institutional violence? You have written quite extensively about this. I was wondering if you could walk us through the nature of institutional violence and procedural violence but also in relation to the detention camps that are coming – and that have already come up in Assam.

SG: There are a couple of institutions that are crucial to the NRC process for its functioning. One is the Foreigners’ Tribunals, the other is the institution of the Border Police and then, of course, you have the main NRC itself and the detention centers. If we talk about procedural violence, all these four institutions become crucial in terms of understanding how an illegal body is identified.

The first kind of violence is to be located in terms of forcing people to prove their citizenship. It is the first instance because one is made to undergo a whole lot of paperwork on their own and there is no support of any kind until the state came up with a list of guidelines after the final list was published on 31 August last year, saying that they will provide legal aid. But, before that, people were on their own and there are a lot of illiterate people and this is a rather cumbersome process […]. 

Forget about finding the document, just the file, to come and submit itself is an uphill task. If for some reason there is a mistake in the document, then you get notified. That correction procedure takes another new journey. When you are being notified by the Foreigner’s Tribunals, there’s a hearing of your case and people are made to travel almost 400-500 kilometers on a notice period of 24 hours or 48 hours. Last year there were a couple of road accidents of people traveling to present themselves in these cases. And close to 68,000 ex-parte judgements were made and these people were declared foreigners when they were not there to defend themselves. This kind of impatience on the part of the State signals a lot of within the system, but, at the same time, people have been thrown everywhere to just run around for a piece of paper to prove their identity.

The other thing related to that is violence in terms of how people are deeply affected by it psychologically and the number of suicides that have taken place in the last 2-3 years in Assam. People are being made to undergo so much pain that they have decided to kill themselves. If you look into the cases of suicides, there are of different kinds. It’s not only people who are victims of NRC process, those who are not able to prove their identity, those declared as a foreigner or were in an uncertain limbo, and they decided to kill themselves.

The third kind of violation are people who are detained and kept in the detention centers as you pointed out. And they are being subjected to more than inhuman treatment in these centers and there is no aid of any kind and they have been kept away from their families, from their kids. There were a couple of cases where both the newborn and the mother had to be in detention, kept away from the family. So far, if I am not mistaken, there have been over 25 cases of deaths in detention

These cases have only increased over time and in a couple of cases there were families who refused to receive the dead bodies. In at least three cases the families refused to receive their dead because they were declared as a Bangladeshi or a foreigner, unless and until the State declared them as Indian. 

And I think in one case [Dulala Chandra Das], two Ministers from the State ensured that they will do everything to handle the case and see that the person was declared as Indian and only after this, the family accepted the body.

This kind of posthumous citizenship is not something new and it can go a long way in healing the pain of these victims and their families. Israel in 1985 gave posthumous citizenship to 6 million Jews and there are lots of cases of posthumous citizenship being granted to undocumented soldiers who either suffer death or any kind of serious injuries in the war in America. So, we can certainly sort of talk about the possibilities of posthumous citizenship at least in the context of NRC where these people are severely undergoing different kinds of trauma.

So, this procedural violence then can be located through these different institutions which refuse to hear the pain of these people and have remained very problematic. I have come across a case where Ratan (name changed) defended his case seven times in the FT and each time he could prove he was not “an illegal”. So, these cases keep bouncing back and there is no accountability whatsoever and people are made to run from pillar to post and spend so much money. The kind of expenditure that was made just to become a citizen just in Assam is just mind-blowing. 

This speaks volumes about the manner in which people are reduced to these documents as if there is just nothing more to life than proving one’s identity.I remember this particular image of a Muslim man who was trying to dry his papers in a flood relief camp in Bodoland, and that image was very gripping because oftentimes you see people leaving their home, trying to guard their cattle, their grain and maybe some other valuable things while staying in the relief camp till the flood water recedes. But in this case, there is no such thing. This person was grabbing the documents and was laying them out in the open to dry. This speaks volumes about the manner in which people are reduced to these documents as if there is just nothing more to life than proving one’s identity. What can that sort of a mentality suggest, in terms of one’s urge or one’s love to belong to a particular place than to suffer in terms of how these papers have taken over their lives? That’s a proof of a kind of nationalism. That is the highest kind of proof that one can have in terms of a citizen, how they relate to a place.

SV: But it is also a deep fear of annihilation.

SG: Yes.

SV: What does the NRC exercise in your opinion and of course the recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)  mean for the ideas of citizenship? For many in India this is also a moment that precedes absolute annihilation. Absolutely manufacturing a class of stateless people. Talk to us about this idea of citizenship after NRC, after the Citizenship Amendment Act.

SG: I mean it’s kind of ironic. It’s often being said that South Asia is the graveyard of social theory where all kinds of analysis fall apart. But it now appears that Assam is the graveyard of Indian citizenship and democracy. There is a very organic link between NRC and CAA. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) 2016 was primarily introduced to accommodate the Hindu “Bangladeshis” who could have been left out of the NRC process. So, you can see that the main intention of CAB was then to accommodate these people who belong to a particular religious group within the so-called illegal citizens, illegal people

Now, the Indian State wants to conduct an all India NRC, but right now they are calling it National Population Register (NPR). They are trying to push this idea that this is not the NRC. But there are a lot of similarities. If we go back to 1951 NRC, NPR is just a documentation of people in various districts in India. While this seems like a census, this will become the basis of a full-fledged NRC at some point.

Now, if I may digress a little bit before I come back to your question. Here I am just speculating why 1951 became the base year for NRC, why not any other year? And I started looking for reasons because you can see a lot of assertions being made by different actors and institutions even to push the Assam NRC date to 1826 when the Treaty of Yandabo was signed and formally the British came into the North East. So, why not, say, for instance, 1901 or 1921? I think the rationale for 1951 NRC is that 1951 becomes a base year for NRC and the rationale is to be found in the Census of India — the way census changed in India.

There is a very interesting study by a  scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who wrote a dissertation in 1977 – Neelufar Ahmed. Ahmed talks about the problems of the census data. And the study by Ahmed was between 1891-1931. Now, there are a couple of problems. To start with, back then districts were the smallest unit of measure in the census and districts were quite huge at that point of time. There were only ten districts in Assam in 1891. The second problem associated with the bigger districts has to do with how many states were carved out of Assam – Meghalaya and a couple of other states. So, a lot of shifting of boundaries and districts – not only district boundaries but also state boundaries took place. The third problem Ahmed points out is that only in-migration could be documented. So, place of birth of a person was never documented in census earlier on so out-migration then is not possible to be located within these data. And, the fourth problem associated with the census till 1931 is that the motive of the migrant was not listed. Now, these four things combined pose a problem. So, until 1931 these problems remained and for me, this is crucial for understanding why the year cannot be pushed before 1951. And now there is an associated problem along with this. The other crucial thing to note here is that the nature of census also underwent a change For the first time in 1941, we see that the census started documenting certain changes within these four things I spoke about. There was a lot of reorganization within the State while migration flows were increasing into Assam.

Earlier a lot of migrants were mostly settling in places like Goalpara district and its adjoining areas but that changed later on. It’s very interesting to note that a term like ‘invasion’ was used not to designate migrants coming outside the State, rather to designate migration within districts. So, you see how this outlook changes. Or rather, this outlook, which is usually now attached to so-called illegal migrants, was not really to designate that intent. It was not used with that intent in the census but then it became something else. It is not possible to push beyond 1951 precisely because prior to 1931 you cannot tell who migrated from where. So, that is precisely one of the reasons why 1951 became the base year because in 1941 there is a problem and because of war the census remained incomplete in India. So, the kind of data that is required is not available throughout India and most likely it also did affect Assam in many ways.

This is mere speculation on my part to look at why one is unable to push the base year beyond 1951. But then, this carries a lot of implications in terms of nationwide NRC. NIf 1951 is the base for Assam then what will be the base for India or if at all will there be a time-frame given for the rest of India like it was in the case of Assam between 1951 and 1971?

What remains crucial is that this becomes like our ex-Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi pointed out that NRC is a future document. This becomes a reference for future NRC in an all-India scale. And this again for me is very problematic and like you said, we are underwriting our own annihilation in the process and whether we participate in this process or not is a different thing.  that whole poem that goes around – kaghaz nahi dikhayenge, but to not be able to show, I mean that itself carries a lot of weight. 

SV: And privilege of caste and class…

SG: Yes exactly. To not show implies that you have the document whereas there are large sections of people who do not have it and that in no way suggests that they are illegal or it is just that we have migrated so much. Our entire labor class, the social underclass that we find in cities in India have migrated from different rural areas in India and like Ashish Nandy puts it, in these ambiguous journeys people have made there was no culture of preserving documents and we were never told that after 7-8 decades of Independence one will be asked to prove one’s belonging. I think this is the pinnacle of humiliation one can undergo –to be told to prove that you don’t belong here after having lived here for so many years.

SV: Also, the basis that all those who reside within the territorial borders of India are assumed illegal before proof also goes against the fundamental positionality of what a secular constitution is. Having said that, I want to go on to this idea again of characterizing the NRC as a very exceptional or a totalitarian nightmare but in reality, it is neither exceptional or totalitarian, but something which has a  long history. Can you speak to us about this nature of unexceptional but ongoing violence of what the NRC and these institutional bodies have inflicted on the people of Assam and now throughout India? 

SG: Let me start with an example from my hometown, Sadiya, in the easternmost part of Assam. I have come across a couple of families during my doctoral fieldwork who are currently Muslims. They write usual titles like Ali, Khan, so on. And then, I have also met a set of people, a couple of families, who write typical “Assamese” surnames like Dutta, Baruah and others. Now during the NRC verification process, it has come to light that their [respective] ancestors who were living in Sadiya belong to the opposite religions. The people who are now Muslims were caste Assamese, and the people who aren’t, who are Assamese right now, were actually Muslim Bengalis. Now, these people, particularly the ones who are Assamese and were Muslims earlier on, have come to face if not ostracization, but avoidance from a lot of people knowing that they were Muslims.

Now you see, NRC has opened up these unnecessary wounds. The very fact of people having to change their cultural identity, even religious identity in Assam, at the face of different kinds of nationalistic oppositions from different actors, was highlighted by a lot of commentators and reporters back in the days of Assam Movement and one of them is the very brave Nirupama Borgohain, who suffered a lot at the hands of the nationalists. She pointed out during her reportage that many Bengali families converted to Assamese and have given up their language, their culture so that they could remain safe. Does this sound familiar to the kind of fascist onslaught we see from Gujarat or even Uttar Pradesh (UP)? This is an extremely problematic and deeply traumatizing development.

A lot of research has shown how there was an increase in the ghettoization of people in UP after Ayodhya, which wasn’t so apparent before Ayodhya. Something very similar is happening here; of course it’s not replicated in this same manner, but the history of Assamese nationalism shows that this kind of animosity between different religious and cultural and linguistic groups has led to very traumatic experiences for the minorities in the State. If we speak about the Nellie Massacre in Assam where thousands of people – the official numbers say stands at 2,000 but the unofficial count goes up to few more thousands – were killed not with guns but with knives and other kinds of spears. And this happened at the peak hour of the Assam Movement and who is responsible for this? All the leaders including Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and the Assam Sahitya Sabha – the cultural, literary body in Assam – tried to absolve themselves of this whole heinous act of murder and annihilation of people. These people who were targeted belong to a particular community and there is no denying that this kind of wounds will certainly be opened up and the NRC process has antagonized a lot of people and woken up lot of ethno-nationalist sentiments particularly with the Citizenship Amendment Act protest we see in Assam. It’s deeply disturbing for many of us, people often say that the protest in North East or Assam is very different from rest of India. But before we go into that, one should really look into the nature of protest that is happening in the North East.

I have been to a couple of public protests and to see how they are organized and what I saw was deeply troublesome. It was worrying to see how hate has become respectable in our society and hate for the outsider was sold out like commodities by these artists in Assam. And I think with the CAA protest, a whole new generation of students – particularly students and younger generations in Assam and in the North East – are being baptized by the same kind of leadership, the same kind of regressive leadership that led the Assam Movement. The new generation is being baptized with the same kind of politics, to hate the outsider, and this is deeply problematic. 

And even if you look into the aesthetics of the protests here, it’s so powerful. There are a lot of videos where young students from schools and colleges were cutting their own arm and with the blood they were writing different anti-CAA posters into papers, into the gamacha – the cloth that you see with red borders and white background. And this invocation of blood and soil is very powerful and problematic at the same time. It remains very problematic in terms of the discourse it appeals to and that discourse is definitely one of martyrdom and that martyr discourse then easily slips into the discourse of violence.  

Oftentimes you hear that the protest is different from mainland India and how it is organized here. They tend to say that we are very secular here, in a sense they are saying that we don’t want both Muslims and Hindus and that’s why we are secular. I think this is the very limited understanding of what is secular and what is communal. I mean the understanding of secularism is not only premised on religious grounds, such outlook for me lacks an appreciation of cultural diversity and history.

SV: There has been a lot of complaints from Assam, especially from a generation of young scholars, activists saying how mainstream India does not document or report on these protests properly. For example, there has been immense violence on the protesters, there has been an imposition of curfew,  five protesters have been shot dead in Assam, there is teargas, there is lathi charge, activist Akhil Gogoi has been arrested. Do you feel that there is a protest movement that is happening that can actually be one that is not baptized by hate? Does that possibility still exist? What do you think about that or do you think all of these protests are coloured by a certain sense of Assamese nationalism?

SG: I haven’t seen anything but hate, this kind of colouring is far too powerful and that is the dominant discourse. We are forever trapped in the discourse of the Assam Movement and a new set of people are now followers of that discourse. And to give you an example, the artists’ society has come out and is leading the protest in Assam. One of the usual slogans used in protests, roughly translated, says — ‘O come out! Please everyone come out! Let’s go chase the Bangladeshi!’ This keeps on reverberating and being used everywhere. These are some of the lyrics of the song and there is much more problematic stuff in it. So, this kind of discourse is very powerful and sediments hate for the outsiders, in this case the “Bangladeshi.” As of now  I don’t see any kind of protest that is outside this discourse; this is not to say that there isn’t a possibility outside this discourse. I do have hope that there is a possibility beyond this dominant and ethno-nationalist discourse because we have had a lot of intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s who tried to appeal to people and did write different kinds of material – be it songs, be it music, be it plays, which spoke of a multilingual, multicultural Assam, I am referring to people like Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bishnu Rabha who did accommodate everyone to talk about a cultural identity, a linguistic identity.In their articulations we find a celebration of a culture which is invested in beauty. One needs to really critically engage with that sort of cultural philosophy and possibilities can come from people such as them, who are considered as cultural icons in Assam, but the way they are being appropriated creates a sensation of ethnonationalism (invoked through their writings) and sanitizes the kind of multicultural accommodative politics they spoke of.

And to your last point about misreporting and underreporting, it is true to a large extent and I would also like to add that this underreporting is not just in the case of protests, but it is a general practice or experience. This underrepresentation is not just in the media, but also in terms of intellectual practice. The histories of people, culture, society and language of North East never find mention in any curriculum in schools in India and even if they do, it’s perhaps very recent or just in passing.

So, these problems are more structural. They are inherent not just in terms of how the media reports them but are present in different ways, bringing about a problem in understanding and explaining the whole North East.

Lastly, what I have tried to highlight in my writings is that we need to be critical about how we are being looked at or understood, written about, by people from the outside, but, at the same time, it’s also very cynical and childish to assume that someone who does not belong to the North East cannot understand the concerns and commitments of the people here. At the same time, we need to be critical about our culture and society and how we look at the minorities in Assam or in the North East and I am not talking about minorities in terms of who is seen as a “foreigner,” but I am also talking about minorities in terms of different tribal groups, different indigenous groups who are not in that power structure, who do not command that kind of power in the different states in the North East. This focus is very necessary and not just a complaint on how we are thought of, imagined and written from the outside, but that internal difference and distinctions are also necessary to be highlighted if we think of critical scholarship in the future.


(The transcript of this podcast has been edited for readability)

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