Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fear of loss of identity: genesis and continuity of the violent civil war in Assam

When I was growing up in the Assam State Electricity Board's powerhouse township, 12 km from Kokrajhar town, I had little idea that a place as beautiful as this would some day see houses burning and dead bodies lying here and there, totally uncared for, all resulting out of an ethno-political clash between two groups - the Bodos and the non-Bodos, mainly comprising the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. I could never have imagined a community like the Bodos, among who I grew up and with who I have endless fond childhood memories, would someday become as violent as they have turned now; also become as helpless as they have become now. I studied in a school which also had a Bodo medium of instruction till the 10th standard, and I remember as a child speaking Bodo language with those kids and also sing Bodo songs and perform their folk dance. I don't know if all my Bodo childhood friends are still alive! I hope they live healthy!

I believe violence starts with fear: fear of death, fear of loss (of identity), fear coming out of distrust and fear coming out of insecurity. As a child I remember seeing this fear grow, among the Bodos who had already started disbelieving the greater Assamese mentality back then (1980s), which was largely degenerating and separatist - I have never seen an ordinary Assamese speaking person say that the Bodos are our predecessor in this land without adding the tag of 'adivasi' or 'uncivilized'! The Assamese already lost the plot by the 1980s, and could never ever penetrate the land, once they were ousted by the Bodo nationalist movement that started under the banner of ABSU under the leadership of Upen Brahma. This land ceased to be a land for Assamese, it became the land of the Bodos, and the separation of the two identities - the Assamese and the Bodos - was complete, if not politically, culturally for sure. "Bodo Asomiya Bhai Bhai" - the tagline remained only in popular songs, which people listened to only for the sake of the tune, rather than the lyrics!

The Assamese had their own fear of survival, at least in Kokrajhar and other regions where they were the minority. The militant nationalism of the ULFA was at its peak in the 80s and the 90s. I remember people talking about the ULFA only in whispers. One night my mother asked me what would I like to become when I grew up; and I shouted "ULFA"! That night, as mother revealed later, she couldn't sleep, not that she believed me (she would have probably laughed at my naive remark) but because she heard footsteps outside our house immediately after I shouted. This was the fear - not merely a fear of a mother losing her child, but a mother being uncertain and afraid of her son's generation when they grow up. Just imagine a child of 8-9 years getting romantic about an armed struggle against a whole nation! If this can be called the beginning of a culture of violence, then I believe, in Assam, there exists a culture of violence!

The clash of the Assamese identity was against the pan-Indian identity, a fear of survival against a much dominating and discriminating pan-Indian identity. The same fear got percolated to their brothers, the Bodos, but the Assamese failed to realize that they were themselves the reasons for the other's fear. Agonizingly the Bengalis, the second most dominating group in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon after the Bodos, played the Shakuni mama's role, by showing their full-fledged support to the Bodos against the Assamese. But they also had to face the same wrath ten years later.

The Bodos got constitutional autonomy after years of struggle, but lost peace and simplicity, which have been the backbone of their cultural identity through the ages. So, will I be wrong in believing that in order to achieve one form of identity, they have lost another, most important, form of identity? So, where is the justification of such a struggle? Unfortunately the struggle continues, because the fear continues; only the source of the fear is different every time. The Assamese and the Bengalis from north Bengal are no longer there in the scene, the new players are the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and almost in the entirety belonging to the Muslim faith.

As long as my understanding goes, the Bangladeshis are relatively new entrant in the social scenario of the Bodoland, especially in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra. At least in Kokrajhar district, there have never been a major community of Bangladeshi muslims; most of them may have migrated there in the last ten years or so! Is it possible for the Bodos, then, to have a fear of survival against them? Possibly no! The fear of survival will be definitely of the minority, that is the migrants! So, is it a kind of a superiority feleling of the Bodos, something similar that the Assamese had over the Bodos in the 80s and the 90s? It is a possibility, but only at a minuscule level! Is a culture of violence, then, responsible for this? It plays a major role; however that is not everything behind the scene.

The nature of the latest violence and the ethno-communal war has a more deep-rooted economico-political cause, the consequences of which will be far more dangerous and long-lasting and further more harmful for the Bodos whose original homeland is the land. No sensible person can deny that there has been gradually a change in a approach and group behaviour of the illegal immigrants over the last ten years. They are constitutionally protected by the IMDT act and they form a huge "ghost" vote bank of the ruling Congress government. They are protected, and this feeling of protection has brought in a certain kind of aggression in their social behaviour, in their interactions with other communities. The "legal" inhabitants are not yet ready to accept this newfound confidence among the Bangladeshis. Moreover, since the beginning of the colonial period, East Bengali farmers have been dominating the agricultural sector of the Brahmaputra valley, and now several other professions have become their way of living, by means of adaptation. The "local" population has started feeling deprived, however not realizing that they are only responsible for such deprivation. So, the fear continues, the same fear of survival, although in a new, economic sphere! A historical parellel can definitely be found in the Nazi fear against the jews before the second world war!

I think it is high time the Assam government acknowledges and the central government realizes that "illegal immigration is indeed a problem, and there are at least a crore, or even more, illegal immigrants in Assam. Chief Ministar Tarun Gogoi's constant cynical remarks that there are no Bangladeshis in Assam is actually becoming a joke. There should be no harm in assigning a refugee status to the Bangladeshis. In fact, that will solve many a problem that has already almost broken the backbone of the Assamese society, a society which was peace loving and welcoming until 20 years ago, a society which included each and every community living in the geographical region of the Brahmaputra valley, a society which was probably the only one in India that was given a political status of a state merely on the basis of geographical spheres rather than on linguistic boundaries.

The Assam of my childhood is entirely different from the Assam I see now. Probably the fear that my mother had on that fateful night has come true. Her son's generation, as she feared, is living a culture of violence, unlike the culture of peace that she lived!

1 comment:

Debanjan Mitra said...

Your attachment to the land has definitely added the perception which will be missing in me or those who haven't thrived there. What you have observed about the genesis of fear is so true. And as I see, it's ubiquitous; in action at a pan-India scale. It is perhaps the dichotomy of cosmopolitanism. A phenomena which is unfortunately defining and shaping our nation. It is happening in all the states, but perhaps at a subtle mode. There, the enmity has been regulated by the urge of a symbiotic survival. But we have seen sporadic manifestations of the brutality when a collective diversion/ manipulation of the mass cognition had occurred. Undoubtedly, it is through a percolation process. And that triggers the brutality, which perhaps more likely to be "manufactured and marketed" than "manifested".

What I mean to voice, is that, I absolutely agree with the note which you have made about the "culture of violence". And I want to add to it that it is ubiquitous, though at varying degree. We perhaps cannot deny the sense of "insecurity" and "fear" dwelling in every community, spatially speaking. And Assam doesn't stand alone. But when we observe the eruption in the form of brutality, I doubt that in how many cases are those spontaneous and willful, and in how many cases are those "crafted and manufactured" percolating from upper strata?