Autumn Number 2019

Assam's Bankrupt Left

The Assam Question and the Left

Arup Baisya

The current dominant political discourse in Assam is revolving around the citizenship question. The citizenship problem in Assam has a convoluted history and is related to demographic changes due to migration. The citizenship question in Assam is intertwined with linguistic identity. The question of language plays a pivotal role in the dynamics of power politics. In the spatio-temporal dimension of Assam politics, the intermingling of the characteristics of migration and language prepares the ground for citizenship conundrum.

The linguistic assimilation in Assam through social interaction was hamstrung by the perverted path of capitalist development under the colonial and post-colonial rule. There is historical evidence of the presence of Muslim inhabitants in the present day lower-Assam before the advent of Ahoms into Assam in 1228. This was the time of 'Charyapada' and the people of that period cannot be identified with any modern linguistic identity. So the concept of aboriginal or Khilonjiya in local Axomiya parlance is the modern political vocabulary that has emerged to create 'other' in this geopolitical space of Assam. Being a contiguous geographical landscape of today's lower Assam and Bangladesh, the settlement of people from densely populated agricultural present-day Bangladesh into land-abundant low-lying submerged plains of lower-Assam was a natural phenomenon. The poor peasant and fishermen who roamed over the whole landscape could find it beneficial to settle in the upland of submerged plains of lower Assam. After colonial Annexation of Assam in 1826, the British allured the Bengali Muslim poor peasants of present-day Bangladesh to migrate and settle in land-abundant plains of Assam to earn revenue from agricultural production. These Bengali-Muslim peasants were hard-working and had the skill in agricultural production in low-lying submerged land; the local tribals lacked both the characteristics. The peasants were flocking to the Brahmaputra valley in large numbers, in order to settle down on its beckoning wasteland for livelihood and to free themselves from Zamindari oppression in Bengal.

The British later introduced Line System in Lower Assam and inner-line permit system in upper Assam to ensure their administrative control for super-exploitation and drainage of natural resources, agricultural economy and tea production. The Chinese and local tribal workers who were initially engaged in tea-production were extricated because of their rebellious attitude against the almost slave-like exploitation in tea-enclaves. The native language which was suitable for the British administration at that time was Bengali. The English educated Bengali middle class especially from erstwhile Sylhet district occupied the clerical jobs of various departments when the departmental head-quarters were established in Sylhet which was part of Assam. So the colonial British ruler imposed Bengali as the official language in 1836 and treated Assamese as the dialect of Bengali. This measure caused immense disruption in the process of linguistic assimilation through social interaction and hindered the capitalist development from below through surplus-accumulation and drainage. At the hindsight, one can safely conclude that in the absence of British subjugation, Assam could have witnessed the desired linguistic assimilation in an independent market economy that could have emerged in a landscape which was resourceful both in terms of labour and nature.

The line system which was responsible for spatial division of the landscape on the basis of linguistic community and for colonisation of the Bengali-settlers in a low-lying flood-prone areas was suitable for the domination of the colonial rulers at the time when the Quit India movement was at its peak and the militant peasant struggle on the basis of Hindu-Muslim unity was resurgent. The colonial rulers then sided with the Assamese ruling class to defend the continuation of line system which the hard-working Bengali peasantry was opposing. The position on the question of line system took a class-community dimension. The Assamese ruling class and the colonial rulers found them in the same camp as strange bed-fellows. The apotheosis of this new alignment of forces was the introduction of Assamese as the official language and the official declaration in favour of forced assimilation into Assamese nationality by accepting common language and culture in 1936. The birth of a new nationalism was thus marked by the backing of the imperialist and was pitted against the toiling masses that were linguistically and culturally considered as alien. The reactionary class dimension of Assamese nationalism was thus fixed in the garb of history at its birth. The progressive voices of English educated Assamese intellectuals were thus subdued in the social dynamics of Assam's migration politics. This reactionary trend of Assamese nationalist politics was accentuated, mutatis mutandis, during the historical events and social churning of independence and post-independence period.

The next massive disruption in the process of linguistic assimilation occurred due to partition and the industrialisation policy of independent India to drain out surpluses from Assam's natural resources. The large scale anti-Muslim riot that broke out in lower Assam during partition forced the Bengali Muslim peasant to cross the border and take refuge in newly constituted Pakistan state. A large number of Bengali Hindu refugees came to India as partition-victims, but a small percentage of them settled in Brahmaputra valley. The lakhs of people who left Assam during the trouble-torn period of partition returned to their abode on the basis of Nehru-Liyakat Pact. But their return was not welcomed by the Assamese landed gentry and the dependent Bourgeois class and their political leadership who generated anti-Muslim passion within the Assamese peasantry who had the petty-bourgeois desire of getting the ownership of land which was developed into fertile productive land by the Bengali Muslims peasants through their skilled and intense challenging labour. These immigrants faced a lot of hindrances and harassment from the independent Assam administration and were treated as aliens in the Assamese society. The massive riots in the fifties and riots before and after every census were spearheaded for coercive inclusion of them as marginalised and submissive people into the fold of Assamese hegemony. All the Bengali schools in lower Assam were demolished. The Muslim peasantry who are called Na-Axomiya identified themselves in the Census of 1950 as Axomiya. They changed their identity without much resistance because the livelihood issue was more important for the poor peasants who were left leaderless by the migration of influential Muslim families to East Pakistan, than their identity question.

This was the turning point when the anti-immigrant and anti-Bengali Assamese psyche in the form of inchoate social discourse had transformed into a chauvinist political force who took charge in the independent Assam as regional satraps. The ruling class of Delhi found it convenient to pander this chauvinist regional force to ensure their writ over this land and economic exploitation.

After the submission of the Bengali Muslims, the next target was the Bengali Hindus who were in a dominant position in Government jobs due to the policy followed by the British for a long time. These Bengali Hindus were forcefully displaced from the public space of job-market in the massive language riots in the 1960s. Post-language riot, many Bengali middle-class families migrated to West Bengal in search of a safe social life. The Assamese regional ruling class treaded this bloody path of coercive assimilation and domination because of their weakness as inchoate Bourgeois class who were not in a position to establish their hegemony over the larger indigenous Assamese society and their dependence on the Indian ruling class who were in control of the regional market which was developed through colonial and post-colonial perverted path of capitalism. The Indian ruling class always pandered this Assamese psyche to keep the regional forces in good humour and this political arrangement is continuing till today, albeit in changed socio-economic circumstances.

The Bangladesh liberation war which caused lakhs of Bengali Hindu refugee to take shelter in India had once again made the Assamese ruling class apprehensive of losing their majority position. But at that time, the migrants were sheltered in refugee camps and the majority of them were returned to Bangladesh on the basis of Indira-Mujib pact. A small section of the Bengali Hindu migrants came to Assam and those who had not returned were rehabilitated in many parts of the country.

The Assam movement in the 1980s was the zenith of the political turmoil that was initiated in the garb of post-partition politics. The forced assimilation of the minorities is always an Achilles heel for the Assamese domination in the state's helm of affairs, because the Assamese leadership is always apprehensive that the minorities may claim the share of political power at a time when the social balance of forces is favourable to them, and to achieve that goal, they may even go out of the fold of Assamese nationality. The UMF and AIDUF phenomena are examples of such minority assertion. This politics of numerical majoritarianism is anathema to democratic dialogue and social interaction. Bereft of that, the only option left for the Assamese ruling class to ensure their regional political hegemony is to establish their numerical strength by deporting the Bengalis. Initially, the student movement in Assam was started on the demand for regional development and regional power. But soon it transformed into anti-Bengali movement under the patronage of Assamese ruling class in tow with the Indian ruling class. The Rashtriya-swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) was active within the movement surreptitiously and could successfully fan communal passion from within. The majoritarian politics of Assamese domination simultaneously translates the anti-Bengali and anti-Muslim sentiment into an intertwined political agenda. In 1983 when the Assam movement was at its peak, Assam witnessed the anti-Muslim genocide in Nellie and anti-Namasudra riot in Shilapathar. The imagined enemy was meticulously built in Assamese psyche through statistical jugglery to propagate the story of continuous migration as a part of the conspiracy of Bengali expansionism. The Assamese peasantry and tribals were mobilised behind the ruling class by appealing to their petty-bourgeois desire of grabbing the land of the minorities and for a "Sonar Assam" which would be the land only for Assamese to live in prosperity and happiness, and they were pitted against the minorities as frenzied mob to torch minority villages with clandestine support from police administration. This tormentous phase of Assam's history ended with the Assam Accord in 1985.

The Assam movement was launched in the backdrop of a growing peasant struggle under the leadership of various left organisations. The Naxalbari peasant uprising was also a source of inspiration behind the rising peasant struggle in Assam in the 1970s. The chauvinist Assam movement disrupted this peasant struggle to stall the process of democratisation of Assamese society. When the left nationalist argues that the left leadership in the peasant struggle in the 1970s failed to address the nationalist aspirations of Assamese linguistic identity and that is why the peasant masses could be successfully pursued to bring them to the chauvinist fold, they actually miss the class dynamics of Assamese nationality question. Why the Assamese bourgeois class and the political leadership did not consider the peasant movement as an opportunity to flex the Assamese nationalist muscle for devolution of more power to the state to serve the regional interest and hegemonic control? The answer to this question lies in the nature of the Assamese ruling class who epitomises the nationality politics which took shape in the garb of colonial power in the 1920s & 1930s and later under the patronage of Indian ruling class.

The left forces from RCPI in the pre-independence period to CPIM in the 1970-80s never identified the chauvinist character of Assamese nationalist politics and did not theoretically formulate any programme against chauvinism to ensure the assertion of toiling masses and their victory. During Assam movement too, CPIM and other parliamentary left considered it as a reactionary aberration of people's movement, though they stood firm against the minority bashing. But later they internalised the left-nationalist argument. Some Naxalite groups even considered post-Assam Accord ULFA experiment as the militant assertion of a marginalised nationality and underestimated the chauvinist character of their agenda to annihilate the diversity in Assam to create a monolithic Assamese identity through coercive means. The inchoate Assamese Bourgeois class which failed to establish their hegemony over the Assamese society and to promote assimilation through social interaction and market forces always treads the path of coercion and violence against the other linguistic groups. The PCC CPI(ML) attempted to combine the democratic content of the AASU movement in its formative stage with peasant question to formulate a democratic revolutionary agenda. But in the eighties, the peasants had already started losing their class power for agrarian revolution due to the changing dynamics of the social relation of production that had taken roots in the agricultural economy, and the strength of democratic Assamese intellectual class was too weak to give the society a democratic mooring. As the parliamentary and practising left never had a theoretical position and agenda against the Assamese chauvinism and never built a sustained dispassionate critique against the chauvinist politics, the intellectual section of the left and the Assamese left leadership shifted their allegiance according to the vicissitude of political discourse and the dominant trend.

After a long phase of dirigiste development model, the 1980s was the beginning of a new phase of global capitalism under which India also started following the structural adjustment programme which was officially accepted in 1991 as reform process. In this scheme of neo-liberal reform, the class power of the old Assamese proto-bourgeoisie further eroded. The new classes started emerging in the social spectrum. At the one end of the social spectrum, there are class of people who benefited from privatisation and disinvestment, commissions from opening up of economy to national and global private players, sub-contracting of construction work in infrastructure investment, the commission from land acquisition and plundering of natural resources and this class as new regional ruling class is firmly embedded in the global chain of financial capital and the Indian compradors. On the other end, there is a meteoric rise of wage labourers who are uprooted from the agricultural economy due to agricultural distress, eviction for accumulation through dispossession and capitalist penetration. In the initial phase of the neo-liberal economic drive, there was a rise of the middle-income group and intellectual working class whose deteriorating status and their agony now becomes evident due to the deep-rooted systemic crisis of capitalism. All these classes intermingle in the market place cutting across community affiliations and that influences their worldview to be modern from the primordial chauvinist outlook. They find no solution to their angst and agony in the chauvinist project. The change of social relation of production in the rural landscape has also changed the peasant masses that were amenable to be a frenzied mass in the chauvinist call for deportation of so-called illegal migrants. The Assamese Nationality is also gripped with the symptom of fatigue due to long drawn out failed experiments of the chauvinist project of deportation of migrants from Assam. In this backdrop, the politics behind NRC, citizenship Bill, etc needs to be looked into.

The Assamese chauvinist as the social force has lost their vital energy and mass mobilising ability due to the change in social relation of production as well as the fatigue that sets in by the repetition of same anti-migrant anti-minority political vocabulary for a long period. At the national level, the absolute control of central power is established by a politically homogenous entity which advocates the most reactionary reconstruction of national pride and that force is in a position to shape the ruling political discourse in Assam both from below and above. In the eighties, RSS was acting clandestinely to influence the Assam chauvinist movement in the anti-Muslim communal line. But this time, the RSS and Sangh Parivar set the agenda of chauvinists and establish the ideological control through their meticulously planned organisational and propaganda machinery. They have the entire wherewithal and the state backing to lead their plan of action to fruition, as the state has completely arrogated the communal-chauvinist politics. Much before the beginning of NRC process in Assam, the Hindutwa forces launched a massive campaign on the exaggerated version of Bengali Hindu atrocities in Bangladesh and their declining population in Bangladesh through their concocted stories and statistical jugglery. This propaganda blitzkrieg gave its intended result in favour of Sangh Parivar to occupy the driving seat of both communal and chauvinist politics in Assam simultaneously. It pandered the communal instinct and partition-memory in the Bengali Hindu psyche and instigated the Assamese chauvinist apprehension of becoming minority due to alleged continuous influx of Bangladeshis. The two instruments of NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) were projected in such a way in the political discourse that these added ammunitions to the arsenal of chauvinist and communal forces. NRC is for the exclusion of Bengali Muslim infiltrators and the CAB is for the inclusion of Bengali Hindu migrants. This is the trajectory designed and propelled by the Sangh Parivar to bring the section of Assamese left, left nationalist and the chauvinist in the same camp.

The CAB is opposed by the all progressive forces on the ground that this is communal and anti-constitutional. But the Assamese intellectual stalwart and left nationalist Dr Hiren Gohain guiding the anti-CAB movement argued that CAB should be opposed as its implementation would facilitate the migration of all the Bangladeshi Hindu to settle in Assam. The idea he adumbrated and his vociferous claim to exclude lakhs of people from NRC justified the RSS propaganda of rising Islamic fundamentalism in this sub-continent, especially in Bangladesh. The parliamentary left and the Assamese leaders with left leanings preferred to join the anti-CAB movement of the nationalist and chauvinist force with a misconstrued notion of combating the BJP with Assamese nationalism. The left became befuddled because of their credulity to believe that the Assamese nationality has the class power to challenge the Delhi's writ. The polemics on chauvinism within the parliamentary left circle in the eighties when they stood firm against the Assam movement was never more than hieroglyphics in nature. The left never conceded the fact that Assamese nationalism is inherently chauvinist right from its birth because of its tendency to suppress the cultural diversities within the national identity and to surrender to Indian ruling class to buy the status of regional satraps. This time when the regional political forces were heading towards complete decimation through the merger with most reactionary ultra-nationalist Sangh Parivar and when the AGP was sharing power with BJP at the state-Assembly, the state CPIM leader was pleading the AGP to take leadership of the anti-CAB movement for Assamese nationalism. Many other left forces in Assam had an almost similar position on Assamese nationalist movement. The befuddled left completed its full circle of bankruptcy from theoretical obscurity to the falling in the trap of communal-chauvinist stratagem. The inevitable had happened in pre-poll political realignment when both the pro and anti-CAB forces in the apparently separated camps of communalism and chauvinism joined BJP bandwagon.

Before the full-blown imbroglio of Assam's turmoil centering around NRC and CAB issues, Assam witnessed the vibrant and sporadic movement of a diverse section of the organised, unorganised and intellectual working class. Had the united left launched a movement against the undemocratic division of original (Khilonjiya) and non-original citizens in NRC process, the uncivilised imposition of onus of proof of citizenship on citizens themselves, the immense harassment of citizens especially the religious and linguistic minorities in the name of D-voters and detention camp, and stood firm against the centralisation of power and curtailment of working-class rights, the communal-chauvinist politics in Assam would have faced formidable challenge of people's movement this time. But instead of visualising the nationality question from a working-class perspective and challenging the reactionary middle-class perspective, the left and democratic forces missed the opportunity and succumbed to the machination of the Sangh Parivar and allowed the snowballing of the citizenship question in Assam into a dire humanitarian crisis. But everything is still not lost, the rapid disenchantment in Hindutwa politics will once again transform the objective reality for regaining the opportunity lost. The left and democratic forces should rapidly reconstruct their political discourse from a working-class perspective and build the mass organisational foundation that can be used by the toiling masses as their instrument to combat the onslaught of the state and to empower themselves.

Back to Home Page

Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019