Monday, 30th October 2017

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Old anxieties of identity

BOOK REVIEW: This is a significant work that builds on and intervenes in the Assam debate by drawing on earlier works

By Hemjyoti Medhi
  • Published 31.01.20, 12:17 AM
  • Updated 31.01.20, 12:17 AM
  • 4 mins read
While Pisharoty carefully details the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh master plan in the Northeast, she is equally critical of the Congress who failed to implement the Assam Accord for more than three decades (File photo)

Between mid-November when I first started reading Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s Assam: The Accord, The Discord and late December 2019 as I write this, we have lived through days that bring back disturbing memories of the Assam Movement of the early 1980s. What started as a distant and faint shout-out of “Aah oi aah-olaai aah (come out one and all)”, echoing a song by the maestro, Bhupen Hazarika, in the run-up to the tabling of the citizenship (amendment) bill in the Lok Sabha on December 9, 2019, soon flared up into a statewide movement against the CAB with rallies, jor samadol and other peaceful modes of protest, only to be met with the imposition of Section 144, curfew and internet shutdown across the Brahmaputra valley. The protests that simultaneously started against the CAB (now Act) in Tripura and Assam as sporadic and leaderless agitated expressions of grievances, mostly by students, spread to the entire country by mid-December, causing the deaths of five students in Assam and more than 20 people across different states. And this is besides the people who have been detained, arrested, tortured, injured and maimed for life.

However, there is a crucial difference between the protests in Assam and Tripura in the Northeast and those of the rest of the country. This is where Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s book emerges almost as a prophetic intervention, explaining some of the key issues regarding the way Assam and the states in the Northeast look at the question of citizenship, as though through a prism that may easily, yet problematically, be dismissed as a “chauvinistic expression of regionalism” at best, and jingoism at worst. As we find ourselves in the grip of this massive movement countrywide, Pisharoty’s book provides the backdrop, or the run-up, to this moment in Assam. It is a significant and timely work that builds on and intervenes in the Assam debate by drawing on earlier works of Hiren Gohain, Sanjib Baruah, Monirul Hussain, Sanjoy Hazarika, Nirode Barooah, Mrinal Talukdar, Nandana Dutta, Makiko Kimura and others. The book traces the seeds of the perennial anxiety of the Assamese community about losing their home, hearth and identity to the British colonial land settlement policies, the Line System, the almost forgotten Sylhet referendum, Gopinath Bardoloi and the Grouping, and connects it to the stories of the Chakmas of Chittagong and their continued search for a homeland and the ever-increasing marginalization of the Tripuris in contemporary times.

Pisharoty’s book has 13 chapters in addition to a short introduction, an afterword and a couple of informative annexures on the decadal growth rate of population, rate of immigration, and land settlement policies. The author has successfully added a valuable pictorial archive of rare photographs of victims of the Nellie violence, the signing of the Assam Accord and so on. In his foreword to the book, Sanjoy Hazarika argues that grounded local research such as Pisharoty’s is key to understanding contexts, without losing sight of global frames of reference, such as basic human rights and secularism. Pisharoty’s extensive journalistic travels provide important insights into the multiple layers that inform this complex, multi-ethnic and diverse region. It begins with the author’s childhood memory of the days leading up to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, which thus closely entwines the personal with the larger political. The author manages to access bureaucrats, leaders, politicians, former chief ministers while being equally at ease with the migrant labourer or a martyr’s brother. Although the journalistic gaze does solidify identities at certain moments, the book tries to transcend the very identity politics it seeks to explore.

It is commendable that the author has not spared any of the stakeholders in the Assam question. While Pisharoty carefully details the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh master plan in the Northeast, she is equally critical of the Congress who failed to implement the Assam Accord for more than three decades. The Asom Gana Parishad, a party that was literally catapulted overnight into Assam politics and was a product of the Assam Movement, is not spared either. The internal power squabbles among top AGP leadership that led to the party’s spilt and its inability to implement the very Accord that it had signed are all laid bare. Another significant stakeholder in the Assam debate, the All Assam Students’ Union in its many agitationist avatars, is also problematized. Interesting details of State mechanism are revealed in secret letters that are exposed in newspaper reports of the 1970s which the author has carefully explored. It helps that Pisharoty comes with an impressive cultural capital with contacts in the top bureaucracy and political leadership.

The book marks important departures from some of the established narratives about the Assam Movement. For instance, Pisharoty draws on the work of the Japanese scholar, Makiko Kimura, on the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983 to argue for alternative frameworks to understand the local situation, as of migrants vis à vis settlers, instead of the international and mainstream media perception of the riot through the Hindu-Muslim prism.

Thus Pisharoty covers a range of contemporary socio-political issues from the rise of the ULFA to NRC tragedies of women failing to submit legacy data, the history of D-voters, the genesis of the IMDT Act, foreigners’ tribunals, and many inhuman stories of detention centres. Although the author is successful in highlighting a broad area of the debate, tribal and ethnic aspirations that marked the post-Assam Accord era and how these reshaped questions of identity in Assam needed a closer look as these remain largely uncharted. The author’s argument that the Assam Movement had its “share of Cold War shenanigans” seems a little far-fetched too. The full text of the Assam Accord as an annexure and an index would have been helpful. In spite of these minor limitations, the book offers diverse perspectives, challenges the established historiography of major watershed moments, interrogates political will across the spectrum, unearths complicated bureaucratic and State manipulations and tries to provide a humane perspective to the turbulent times we live in.

Assam: The Accord, The Discord by Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, Penguin, Rs 599