The ‘other’ in Assam

Intellectual space in the state is getting polarised as some are turning a blind eye to the lives lost because of the Citizenship Amendment Bill

The ‘other’ in Assam

Colonialism is a story of exploitation, subjugation and domination. It sought to establish racial supremacy and resorted to an accumulation of wealth. Be it the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or the British East India Company, in the name of trade and Empire, they carried out heinous crimes and plunder of its colonies.

Racism also has a deep rooted colonial history. We ought not to justify racism or colonialism on any grounds, and certainly not compare it on the basis of quantitative and qualitative differences. We also ought not to be talkative mutes towards oppression and its victims. By being a party to both, one is not only forgoing the responsibility to think but at the same time using convoluted logic and history to suggest that a set of oppression can be comparatively better than another.

In doing so, they also sweep away the past and blame colonialism for the present social divides as if the current regime and people are devoid of agency to think and act. The critique of colonialism must remain till we exist and beyond, however, by “overmining” or over stretching the role of colonialism, it not only gives more to it than it deserves, but also shifts the blame from the present to the past, in other words the blood on our hands is washed in the water that flowed decades ago.


This piece is a reply to two articles written by Professor Sanjib Baruah, a noted academic and social critic, where he performs a Tocquevillian blunder about racism and oppression, and becomes a talkative mute when he “overmines” the Citizenship Amendment Bill and undermines the National Register of Citizens. Let us start with the blunder.

We are aware, as Melvin Richter has shown and elegantly followed up by Edward Said, that Alexis de Tocqueville justified Algerian colonial oppression by France. However, he remained critical of American slavery.

Said notes, “He had condemned slavery in America, and perceptively accused white slaveholders of seeing no incompatibility between their actual role as tyrants and their image of themselves as men of principle.” If his deafening silence about Algeria was not enough, his views on Islam was equally parochial. Tocqueville thought that Islam drove Muslims to war and supported the “genocidal razzias and expropriations of land undertaken by the French Military,” notes Said.

Baruah, while identifying Indians facing oppression in Burma, Canada and so on during colonial and post colonial periods, blames colonialism for demographic layering and in one stroke ignores the chauvinism and xenophobia that we have come to perform on the so called “outsider”. While being critical of the colonial experiences of Sikhs in Canada, he is absolutely silent about the Assamese case. How the so-called Bangladeshi is targeted in their everyday life and how they face racism of a variety — individually, institutionally and on an everyday basis.

Baruah’s take on migration also suffers from double standards. On one hand, the people who were brought to Assam for tea plantations are termed “recruitment of workers” but when it comes to the jute industry, his expression gratuitously becomes “migrants from the densely populated deltaic eastern Bengal”.

Early on in his piece, he devotes a lot of energy to congratulate Prateek Hajela and also writes the following, “The efforts made by the two-person Supreme Court bench and those in charge of the process to make the final NRC complete and accurate are impressive; and they are likely to pay off” but forgets about the suicides of many applicants. He further adds, “It is to the credit of India’s political and legal institutions and of Assamese civil society that demographic politics in post-colonial Assam did not take the xenophobic shape of post-colonial reprisals.” In doing so he ignores both the class and caste dimensions of Assamese civil society.

Turning a blind eye to the suicides that still continue — the number stands above 40 people — in Assam due to the NRC process indicates a deep amnesia about xenophobia and racism in the public sphere and among intellectuals from the region. Such suicides portray the most inhumane and abyssal indifference towards the ethnic and linguistic “other” who is made culpable in every way. It is a responsibility he should take for making such amnesia possible, as Weber reminds us that mass action is often the result of intellectual condition.

Now, if the intellectual condition is filled with racial epithets, which go beyond justifying “Kala” as a category used in Burma, we can only think of the masses responding in the way to which they are led. It appears that lauding Assamese civil society, the accuracy and impressiveness of the process and lukewarm xenophobia, as compared to Burma and others, was more important than the visible victims. Or, perhaps, he embodies the same sentiments as de Tocqueville. Let’s still go ahead beyond this blunder and see what he has to say in yet another piece.

In this one Baruah declares that the CAB changes the contours of citizenship. What about the NRC, which is already a legitimate process and is not just based on jus soli? The NRC already changed the terms of citizenship much before the CAB did, which is not to say the CAB is not sectarian in its lapsed form and content. It is. Why does someone like Baruah ignore the terms of the NRC process although he suggested in his piece that we need an informed public debate? Post colonial reprisals are a product of challenges to power structures, and if such reprisals carry chauvinist tendencies we ought to call it so. In setting out an answer to the question, “Who is an Assamese”, one shudders to think of the immense possibility of inclusion and exclusion. Just because such a process of self-definition is post colonial and involves a subaltern or a local, it doesn’t mean that they are incapable of violence or racism.

What is argued by Baruah is essentially a case of “no-racism” based upon a more integrative framework within which Asomiya linguistic identity can include many motley groups. At the same time he goes on to intellectually elaborate the “phantasm of prophylaxis or segregation” by making the “other” as its base and hiding being colonialism and uncritical post-colonial reprisals.

Such obliteration of the social pain generated by the NRC procedure has led to despondency among Assam’s linguistic and religious minorities, who as communities living in Assam, have been forced to take an existentially sordid stance towards the political outcome of process.

Neither the CAB nor NRC could provide a healthy political discourse; even the Assam Accord probably never envisaged such loss of lives and social pain despite being successful in creating an atmosphere of peace and amity. Once intellectual space gets polarised in the manner described above, there is very little commiseration for afflicted people.

(Suraj Gogoi is with the National University of Singapore and Prasenjit Biswas is with the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong)