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Vigilante patriots in Assam

Vigilante patriots in Assam

Suroj Gogoi and Prasenjit Biswas |

The vigilante propensity for proclaiming bans and indulging in castigation defies logic and the latest ldquo;call to armsrdquo; as it were concerns a diktat to embargo ldquo;Chinese productsrdquo; and refrain from buyingselling these. That China blocked a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo flowing into Assam that threatens to turn the Brahmaputra into a drier basin is tantamount to the Chinese backing Pakistan after the Uri attack. The ldquo;make in Indiardquo; vigilante advocates and their call to boycotting goods from China which includes crackers and other Diwali products flooding in from that country have inundated Guwahati and other Assam towns.

Everything becomes overly emotional and tinged with patriotic sentiment. It is also stated that Assam’s famous Soalkuchi silk threads are threatened by fabrics from Varanasi. Parallels are drawn; much in the way Chinese products threaten the Indian market so does the era of globalisation emasculate local and regional well-being.

There is a growing constituency of zero tolerance towards anything foreign and a renewed passion for local regional and national that resists the inflow of goods from the neighbourhood. Although no one can deny a direct connection between such howlers about the foreign and subtle xenophobia the mood is born of a stronger perception pertaining to China’s attempts to flood India with its products even as that country has been accused of being no friend in India’s quest to become a ldquo;global and responsiblerdquo; power having opposed India’s entry to the elite nuclear suppliersrsquo; group.

Of all the ldquo;nationalistsrdquo; Baba Ramdev mdash; who has been granted 400 acres in an Adivasi hamlet in Chirang district of Assam to develop an ayurvedic-aromatic medicinal product industry-cum-plantation has raised hackles as the land deal is supposedly pinned to the enforced eviction of Adivasis nbsp;from the proposed land

The yoga businessman listed in Forbes nbsp;recently tweeted from an iPhone of Chinese manufacture his call to boycott Chinese products in India. Despite such an appeal which Ramdev termed a simultaneous yuddha war and Buddha a cloak and a dagger call the Gujarat government signed an MoU with Chinese companies for investment worth 5 billion. The other big business deal is nbsp;Reliance’s proposed plan to purchase some 4 million worth of Chinese smartphones to supply these cheap to Indian customers as part of revolutionising the IT sector. Vigilantes probably cannot fathom this level of corporate and state give-and-take but they see fit to cry wolf against cheap Chinese products and generate nationalist passions against perceived foreign enemies.

When ldquo;ex-nationalistrdquo; Sudheendra Kulkarni pointed out the absurdity of such a boycott by stating that Indians in order to carry out the boycott would have to stop using mobile phones altogether he was roundly castigated of being a man of some Chinese parts and having an allegiance to Pakistan by tweeterrati bhakts. Going by such bhakt vigilante logic Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and all-powerful minister Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the chorus by asking the people of Assam not to buy Chinese products anymore since that country had blocked the Brahmaputra.

To make matters worse the visit of US ambassador Richard Verma to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in the company of the Assam and Arunachal chief ministers prompted China to tell the USA to refrain from such endorsements in what it considered a ldquo;disputed territoryrdquo;.

Two apparently divergent reactions of this nature mdash; one the vigilante appeal to the masses and the other a strategic and diplomatic tactic mdash; blow the lid off the self-stultifying call for a boycott of Chinese goods. But there is no stopping cross-border India-China investment and for a fact vigilante logic cannot overrun economic compulsions. However what provides Assam vigilantes grist for their mill is China’s belligerence in creating skirmishes and tension along the Line of Control in Arunachal Pradesh by repeated intrusions in the last few years and then arbitrarily using its upper riparian advantage to block the Brahmaputra.

While nbsp;the ban on Chinese products gain populist nbsp;ground it just cannot be overlooked that Baba Ramdev’s desi Patanjali products are being given support by the state to increase their turnover and kill potential competition from any cheaper brands. Chinese goods coming into the Indian market through major ports either as parts or as ldquo;fully assembledrdquo; or ldquo;manufactured in Indiardquo; have sustained a huge small industrial sector and its growth over the last two decades. Demanding a sudden ban on all these would adversely affect small businesses in the food cosmetic electronics and mechanical sectors and in turn substitute it with the same cheap Chinese product pool mooted by big industries like Reliance and Patanjali. What’s even more ironical is that despite Bollywood’s ban on Pakistani artistes Baba Ramdev has not given up the idea of opening yoga training camps in Pakistan or China.

This implies big business house in India playing to Chinese interests given how their stakes have risen through sheer compulsion. India’s partnership with China at the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and BRICs also portray an unceded diplomatic tie-up and engagement that totally nullifies any call to boycott Chinese products. When Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that the call to boycott his country’s products would jeopardise bilateral relations one could see the rapid follow-up in the Gujarat deal despite all the anti-Chinese pronouncements meant for public consumption. Is it possible to isolate oneself from the shadow nbsp;of bigger political strategic and economic powers by an aspiring country like India?

For India’s North-east paradoxical nationalist standpoints only create a rapid adrenaline rush for buffoons and pundits alike. Patanjali’s proposed aloe vera garden in Chirang and the perception of the Brahmaputra running dry in the near future because of Chinese blockage as a response to India’s plan to scrap the nbsp;Indus treaty with Pakistan and noted Akademi Award-winning bestselling author Rita Chowdhury’s ldquo;Makamrdquo; narrating stories of two or three generations of abandoned Chinese families in Assam’s upper districts come as a pastiche of despair and hope.

Images of the eviction of Adivasis from their hearths in Chirang; the killing of women in the recent Kaziranga eviction operations; the enforced displacement of a small Chinese community in 1962 in upper Assam and their confinement nbsp;in Deuli Rajasthan; the large number of Indian citizens tagged ldquo;doubtfulrdquo; and dumped in detention camps and prisons; the 400000 displaced riot victims of 2012 in western Assam; the painful stories of the loss of flood victims; memories of nbsp;Nellie Gohpur Mokulmoa and other genocides mdash; the endless list of human tragedy rocks sensibility. Vigilante adrenaline created these man-made disasters that have perennially damaged the social fabric of Assam.

The current spree of agitations against foreigners and foreign goods be it Hindu Bangladeshi refugees or Chinese goods stems from a self-disparaging sense of insecurity that creates more problems than can be solved. It leads to social and cultural paranoia of a variety that turns the imagination virile as it keeps generating talks about loss be it the Brahmaputra or the official status of language and culture. That millions of Hindu Bangladeshis are waiting to cross over to Assam once the Modi government gives the nod to the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 or a tit-for-tat by way of blocking Chinese goods are a portrayal of an abject object of aversion that sustains and drives the social psychology of fear paranoia and such negative symptoms of hyper-rational nationalist imagination.

The media circulates these symptomatic images by projecting an internal and external enemy be it Bangaldeshi or Chinese. The legal and political discourse about what is good and proper assumes a figure of adversary without which it cannot be complete.

Discourse about an open border with Bangladesh Myanmar and even China in certain parts of the North-east creates the continuous fear about illegal immigrants crossing over. Even when the border is sealed certain ldquo;openrdquo; parts are repeatedly shown in the media to reinforce the fear of being swamped by Bangladeshis. Assam’s multi-ethnic and multilingual social fabric gets jolted by little perturbations like these. For example during a recent vist to Dhaka an ex-chief ministers of Assam started talking about the possibility of Bangladeshi Hindus crossing over to the state. Fear of the ldquo;otherrdquo; gets internationalised. In this climate it is very easy to create mass reaction to Chinese goods.

The vigilante logic of boycott serves to add spice to this drama of insecurity.

Suraj Gogoi is a researcher with the National University of Singapore and Prasenjit Biswas is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at North Eastern Hill University Shillong.