NRC and Intellectual Racism

Written by Suraj Gogoi and Parag Jyoti Saikia | Published on: August 29, 2018
There is a surplus in every human being. That surplus, for Rabindranath Tagore, was the artistic ability and the power of imagination in every being to move towards something beautiful. Assamese playwright, social critique, humanist, poet and film-maker Jyotiprasad Agarwala (1903-1951) also recognised this surplus in humans. Going beyond this surplus, he pushed the idea of beauty towards culture, where he felt that the worship of beauty is culture, something which is comparable to light.

NRC Assam
 
Both Tagore and Agarwala place immense respect in every being, and their worth independent of any person or things. The surplus in human and that idea of culture are eroded to their core in Assam with the NRC process, and without, as it has an elaborate history of chauvinism and othering. One can sense such erosion when intellectuals from the state support the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process and the Assam Movement by making ‘illegal’ bodies and subhuman treatment of its citizens.
 
 Hiren Gohain, Harekrishna Deka, Sanjib Baruah and Udayon Misra have shown ‘limited sympathy’ and seek to create a secure environment for the ‘Assamese’, whose definition itself remains ambiguous. In their narrow opinion, they propose to consider a certain section of individual's action as reduction of space and rights for others. When they should have written about cultivating equal respect, tolerance and inhibit those that go against them, they stood at the wrong side of history. Through passivity, denial, ignorance, and even outright support for the section of humans whom they call ‘autochthons’, they have shown the lack of ability and desire to love everyone equally.
 
This article is a critical engagement with their ideas, particularly with Udayon Misra and Harekrishna Deka’s imagination of Assamese, its measurements, its political emotions, its commitment and concerns since we have already expressed our positions on Dr Gohain and Professor Baruah elsewhere.
 
On Culture
A lifeline of any society is the culture of that society. Such a culture should be built on reciprocity, equal respect, shared effort towards a common good, not on hate and distinction. Let’s push the idea of culture a little further and engage with it closely, what Assamese literary and cultural giant Bishnuprasad Rabha (1909-1969) thought of the measurement of Assamese culture.   
 
In an essay title ‘Assamese culture’, Rabha locates Nagaon as the epicentre where different cultures of the hills and plains, of different castes and creed gel together. For him, Assamese culture borrows from Sankardev as much as from Azan Fakir. Rabha writes in his essay:
 
“...In the pulse of Nagaon, there is the pulse of Assam. Hence, in Assamese culture the contribution of Nagaon is not negligible, but significant...In this same Nagaon, there are Mikirs, Nagas, Khasis,  Lalungs, Morans, Rabhas, Garos, Dimasas, Koch, Manipuris, Brahmins, Kayasthas, Kaibartas, Hindus, Christians, Assamese Musolmans, Sylethis, and Meymanshings, among others. So, Nagaon is the small Assam of the bigger Assam. If one knows Nagaon, Assam becomes familiar.”
 
How much more encompassing can an identity be when it embraces so many cultural worlds and debts? Rabha accepts those cultural debts with all humility and celebrates a heterogeneous Assamese culture which is enriched by multiple life-worlds. In essence, what Rabha is suggesting is that when one says one is an Assamese, these numerous cultural worlds are lit up.
Udayon Misra reduced Nagaon to just the Line System, and presents a picture of conflict and disharmony, as if people were always up in arms against each other. It should be noted that Rabha’s essay dates back to the times when the Line System was introduced and was a hot topic in organised politics and everyday life. In his articulation that unease doesn’t seem to surface. Rabha didn’t see rigid lines drawn by the administration and instead spoke of a shared space. Refusing to think of a shared space, Misra creates a space of absolute othering where he places people of East Bengal origin, that too, identifying them with their religion. This gels well with the Hindu Right propaganda against Bengali Muslims as ‘infiltrators’ in the rest of the country, wherein they painted NRC process as an exercise to drive out illegal Muslim infiltrators.
 
One is left to wonder if such emotions and concerns expressed by Udayon Misra in his article are cultivated over time, through a conscious effort by the elite and caste Assamese political society over the ones that knitted the society together. What he also does, like Harekrishna Deka, is regress the current generation to specific events of history, of 1951 and 1826, over integrated history.
 
His views are indeed a theft of history and a clear case of epistemicide—genocide of knowledge and history, as Ramón Grosfoguel would call. The shared and lived experience of Kamrupia and Goalparia culture, songs and common folk resources that defy rigid boundaries and fixed spatial identities are given a go by to establish homogeneity and authenticity, typical markers of elite supremacist discourse. Mitra Phukan shows it convincingly through a brief history of music in the Brahmaputra valley, of its diversity, cultural debts and richness.
 
Rabha or Agarwala would have gravely denied such fixed identities and cultivation of hatred. That is not the Assam he imagined or articulated. Such heterogeneity, humility and love should be the lifeline of a culture, not NRC which is riddled with biases and contradictions. How can any policy or bureaucratic exercise be a moral compass of a society or a vehicle of making life eudemonic? Udayon Misra is either deliberately amnesiac or illiterate about such conceptions of culture which were cultivated by Rabha and Agarwala.
 
 
Line System 
The Line system affected everyone; above all it affected the mixing of groups, which is not to say that there were not crossovers. Rabha shows that there were crossing of social boundaries. The social distinctions were present, of course at a cultural level, but more distinction was grounded by the caste Assamese.
 
Yet another dimension of the line system was its economic philosophy. One of the foremost accounts of dividing land into economic and non-economic entities is found in John Locke's Two Treaties. Using labour theory, he segregated land into economic and non-economic zones, depending on factors of production and the kind of agricultural practice. The areas which had more or less settled cultivation and sufficient labour to apply became economic zones and ones which had the unattainable and in-intelligible tribes and shifting cultivators were termed non-economic as they were difficult to govern. Scheduling of land goes with the Scheduling of people. Land opens up such possibilities.
 
Locke's text played a significant role in mercantile colonial economy and politics, and later with capitalist expansion. The philosophy of Two Treaties becomes very pertinent when it comes of the question of wastelands in India, as shown by Judy Whitehead. The Inner Line has to be read in that context too.
 
Rohini Kanta Hati Baruah, who was a member of Swarajya Party, moved a resolution for putting an end on immigration and restriction of settlement on all wastelands. Some members of the Assembly did support this, but the European Group thought this as an obstruction of natural flow of ‘capital and enterprise’, and that the wastelands would be left unproductive which will stand in the way of ‘revenue, trade and prosperity’ of the province. This shows clearly that the settlement and migration to larger colonial economy and movements of capital, not only some lazy assessment of increasing numbers to take over Assam.
 
Infact, the new migrants wanted to assimilate into Assamese society, which the caste Assamese opposed and instead justified the Line system. Khan Bahadur Nuruddin Ahmed, the first Muslim member of the Assam Legislative Assembly, officially in 1936 moved a resolution to abolish the Line system. It was proposed that this hindered the assimilation of people living in a same area and instead fuelled communal tension. The resolution was lost, of course, with all the Hindu members voting against it.
 
Inherent to the Line System was limiting and binding people to certain territories and locales. Fixed local identities of ‘Others’, was a desired outcome for Assamese elites. Citizenship was reduced to narrowly defined identities in linguistic and ethnic terms and its immediate ‘Othering’. Such a narrow definition and measurements of citizenship degrades human life and manufactures citizens by turning a group into illegal bodies.
 
Assamese is constituted by a confluence of many worlds. The intense race egotism brought by intellectuals who supports the NRC process stops people from becoming fully human. To be human is to discover that one can love, not hate. By making NRC possible, the Assamese will forever carry a ‘procession of nomadic shadows’.
 
On Citizesnhip
The idea of citizenship is at the core of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) debate. However, the process makes people undergo tremendous hardships, pain and trauma causing cyclical poverty and in some cases, sends them to even absolute poverty. Not to mention of the suicides and detention camps. The idea of the later unsettles many, including our intellectuals, but they see that as a collateral damage.
 
The historical examples of detention-camps are a disastrous and historically immoral means by which hate politics are worked out. India has a long history of detention camps. Who can forget the camps of Hyderabad where thousands were massacred? Genocides, at times, make lot of noise, but mostly they are silent. The case of Hyderabad was one of silence. Japanese detention camps in the United States, Bihari Muslims rendered stateless after 1971, even detention camps in Bodoland and other parts of Assam.  
 
Rudrani Sarma's Assamese novel 'Kaanhibunor Maalita' (Ballad of the Grass) also shows camp life and ecological disaster, among others. The very fact that there was least of outcry about detention camps in Assam in everyday life and from intellectuals is a sad testimony of how degraded we have become, as human beings. If the idea of camps generates no response or passive ones, like how Sanjib Baruah feels about it, we have arrived at the gates of decay.
 
Jyotiprasad placed immense faith in the artist to create beauty and in return make a culture possible where there is light, not darkness. Even after being a poet, Harakrishna Deka seems to take a very generous liking for the word illegal! What a tragedy! Moreover, his opinion on NRC casts a dark shadow on the victims of NRC. His views show us how to spread nationalistic emotions by submitting oneself to elite forces. His share of emotions are misdirected and unequally distributed for the autochthonous. Jyotiprasad would have despised such a poet who thrives on hatred.
 
Both Udayon Misra and Harekrishna Deka peddle a politics of distinction. Instead of talking about politics of debt and shared lived experiences, they are stuck in GDP type of growth and development. Their way of seeking land protection is similar to neoliberal uprooting and ghettoization of the peasantry, where the ones from East Bengal Origin will suffer the most, but not just.
 
Tagore contextualised a kind of citizen or ideal human being by placing the Bauls of Bengal as an immediate reference. For him, the Bauls’ way of life is surrounded by love. Tagore introduces the Bauls as ‘a popular sect of Bengal...who have no images, temples, or scriptures, or ceremonials, who declare in their songs the divinity of Man, and express from him an intense feeling of love’. Bauls seek to obey nothing, no canon, no custom, and to liberate oneself from selfishness. They are dedicated to freedom, to joy, and to love, writes Maratha Nussbaum.
 
We are not suggesting that everyone has to become a Baul, nor did Tagore. Nussbaum suggests that what Tagore meant was that ‘citizenship needs a spirit of play and unpredictable individuality’. The counterculture of Baul suggests that we should have ‘access to, a fresh kind of joy and delight...in nature and in people’. There should be respect towards surplus of every being; however, what NRC does is create ghettoises blocks of citizens, and sub-human and illegal bodies. It also strips off the individuality of a person from realising their own self by telling how and what to become and think. NRC essentially dehumanises social life and the everyday. It creates top-down citizens, as opposed to bottom up nationalism which is inherent in Tagore’s articulation of Baul life-world.
 
There is even an absence of guilt, robust amnesias and a disinterest in remembering events of the past. Maratha Nussbaum makes a very critical point here that there is an absolute lack of ‘public monuments and rituals connected to the horrors of partition’. There has been no public commemoration of any sort of such history and other event like Nellie or a Laxmi Orang. Such remembering and commemoration carries a lot of potential of healing and sharing guilt.
 
Like Dalits contributing to culture receives no public or media recognition in India, the blood and sweat of the ‘illegal’ bodies are sent to oblivion. They die with each passing day with distortion of history, law and cultivation of hatred. Through twisted and bent laws, they could be made stateless, while by dint of such an action, we establish our authenticity in the mirror of our exclusive selves.
 
Udayon Misra and Harekrishan Deka, like many others, have painted an Assamese culture which is domesticated and comfortable about xenophobia, detention camps and jingoism. In their search for a contrived authenticity and turning citizens into illegal, they de-appreciate universal human values embedded in Assamese culture, while they attribute renewed nativity to it. In constructing their intellectual zeitgeist, in order to do good, they make it chauvinist and exclusivist and purge out millions from Assam’s multiethnic humanscape and their shared lived experiences. Needless to say that such a grand project of exclusion and statelessness is based on deep ethnic and racial prejudices that turn the humane interior of Assamese culture into a Mein Kempf discourse.
 
*Suraj is a PhD candidate in Sociology at National University of Singapore. He tweets @char_chapori. Parag is a doctoral student in Anthropology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His twitter handle is @paragjsaikia. They also manage a blog on Northeast with the Pangsau Collective. 

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