An Open Letter to Dr Hiren Gohain

Dear Dr Gohain,
When a friend forwarded the link to your ‘Open Letter to Indians on NRC in Assam’ published on the Sabrang website on 6 August 2018 (, I followed it immediately and started reading it with great interest. I had in mind the memories of your incisive analytical articles we used to wait for eagerly in the 1980s when Assam was passing through a very difficult phase. I also remembered meeting you in Assam on one of those days, introduced by my guide to the North-east — the late revolutionary communist Kamal Sharma of Guwahati. The brief conversation was so enlightening for me! But after reading your ‘Open Letter’, I was unfortunately left with more questions than I got answers to.

Meanwhile, I have also seen a couple of responses to your opinions, on other websites though (A Reply to Dr.Hiren Gohain by Suraj Gogoi and Parag Jyoti SaikiaThe NRC Will Not Resolve Assam’s Humanitarian Crisis by Markandey Katju). However, I have still not been able to come out of the conundrum.

As I am one of those humanrightswallahs who once used to look up to you as their unwavering friend, my primary question concerns the conception of the priority of rights that you have put forth in your letter.
Human rights, according to you, are “an Ideal goal”. These rights, you argue, are “not a reality during a period of transition”. The reason: “One cannot abolish national rights and entitlements at one stroke and replace them with human rights.”
Are not human beings the possessors of human rights? Are they expected to seek these rights which may or may not be granted to them? If we take that position, we are no longer talking about rights — but privileges (or entitlements, as some scholars prefer to call them). And that weakens the very basis of their claim to these rights. People cannot say they must have something that does not belong to them naturally. They can beg for those rights, but the Lords of the Nations will decide whether they deserve those or not. And they have no reason to bleed their hearts out if they do not get them, for they must understand that what is ideal is not always realisable. Is this not fatalism? Can this not turn into a handle for advising people to remain passive and legitimise the denial of rights at the whims of the masters?
And then, “transition”. Transition to what? From your next sentence, it appears that you envisage a transition to a society without national frontiers. Only then may the flowers of rights bloom. How long will the phase of “transition” last? Given the present scenario, the wait can be infinite. So long, farewell — dear Rights!
Who came first on this earth — humans or nations? This is no chicken-and-egg question. The answer is obvious. So, would it be too naive or non-realistic if one gives primacy to human rights over national rights? The issue is not replacing — as you suggest — national rights with human rights; it is that of telling the nation clearly that human rights are inalienable from human beings and inviolable under any circumstance.
Doesn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights say so? Was it proclaimed under a situation where nations did not exist? No, it was proclaimed 70 years ago by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Why should we wait for the abolition of nations to claim these rights today?
I fail to understand why you have brought in the example of the Iraq War: “A friend has pointed out that usually what happens is, first human rights lobbies kick up a row about abuse of human rights and pave the way for international gendarmes intervening and reducing countries to a heap of ruins. Lack of democracy and human rights was the excuse for Iraq War and it reduced Iraqis to desperate beggars squatting on foreign soil. So a bit of caution is needed on this issue.”

What has that got to do with the present context? Are these “human rights lobbies” you mention here the same as those who are raising the issue of rights of document-less migrants who are being called infiltrators? Are they the ones who are showing concern for the millions rendered ‘stateless’ because of a spectacular assertion of ‘national rights’ today? Once again, the answer is obvious. Then why deliberately mix up imperialist appropriation of the language of rights to justify an act of aggression with social activism in defence of those who are being dispossessed of their rights?
You are angry with the rights activists simply because they argue that the people whom you — and the state — call aliens and illegal immigrants or infiltrators should not be stripped of their dignity as human beings and should not be deprived of their civil liberties. Why? Because you think their rights clash with the rights of the ‘indigenes’.
In your letter, you observe that “the skewed relations between Centre and state had increasingly robbed indigenes of their power to decide how many guests they could welcome in their homes”. In the next paragraph, you recall that “…natural resources from the State were getting furiously exploited and sometimes wasted for decades (Natural Gas e.g), a huge backlog of development built up in this mockery of federal state.” Further down, you mention, “[t]here is now rampant unemployment and landlessness” in Assam. Were the “infiltrators” responsible for the skewed Centre-state relations, furious exploitation of local natural resources, huge backlog of development, rampant unemployment and landlessness? Even you will say no.
Then what crime have the people who came here in trickles and torrents from across the border over the last consecutive decades driven by poverty, calamity and various other exigencies, committed? They are giving the indigenous people tough competition, you say. “Natives are ill-equipped to deal with challenges of the so-called modern economy, having been in the backwoods too long. On top of it they have to compete with people more adept in meeting such challenges but whose right to be here itself is under a cloud.”
How could you assert that these people, “whose right to be here itself is under a cloud”, were “more adept in meeting such challenges”? Was it not the same grinding pressure of the “so-called modern economy” (read capitalism founded on uneven development and inequality) that left the natives as well as migrants (who were natives on the other side of the border) backward and broken? Whose interest does it serve if they fight each other instead of uniting against this rotten system? 
Believe me Dr Gohain, I did not want to bother you with my naive questions. I resisted the urge for two weeks. What coerced me to write this letter finally were two interviews I watched on two international television channels over the last couple of days. One interviewee was an innovative German entrepreneur who has opened a ‘nationalist’ themed cafe that has become a favourite joint for the neo-Nazis. The other was a British doctor who has written a book about how his country was being run over by outsiders. Going by what they said in the interviews, you cannot call them Islamophobes or xenophobes, with whom you have taken care to distance yourself in your letter. But, there is an uncanny harmony between your construction of the ‘natives versus aliens’ situation and theirs. And that is the last thing I wanted to find.
I am afraid, Dr Gohain.
We still hope you would soon join us and lead from the front our slogan: “No One is Illegal!”
Sincerely Yours
Nilanjan Dutta



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