The phenomenal migration from Assam to metropolitan cities of India has not been much talked about. Some recent academic works, however, have dealt with it; but its impact within the larger social fabric of the State still needs coherent, in-depth understanding.
Once the hotbed of radical sub-national politics of all forms, the isolated locals of the remotest parts of the State are now connected with the metropolis and the routes bring home new network of friends, financial security and probably a new observation, imagination and technological pursuit.
The specificity of the society now shifts but its articulation is still in the making. However, this phenomenal migration is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if it brings home prosperity and opportunity, on the other hand, it also makes the migrants potential candidates for radical adventures. The recent revelation of Hizbul Mujahideen’s attempt to spread its tentacles in Assam could be blamed to such migration. The potentiality of homegrown radical movement is, no doubt, declining but the possibilities of the exposure to the Right-wing idea of universal brotherhood (both Hindu and Muslim) are growing.
That means the dominant pattern of ethnicity–the structural specificity of Assam (even the so-called immigrant Muslim expresses himself in the language of ethnicity rather than some sort of Muslim religious imagination) is also changing. The question of landholding pattern, the debate over the sharing resources between indigenous and so-called immigrants or outsiders, of course, still exists, but in a very different guise.
The problem is that the existing intellectual discourses, as can be noticed in recent debates over the National Register of Citizens (NRC), hardly articulate this new phenomenon. The debate has reproduced the same past discourses even at the cost of dangerously locating itself in a certain kind of nostalgia.
In a slippery slope of neo-liberal regime, does the much-hyped idea of conflict, at least, the conflict arising from the sub–national womb exist on the condition of materiality? For instance, the so-called connoisseurs of agriculture in this part of the country, the immigrant Muslims, today do not fit well into the agricultural economy.
Either they are migrating to metropolis or inventing different economic pursuits, including the ingenious counterfeiter goods. They are not opting out of the agricultural market just because options are limited or agriculture has become one of the occupations in recent times. But, because the so-called lazy indigenous population has also of late joined the same pursuit. Like the immigrant Muslims, although a sizeable population of local youths are leaving Assam in search of greener pastures; many of them have also embarked on new ventures in the agricultural sector of the State.
It is not that these new groups are armed with state-of-the-art technologies competing seriously with the traditional agricultural producers of the region. But their operative mobility in the agricultural market is endorsed by the neo-liberal fantasy over “organic food”. Contrary to the Muslim immigrant agriculturalists, the discourse that the indigenous farmers would produce food without fertiliser or chemical as such, has mobilised a majority of local consumers.
The sub-national discourse of authentic indigeneity gets mingled with the discourse of “organic food” fantasy even when the so-called indigenous retailers may buy the product from the migrants and sell it in the market.
The authenticity of the product does come from the authenticity of the body, nor from the production process of food itself. The pious, pristine indigenous body has always been in the sub-national discourse, but the economic potentiality of that body is a new phenomenon.
On the other hand, the rustic body of the immigrant Muslim is also synonymous to the inorganic, manure production of food crops. More importantly, the location of the land in the relatively upland area provides much advantage while the traditional settlement of so-called immigrants in the low-land area makes them vulnerable to flood and erosion and at least for six months the cash crop production needs to be halted. Such nascent, new alignment eventually would rearticulate the relation between indigenous and so-called immigrant population.
The justification or critique of the NRC process has largely centered on the question of human rights, secular strategy against the Right-wing understanding of Muslim immigrants and, finally, in certain local discourses – possibility of a new progressive politics as updated NRC would resolve the immigrant stigma and so-called immigrant communities would breathe fresh air.
However, how the question of human rights violation has been invoked for the 40 lakh people who have been left out of the final draft NRC needs more critical approach. The problem of human rights activism, particularly the international Non-governmental Organisation (NGO)-kind, as one commentator rightly put recently, does not seem to relate to the specificity of the ground realities.
The universal model itself needs contextualisation and strategic approaches in the specificities. Despite the hue and cry, the information coming so far has revealed that a substantial portion of those left out of the final draft belongs to the indigenous communities. Therefore, the legitimacy of their claim to citizenship is much easier than the rest. What would be the fate of the rest is still not apparent.
On the other hand, a majority of the “immigrant origins” are looking forward to it as for the first time the legal framework of the nation would serve to validate their claim over citizenship and in turn over their home as well as land.
But this satisfaction and the somewhat carnivalesque, juvenile atmosphere from the final draft declaration day, turned a little confusing now with the Supreme Court’s new contemplation over validity of documents, etc. But, what is interesting to our story is whether this legal discourse would create any kind of equality or instigate a process of resolving the discourses between indigenous and non-indigenous people?
Legal nuances may have provided some ground work for a new political future. But it can lead to a backfire too, if the societal position is not conducive to it. With a new found empowerment, these new communities might turn towards new political assertions.
Despite its relative weakness, the structure of Assamese nationalism is spreading, imbibing the neo-liberal technologies. In context of such assertion, the response from Assamese nationalism or other indigenous sub-national politics is going to be prominent. Moreover, the battle is not just fought against the immigrants. The Hindutva force during the last Assembly elections managed to create solidarity between indigenous and outsider communities (the communities from so-called mainland India). But, it was very ephemeral.
When these so-called outsiders tried to assert their claim over the social immediately after BJP’s electoral success, tensions grew and these attempts were decisively thwarted. However, in strictly sociological sense, such contestation is always productive. Through the assertion and resistance a productive new future could be envisaged and fought for.
Personally, I do not think that the immigrant question is significant in contemporary Assam, particularly in the social, despite the hue and cry in the political discourses. The social has been relatively calm and it is a good situation for a new productive politics.
Through NRC (both rejecting and accepting it) what new politics emerges is still not clear. But, the question is – will NRC find its natural culmination in terms of completing the task that it has been asked for? I suppose it would not. It may even aggravate the everyday judicial process further. Not to talk about the enormous burden people have to carry in the process.
Nation and nationalism of any versions, particularly in South Asia needs to come out from the domain of the legal and concentrate on the social. But the social, I suppose, despite the dialectical relationship, enjoys the volatility of the freedom. Thus, instead of the legal and State mechanism, it is always good to concentrate on the social.
Ankur Tamuli Phukan is an independent researcher based in Guwahati. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org