Assam has been the hotbed of identity politics in the post-colonial period, the seeds of which was sown in the pre-colonial time itself. There has been a lot of debates regarding the fruitfulness of using “identity” as category of analysis and a motivation of political struggle. Marxists come straight to ones’ mind while one talks about the limits of identity politics. while Marxists have some legitimate concerns regarding its limits, regarding the exclusivity of identity politics; identity movement however does not seem to go away from the political realm. Why should they? Identity has been a dominant idiom that has moved people to join struggles for emancipation- from civil rights movement, to LGBTQI movement, from feminist equalization movement to indigenous people’s movement, from the demand for separate state, to the demand for more inclusive public space, from the demand for reservation to the demand for universalization, identity politics has seen it all. The range of movements that can be assorted within identity politics shows the dynamism of identity as a category of political mobilization and a cause of political struggle.
However, identity politics has its own limits. Depending on the context movement for recognition of identity has taken different form- some call for recognition of difference, some call for recognition of universality (commonality). Whatever the case might be, identity politics has manifested differently in different political contexts. The context in my case is the Northeastern state of Assam. Assam has been rightly been said as a migrant receiving state. Assamese society is a migratory society. The major components that now bear the tag of Assamese have been migrants in the past. The beginning of modernity in Assam (with the onset of colonialism) brought with it questions of identity. The nascent Assamese middle class- that was raised under the shadow of colonialism, that had access to western education, that came under the influence of Bengal renaissance- became conscious of its identity. it was colonialism that introduced the Assamese its constitutive other- the Bengalis and later many other groups like- Bengal origin Muslims, Marwari, Bihari etc. The imposition of Bengali language in educational and administrative institutions of the state, the Bengali dominance in the colonial administrative positions and their socio-cultural hegemony and chauvinism made the Assamese conscious of their identity. Later, beginning with the first half of the 20 th century the large-scale migration of Bengal originMuslims made Assamese conscious of the need for protecting their particularidentity from the onslaught of migrants. Thus, began the struggle for protecting the Assamese identity that continues till date.
During this same period, the Assamese middle class, since of the start of the 20 th century, began to form socio-political organizations to negotiate with the colonial state. However, the middle class dominated by Caste Hindu Assamese ignored the interest of the various tribal groups of the state. It must be pointed out that the various tribal groups shared the same concern along with the Assamese, regarding the issue identity, land and resources etc. Specially since late 20s the question of land dominated Assam’s politics. Neglected by the Assamese leadership, the tribal groups now began to raise their own banner under different socio-political organizations.
In the post-colonial period while the Assamese leadership managed to take the reins of the state, the interests of the various tribal groups were ignored. The attempt at imposition of Assamese language led to the alienation and eventual separation of various tribal groups in Assam. The various tribal concerns of- development, education, employment, land, culture, language took a backseat in the priority list of Assamese leadership. It was the Assam movement that proved to be a catalyst. The post movement accord only agreed to protect the Assamese identity thus excluding other groups. This led to the development of various identity movements of tribal groups like Bodo, Tiwa, Mising, Rabha etc. what must be kept in mind is that throughout this period- from colonial to post colonial- all these ethnic groups shared the same concern of their particular identity being threatened by “outsiders/foreigners”. They shared the same concern of protecting their particular culture. But in this shared concern, some groups’ concern remained unfulfilled because of the power dynamics in the society.
It was these exclusive tendencies of the post-colonial Assamese elite that led to various social identity movements. These were simultaneously about universalization- demanding similar rights of cultural protection and recognition that were being enjoyed by the Assamese- and difference- asserting their discrete ethnic identity by discarding the Assamese identity. These movements were a challenge to the Assamese hegemony and had a genuine democratic thrust. The newly emerged tribal leadership of various tribal groups spearheaded these movements and thus bringing in shift in our politics. these movements involved a diffusion of power from center to the periphery, from the Assamese to the diverse groups that asserted their identity. The Assamese- tribal relation was to never be the same again.
Coming to the present political scenario, the issue of (illegal) migration has concerned all the social groups in Assam. This issue got a new life after the passage of citizenship amendment act which seeks to give citizenship status to certain religious groups from our neighboring countries. The Northeast in general and Assam in particular witnessed large wave of protests against the act. Lives were lost, properties were damaged, government was shaken. There developed a strong anti-government opinion. The movement gave birth to nationalist parties like Raijor Dol, Axom Jatiya Parishad, Anchalik Gana Morcha etc. CAA was supposed to be the most significant political issue. There were high hopes that it would significantly influence the electoral behavior of the voters. But CAA became a non-issue or least remained a minor issue in the electoral game.
The movement gradually started to wane and the government managed to bring it under control. The government was quick to use the fault lines that exist between various social groups in our society. The BTC area, the autonomous hill districts were more or less untouched by the wave of the protests. They announced to give autonomous status to certain groups like Moran, Motok, Koch Rajbangshi. BJP also introduced various beneficiary schemes for the Tea community. They maintained their alliance with various other tribal groups. All these substantially helped BJP to sail through the high waves of CAA. The question that can be raised here is – why CAA movement failed? There are too many variables to consider but I will focus on only one but which I feel is a significant one. A lot of political commentators have argued that, and as the common perception goes, It was the strategic policies of BJP- in the form of beneficiary schemes, granting autonomous status to certain groups- that ensured them the victory. Generally speaking, these are indeed the factors. But what remains out of sight is the major fault lines existing between these communities which created the space for BJP. For example, the tea community in Assam remains the most disadvantaged, marginalized and exploited section of our society. The mainstream leaders have failed to take them into account while formulating policies. They are more a vote bank than an active citizenry. Similarly the demand for recognizing the history, and hence their particularity, of Moran Motok Koch Rajbangshis or any other ethnic group have become more common in the post-colonial period
in the face of a threat of assimilation and hence a loss of culture, disregard for their particularity by the mainstream society and government, lack of government effort to protect and promote these cultures and the issue of illegal migration. All these factors (there may be more) have led to the proliferation of political-identity groups that raise demands of cultural preservation. It is the failure of mainstream leadership to accommodate these demands and build an all-inclusive society that has created a socio-political and cultural vacuum, leaving it for centrist/fascist forces to occupy.
Over the years the various ethnic groups in Assam have become more inward looking. Politics in Assam has become a politics of bargaining- “a politics of ethnic bargaining” with the state I would say- of various discrete groups operating in isolation from each other. while it is true that each of these groups have their own unique history but an (over)emphasis on their particularity has been a weaking factor in developing a unified struggle against centrist/fascist forces that now have gained control over our society. It is this limit of identity politics that must be pointed out. Today what we are seeing more is the politics of fragmentation, rather than a politics of universality, commonality, unity. What must be highlighted here is the fact that, a fundamental question in our politics has been the question of federalism/center state relation- one of center’s overwhelming dominance over a periphery. Unfortunately, we have not been able to forward a unified struggle against it. By focusing exclusively on our particular identities we are creating an enemy within and out of each other rather than seeing the root of the problems. The question of citizenship, underdevelopment, resources etc have all been so far determined by the hegemonic center in which we have very little to say. Our politics always had and continues to have this strand of thought- about raising this fundament issue of center-periphery relation. But off lately politics of fragmentation have become the mainstream. We are thinking more in terms of our particular identity and completely ignoring the universal identity that we all share- a citizen of a periphery. Such an identity may not be cultural or ethnic but it is inclusive enough of all the problems that we share together.
What we today need to is a way to forge a unity, a common front against hegemonic centrist forces. A lot of Marxist scholars would argue that the solution of identity’s limitation can be provided by the secular category of class. But in the peculiar space of Assam, class politics has its own limitations. In “Assam a Burning question”, Hiren Gohain stated that the stunted growth of native capitalism failed to generate the forces of complete assimilation of all the various ethnic elements of Assam. This is a common Marxist assumption according to which in the high stages of capitalist development, forces of assimilation would be unleased and our particularities would be melted away and a universal identity (only class identity would be left?) would emerge. But what they ignore is the fact even in such developmental stage, culture or identity don’t really go away. What must be kept in mind is that it was in the capitalist western countries where the idiom of identity politics emerged first. Identity matters to people. They have been an important source of motivation for people to fight injustice and oppression in our society. That culture has its own logic and that it is not a mere superstructure has to be acknowledged if we are to understand certain social upheavals. The fact that we have to accept is that Both identity and class are human conditions. They are part of us. The moral superiority that class has been given in political analysis fails to capture a lot of political realities that exist in our societies. Therefore, an exclusive politics of class-based struggle, as an alternate to identity politics, may not give us what we need. This is not however to undermine the importance of class. In fact, in any social movement both the element of identity and class is simultaneously present. Therefore, solution lies in understanding the particularity and complexity of our situation and work towards a building a common front of struggle. If today we fail to acknowledge the limits of identity politics and work towards its solution, it won’t be wrong to say that Assam would one day lose its determining zeal that has always driven its politics.
Nayan Moni Kumar, Research Scholar, Gauhati University