Thursday, February 10, 2011


*SOMNATH BATABYAL* mulls over confusions, insecurities and identity politics
during the language agitation in Assam.

One of my earliest memories from childhood is of two of us, a classmate and
me, walking back from school chattering away happily about this and that. He
stops at a roadside paan shop to buy some sweets. We are talking
nineteen-to-the-dozen when suddenly a young man at the shop tells us to
stop; stop talking in Bengali. We did.

Back home, however, the questions flew. “Baba, why did he ask us to not
speak in Bangla? Why are we so scared of the Assamese?” The general tenor of
the answer was: the Assamese are bad people. It was difficult to digest. My
classmates, teachers, friends, were all of them bad?

They were not. Growing up I realised my father was wrong, very wrong. What
the Assamese were, though, was threatened. Threatened first by an
indifferent central government and then by a quickly changing demographic
situation over which they had little control. Scared enough to ask young
children to stop talking in the language they felt was redrawing the
geo-politics of the state.

The history of animosity between Bengalis and Assamese goes back a long way,
far before the first Bangladeshi migrant entered this hilly state. Its
genesis, as in so many conflicts that rage across the world, lies rooted in
identity and language. And like so many of the subcontinent's contemporary
problems, it was a creation of colonial rule.

For administrative purposes, the British Government made Assam a part of the
Bengal Presidency in the 1830s and Bengali became the official language of
the courts soon thereafter. Until Indian Independence and even after,
Bengalis dominated the bureaucracy in the state. Though Assamese had
replaced Bengali as the state's official language, Bengali remained
pervasive in the fields of literature and arts and disproportionate in the
government services. The Assamese agitations that began in the 1980s were
sparked off by the influx of Bengali-speaking migrants, from across the
national borders and from the neighbouring West Bengal. It was seen by the
Assamese as an attempt to change the demography of the state.

In search of a slightly better life (or indeed, of survival) Bangladeshi
migrant workers were pouring in through the porous borders of the state,
sharing the already scant resources and adding to the paranoia of the
Assamese. Bengalis from West Bengal who did not have to cross national
borders, but perhaps borders of the mind, were clubbed together as “illegal
migrants”. My family and I were illegal in our own country.

Xenophobia was awakened during the agitations. Passions were stirred; hatred
was easy to ferment. It is not difficult to see why a silent, somewhat
placid people reacted so virulently and why a sleepy land exploded in such
violent catharsis. Thousands were killed, the para-military forces were
brought in, men vanished, women were raped and a generation grew up
brutalised. And it was all for the sake of identity and by extension,
language, one of the primary modes of identification and sense of community.
It was for fear of losing these precious marks of identity that the young
Assamese man felt threatened when a seven-year-old boy spoke Bangla.

It is the same fear right wing parties across the world exploit. British
tabloids distributed free on the underground and every supermarket chain
regularly scream headlines that the white Englishman will become a minority
figure within this century. The Tories are back in power. In France, Sarkozy
rules new anti-immigration laws. In Germany, neo-fascists spread hatred. It
is the feeling that we will lose our sense of identity, our way of life, our
language. Foreign tongues will take over.

By the 1980s, Assamese literature had for a long time been subdued, and the
beautiful music of the hills overwhelmed by the Bengali presence. The
central government, predominantly a North India-centric creation ignored the
North-East as it still does with many parts of the country, including the
South and the East of India, which have their own share of language-based
agitations. What was perhaps unique in the case of Assam and the North-East
as a whole is that not only was it politically ignored by an apathetic
state, it was also geographically remote and badly connected. In the 80s,
getting to the region from other parts of the country was nightmarish,
involving multiple train changes and only the one functioning airport in
Guwahati. The arguments of multiculturalism, the fact that language prospers
when in contact with others are difficult to make to people who were
landlocked and isolated. Even Europe, the melting pot of identities in the
post-internet age, has its fair share of xenophobia, some, like in France,
pursued actively by the government. One just has to think of the expulsion
of the Roma people by the present French government to understand that
differences are still not easily accepted.

But these are thoughts of a more adult mind, rationalising violence,
understanding paranoia and brutality. But growing up in Guwahati, the
gateway to Assam, was not your usual small town experience. Yes, we made up
our games, played in the streets: football with a makeshift bundle of
newspapers and cricket with a bat fashioned from odd bits of wood. But we
also played other games, more violent ones that we invented from the spaces
and situations around us. Boys and girls played at the two communities, the
Bengalis and Assamese and we fought each other. We simulated staying up all
night to guard our streets, like our elders. And like them the Bengalis were
always humiliated in our games. Instinctively therefore, each of us wanted
to be Assamese. The Assamese, in our limited childhood geography, were the

As we grew into adolescence, our neighbourhood and everything around us
changed. The streets which had been largely desolate were now populated by
military men in their olive green attire, their brusqueness and their own
fears and loneliness. I saw the once powerful Assamese of my childhood mind
questioned and threatened, humiliated and beaten, in their own land. Dragged
out of their homes, every young man was labelled a potential enemy of the
state. This great multi-lingual nation of ours was going to elicit loyalty,
beating it out if necessary, from its citizens.

Nationhood is a concept; national boundaries are etched in the mind and maps
more than physically marked on land. It needs symbols and signs to bind
disparate communities together; national flags, national anthems, the common
passion of a national sport and most importantly, a national language. The
British government is trying to make it mandatory for new immigrants to
speak English, intending more cohesiveness between migrant communities and
the mainstream national culture. Several countries of the North have already
succeeded in making a knowledge of their own national languages one of the
stipulations for long-term residency applicants. But what do you do in a
country where you have over 20 official languages, many more unofficial ones
and nearly 2,000 recorded dialects?

India's insistence on Hindi as the national language led to a North
India-centric hegemony which alienated geographically peripheral states. A
new form of colonisation began post Independence with Delhi's politicians
and bureaucrats playing the role of the insensitive British official. In
several states of the country such as Assam, it found violent expression.
Like their colonial predecessor, the government's reaction was to come down
forcefully on those who questioned the might of the state.

A few months back, 20 years after the agitations, I returned to Assam, to
Guwahati. Liberalisation, a sudden influx of capital, media technology and
the forces of globalisation have pushed open this once remote place. I could
write of old things, known streets and a child's remembered landmarks that
have vanished into the melting pot of India's burgeoning economy but I will
resist that nostalgia here.

What I will simply remark is that what the centre could not manage to do
with muscle power, it has managed to do with economic clout. The children of
today are less bothered about identity politics and more concerned with
their MBA degrees. Buildings are built, edifices vanish overnight as the
state plays catch up with the rest of the country, eager not to miss out on
the economic bounty. The urban Assamese are no longer bothered about the
languages spoken on their land as long as their children speak English,
preferably with an American twang. The Bengalis are no longer the threat as
the sudden prosperity hides, at least for the moment, this other hegemony.
Assamese however, as many other languages of this country, still remains
marginalised. If history tells us anything, future generations, once the
euphoria of prosperity is over, will come back to identity politics.
Hopefully, the government would have learnt from history and listen well.

*Somnath Batabyal* is Fellow at the University of Heidelberg.

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