Identity politics of the wayward kind (Assam Tribune Edit/20 July 2009)
— Ranen Kumar Goswami
The borderline between crime and patriotism appears to have faded in Assam. Killings, kidnapings, extortions and serial blasts by the likes of Daud Ibrahim are called crime, pure and simple. But killings, kidnappings, extortions and serial blasts in the name of sovereignty, separate State or autonomy are glorified as acts of patriotism, nationalism and what not, at least by a section of the media.
Identity assertion movements or identity politics are not new to Assam, or for that matter, North East. Economic development, even though limited, gives birth to a middle class in an ethnic group. Members of this class seek a say in the political decision-making process. Identity politics germinates in their aspirations. It’s only too natural. Demands of such a movement may not aim at the highest level at the initial stage. It may be a demand for scheduling, introduction of a language at the primary school level or limited autonomy and so on. Later, these demands may culmianate in a demand for a separate State or a sovereign country. Unity in diversity is the basis of the anthropological museum called India or North East. Refusal of the socio-political structure to recognise this diversity can be the ammunition for identity politics. If organisations dominated by members of the advanced sections fail to earn the confidence of the people who are left behind, they will start looking for alternatives. If they do not enjoy any influence over the administration, they will, in all likelihood, form organisations based on ethnicity and go in for collective bargaining.
It was Guru Kalicharan Brahma who led the Bodo awakening. Other pioneers included persons like Rupnath Brahma and Modaram Brahma. Dr Sivanath Barman has called Guru Kalicharan Brahma the Ram Mohan Roy of the Bodo society. It was at his initiative that the Bodo Students’ Union was formed at Dhubri in 1915, much before the country gained independence. Its first annual session was held at Kokrajhar in 1919. Educated people emerged from other backkward tribes also who began to understand the importance of getting organised. This led to formation of organuisations like Sadou Asom Kachari Sanmilani, Miri Sanmilani, Sadou Asom Deuri Sanmilani, Rabha Sanmilani and Lalung Sanmilani. Later they felt the importance of numbers in an administration based on election and the need for a united force of all tribals, the tribal league was the crystallised form of this thought. Born in 1933, its first session was held at Raha. The Bhimbar Deuri-led Tribal League played a role as pivotal as that of the Gopinath Bordoloi-led Congress in saving Assam from grouping in 1946. Those were the fledgling days of identity politics.
Now it has taken various forms. In many cases its manifestations are angry and violent. And in many cases wayward. No doubt, the highest stage of self-determination is sovereignty. Any movement in support of sovereignty will naturally invite State repression. A misplaced faith in sovereignty or misguided armed action to achieve it may do more harm than good as we have seen in Assam. If killing of civilians, kidnappings and extortions become the cherished forms of struggle, there can be no escape from depravity. In Assam, armed action has been resorted to not only in support for sovereignty, but in support of separate States too. And isolated from the commoners, all these so-called armed struggles have degenerated into terrorism even though a section of the media always tries to glamorise them as freedom fighters. Equally true, we cannot and should not brand identity politics as irrational just because some of its followers have embraced terrorism as their chosen path.
In 1967, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made an announcement that the States would be reorganised. The announcement provided new ammunition to identity politics. In 1967 itself was born the Plains Tribals Council of Assam (PTCA), which gave a new lease of life to identity politics among the Bodos. It demanded a separate homeland under the title “Udayachal” for the plains tribes. Not that the demand for autonomy was unheard of among the tribals. In 1947, Satish Chandra Basumatary had submitted a memorandum to the government making a similar demand. Several years before that, a demand for autonomy had been raised by the North East Frontier Miri-Abor Sanmilan and Asomar Janajatisamuhar Sanmilan. Indira Gandhi’s announcement found a legal expression in 1969 when the Assam Reorganisation Act was passed in Parliament allowing formation of autonomous States within Assam. Article 244-A was inserted in the Constitution facilitating the birth of such States comprising certain tribal areas in Assam and creation of local legislature or council of ministers or both therefore. Advocates of new States drew inspiration from this constitutional patronage. In 1972, Meghalaya and Nagaland received recognition as separate States and Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh as Union Territories. These developments were an elixir for identity politics among other tribals.
Then came the Assam Movement (1979-1985). It was followed by the Bodo Movement for a separate State and the Karbi Movement for an autonomous State. These movements greatly influenced other ethnic groups who launched various movements for autonomy of various levels. The organised form of armed action born during the Assam Movement was the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). A section took to arms at a later stage in the Bodo Movement. Later they split; a section of them gave up the separate state demand and accepted limited autonomy, and the other section is continuing with its armed action in support of a sovereign Bodoland demand. They are on the opposite sides of the legal fence and both resort to violent means against each other to establish political supremacy in Bodo areas. Their clashes are a constant threat to peace and tranquility in these areas. Killings, explosions and extortions are the favourite forms of struggle of the pro-sovereignty faction, the latest milestone in their battle for freedom being the serial blasts in Assam on October 30, 2008. And no prize for knowing that like the top lenders of ULFA, their top leaders are also on foreign shores at a safe distance.
We have to welcome the awakening identity politics has generated among various ethnic groups. But it has its dark sides too; taking to arms and their misuse is one of them. ULFA is one of the worst examples. The outfit has declared war against the Indian State, but avoids armed conflicts with the Army and instead kills only civilians. If this is not misguided nationalism, what is? Armed groups have now emerged among various ethnic groups of Assam. They include Karbi Longri National Liberation Front (KLNLF) and United People Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) among the Karbis; Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) among the Kukis, Hmar People’s Convention (HPC) and Military Council among the Hmars and Dima Halom Daogah (Nunisa) and Dima Halom Daogah (Jewel Garlossa) among the Dimasas. The Jewel Garlossa group is known as Black Widow. These are just examples, there are many more.