Assam violence, Bangladeshis, and multiple states of denial

The national-level panic created among north-easterners living in various metros and big towns of India and the renewed flare-up of violence in Assam has had one positive fallout: we all now know that the north-east exists (we can now find those teeny-weeny states on the map); and we have learnt to acknowledge that they are Indians like any of us (they are not Chinese, despite the shapes of their eyes or facial features).

We all have to grudgingly admit that Indians come in various shapes and sizes and identities.

India is the ultimate salad-bowl nation, where identities stay fairly unique even as they start merging at the fringes – and we should be proud of that.

Unlike Europe, where segregated geographies and a unique set of historical circumstances created the nation-state where homogeneity was valued above all else in order to create a nation, in India we have always accepted the idea of the “state-nation”. I owe the idea of state-nation to the title of a book, Crafting State-Nations: India and other Multinational Democracies, written by Alfred Stepan, Juan Linz and Yogendra Yadav. I haven’t read it, but it’s a concept we Indians can understand instinctively. The core idea is that you don’t have to have a monocultural, dominant racial, religious or ethnic identity to constitute a state-nation.

Unlike the old idea of a melting-pot nation, where people of different identities merge themselves into one to give themselves a new sense of “we”, in the state-nation the initial ideal is the salad bowl – where each piece is distinct and yet part of the overall salad.

The west – Europe and America – chose the melting pot idea of creating nation-states. In the east, China and Japan, due to reasons of geographical isolation for long, also stayed nation-states.

Only in India, thanks to its fairly flat geography in the Indo-Gangetic plain, did we discover the need for a salad bowl approach to nationhood. We have developed a natural resistance to what Rajiv Malhotra calls “difference-anxiety” – that we must all be similar to constitute a nation. Malhotra explains this in his book Being Different: An Indian challenge to Western Universalism. The book explains why western universalism is really suspect, since it wants to erase differences between peoples by any means instead of acknowledging and engaging with “others” as equals. (To view a conversation between Malhotra and Mark Tully on the book, click here

Assam is a symbol of our own “difference anxieties” in India, and solving Assam will help us get back to our old strengths of unity in diversity. AP

The west created uniformity through brutality and extermination as it saw diversity as a threat. Ernest Renan, the 19th century French philosopher and historian, has asserted that unity is created by violence. He said: “Unity is ever achieved by brutality. The union of northern and southern France was the result of an extermination, and of a reign of terror that lasted for nearly a hundred years.” The early Americans achieved unity by exterminating the Red Indians, and the early Australians by finishing off the aborigines and so on.

No such brutality is ever recorded in Indian history – at least in the cause of achieving unity as a nation. In India, we had additionally enabled diversity through caste. Contrary to our present-day understanding of caste, it wasn’t invented to oppress people. It was to create a cocoon of kinship to allow diverse cultures and peoples to flourish with their identities intact. That caste has become a system of oppression is another matter, but our history shows that diversity is in out DNA.

With this background, let’s get back to Assam, the north-east, Bangladeshi infiltration and all the current crises we are facing as a polity over identities and ethnicities or every kind.

Assam is a symbol of our own “difference anxieties” in India, and solving Assam will help us get back to our old strengths of unity in diversity.

The right place to begin is to first snap out of our multiple denials.

The first denial relates to the fact that there has indeed been a huge influx from Bangladesh over the last century. The flows may have been small in some decades, and faster in some others, but the flows themselves are undeniable. Nilim Datta in Kafila.org explains the nuances of the so-called influx, but then goes on to suggest that it was merely “migration” rather than “illegal immigration” that caused new demographic shifts in Assam, and especially in its border districts.

The second denial relates to the complexity of the issues involved. Muslims in the rest of India are being told that the Assamese are targeting only them. The Sangh parivar would like all of us to believe that Hindu refugees should be welcomed since they are victims of oppression in Bangladesh, but not Muslim ones, since they are coming only for economic reasons, or even to further the cause of Greater Islam.

The narratives, however, are more complex. Assam is a mix of not only Assamese Hindus and Bengali Muslims, but equal amounts of Assamese Muslims and Bengali Hindus, not to speak of various tribal and animist enclaves – Santhals and many others – in various parts of Assam, not to speak of Christians (some of the Bodos who oppose the Bangladeshi influx in Kokrajhar are Christians).

The third denial relates to treating illegal Bangladeshis as a problem, but excluding Bangladesh itself as part of the solution. Can the problem of illegal immigration be solved without Bangladesh’s cooperation? The Assam Accord of the 1980s deemed all Bangladeshi immigrants, if they had come in before 1971, as Indians, but not those who came later. But to date very few Bangladeshi illegals have been deported for a simple reason: how can you prove this without setting up a detailed investigative machinery, and the active cooperation of Bangladesh? If any solution has to be found, Bangladesh has to be in the loop.

The fourth denial relates to the pretense that the illegals are only in Assam. Not only are they all over the north-east, but also in every major metropolitan and smaller cities of India.

The fifth denial flows from the fourth. The Bangladeshis – legal or illegal – have managed to spread all over because there is a need for their services. They form a critical part of the construction labour force in some states, and they also serve as cheap domestics in many metros.

Till we stop denying these realities, we cannot even attempt to get our arms round the problem.

The solutions, as we have said before, lie in the following approaches.

1) Accepting the reality that Bangladeshis will migrate to India in search of jobs, and we do need them.

2) Building fences and walls can reduce the inflows, but will not ultimately serve any purpose. The border is too porous, and the Bangladeshis too numerous, to keep them away.

3) It is not only Assam’s problem but the rest of India’s as well. Assam is too small to handle the influx. This is why even Bangladeshis are migrating all over. This could be one reason why the decadal change in Assam’s problem is lower than the rest of India. The illegal influx includes not only Assam, but also West Bengal, Bihar and many metros.

4) We have to have a system of work permits and gradual regularisation of their resident, and possibly citizen, status over time.

5) Over the long term, India needs to make more investments in Bangladesh to create jobs there so that the problem is partly dealt with at the root.

6) With the exception of Pakistan, which continues to be a hostile power, India needs to have an open border approach to all out neighbours (we already have it with Nepal), including Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

A South Asian Economic Community is in the process of emerging over time. In that lies the solution to our “difference anxieties” and our solutions.

Assam, the North-East and the Bangladeshi influx should awaken us to India's historical role in creating the state-nation and genuine unity in diversity.


Updated Date: Aug 17, 2012 14:24 PM

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