Yogendra Yadav and Shekhar Gupta vouch for a monolithic Assamese identity; get history and politics around NRC all wrong

It is a logical fallacy to support NRC and oppose CAA, as both feeds into each other.

Angshuman Choudhury and Suraj Gogoi December 27, 2019 07:28:58 IST
Yogendra Yadav and Shekhar Gupta vouch for a monolithic Assamese identity; get history and politics around NRC all wrong
  • It is a logical fallacy to support NRC and oppose CAA, as both feeds into each other.

  • Without the NRC, the CAA would be of little use to the BJP’s agenda of bolstering its Hindu voter base.

  • Both the CAA and the Assam NRC are regimes of segregation, exclusion and discrimination.

As India rises in rage against the anti-secular Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, prominent intellectuals and activists are leading the charge. One of them is Yogendra Yadav, a leading liberal voice and critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

Earlier this year, Yadav, who currently heads the Swaraj India party, said that the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is the “most pernicious bills to be ever introduced in the Indian Parliament”. He has now called for a nationwide protest against the CAA, which came to life in the wee hours of 12 December with the President signing it into force.

Yadav’s fierce opposition to the CAA is appreciable. But, for someone who has unequivocally supported the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, it is a duplicitous position. In fact, it mirrors the narrow stance taken by certain progressive Assamese ethno-nationalists who oppose the CAA, but firmly back the NRC process in Assam.

Yogendra Yadav and Shekhar Gupta vouch for a monolithic Assamese identity get history and politics around NRC all wrong

File image of Yogendra Yadav. PTI

Both the CAA and the Assam NRC are regimes of segregation, exclusion and discrimination. To selectively support one and oppose the other is disingenuous. Moreover, it is a logical fallacy to support NRC and oppose CAA, as both feeds into each other. Without the NRC, the CAA would be of little use to the BJP’s agenda of bolstering its Hindu voter bases.

In a July 2018 article for The Print titled Does India care about the simmering volcano that Assam has become? Yadav emphatically declared that the “NRC process must be continued and supported". Such a bold assertion requires careful scrutiny.

In the article, Yadav gives in to the linguistic-cultural alarmism of the Assamese ethno-nationalists who fear “becoming a minority in their own state”. In the process, he commits the same epistemological crimes that Assamese ethno-nationalists routinely commit to justify the NRC, that is data obfuscation and causation error.

Statistical misassumptions

Yadav cites Census figures to show how “between 1991 and 2001, the Assamese speaking population had declined from 58 percent to 48 percent while the Bengali-speaking population had increased from 21 percent to 28 percent.” But, instead of citing the precise data from the next decade (2001-2011), which would reflect the most recent situation, he simply says that “going by this trend, the Assamese speaking population is currently around 40 percent while the Bengali speakers are estimated to be one-third of the population of the state.” Is that the case?

According to the 2011 language data, which is the most current available record, the percentage of Assamese speakers in Assam is 48.38 percent, which is, in fact, closer to around 50 percent and not “around 40 percent” as Yadav assume. In 2001, it was 48.80, which is only marginally higher. Even the corresponding rise in the percentage of Bengali speakers from 27.54 percent in 2001 to 28.91 percent in 2011 was marginal. These stats essentially show that the rapid linguistic changes that Assam saw between 1991-2001 weren’t repeated in the next decade by any measure. Even the difference between the overall decadal growth rates of Assamese and Bengali (nationally) between 2001-2011 is slender. Bengali did grow faster than Assamese, but only by a tiny margin of 0.36 percent.

Yadav also pulls up the religion data to state that “the Muslim population of Assam had increased from 25 percent in 1951 to 34 percent in 2011.” Once again, he conceals the most recent figures. The percentage of Muslim population in Assam grew from 30.92 percent in 2001 to 34.22 percent in 2011, a marginal increase of 3.3 percent.

But there’s a bigger question here. Why does Yadav cite these data sets to justify the NRC? What link do they have with so-called “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh that the NRC seeks to identify?

In this piece, Debarshi Das, an academic at the Humanities and Social Science Department, IIT Guwahati, notes that the increase in Bengali-speakers in Assam doesn’t necessarily indicate illegal immigration from across the border. It could be due to inter-state migration within India or other organic factors. Similarly, Abdul Mannan, former professor of statistics at Gauhati University, argues that the increase in Muslim population in Assam does not necessarily indicate illegal immigration from Bangladesh. He also notes how other communities in Assam, such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, had higher growth rates than Muslims during the same period.

Yadav makes another misleading assumption. He says that “these linguistic and religious changes in the composition of the population are most accentuated in the districts that lie next to the Bangladesh border”. There is no comprehensive data set to prove this point. In fact, the final NRC draft itself busted this myth by showing high rates of inclusion in the border districts.

Most importantly, beyond these minute statistical misassumptions, Yadav’s empirical obsession with linguistics in Assam doesn’t accommodate the complex history of migration and the politics around Census data. For example, large numbers registered as Assamese speakers in many censuses conducted by the government since the anti-Bengali Bongal Kheda Andolan days. This fact is noted on many occasions by veteran journalist Nirupama Borgohain.

Intellectual chauvinism

Yadav also directly falls into the nativist trap. He says that “Although there is little substance to the bogey of Assam turning into a Muslim majority state, yet the concerns of the ‘sons of the soil’ including the Ahomiya, Bodos and other tribal communities, cannot be dismissed.” To back this up, he references the frontline ethno-nationalist intelligentsia of Assam.

According to Yadav, “some of the leading intellectuals of Assam like Hiren Gohain and Apurba Baruah have taken a [...] saner line” that “supports the NRC process while providing for safeguards for the minorities”.  This “saner” group “acknowledges that the linguistic, cultural and ethnic concerns of the pre-existing inhabitants of Assam are legitimate and that we need a robust process for identification of foreigners”.

This is a deeply problematic cue for Yadav to take. Intellectuals like Gohain and Baruah may not be ultranationalists, but have contributed significantly to the mainstream discourses of otherisation, chauvinism and cultural supremacy of the ‘Assamese’ that in turn legitimise discriminatory bureaucratic structures like the NRC. We have argued in our earlier pieces how intellectuals like Gohain espouse a narrow variant of Assamese nationalism by not just defending the NRC, but also imposing the Assamese language on minority groups, such as the Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam.

Yadav also offers a simplistic and monolith history of modern Assamese nationalism, conveniently glossing over inconvenient realities of the whole anti-foreigner movement.

According to Yadav, the Assam Movement (1979-85), which led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, did not carry any communal sentiments, but only ethnic hues.

“There was an unmistakable anti-Bengali tinge to this ‘anti-foreigner’ movement, but the movement steered clear of anti-Muslim politics,” he asserts. This sentiment is echoed by noted journalist, Shekhar Gupta. In a video published by ThePrint.in in September, Gupta notes that the politics in Assam carries ‘secular ethnic impulse’. Both could not be more wrong.

The manner in which a Bangladeshi is othered in Assam carries both racial and religious overtones. It is a toxic mix of the nativist binary of “indigenous versus outsider” and caste Hindu anxieties about the stereotypical “Muslim Bangladeshi”. It is shocking that they believe that the Movement had a “secular” character when one of India’s worst anti-Muslim pogroms, the Nellie Massacre of 1983, occurred in the thick of it. Gupta himself reported on the incident as the Indian Express’s principal correspondent in Assam. But unfortunately, this is the season of selective amnesia.

Most importantly, both Yadav and Gupta gloss over how ethnic politics in Assam is characterised by xenophobia and chauvinism -- something that even the Assamese intellectuals whom Yadav quotes in his article have explicitly spoken in their writings. Yadav and Gupta also safely ignore the anti-minority impulse of nativist politics and its institutional manifestations.

A PUCL fact-finding report from 1980, of many other similar reports, shows the kind of dangerous environment the minorities and the targeted ‘outsiders’ found themselves in during the Assam Movement. It also records the many anti-minority killings perpetrated by the Movement’s agents. The anti-minority nature of the NRC has already been highlighted in the current context by various activists, academics and journalists.

The pluralism of Assamese identity

The politics that Yadav and Gupta espouse and the understanding they carefully carve for us mirror the caste Assamese politics in Assam. They hardly bring anything new to our understanding of society and politics in the state. Most worryingly, they uncritically perpetuate the same dominant discourse that constantly dehumanises the “Bangladeshi illegal immigrant” and treats their bodies as pollutants and scavengers in the land of the Assamese. By doing so, they end up re-propagating a homogenous Assamese self that is devoid of plurality and heterogeneity.

The specific Assamese identity that Yadav and Gupta end up promoting is amnesic to the multiple debts it owes t0 various cultural worlds from which Assamese, as a culture in itself, borrows its cosmologies. Assamese literature and culture embrace Xatriya, Bhatiya and Janajati, or both hills and plains and their traditions. Indeed, Assamese culture owes much to the tribal constituents of Assam, and not just to the Indo-Gangetic plains. As Bishnu Prasad Rabha, one of the prime cultural doyens of Assam points out, in the confluence of multiple cultures, we get what we call Assamese. One should accept this debt with all humility.

Assamese nationalists take us away from these heterogeneous understandings and shared cultures that make the very Assamese identity possible. One doesn’t have to go far, but only ask why modern progressive intellectuals like Hiren Gohain take issue with the Bengal-origin Muslim and Adivasi communities of Assam expressing and writing in their own mother tongues.

Even the NRC legitimises a monolithic Assamese identity, which not only suppresses the cultures of multiple ethnic and tribal groups in Assam but turns collective majoritarian insecurities at the alleged ‘Bangladeshi’ who is made the concrete “other” who is to be expelled and even exterminated. In other words, it engages the lower classes, castes and tribes and turns them into armies for the caste Assamese middle-class project of exclusion, which continues to define regional politics.

Powerful civil society bodies such as All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Assam Sahitya Sabha (ASS) are active agents in foregrounding such a xenophobic and chauvinistic character of Assamese nationalism. It is to be kept in mind that they are not just a student union and a literary body, but have functioned like institutions that mark and instruct the modalities of politics in contemporary Assam. Supporting the NRC amounts to supporting such agents and agendas of Assamese nationalism. But, neither Yadav nor Gupta cares to delve into the decisive role that these organisations have played in erecting the machinery of racist segregation in Assam.

They should remember that the NRC is part of that same citizenship determination regime of Assam that also includes the judicially-broken Foreigners' Tribunals (FTs) and the oppressive detention camps. To support the NRC would be to not-so-latently support the tribunals and the camps, both of which have come under fire from the United Nations in the past.

For ostensible democrats like Yadav, such a position on mainstream Assamese politics and history only contradicts their self-professed image. As shown above, careful scrutiny of his position actually shows us he is actually closer to the Republican notion of citizenship when it comes to Assam -- the opposition to multiculturalism, reasserting Assamese nationalism which paved way for domination by caste Assamese middle class. Jean-Claude Milner’s understanding of republican citizenship will support our claim here. Political theorist Jacques Rancier speaking about Milner notes: ‘republican theory opposes all forms of multiculturalism and affirmative action, let alone any encroachments by social or cultural difference on its authority and its universality’.

NRC and CAB are complementary to each other. Creating an exception to NRC for specific areas of India will only produce more exceptions to the law and human life which already find itself in a very precarious condition. We ought to oppose both with all our beings.

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