|Volume 5 Issue 02 | February 2011|
The Fear of Loss
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 powerful.
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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