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I grew up as a sick child, having suffered a chronic cough for over seven years. My parents tried everything to cure my illness. In one of such pursuits, I found myself traveling to Mayong with my father[1]. We travelled in a bus from Sadiya, the easternmost place in Assam, along with many others. Some were known to me and others unknown. Upon arrival in Mayong, I saw people gathered in tens of thousands to pay a visit or darshan of the fakir who could cure people of all maladies. The point of this story is to highlight the normal and everyday that is associated with such journeys made by people from multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds.  Such journeys are a reminder of shared beliefs and crossing of boundaries in Assam, until a few years ago. Mayong, like many other areas, was such a place. However, sharing and crossing gets replaced by anger, apathy, fear and disdain for people from other belief and of contiguous groups. How have people of Assam reached a stage where there is such alterity towards the near other?

Assamese is a hybrid and creolised form of identity and life. It borrows and owes its debt to many other cultural forms of life and living has been totally forgotten. Central to politics of the region, The Assam Movement, in its essence, opened the doors of hatred upon the people of Bangladeshi origin. Without a doubt, they form the most identifiable group of margins in contemporary Assam. Northeast – Assam in particular – found an Other in the ‘Bangladeshi’, giving the son of the soil or khilonjiya a more pronounced notion of self [2]. Such cracks in the social relationship seem to move towards an irreparable state of being. It is increasingly becoming a Hinduised state, as we speak. As the Assam Movement reached its climax with the Assam Accord, accommodating the multi-ethnic social fabric in the corridors of power became increasingly difficult. On the other hand, the syncretic tradition of being Assamese gave way to a very elite form of life which gave primacy to caste elite and Assamese middle class, among others. This led to a ‘break with inter-ethnicity’[3] or ‘trans-ethnicity’[4]. Movements of self-determination and autonomy mushroomed after this ‘break’ more than ever. This break is due to the dominance of the creolization process—when one form of life becomes dominant—hence, marking a distance from the forms of hybridity that were otherwise integral part of Assamese identity. It is in these precise encounters the khilonjiya narrative and discourse invites critique. It is necessary to question Assamese identity as it remains undefined as to what it includes and excludes. In other words, what gets included and excluded in the identity-making process is as important as who decides them.

Namami Brahmaputra is an allegory. It serves as a reminder to the break with inter-ethnicity. It is also reflective of the fact that the Bodos, the Mishing, the Dimasa, the Koch, among others, to whom the very idea of Assamese as an identity and life-world owes its cultural debt, is entirely bypassed in orchestrating a celebration and ritual on and off the river Brahmaputra. A ritualistic turn of celebrating the river was performed, which relates neither to everyday life nor in myth. The performance of Namami was banal in its purest sense. In doing so, it hid the hegemonic and unequal social relations that are available in Assam, like of the Morias—a caste-like status group in Assam.

Conservation is the new mechanism to attack the margins. The stories of Kaziranga are not an aberration. No one has the right to take away someone’s life. Life indeed is embedded in multiple moral and ethical processes. Killing in the name of conservation is not a new story, especially given the trajectory it has taken in India. Any act of killing—be it rhino or poachers—undergoes a moral question. This moral question raised by Save the Rhino International in an informal piece in the following tone—“Is it ever OK to defend a policy that can mean the loss of human life in order to protect wildlife?” We are all aware of the various courses of actions that can be considered in a given situation when poachers are found in their inhumane act of killing animals—a rhino. Forests guards being provided with arms to protect themselves and the wildlife. They are being given impunity for their acts. It is not just limited to Kaziranga, there are examples from a few African nations—Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The ethical concern remains about how one makes human life as an essential thing to be taken away to meet the needs of conservation. By all means conserving the planet is a unitary goal of humanity; however, one has to critically reflect upon how a policy such as Shoot to Kill comes into being. A careful examination of such a policy will show that the social cost of such a policy is higher than the gains such policy brings home. There is a larger syndicate that is involved in this business of rhino horn trade. It is as much a structural problem as it is of power relations. Targeting such larger networks of power can be more useful acts of checking such trafficking.

Politics around conservation engulfs multiple issues. However, the social alterity acts as a catalyst to the issue of conservation related eviction and uprooting of people from their hearts and homes. Pranab Doley and Soneshwar Narah have been fighting for the cause of such margins who are at the receiving (were charged under Indian Penal Code Sections 147, 447, 353 and 506 and in jail at the time of writing) end of atrocities in Kaziranga for many years. Instead of rehabilitating the victims, the Assam Government seems to target the defenders of human rights. Increasingly, the margins and the solidarity to such violations of life and living are at perils. It is here we should ask ourselves a question, and it is not why this is happening. It is, rather, how it has become possible[5]? We should also not see these charges and arrests as singular acts. Behind such acts hides a larger social and political history which also needs to be equally critiqued. The larger fear isn’t just a Modi, Trump or Yogi Adityanath, for the social is more important than the individual. Hence, the notion of possibility is more important than one allows.

Solidarity is available to us only when there is a critique of something. This something often relates to the margins. Margins are also the places where the limits of state power are made visible. India’s Northeast often suffers from marginality—both within and without. I attempted to engage with the later as a critique of the former.

Suraj is a doctoral student at the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.

[1] Mayong, a Muslim majority area, is a place which finds its place in historical accounts. It is known and identified as a place of black magic. It is located in the district of Morigaon in the Northeastern state of Assam.

[2] See Prasenjit Biswas and Chandan Suklabaidya, Ethnic life-worlds in North-East India (Sage Publication 2008).

[3] See Uddipana Goswami, Conflict and Reconciliation: Politics of Ethnicity in Assam (Routledge, 2014).

[4] See Philippe Ramirez, People of the Margins: Across Ethnic Boundaries in North-East India (Spectrum, 2014).

[5] I use this as a post-historical question. Possibility is a very important question that serves as a reminder to Auschwitz, as articulated by Vilém Flusser in Post-History (University of Minnesota Press, 2013


One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Violation of environment safety, harassment of tribals and smuggling of forest resources is common in Assam where river Brahmaputra and natural resources are n abundance. Kaziranga has many wild tigers and forest officials connive with smugglers to mint money. If such misdeeds ar exposed in writing or by films and documentaries, the activists are tortured and imprisoned. This should be opposed by all social activists