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From Sovereignty To Scheduling: Are The Curtains Closing?

By Suraj Gogoi & Prasenjit Biswas

18 November, 2015

By demanding ST status to six communities in Assam comprising of Motok, Moran, Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbonshi, Sootea and Tea Tribes, ULFA created an abyss between state and society. It is a dent that have pulled many chords in Brahmaputra Valley and its ripples are seen in a very pronounced way in Delhi, with BJP taking much interest. Not only it has left the various political parties, student and cultural organization in dilemma but at the same time leaves us with a question that was much required to be answered from the corridors of organised politics—who is an Assamese?

Who is an Assamese?

Assam has been understood by historians, political scientists and sociologists/indologists respectively as a 'contact zone', a place of 'transnational flow' and a place where 'caste-culture' exists. One can argue that most places in South-Asia are likely to exhibit these qualities in some way or the other. Even Maharashtra qualifies to be such a area/place/culture. The boundaries of the identity have become insignificant and have blurred and criss-crossed over the years. So much so that when the question was raised in the Assam Assembly everyone literally begged off. Why is there such illegibility of such an identity which is so commonplace in narratives and politics of the state? We are of course aware of the various literatures that have argued for re-ethinization of the various ethnic groups in Assam for a longer peaceful solution to the state. We are also familiar with the various writers, commentators, academicians and leaders who shared sheer joy with incidents like Nellie. They are now comfortable in life and are silent when a community such as Tai-Ahom demands ST status. However they are silently wary of the 'contamination' that the outsiders bring and celebrate the cultural 'impurities' at large, as historian Yasmin Saikia puts it. In short there is no shortage of 'mein-kamph' literature arising out of the state.

The ideology of ULFA was to contest and 'reverse' the 'opposition between nationalism and colonialism'. This was done by 'juxtaposing' the two and seek to recover the 'nation' in an 'undistorted' form. In other words it wanted to rescue the nation from colonialism. The identity of Assamese finds its origin in this very struggle against Indian colonialism where 'resources' were 'drained' like a 'colonial hinterland'.

Demands for ST status

Scheduling of land is an act of governmentality. More than a political tool to segregate and differentiate regions, which was later justified by the philosophies of 'assimilation' and 'integration' of various group formation followed a principle of protection and musemizing the people to protect their culture. One of the foremost accounts of dividing land into economic and non-economic entities are to be found in John Locke's Two Treaties. Some current scholarships have rightly emphasized and highlighted the need to look at the text Two Treaties in order to understand the nuances of the land distinction and administrative divisions that was carried out by colonizers. In case of India it is apparent as to how land was scheduled and how Lock's Two Treaties especially labour theory was applied thoroughly in segregating land into economic and non-economic zones. Those may have been driven by the different factors of production and the kind of agricultural practice. The areas which had more or less settled cultivation and sufficient labour to apply became economic zones and ones which had the unattainable and in-intelligible tribes and shifting cultivators were termed non-economic as they were difficult to govern. Those ideals were more or less followed by the post-colonial state celebrating the transfer of power until recently. Scheduling of land goes with the Scheduling of people. Land opens up such possibilities.

The six communities combined aggregates to above 40% of the total population of the state. If this proposal to grant ST status is carried out, which is the demand set forth by ULFA for peace talks, 80 Legislative Assemble seats out of 126 seats will be reserved for STs. That is certainly not a healthy political canvas of the state. Some good number of voices from Jonai in Assam argues that if the demands are given to these communities they shall go back to demanding for OBC—from being an ST! If that can be counted as a slightest of gestures of ethnic politics we can see how boundaries are drawn. It certainly does not appear to me as peaceful times ahead.

After an un-ethical and bogus profiling of people through National Registry of Citizens that swept the state of Assam where people were left searching for a piece of paper to prove their identity, the state was greeted with providing citizenship to 'Hindu Bangladeshi'. It almost went to the verge of another Agitation from various quarters. Such a political hamlet was made possible by a right-wing Hindu nationalist political party. However, the recent developments on the demands made by ULFA have brought fresh conflicts and reactions. Neither such a development even if it comes true should be seen as a goodwill gesture for the communities as Moraji Desai reminded us that territory is important; not people. To rhyme with such a discourse we have what Sardar Patel had to say about the North-Eastern's after the China War. The supposed disloyalty of the Northeasterners and their deeply problematique inclusion within Indian suzerainty as well as exclusion of some (e.g., Sylhet in July, 1948) through a historically ‘controversial referendum’ points a politics of maneuvering and manipulation of certain categories of people and places.

Ontological Insecurity

The demand for ST status arises out of a deep sense of ontological insecurity. A demand supposed to be weighed in socio-economic terms of relative deprivation and backwardness now assumes the form of claims of being aboriginals of the state of Assam versus being a latecomer, be it an Axomiya (inclusive of Na-Axomiya, the Mymensingh settlers) or be it an immigrant from those areas that now fall under Bangladesh. Discursively speaking a politics of inclusion/exclusion is played out by creating a binary between the native and the outsider, the original residents and the latecomer and other such distinctions that draws a boundary between the self and the other. In the demand for ST status, all these categories of opposition is played out to claim authenticity in terms of ancestry and mythical pasts. This is a kind of politically constructed history that plays out its tropes of othering, both internal and external. For example, within Axomiya identity, separation between Ahom, Bamun, Kayasthyas, Janjatis and internal process of othering in a neighborhood or at a distance is as salient as total otherness of Nepalis, Bengalis, Biharis. Two kinds of positioning happens here: the composite identity of being Axomiya gets reversed in the process of internal othering with segments of people claiming distinction and thereby weakening the core and the second one is an external boundary with an alien other with whom there is lack of linguistic-cultural-religious affinities. Using Edward Said’s categorization of this process, one can call it filiation othering in the case of internal othering, while external othering is an affiliational othering. Granting an ST status to the tribes within territory of Axom is a step ahead of this practice of othering, as it will rather determine a close group identity, membership of which will remain limited to kinship, family and other filial relations. The implication is quite severe, as it creates hairline border between such filial groups who have been together in a convergent and composite identity called Axomiya and further it completely alter inter-ethnic relations shared by linguistic affiliation to Axomiya as a linguistic identity. One would say that linguistic category of being Axomiya is then transformed into sub-linguistic subgroups of difference and distinction that selectively remains affiliated to a common linguistic identity. In a strong sense, language is thrown back into public sphere as a mere tool of communication that can translate each other’s shared concerns without a deep cultural root. Axomiya as a culturally rooted language loses its convergent character by being branched out into several tribal identities that do not necessarily hang together, as it goes for searching its own distinct linguistic, historical and cultural roots.

This is a replay of the Lockean form of sovereignty where the natives and their characteristic belonging such as land and property comes under the control of the sovereign without their consent. The strength and the pride of the filial over that of affiliation make the control of the sovereign possible. Affiliation, rather, constitutes a different core other than what the sovereign wants them to be. The sovereign wants them to be what they are and not what they can become. Scheduling the six groups as tribals makes those who are already tribes a little jittery about loss of their share and hence creates the strange situation of many of these tribes demanding OBC status, instead of being tribals anymore. This would be a return to a tribe-caste conflict and bring back a tougher struggle between the tribals and the non-tribals, which does not exist today in Assam.


Suraj Gogoi, Research Scholar, Delhi School of Economics

Prasenjit Biswas, Associate Professor, Philosophy, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.


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