The Pervesion of Identity Politics: Dhemaji Blasts 2004
By Priyanka Dass Saharia
29 June, 2014
"The obsession with "our" language, "our" culture, "our" religion, "our" homeland has incarcerated us within the walls of purism and political decadence..." Kadirgamar (Kafila, June 2014)
Be it the Boko Haram in Nigeria, Sunni Shia schism in Iraq, the communal clashes in Sri Lanka or the Dhemaji blasts very near home; In the name of what is "ours" some groups decide to take a representation for the collectivity and in fighting against a unit that dominates and persecutes the community often seeks justification of its own perpetrated violence in the name of that cause. This kind of retaliatory violence and reactionary political activism comes with its share of violence that isn't selective of the "us" and "them" polarisation. A critical reflexivity that doesn't essentially emancipates us from these cultural, national, religious imaginations yet eliminates the associated "rigidity" and makes room for a peaceful co-existence. Political solidarity isn't a force that promotes strategic alliance between the "oppressed" and the "progressed" rather it's an exploitative card one plays in strengthening one's struggle against the other. It is imperative that one reconstructs the narrative of political freedom to re-imagine ourselves as a force to reassert the lost democratic political consciousness once again.
Last week at the publication of my article “Secret Killings of Assam”, a reader commented on the need to balance my perspective and look at both sides of the coin. He was obviously referring to the lawlessness and violence perpetrated in the power play of identity politics by the ULFA and the State. It takes me back to an article I read by Mr Kadirgamar on the online forum Kafila, “"The obsession with "our" language, "our" culture, "our" religion, "our" homeland has incarcerated us within the walls of purism and political decadence" was something that remained with me for awhile.
On critical reception of my earlier article, many have voiced out, “But ULFA has used civilians for their selfish purposes”, “They provoke young girls to verbally insinuate army men in markets” and many similar feedbacks. Though one shouldn’t take the route of justifying and normalising violence of any degree, and in any context, whosoever be the perpetrators, with any kind of counter-intuition and reverse blame games and strive to be more morally and politically responsible for these events which put dent to the spirit of humanity yet the issue needs some well deserved light.
I would like to take the readers back to 2004 , Independence day, when amidst a jubilant parade of children and adults celebrating 57 years of independence were bombed to death right near the college gates by a remote controlled bomb attack. It was in the remote district of Dhemaji in the north bank of the river Brahmaputra. To quell the precipitating chaos of the situation, the police opened tear gas and lathi charges. 13 people were dead; 10 children and the rest being women. A string of suspensions of the “occupational forces” and apologies by the governmental canopies couldn’t justify the event while the bereaved kin of the victims cried in vain for justice. Five years later, in an electronic mail, an apology was sent to the local media by the ULFA chief Paresh Barua issuing a public apology, the “biggest mistake of the ULFA” and describing the blasts as “the most tainted chapter of ULFA’s revolutionary history”. Arabinda Rajkhowa, the ULFA chairperson went ahead to the villages to apologise and offer condolences to the grief stricken families.
The helpless and bereaved parents had no alternative but to accept the apologies offered to them. Jogen Gogoi, who lost his 10 year old son is still haunted by the memory of the loss and says that monumental loss of this sort cannot be forgotten and forgiven so easily but for the sake of reconciliatory peace, he considered the appeal for the peace process initiated by the ULFA. In a symbolic move to collectively condemn violence, and press for development for the region, The ‘Children Educational and Career Development Centre’ (CECDC) in Dhemaji is the reality of such collective consciousness and demand for peace. The installation of bronze statues of the children remains a reminder of the aspirations of the common man to garner development through peace, negotiation and education rather than violence. The centre’s main idea has been to nurture the younger generation’s potential by providence of positive channels which would fuel their productive faculties.
“I have encountered many people in Delhi who have asked me about what does Assam really want from the nation. Is it self determination, freedom, resources? I somehow felt that the one thing common people want is peace”, says Khagen Deori (name changed) a resident of Dhemaji, currently working in Delhi. “Assamese people are peace loving. We are attached to the nature, our paddy fields, folk dances and songs and the spirit of a peaceful co-existence and this sort of violence subjects us to mental trauma”, he further asserts.
It remains no secret that there was a significant level of sympathy offered to the ULFA in earlier times of its conception by the people of Assam and it remains quite an ardours task to fit the relationship of the community and the ULFA between the dialectical framework of the pan Indian narrative and the ethnic one in a manner deemed politically correct as a part of the nation state of India. Sanjib Baruah adopts the term “intertextuality” from literary theory to come to grips with the nexus. “Intertextuality” is a term adopted by literary critiques to explain the complex linkages between one text with the other. To understand the related dynamics a little better, one needs to see the thread of connection, albeit in complex ways, between both parties, of issues central to the Assamese mainstream social discourse rather than dismissing the group as deviants conducting subversion on the borderland.
Identity politics, as believed by many isn’t only about self government and self determination but more so about self regard animated by efforts to define and defend the imagination of who “I” am, “we” are, “you” are and “they” are. The identification is made essentially by a judgement of values, commitments, comparisons and a fair bit of choice. Identity politics is often seen to destabilise taken-for-granted hierarchies and identities and spring up new political energy. Maybe for this reason, identity politics and democratic political freedom, are, in principle and often in practice, taken to be mutually supportive and enabling each other’s vitality.
But more often than so, it works in a manner in opposition to the general perception; Identity politics annihilates democratic freedom through a political perversion. Now, some people might raise the question behind the reins of agency in determining the elements pathological to democratic freedom.
Identity politics has been thought of as self regarding and self fulfilling which often is feared to head for a perversion of the entire political culture. It could be a representational dilemma as well; the portrayal of grievances and differences to be clinically diagnosed as an aberration of self motivated political groups. It is the discourse adopted for the construction of the representation that should be studied here. The motivations that drive self interested groups to present grievances and differences in a manner whose outcomes could be antithetical to what they claim to be striving for. Differences are a way to assert oneself while grievances motivate the exercise of political freedom. The distortion of representations of what’s really “real” could more often stifle freer and open articulation of political expression and fail to animate open democratic dialects. Many scholars have challenged the primordial aspect of constructing “race” as something inherent and inborn. They have elaborated on the reverse problems of racial profiling which these consolidated and crystallised identities often give rise to. A debate on the topic would be lengthy and dense which space doesn’t allow here, but one should feel the imperative to ask these questions differently.
More often than so, this kind of political discourse runs the risk of “essentialism”, the manufacture and planned engineering of emotions on the basis of some shared trait or constructed identity. These imaginings are often institutionalised to create a feeling of “affinity” which further would legitimise the advocacy of group claiming representational rights over a larger majority while the power holders of this politics systemically “engineer emotions” (a term used by Arunhdhati Virmani) of the masses to consolidate mass support.
The “demonization” of the other in this attempt could lead to self gratifying narratives which often precipitate into “black-holed” identities and power plays of minority politics. Self fulfilling prophesies leads to the banality of the nuisance that minority identity crisis is all about, which more than often gets exploited at the hands of manipulative and opportunist politicians. This sort of short sighted political engagements could be divisive fratricidal mechanisms leads to no concrete outcomes but merely these motivated political parties free ride on the chaos and crisis of these indentify struggles to effectively carry out a vote bank politics game.
There is great danger in a state as diverse as Assam when it comes to electoral politics of the kind and the history of the state has been the witness to the massacres that this manipulative strategy has given shape to. From Nelli Massacres to the Secret Killings, the exploitative nexus between the government and these sub national forces, crystallising into a “hybrid regime” (adopting a term from Sanjib Baruah) which often results in ambiguous political outcomes. This kind of affiliative political mobilisation has no sensitivity towards the diverse realities of demography of the region and often consolidates groups on these lines for political strength.
There is a cloud of anxiety over identities, which have their deep roots in material and ideological struggles in history. These everyday events just happen to be markers of such anxieties and troubled imaginations. A lack of reflexive and critical consciousness to reconstruct the narrative of political freedom which is further perpetrated by various external market forces like the invasive dissemination of distorted representations and imaginations by the social media could be combined with an in depth study of the genesis of the quest for ethnic identities in the region by well meaning scholars and policy makers.
More often than so, the voices of the groups in need of aid and justice gets dim in the larger framework of the battlefield between the “representative” insurgent groups and the government. Moreover one needs to bear in mind that this kind of retaliatory violence and reactionary political activism comes with its share of violence that isn't selective of the "us" and "them" polarisation. As put by a parent of the deceased in Dhemaji, “A bomb isn’t selective of who is an Assamese and who is not. Everyone suffers.” The deprivation and alienation faced by the common man is and sidelines exploited by government and at times by the insurgent groups with divergence of resources to the interest groups.
A critical reflexivity that doesn't essentially emancipates us from these cultural, national, religious imaginations yet eliminates the associated "rigidity" and makes room for a peaceful co-existence. Political solidarity isn't a force that promotes strategic alliance between the "oppressed" and the "progressed" rather it's an exploitative card one plays in strengthening one's struggle against the other. It is imperative that one reconstructs the narrative of political freedom to re-imagine ourselves as a force to reassert the lost democratic political consciousness once again. One needs to conceptualise “identity” in clearer terms which manages to draw lines between exclusion and provision.
Priyanka Dass Saharia is Final year Masters student of Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi.
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