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Wilfully playing with fire in North-East

Uddipana Goswami | Updated on March 19, 2020 Published on March 19, 2020

The marginalised micro-communities of the Northeast fear losing their identity and livelihood to the politically powerful migrant populations

The Centre tends to people here as subjects rather than citizens, fomenting ethnic strife and creating shadow economies

As somebody who spent more than a decade in Delhi, the current atmosphere of violence in India’s Capital city deeply saddens me. But I am not surprised. Maybe because I come from a part of India — its troubled North-East periphery — where such violence was a part of life. Or maybe because I realise what is happening in the heartland today is only an extension of what has been happening in the periphery since it became a part of the Indian Union: the patriarchal Indian state establishing its hegemonic masculinity, directing its machismo at marginalised communities, and fragmenting the solidarity between them to dis-empower them.

Large-scale protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill/Act (CAB/CAA) started in Assam and Tripura in early December 2019, before they spread to the rest of India. Within two weeks, five people were killed in Assam, among them two teenagers, Sam Stafford, 17, and Dipanjal Das, 18.

State-sponsored violence has a long history in all eight North-East States, irrespective of the ruling government. For example, Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Air Force to bomb civilians in Mizoram in 1966, and Morarji Desai proclaimed to Nagaland’s nationalist leader Phizo in 1973, “I will exterminate all the Naga rebels. There will be no mercy.”

The Indian state’s inability to accept the periphery as an integral part of the country and its tendency to treat the periphery’s people as subjects rather than citizens has shown through direct violence and large-scale violations of human rights. But informing it is a culture and rhetoric of violence that is very much a part of the state’s self-imagination — one which feminises the national body and imposes upon its sons the duty of protecting the feminine imagination by being decisive, aggressive, and battle-ready.

This imagination has been reinforced by mainstream Bollywood films like Roja (1992) and Border (1997) that symbolise the need for the people of the country to “man up” and defend the honour of the nation, embodied sometimes as mother, sometimes as beloved, but always the woman. Today, the mainstream news media, too, is “war-crazy” and demands that the state should display its aggressive might to protect the national “self-respect.” Hate speeches and the rhetoric of polarisation characterise political discourse which, in turn, informs the current bloodbath on the streets of India’s heartland.

Racially ‘othered’

In this heartland, people of the North-East have always been racially othered, and at times killed. The 2014 death of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Tania in New Delhi is the most potent testimony of how the policy approach of the Indian state toward its peripheral subjects is reflected in the popular imagination. This same imagination is at work now, creating other peripheries and marginalised entities — gendered and/or religious — within the mainland while subjecting them to the kind of toxic masculinity and aggressive machismo that kept the periphery simmering violently for decades. That the recent violence in Delhi should erupt within hours of a local politician’s diatribe against women leading a sustained protest against the anti-Muslim CAA is indicative of this.

Marginality is a relational concept and new margins are created when centres shift in response to changing power dynamics. When the protests against the CAA were taken up on the mainland, the state’s focus moved away from the periphery. It handled the periphery’s political resistance as it has historically done, from flexing its military muscles to co-opting the leadership. Thus, after disconnecting mobile connectivity in parts of the North-East, imposing curfew, and killing unarmed protesters, it doled out political and financial sops to community leaders by signing an agreement here and instituting a “high-level’ committee there.

When margins are pitted against centres of power, the focus remains confined to the differences between the binaries. Differences within the mainland have deepened and boundaries between communities there congealed following a trajectory similar to the process of ethnic fragmentation in the North-East.

With the entrenchment of patriarchal structures in politics and society, the feminised and/or dehumanised other is denigrated, alternative narratives are silenced, and aggressive machismo is promoted to divisive and violent ends. This is how the dominant Axamiya community, for instance, started echoing the hegemonic masculinity of the post-colonial Indian state in its relationship with smaller indigenous and settler communities of Assam, mirroring the same machismo that the Indian state displayed. It is a process that was replicated ad infinitum to turn ethnic groups in the North-East against each other when they started voicing their legitimate political rights within the Indian state. This is also how voices of peace and solidarity are being crushed on the mainland today. The Indian state understands that peace is powerful, too, and solidarity is what sustains resistance among the marginalised — power “with” as opposed to the hegemonic notion of power “over.” It is the power that prompts people of the other states of the North-East to extend support to the protests in Assam and Tripura despite the fact that many of these States are exempted from the CAA.

False accusations

It is also the power that has Hindus helping Muslims in Delhi, and Sikhs sheltering the violence-affected in their gurudwaras. It is the power that the marginalised everywhere need to reclaim and practice. It also means that the people of the mainland should overcome their endemic lack of understanding of the North-East’s complicated and conflictual history of association with India. Accusations of xenophobia and “ethno-fascism” are being levelled against the people of Assam who are not protesting against the anti-Muslim nature of the CAA. They are protesting against the Act itself because it has rejuvenated old fears and threatened the fragile peace of the recent post-insurgency years.

The marginalised micro-communities of the North-East fear losing their identity and livelihood to numerically stronger and politically powerful migrant populations. This is a very real fear based on the historical experience of, for example, the Kokboroks of Tripura or the Axamiya of Assam who were, at different times in history, overwhelmed by Bengali migrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal (on the Indian mainland).

Instead of formulating clear policies that regulate population flow and regular commerce in a region that is geographically and ethnically connected to India’s eastern international neighbourhood, the state plays on the geo-political insecurities of the region to keep it in turmoil by fostering shadow economies and ethnic conflicts. Often then, the 21-km wide land corridor that connects the periphery with the mainland — Chicken’s Neck — takes on a symbolic meaning.

What India needs today is empathy and understanding between the marginalised constituencies so they can stand up together in solidarity. Breaking down the structures of violence and confronting the politics of fragmentation alone can ensure a peaceful, sustainable future. For this, the mainland needs to learn from the Indian state’s experiments with marginalisation and power in the periphery. The periphery and the mainland need to heal together.

The writer is author of Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam (Routledge 2014). This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on March 19, 2020

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