Book Calling Assamese Identity 'Anti-Indian' Fuels Debate on RSS Agenda for Northeast

The authors, Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, had worked on the BJP's election campaign in Assam under BJP leader Ram Madhav and are associated with the think-tank he started, India Foundation.

New Delhi: A new book on Assam authored by two political activists-cum-researchers associated with a think-tank run by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ram Madhav has trigged a controversy over its characterisation of the Assamese sub-nationalist identity – or jatiotabad – as anti-Indian and anti-national.

The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-East, by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha has agitated public intellectuals in Assam and ordinary Assamese alike, many of whom took to social media to voice their opposition to the book’s formulation.

The authors, who work for the India Foundation, were associated with the BJP’s victorious 2016 election campaign in Assam carried out under the guidance of Madhav, the BJP’s northeast in-charge.

In the chapter ‘Five Decades of Sangh’, which analyses the spread of the BJP’s ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in Assam, the authors pit the RSS’s “nationalist ideology” against the “anti-Indian, subnational, subversive idea of Assamese identity” and term jatiotabad “a disservice” to the right-wing outfit’s “unique and undocumented historical phenomenon of decades of physical, ideological and political struggle on ground”.

They further write, “These (meaning the RSS’s work in Assam) were struggles that were challenging, co-opting and moulding the regional into the national in more ways than one.”

A number of social commentators that The Wire spoke to also took strong objection to the book’s  interpretation of Assam’s sub-nationalist identity.

“Our sub-nationalism is based on language, not religion, so it may be difficult to understand it when looked at only from the religious angle. It smacks of an intention of the authors to malign the whole Assamese community as anti-Indian and subversive, just to show the RSS in good light, and I would call it wrong and totally misplaced,” said well-known Guwahati-based author and social commentator Mayur Bora.

“Just because a few hundred boys took to arms [meaning the United Liberation Front of Asom, or ULFA], it is wrong to paint the entire community with the same brush. Even in the heydays of ULFA, people didn’t support its sovereignty demand and continue not to do so. What we see here is an attempt to make that small section the main subnational idea of Assamese identity, which is absolutely wrong,” he added.

Shyamkanu Mahanta, entrepreneur and organiser of festivals and events to promote Assam and the Northeast, agreed. “This interpretation is absolutely unacceptable. Mahapurush Sankardev, the 15th-century Vaishnava saint of Assam, revered as the greatest Assamese of all time, has spoken about united Bharatvarsha way back. With historical linkages since the Mahabharata days, Assam has a very strong connect with India and with that backdrop, Bharat Ratna Gopitanth Bordoloi fought his own Congress party with the support of Gandhiji to ensure that Assam remains a part of India after independence. The six-year-old students’ agitation against [undocumented] Bangladeshi migration was based on that strong sense of Assamese identity and pride. As many as 855 people died for the sub-nationalist jatiotabad idea. Would you call them anti-Indian?”

Like Bora, Mahanta stated, “ULFA’s movement was secessionist and it was rejected by Assamese people. This main agenda was never acceptable to people of Assam. The words used in the book, such as anti-Indian, subnational, subversive idea of Assamese identity, is a clear misinterpretation of facts and against the pride and dignity of the Assamese people.”

Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha
The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east
Penguin/Viking, 2017

Mahanta, a well-known political and social observer of the region, further added, “We would request the publishers of the book to remove these sentences before the next edition is out.”

One significant name who had to fight the state for supporting the Assam movement – which ran from 1979 to 1985 – was Indian Police Service officer Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharyya. He was not only suspended from work and put in jail but had to finally forgo his job after he was rearrested under NSA for his involvement with the popular anti-foreigner movement.

In a recently published book, Bhattacharyya wrote, “In Gandhian terms, the Assam movement was in reality, a Satyagraha, although vested interests did not hesitate to brand it as communal and in order to mislead the rest of the country, even blamed it as secessionist in nature, which certainly it was not. However, there was no dearth of efforts to derail the six-year-long non-violent movement and degrade it into a violent one. True, some exasperated young adults, both men and women, took to the path of violence; but the movement was not responsible for this.”

Speaking to this correspondent from Guwahati, Bhattacharyya, who is now in his 80s, said the authors of the book visited him a couple of times before writing it but he expressed surprise at the manner in which they pitted the sub-nationalist idea of Assamese identity against the RSS’s ideology – which they term ‘nationalist”, while choosing to call the former “anti-Indian” and “subversive”.

“If our jatiotabad and sense of Assamese pride and identity is anti-Indian and subversive, then BJP-RSS leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi and L.K. Advani who were involved (in the latter part) of the Assam movement, which was based on Assamese sub-nationalism, also participated in it,” he stated.

“If this is the narrow interpretation of our sub-nationalism, then every sub-nationalist movement and sentiment in different states of India is anti-Indian. It is absurd to think that establishing one’s identity and taking pride in it is anti-Indian. I myself took part in it simply because if I can’t be a good Assamese I can’t be a good Indian either,” he pointed out.

Bhattacharya further elaborated, “The authors should not have identified ULFA’s movement with Assamese jatiotabad. Both are two different things. And so were ULFA’s movement and the Assam movement. Everyone came out to support the latter movement simply because Assamese speaking people have only one place to stay, which is the Brahmaputra Valley.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal in Guwahati. Credit: PTI/Files

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal in Guwahati. Credit: PTI/Files

Ajit Bhuyan, the celebrated Assamese journalist who was sent to jail under the draconian National Security Act (NSA) for supporting the Assam movement, also expressed shock at the book’s skewed interpretation of Assamese sub-nationalism, designed to show the RSS in better light.

“Is RSS the only authority to decide whether our jatiotabad is anti-Indian or not? My identity as an Assamese is the first important thing and then comes my national identity. It is simply because I have to be a good Assamese first in order to be a good Indian, and one doesn’t need to sacrifice one for the other. So many smaller communities in Assam are struggling for their identity now. Should we then tell them to give up their sub-nationalist identity and become only the kind of Indians that someone powerful like the RSS wants to see them become?”

Bhuyan underlined, “The BJP won in Assam only because it catered to the community’s sub-nationalist sentiments. What was its election slogan, jati mati bheti about then? The BJP chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal is considered Jatio Nayak (literally, hero of the community) by many indigenous people simply because he fought for their rights, not for RSS ideology.”

Meanwhile, the authors have responded to the objections being aired on social media, stating that they “stand by everything in the book”.

In a tweet, Shubhrastha said, “The Last Battle of Saraighat is causing heartburn, acidity, incurable itch and posterior pain to some Axomiya Manux who have chosen to settle in non Axomiya Aai. Spare me your tinted version of history. Apart from editorial faux pas we stand by everything in the book.”

Accusing “Assamese women/men (of) going bonkers over The Last Battle of Saraighat”, Shubhrastha wrote on Twitter, “The fact is that Assam’s history and politics is as much mine as yours. Excavation of suppressed facts and interpretation of history told will happen”.

The Wire also sought a formal response from the authors on their interpretation of the Assamese sub-nationalist idea of identity. The questions put to them were:

a) The book pits the RSS’s “nationalist ideology” against the “anti Indian, subnational, subversive idea of Assamese identity” and calls it “a disservice to the unique and undocumented historical phenomenon of decades of physical, ideological and political struggle on the ground.” (Page 68). Why did you choose to term Assamese sub-nationalism as “anti Indian and “subversive? You also call it a “constructed” idea and “anti national” in your Introduction (Page XXVI).

b) If your interpretation was based on ULFA’s secessionist movement, why did you treat it as the mainstay of Assamese sub-nationalist identity?

c) If in other places in the book, you have differentiated between ULFA’s secessionist, “anti Indian” and “anti national” idea of Assamese sub-nationalism and the sub-nationalist idea of Assamese identity based on which the Assam Movement was launched, and the ongoing opposition to Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 is based, please point it out for me to be able to include in the story.

In response, Sethi said, “Shubhrastha and I, the authors of the book, would like to give the response through a video interview with The Wire so that our comments are not used out of context or twisted which unfortunately has been a habit of The Wire.”

Since the authors have spoken about possible ‘twisting’ of their answers, and may later accuse The Wire of selectively editing the video interview they sought to give, this correspondent has requested them to send a video recording of their response to all the three questions asked. When, and if, the authors respond, the video shall be added here.

Interestingly, though the authors begin the book by describing in detail the account of the 1671 naval war – the Battle of Saraighat – in which the Ahoms defeated the Mughal army led by Rajput general Ram Singh, they leave out crucial details, such as the role played by the great Lachit Borphukan’s trusted lieutenant and naval warrior Bagh Hazarika or Ismail Siddique. That it was Bagh Hazarika’s plan to maneuver Ram Singh’s army to the waters of the Brahmaputra and thereby overpower it is a well acknowledged part of Ahom history.

Join The Discussion