New Delhi: Hiren Gohain is hard to ignore if you are interested in Assam and its issues.
You may not agree with him, but you can’t say he isn’t the constant eyes and ears of the people of his state – many times swimming against the popular current, at times even at the cost of physical harm.
Arguably the best known public intellectual from Assam, the 78-year-old Gohain, author of several critically-acclaimed books, is as sharp and insightful about the political, social and economic realities of the state as ever.
In an interview with The Wire, he talked about pre-independence Assam and its fraught journey in independent India, and dealt with questions that reside in several minds: Will Assam ever slip back to militancy? Will the people have peace finally? Will their sub-nationalist aspirations be fulfilled?
Let’s begin with your personal journey. Like most meritorious students of Assam in your time, you went to Cotton College, to Calcutta University (Presidency College), did your masters in Delhi University and thereafter went to London (Cambridge University) for doctoral research. On returning to India, you began teaching at Kirori Mal College in DU. Then you decided to go back to Assam. What pulled you back to your home state?
Most of the good students of Assam who went to reputed universities, returned to Assam. In that generation, there was an idea of nation building. If you were from a particular part of the country, you make it your first choice to return to that part. There were others too who returned, like the internationally known statistician J. P. Medhi. It was spontaneous.
There was another thing in my mind. Before I had been to Cambridge, I had no idea how imperialism had actually formed the modern Indian economy and the modern Indian society with all its deficiencies and failures. I began to feel it in my bones. Some people wouldn’t. At that time there was a radical ferment all over Europe, including Cambridge. So we looked at the roots of the problems from a radical Leftist point of view and I began to realise what western imperialism had done to the rest of the world. I began to feel that we would have to do something to counteract, do things to collect those tendencies and, if possible, try to bring people, society, to the right path for proper development.
But it has been my experience that imperialism has roiled India in to such problems that these regions can’t really emerge into real independence, real liberation, from it. Look at Assam’s tea and oil industries. These are usually thought of in Assam as major resources but the people have no control over it. They never had any control over it before nor do they have it now. The western imperialists are gone but their place has been taken by, let’s say, Indian big capital. As a result, people have no idea how it is really functioning, whether it could have done some good to the economy of the state and give it a push forward for development.
Actually, in British times, it was an enclave economy, in the sense that tea had a world of its own and the kind of development it triggered in Assam had something to do with the interest of tea. Take the railways. The lines were way out of the major towns, passed through hills to reach the gardens. Another major factor for development in Assam at that time was the timber trade. Basically, cutting down big trees; the forest was full of it, selling them as railway sleepers, etc. These were thriving business for the British business houses but had nothing to do with the people. So the people were left in a time warp.
When the British left, our people were more or less groping in the dark. The Planning Commission came, gave its own take on development which also, I think, did us some wrong.
In view of all those things, I thought I should use my mind by going back home and also make an attempt to help develop the society, intellectually, culturally, try my little bit to improve things there.
Did you ever regret going back?
The problem is, in my long life there, I have been embroiled in terrible movements – in the Assam movement, the ULFA issue and so on. I was terribly hurt, several times. Even now. Time to time, I feel somewhat isolated, almost at my wits’ end but I am a fighter. So I always tell myself, pick up the pieces and go back to the fight. That has been the spirit always and that is how I have been doing things so far. As you know, very recently in Assam, the Madani issue.
What happened in that convention in Delhi? Did you support Maulana Arshad Madani in what he said as has been reported widely by Assamese media?
See, there was a convention held by some young people (Delhi Action Committee for Assam on November 13) to which people like Sitaram Yechury, Yogendra Yadav, etc were invited. I was also an invitee. Madani also came. Now Madani has been painted in Assam as a ferocious, communal scoundrel. He is a religious leader and probably narrow-minded, like all religious leaders are. Whether he is a kind of communal firebrand, like Asaduddin Owaisi, I have my doubts. I felt he was a bit emotional, that was what was wrong with him that day.
He said National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been prepared in such a way as to exclude 70 lakh Muslim women. Now we are crying about six lakh Rohingyas, think of 70 lakh people, he said it in an emotional way. I thought that it would send a wrong signal to Assam. I at once stood up. It happened in an informal press conference just before the convention began. And then I stood and said this is not true, one particular document has been found invalid and that doesn’t mean that you can throw them to the woods. They are poor women and in India poor people usually have no documents. There should be natural justice and they should be given a chance to prove their credentials. We immediately felt that the way he went about it was wrong and it might create further panic. The national media cut me out of the frame but people in Assam thought I sat next to him, agreed with him. Some representatives of the local media mischievously played with it and offered it to the Assamese public. It took a lot of effort on our part to correct that impression.
Now that the Supreme Court has asked for a draft NRC by December 31, not much time is left to think up a solution as to what should be done to those found non-citizens residing in the state. Have you thought about it?
We don’t belong to the camp of extremists who believe that as soon as some people are found to be non-citizens, they should be unceremoniously herded out as a bunch of cattle. This is impractical, and impossible. So, we are not asking for it. But I want that citizenship should be confined to people who have a legitimate entitlement to it. Those found non-citizens can still be residents of the state. It happens in many societies across the world; people go to those countries to live and work, have certain rights. Such as, they can’t be criminally assaulted, can find employment, etc. If required, why not issue work permits to them? But in order to relive local anxieties, citizenship should be limited in Assam until March 24, 1971, as per the Assam Accord. I completely believe in it.
Also, once we have an updated NRC, I hope, I believe, that we shall find the exact number of immigrant Muslims residing in different districts of the state. Many Hindu chauvinists keep saying that Muslims are going to be in a majority in the state in coming years. This theory is based on fear. An updated NRC will tell us the exact number and will address that fear factor.
Coming back to the question of the development of Assam, what we have been seeing is that not just the present central government but the earlier regimes too have always taken the line that they are keen to develop Assam and the Northeast. We have seen some steps taken and yet we don’t quite see much change on the ground. What could have been the primary reasons for this perennial failure?
India needs unity but the unity we have today is totally homogenous and Delhi-centric. That’s why the perspective gets awry, the central governments can’t really look at the problems in Assam and the way the Assamese themselves feel it, see it. There is, therefore, a need to see in Delhi things from the perspective of Assam. Over the years, the centralisation has become such that it has become difficult for many people. That creates problems. India is a country marked by diversity which has a place in the constitution. We are a union of states; so states have some importance. There should be inter-communication, inter-relation, among the states and also the Centre. At the same time, people are there, different cultures are there. Within a state also, there is diversity. But that is sometimes not noticed by journalists and others. People rush to Assam whenever something occurs there and they, sort of, find a kind of a readymade solution to the problem which doesn’t really gel. For example, look at the central efforts to lift Assam from its economic morass. People of Assam think that it is a good effort, a product of good will, but they don’t find anything much in it to respond. It doesn’t inspire them, doesn’t present them with a vision.
Also, the vision of the Centre is a corporate vision. There are no stakes for the local people. They will not allow people of Assam to have any stakes. So that is the problem.
Both the Congress and the BJP governments have spoken about Look/Act East Policy. The Centre had set up a separate DoNER ministry to lift the region, and the present BJP governments in Manipur and Assam are seen trying to get the attention of business houses to economically lift these states.
There is DoNER but it is a big mistake to think that it will work. How can you think of sitting in Delhi and preparing a policy for the Northeast? It will simply fit into the general picture of India and will not address the specific problems faced by our states. For example, there was the North-East Development Summit recently in Imphal and what we saw was that the corporate world was represented by the likes of Balakrishna of Patanjali. Their idea is to grab our land and see if they can use the local herbs. It has got nothing to do with the expectations of the local people. Recently, a young journalist has written an article in a local Assamese newspaper, pointing out that the gas cracker plant in Lepetkata (in Dibrugarh district of Assam), which took, by the way, ten years to build, didn’t think of creating downstream industries, such as those that could make plastic products, etc. which could have been supplied to the local markets. Those small ancillary industries could have lifted the economic state of the people living near it. But what it thought of was producing something that could be sent to rest of India. Nobody, including the state governments, had thought about it. So how does it matter if such an industrial plant comes up in the state? Whom does it help? Most of the state governments in Assam have so far worked only as branches of the Centre. They are not allowed to think on their own.
Interestingly, the Assamese middle-class continues to be left out of the state’s economic leadership. While it did play a big role during the independence movement, became the fount for the feeling of sub-nationalism and in the Assam agitation too, yet it failed to control the economic reins of the state.
This a long story. The British had a role to play in bringing this middle-class into being in Assam. It was the new economy they had set up, a new system of laws, education which led to the birth of this middle-class. The middle-class was the wedge between the people at the other end of the telescope – the peasants who were being exploited for revenue and were being done out of their traditional ways of livelihood – and the governing class, the imperialists. But it didn’t have the key at their command at all. The big tea gardens were run by the British in their own interest. Whatever other business they had like, timber, etc. had to do with colonial interest. The Assamese were employed here and there to serve those ends. There was no question at all about developing the whole of Assamese society. So they were left out, were in the fringe.
The middle-class, of course, had their roots in the village, in the peasantry, but they had education, a new outlook and they wanted to assert themselves in politics. They had a jatiotabad outlook. During the pre-independence Congress agitation, it was middle-class which organised the farming people. During the 1921 non-cooperation movement, the middle-class was very much in the middle of things within the peasants. It was then the middle-class had gone down to the villages from their narrow little world and begun to feel their identity with the people. There was that feeling of jatiotabad.
But the British played their cards very skillfully. Assam was a kind of hotchpotch; there were hill tribes who really didn’t have much to do with the life and culture of the people of the valley; then the Bengalis of the Surma Valley, which was Sylhet – very populous and a very turbulent district at that time; so the British, sort of, balanced the Muslims and the Hindus in the legislative bodies. The Muslims were also divided into two groups – the Surma Valley Muslims and the Assam valley Muslims, which was led by Syed Muhammed Sadullah. Every ministry was fragile; kind of nine pins, going up and down; the Congress government led by Gopinath Bordoloi would fall only to be taken over by Sadullah and vice versa.
But with Partition, the Assamese middle class had the real grip of things. They had one of their rivals disposed of, the Muslim League, and they had a kind of hegemony; the tribal people were on their side at that time. If the Assamese middle-class had dealt with things with foresight then, which Bordoloi and a few others had to some extent, then things would have turned out probably better.
However, the greater Assamese chauvinism began to interest the Assamese leadership which was composed of caste Hindu people; they didn’t think much about the tribals with whose support they came to power. For instance, when Assamese was made the official language of the state, the problems of the other groups were simply cast aside. The great Assamese middle-class tended to look at the tribals as some kind of imposters. They should first pick up Assamese and then be given their share of things, not before. The feudal past had a lot to do with it. The sub-class had their great contributions, glorious past, all must be true but it had a very hierarchal vision.
The feudal structure was rigid. In Assam, there was very little trade and business which was another contributory factor. The tribals were at the receiving end. When the new Assamese middle-class came up, except some, many of them were casteists. But the tribal middle class were exposed to new ideas, sense of their own dignity as human beings, so they couldn’t take it all.
Since the Assamese middle-class was on the fringe prior to independence, when they came to power, they also had very little idea how to develop the society, economically, socially, politically. And as a result, they had all the feudal hang-ups at the back of their mind. There was a caste sense of hierarchy and a sense of entrenched privilege, which they didn’t want to share democratically with the rest of the population. It was also a very tall order because privilege was also very little actually. So it was an irony of history.
The caste hierarchy too created the wedge between the Assamese caste Hindus and the tribals. Some communities were considered inherently impure and kept out of privileges, say education. They couldn’t find seats in hostels, had to live in their own messes.
The Bodos had come up against it; they realised that they were not recognised as equals by the Assamese caste Hindus. Their very birth was considered impure. For example, even in Sankardeva and Madhavdeva’s teachings, you find references to impure yoni (meaning impure lineage). The Bodo middle-class was growing, basically comprising of zamindars assisting the British in their timber trade. The harbinger of Bodo renaissance Kalicharan Brahma was a member of that fledgeling middle class. He introduced a new religion, Brahmo. Very interestingly, it was a kind of Hinduism. They believed in sacrificial fires, avoided pork and wine, etc.
The Assamese middle-class society was inherently illiberal, undemocratic. While on the one hand, they were not allowing the tribals to come up, on the other, they were afraid of non-Assamese people overwhelming them, getting power. They were afraid of the Bengalis and the official language movement was considered a triumph over the Bengalis. At that time, I was studying MA in Delhi, I also fought for Assamese language. I thought it was a great glorious thing to do, didn’t think much about the tribals.
After that, it became the Hindi speakers. It took a racialistic interpretation of an unequal relationship. It was no doubt an unequal relationship. Assam was browbeaten by the Centre and by the forces it represented but it was not necessarily a racial inequality and that is what the Assamese are mistaken about. That is what the ULFA was wrong about too. There are suppressing forces but the point is if it is so you must have economic ideas, how to get out of this trap. But that is not given much thought. You have huge agitations every now and then, at the end there is nothing left.
The reason for this is also is that the Assamese middle-class had a parasitic existence, exploiting the working class to acquire wealth, including small tea garden owners. Also, some of this class comprised of petty government officers. The modern method of making wealth was not thought out at all. Also, exposure to the modern methods was rather late. Besides, we have lack of capital. Even our richest Assamese are so poor.
You opposed the Assam students’ movement (1979-85) and you were physically attacked for it. Why did you go against popular sentiment?
The privileged middle-class then played a wait-and-watch game. They realised that young people were enthused and it was foolish to take them head-on, so they allowed things to develop and watched it from the sidelines. I felt I had to speak out. What was wrong was the violence that marred the peaceful nature of the movement. It was said to be a Gandhian movement but not really so. Many young people thought that by being violent they could get liberty, their freedom. It was obviously a fascist sort of thing. I was sympathetic to whatever legitimate objective the movement had. But the way it went about by intimidating whom they thought to be outsiders, I had to speak out. One such incident was related to two Bodo peasants who were brothers. They were termed ‘outsiders’ by the AASU boys, chased and done to death. Police was entirely on the side of AASU. I felt if a movement could use this kind of methods, its goals couldn’t be right.
The movement also took a communal turn; we had the Nellie massacre.
Nobody in Assam today believes it was their spontaneous movement; my hunch is that all these were engineered by some big forces from outside Assam. It was given a communal turn, in my view, by the RSS. At that time, it was unclear to us but now I am quite sure. The BJP had at that time became a firm friend of the agitation leaders. Many party leaders frequently visited Assam. That feudal set-up was ideal for RSS. It thought that it would make recruits and exploit the situation. I feel Nellie was an engineered thing, someone misled the tribal Tiwas, planted fear in their mind and then they were blamed for the violence.
The Tiwas were upset with the Assamese because they felt that they were used. They were egged on; we were completely blind to what had happened then. The RSS is very good at infiltrating into a community and misleading people. Indira Gandhi was a bit foggy about the situation in Assam but she offered 1971 as the cut off year, she also offered 1965. We could have got 1965 then. We have to look at things again. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru was held in high respect in Assam. I remember we were school children when he once came to Guwahati. There was a huge public gathering. People looked up to him with great reverence. It was only after the 1962 Indo-China face-off that some anger was seen in public against him. But RSS had worked on that anger, taking things out of context by exaggerating it.
Also, in the 1970s, the young generation of Assam was swayed by the Naxalites; there was an attempt to take a radical Leftist awakening in the society. Young boys wrote revolutionary poetry, that thinking was growing. I think that was what was worrying the ruling class and the RSS. So the objective of giving a communal colour to the agitation was also to suppress the Leftist turn.
You are often associated with the Left. Are you a member of that party?
I was asked by the Left to become a member but I never became one. There were some reasons. One, I felt I would never be able to sincerely make the sacrifices that a cadre or a member was required to make. Two, I had some doubts about the stand of the party on certain matters. For example, I had begun to think that things were not going alright in the Soviet Union and the party was not very clear about it. Three, I thought that on the Assamese national or jatiotabadi question, the party was quite blank. They were so used to thinking on rigid class lines, like peasants against the others. The complicated situation in Assam, where the middle-class had a small but pivotal role, was not clear to the party leaders. They began to think that the middle-class is a kind of incumbent, can be sidelined. But the Assamese middle-class had a role to play and if not properly handled it might play a very vicious role, which it did.
The Assam movement didn’t bring middle-class into the leadership of the economy; it remained subservient to the Indian big capital but it suppressed the grassroots local movements. I felt unless you have the middle-class on your side, even the Left can’t do much, it will not have a leeway, not much scope, to widen its entrench and mobilise more people to its cause. I had doubts about it. So I kept a little away and brought out this journal called Kolakhar. I was shunned by the Left. When the Assam movement happened, I approached the Left leadership. I said, look, it is a danger for all, and you come on board, let’s fight it together. They agreed. It changed the very character of the journal. It passionately became the anti-movement journal, an opinion maker. The minorities were also greatly enthused by it. Various democratically Left people felt inspired that a stand had been taken. It was quite a thing.
There were also anti-movement outfits like the United Reservation Movement Council of Assam (URMCA). Then the ULFA was formed.
URMCA was a Leftist movement but it was very casteist; it incited the lower castes and tribes against the caste Hindu Assamese which was a very wrong and harmful thing to do. Its basic ideals were to turn the lower castes against the upper castes. They complicated things.
ULFA happened because of all those complications and confusions. The movement turned into nothing; younger generation of the middle-class was still inspired by the exclusive sense of jatiotabad. There were strands of sovereignty in the movement, that strand picked up.
Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is in the present government by forming an alliance with the BJP. The party also formed a government in 1995 with an alliance with the Left and you had a role to play in it.
After the Assam movement in 1985, five years of AGP rule completely disillusioned the Assamese people. This was the moment for the Left to seize the advantage and mobilise public opinion and bring people to its side. Instead, it became the tail end of the Congress because the Leftist were persecuted in Assam in ways you can’t even imagine. For example, some people were tortured to death. It was a weak central rule at that time (President’s Rule between 1990-1991). During the first AGP rule, the Left was on the side of the Congress, so AGP was the common enemy. AGP didn’t look at the Left with a friendly eye at all and virtually converted into thinking Left as the enemy.
After the AGP rule, when the Congress came to power in Assam (June 1991), the Left also thought of the Congress as an ally. Since a large section of people in Assam still was inspired by the movement, the then chief minister Hiteswar Saikia had a hard time to make his government a legitimate one. The people simply treated him as the enemy who, by some crook, got into the seat of power. So Saikia took to repressive ways which also redoubled people’s anger against him. At that time, the Left made the mistake of making Congress a kind of ally, however temporary. Saikia also went on suppressing the movement with all the power in his hand. Police played a very brutal role. So people began to turn towards ULFA. It was because of Saikia’s mistake that ULFA began to acquire some muscle. The local press also gave ULFA a helping hand, because of which there was no clarity of thinking, people didn’t know which way to turn. Saikia was brutal, AGP lacked leadership, so there was a political vacuum. The Centre was clear that ULFA would not be a good thing for India. The Bajrang and Rhino operations of the army were brutal. Many innocents suffered. There was a kind of underground anti-Congress feeling which was there in the beginning (of the movement) and came back because of the terror tactics used by the army.
Let me tell you an experience here. I had gone to Nalbari (in lower Assam) in a bus. In one paddy field, I saw people – many of them elderly – in the noontime of a very hot summer, sitting with their hands on their ears. We had not heard about such things in Guwahati then. I thought they were in prayer or something but turned out that the army had forced them to do that as the village was suspected to be an ULFA stronghold. Elderly people made to sit down like that for hours was humiliating, many must have been innocent. Partly the government had to be blamed for it, and partly the ULFA.
After that, both the Left and the AGP found themselves against the Congress. However, there was a strong opposition within the Left against any alignment with AGP. I used to write a popular column then, in which I said that the Left and the AGP should come together, otherwise things would slip out of hand. I felt there should not be any more President’s Rule in the state. That is how the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government came to power in 1996. But he misused the chance, got killed so many people.
In the run-up to the May 2016 assembly polls in Assam, you released a statement asking the people of the state not to vote for BJP. Why did you take such an open political stand?
What we are seeing now in Assam proves that in some sense I was right. The BJP is not at all a democratic party; it has already proved its rank hostility against the minorities and a blind adherence to some kind of extreme Hindu position. That will basically lead to the loss of the democratic rights of the people. That’s what I foresaw at that time. I was shunned then but after a year, many people began coming to me to say that I was right. Almost every day now, I meet street peddlers, hawkers, vegetable vendors, small shop owners, peons, clerks, coming up to me to ask, “Are you Gohain sir?” On saying yes, they tell me, “You were right about it, we made a mistake.” That is why the RSS is lunging at my throat and that is why the Madani controversy happened recently. It was to pin me down, to outlaw me and that is why they are also spinning the Left narrative around me.
You, along with some senior Assamese thinkers, readied a charter of demands for the pro-talk faction of ULFA to keep in front of the India government. How did you get involved in it?
I didn’t get involved on my own. ULFA vice president Pradip Gogoi, along with some others, came to me several times to ask if I can help arrange the peace talk with the Centre. The peace talks had come to a dead stop then. Writer Mamoni Raisom Goswami had initiated the talks (2005); she had a great role to play at that time but somehow both the parties failed to come to an agreement on certain points, taking it nowhere. The ULFA leadership was somehow desperate that the peace talks be resumed. Most of their leaders were in jail after the Bhutan campaign (in 2011). Except for Paresh Barua, they were in different jails. Arabinda Rajkhowa was in a safe house in Bangladesh; my feeling was that most probably there was already an understanding between India and Bangladesh governments the he would be handed over when required.
When Gogoi and the others persisted, I said I would do it on certain conditions. Meanwhile, Arabinda had been caught and was also in jail (2009). I told them that you get a letter from Arabinda saying that he would abide by those conditions. I wanted certain things to happen in Assam which I thought, if put in place, might give the state a chance of a real take-off of economic growth. So they agreed.
I then got together a number of conscious elderly citizens (under Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan). Together we set about the process of meeting those important people in the government, including the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. We prepared a memorandum putting economic, political and other conditions with the government of India. People from all parts of Assam helped us in this endeavour. We gave the charter of demands in writing, some 500 pages which was then summarised into short statements of about 48 pages. We handed it over to the ULFA’s pro-talk leadership formally at a public meeting (May 2011). Now it is up to them what they want to do with it and for their state. They promised to do so, whether they can get it for us or whether it will be their fault or the government’s if they don’t, I can’t say.
The talks are taking a rather long time. It stopped for quite some time after the interlocutor P.C. Haldar’s term was over. Now we see that Dineshwar Sharma who took over the role is also getting involved in the Kashmir issue (rather than on ULFA talks), which would certainly be high on his agenda.
I think the ULFA talks have already lost the momentum. It was a government’s ploy to wear them down. The leadership also got stuck in their new means.
However, one good thing did come out of the talks. There was a kind of informal dictatorship in Assam prior to the resumption of the talks. In order to suppress the ULFA, the government was using all extra-constitutional and illegal methods and there was no rule of law. The democratic institutions and methods were being sabotaged by the government and I thought that if ULFA was brought to the negotiating table this situation would end. It was also one of the objectives why I decided to help out and I think it partly happened. Otherwise, things would have gone much worse.
However sporadic the violent incidents may be, we are increasingly seeing the anti-talk faction of the ULFA asserting itself in the state. Do you see Assam going back to those troubled years?
As I always believed, unless Assam is allowed to develop on the basis of her own resources – both natural and human – this unrest will always be there. Instead of solving this problem fundamentally, what the government is doing is embroiling people in divisive communal politics. It may have short-term results but not bring peace in my state.