Assam Will Have to Rediscover Human Relations: Tapodhir Bhattacharjee on NRC

Silchar-based Bengali literary theorist and former Assam University VC Tapodhir Bhattacharjee talks about a recent article on the NRC he wrote for a Bengali daily that kicked a huge controversy in Assam.

Silchar (Assam): In early July, a wide section of Assamese media and social media took strong objection to an opinion piece penned by Bengali literary theorist, writer and former vice chancellor of Assam University, Tapodhir Bhattacharjee. The accusation against Bhattacharjee was that his article, published in the Kolkata-based Bengali daily Aajkaal on July 3, tried to provoke the community he belongs to, Bengali, against the majority community of Assam, the Assamese, at a time when the state is undergoing a sensitive phase triggered by the ongoing update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

A few days later, a Guwahati-based social activist filed a case in the Dispur police station of Guwahati against Bhattacharya, alleging that he was indulging in criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.

The Wire visited the well-known academic at his Silchar home. Excerpts from the interview:

Besides being the former vice chancellor of Assam University and a well-known Bengali literary theorist, you are also the son of Tarapada Bhattacharjee, a former MLA of the Assam assembly.

Yes. Besides being a literary theorist whose curiosity lies in comparative literature, there is an ideological position that has shaped my mind and I believe I inherited it from my late father Tarapada Bhattacharjee. He was a celebrated freedom fighter of undivided Assam, went to jail many times, and became an MLA in the Assam assembly in 1962.

It was my mother who taught me to be respectful to all. I find that a lot of people become secular not from the heart but by using the brain. My father was secular from the heart, an absolutely non-communal person. It must have been very difficult for him as he was born into a very orthodox Brahmin family in East Bengal. Whenever he was in Guwahati, he stayed in the house of the well-known politician A.F. Golam Osmani. My father was a good storyteller, which is why Osmani’s sons used to sleep with him at night to listen to stories.

I have inherited my father’s non-communal attitude. So when the electronic media in Assam misinterpreted what I said and tried to paint me in dark colours as a communal person, it pained me. They were saying bad things about me, which by and large is fine by me, but that they presented me as someone I am ideologically not is what pained me the most. That is what I object to. I don’t look at them as the enemy – everyone is an ally – but some are misguided allies.

Why did you write the article?

I want to ask, can anybody really deny that many people in the state are living under the perpetual fear of what will happen on July 30 when the final draft NRC is published? The newspapers have also been contributing to the fear by publishing all sorts of horror stories. A person who is more than a hundred years old was dragged into a detention camp. After reading all these stories, you can’t exactly be pleased with what is going on. If you have a heart, it will bleed. I was bleeding within. As a true student of literature, my sensibilities were hurt.

I felt there was a very clearly defined emphasis that all Bengalis are seen to be Bangladeshis and that pained me because right from our birth, our childhood, we have been given to understand what Rabindranath Tagore said: Sarthok jonom aamar aami janmechi ai deshe; sarthok janom ma go tomai bhalobese… (my life is made complete because I am born in this country; oh my motherland, I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to adore you).

However, all of a sudden, I find that being a son of a freedom fighter and a former VC of a central university, my name doesn’t find any place in the first draft of NRC (published on December 31, 2017) for whatever excuse one may give. My own family of three brothers and two sisters didn’t fare in the first draft. From that personal pain, when I looked around everywhere, read so many horror stories in various media, I felt that there is a hate campaign running on all through Assam. There is a reverse thing among some in Barak Valley too which is also not fair. It doesn’t have true civilisational values. So people would have to understand where my angst was coming from. I thought I was duty bound to write a piece based on my deeply felt anguish. Though I am not a regular writer of Aajkaal, I agreed to write at the request of its editor only because I am not an occasional writer; writing comes to me naturally. And as a writer, I thought of it as the only way to express my anguish.

What did you write?

You can divide the article into two parts. In the first, I argued that in India, the constitution guarantees not only freedom, but dignity and honour to all individuals. I also wrote that we should not forget a basic fact about the Partition of India. The Partition was not at the behest of the people. Because of perceived or actual danger that took place in erstwhile East Pakistan, people fled to Assam, Tripura and West Bengal. Before August 15, 1947, the people of East Pakistan were the inhabitants of undivided India, which has a legacy of more than 4,000 years. From one place in undivided India, for whatever reason, if I am compelled to migrate to another place of undivided India, how can you term me an uncalled for visitor or a foreigner? That was my basic argument.

I said that the attitude has to be corrected as this relates to not only the future of Assam but also to the future of India and its national integrity. That I used the word sorosajya (bed of thorns) was the problem from what I could make out from the questions the police asked me and what some friends did too. 

The word  was used in the headline too. But I am a student of literature, have written 37 books. I am also a poet. It is my tendency to write metaphorically. I am a practitioner of words. The word meant to allude to the condition of the non-Assamese, particularly the Bengalis, to Bhishma in the Mahabharata during the war of Kurukshetra. So many arrows got stuck on to his back that it became his bed. I tried to make an oblique reference to the sufferings of all the non-Assamese due to the NRC process.

What you said in your article was disliked by a section of Bengali Hindus in Barak Valley.

Yes. the second and concluding part of that article was rather a harsh critique of the Bengali community. That’s why the Bengali community, the so-called Hindu Bengalis, are not only unhappy but annoyed with me. I argued in my article, saying, ‘don’t try to be a Hindu or a Muslim, try to be a Bengali, try to be patriots, and the community has many lacunae; try to locate them, try to correct them’. I am not a sermon giver. It was only a kind of heart-to-heart talk. If you divide the article into two selves, one was listening, and the other talking. It was a sort of internal dialogue. Unfortunately, that main point was missed and it was misinterpreted. That hurt me.

One is entitled to his/her own opinion. I am a democratic person and I respect others’ opinions. Opinions are something else. It need not always be in my favour. I would have liked to see some articles challenging my contention. But what I found hurtful was making a devil out of me. That is not fair. 

Who filed the FIR against you?

It was by a Guwahati-based person named Manash Chaliha, a social activist. I was asked by the state police if I knew him. I said no.

You thereafter got anticipatory bail from the Gauhati high court.

Yes. I am told that the FIR was lodged stating that my July 3 article may incite violence between communities. I was horrified; I am a writer, and writing is not a crime. So, I thought it’s a botheration and filed an anticipatory bail application at the Gauhati high court, which granted me bail till July 24. I also presented myself at the Dispur police station; they were very nice to me. My statement was recorded. In it, I stated very clearly that I am not opposed to the NRC. It is a national proposition, sacrosanct. But I have a right to talk about the impact of NRC because otherwise, it is not a democratic norm.

What happens now that July 24 has gone by?

After the expiry of the date, I was granted complete bail, so there is some respite but the case has not been withdrawn yet. As a law abiding citizen of this country, I have complete faith in the judiciary.

The allegation against you is that you tried to create animosity between the Assamese and the Bengali communities living in the state through your article.

As you can see from the large number of books that I have in my house, I am a voracious reader. A section of the books are in Assamese. I have books of Assamese writers like Hiren Gohain, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, Arupa Patangia, Satyendra Sarma, among others. I can’t write in Assamese but I understand and read it, though not as fluently as I do in Bengali. I am a slow reader but I have learnt so many things from Assamese literature and am very respectful of that. It is not good to promote one’s work but the times are so peculiar that I have to now mention it and may be excused for doing it.

Translated copies of Bhattacharjee’s books in Assamese. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire

I am basically a literary theorist. My book on the works of Pablo Picasso in Bengali was translated into Assamese as Rekha Aru Rongor Biplobot Pablo Picasso (translated by Kumud Ghosh). Another work was translated into Assamese by the name of Axomor Ramkatha: Parba-Parbantar (translated by Satyen Choudhury). I also made a comparative study in Bengali of the famous Assamese Ramayana of Madhav Kandali with the Krittivasi Ramayan in Bengali. I wrote about Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s works on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary held in 2014 in the respected Bengali journal brought out of Guwahati, Eka Ebong Koiekjan. 

Why I am referring to all these work of mine is to make the point absolutely clear that I am very respectful of Assamese life and literature.

I want to point out that the Diphu campus of Assam University came up during my tenure as the vice chancellor. I joined in March 2007 and by August that year, the campus opened in Diphu. There were various reasons, one of them being unrest in Karbi Anglong, for which the campus was not a reality. But I insisted on it; started negotiating with the University Grants Commission as you must do, and the ministry of human resource and development (as it is a central university). I also insisted that there must be an Assamese department in that campus (the Silchar campus doesn’t have one) as there is a sizeable population of Assamese speakers in that area. 

Respected scholar of Assamese literature from Gauhati University, Satyendra Sarma, gave us a lot of help. Because of my work, I was also invited by the Assam Sahitya Sabha to deliver a lecture. This shows that we have a very natural, friendly relation between the practitioners of two languages and that should not be jeopardised. In Assam, we can’t do that. So do you think such a person would want to create enmity between the two communities?

After the July 3 article, you wrote another article on the NRC issue in Aajkaal.

Yes I did, about a week later. There, I used Sudhakantha Bhupen Hazarika’s famous song ‘Manuh Manuhor Baabe, Jibon Jibonor Baabe’ (man in support of man, life in aid of life) to argue that in our Assam – anybody may differ with me on this issue though – is not a unilingual state. We are part of a multi-lingual state. I argued for it using the theoretical construct of the Russian philosopher Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, about whom I am the only literary theorist to write in Bengali.

Bakhtin said two things: One, truth is not absolute; your position determines the truth. Historically, politically, the position you are in, that determines the truth. Two, we are in a polyphonic existence because we are not unilinear, but multi-linear. People in the Northeast talk about seven sisters and their unity. Likewise, we in Assam, can talk about eight brethren – Assamese , Bengali, Bodo, Koch Rajbonshi, Dimasa, Mishing, Manipuri and Rabha. That makes a unique garden of eight brethren. I argued about it in that article. Does it then indicate that I am a communal person? But the tragedy is, who will read it and argue for or against it with reason? 

My point is, the toiling mass of all the communities are equal but when the hegemony takes control of the state machinery, it becomes problematic. The state is different from the people. The state must not only be honest with people but be seen being honest and just. By questioning my interrogative approach, I am being denied my right to question it. I must underline that I come from people, not one community. We, as communities, will also have to rediscover human relations and reaffirm them.