Debate: Professor Hiren Gohain, Let’s Talk About Assam Again

By holding colonialism solely responsible for the social tensions in the Northeast, Gohain is brushing aside critical voices that subvert the legitimacy of the NRC process.

There is an oversight in the response of professor Hiren Gohain in attending to our predicament in contemporary Northeast, particularly with regard to the ideas around citizenship.

Oversight or overmining is an intellectual fallacy which gives more agencies to something, here colonialism and its ramification to the problematic idea of citizenship today in the Northeast, than it is capable of.

In using colonial history and holding it solely responsible for the current contradictions and social tension, he is not only guilty of oversight, but also undermining or ignoring more important agents and agendas that makes the social, political and cultural landscape of Assam possible. He undermines a section of the colonial subjects’s role in the post-colonial period.

Debate: Colonial Policy Created the Northeast’s Citizenship Problem

This is in sharp contradiction with the position that he has taken in his response to Amalendu Guha, titled ‘Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist‘. In his 1981 article, Gohain discussed how the Centre has delegated the role gendarme to the caste-Hindu Assamese elite in the Northeast and the latter, he opines played this role with gusto “to the point of wielding the danda on the aspirations of all weaker nationalities of the region” (emphasis was his own).

While in his response to Gorky Chakraborty, he pins his hopes on the calmness of ‘embattled natives’ to take a compassionate view of the uncertainty that people whose names did not appear in the NRC. In his response to Guha, he reminded the readers of “the fascist forms of the Assam movement”.

The patience to wait for that calmness however, is not a luxury many can afford. Prasenjit Biswas, a 28-year-old and the only graduate of his family from Silchar, decided to take his life on the eve of the publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Unlike other cases of NRC-related suicide, this is significant on many levels and a tragedy at the very least. He decided to burn himself, unable to bear the pain of exclusion, humiliation and uncertainty on July 29, 2018. The case was largely unreported.

People wait to have their names checked on the Assam NRC final draft. Credit: Reuters

The role of the ruling class and caste

In essence, in this article, Gohain negates the role played by the ruling class and caste in the prevalent racial, chauvinistic and xenophobic tendencies that we are gripped by today. Within the convoluted logic of Gohain, slavery, and only slavery, should be blamed for the racist structures to be found in Baltimore or in the streets of New York today. Such logic is deplorable, particularly coming from him, and it appears that his submission is nothing but propaganda to destabilise critical voices that question legitimate structures like the NRC, which has become racist and exclusionary in its practice.

It is only by questioning the rationale of the law that we keep our democratic spirit alive, not just of the constitution, but as a human society. The NRC is not an aberration, but what Gohain does is a philistine epithet that monopolises the legitimate structure of the state and propagates a blocked dialectic. By shifting the blame, he in many ways justifies the primitive accumulation of symbolic and material power of the caste Assamese middle class and their normalisation of othering and construction of a common enemy in the form of a Bangladeshi in everyday life.

In a time when there were no concrete nation states in South Asia, he reduces the labour movements from Chotanagpur and East Bengal into immigrants. We all know Assam was a place of flow and this flow constitutes people from various communities. No one is illegal, we have made them one. Everyday activities are a product of the past and the present.

Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre says that unequal spaces are produced on a everyday basis. Gohain denies the unequal power relations of the colonised and this denial of uneven power relation signals a hidden hegemony. This becomes a hegemonic practice among the colonised in a post-colonial setting.

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Every individual, despite the horrors of colonialism, carries an independent agency to not be racist or to be secular. Is Gohain suggesting that one should not have class consciousness, but should follow the consciousness that is given by the caste Assamese middle class? Or, is he denying any agency of a post-colonial self which is critical and rational and de-colonised?

The complex history of Partition

He also ignores the complex history of Partition and justifies the 1951 NRC as a sacrosanct document. The validity of the 1951 NRC and the 1971 electoral rolls as legacy data are questioned on many grounds, and we have all seen its significant exclusions and loopholes just like the NRC process is. When the base of something is faulty, how can the NRC be any different?

Nursi Said, a late Ottoman theologian and thinker, provided a resounding critique of European civilisation and was prosecuted for to his writings. His criticism seems to hold good for the Assamese situation as well. He noted that ‘the bond between the masses is racial and negative nationalism, which is nourished through devouring others’.

Mass as a ‘class situation’ is a composite made possible only when people from various classes come together. The so-called ethnic Assamese and the indigene is caught up in a class situation where they stand together against the outsider despite being unified on racial terms and a negative sense of national identification, the question of jati in Assam.

This class situation assumes an identity which becomes prominent and even become an entity only when the common enemy is in place – the Bangladeshi. The ruling class in Assam – which involves all the caste Assamese middle class and all other members of civil society who support a narrow Assamese nationalism – have constantly flooded the public space and shaped our popular opinion by turning our identity and self as essentially possible by expelling the other and in relation to the other, as if the self is non-realisable without the other.

Hiren Gohain. Credit: YouTube

Hiren Gohain. Credit: YouTube

Decolonisation of the mind

We have never been engaged with decolonisation of our mind and politics. We are, in fact, engaged with re-colonisation. If colonial power was responsible for the contradictions created in the political economy during its regime and the added exploitation and discrimination, the ‘coloniality of power’ of the present ruling class in Assam is responsible for the prevalent social distinctions and hatred.

At the same time, scholars like Gohain and his sympathisers are practicing what Portuguese legal thinker Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls as “epistemicide,” that is, the extermination of knowledge and ways of knowing. In the name of the legitimacy of the NRC process, they seek to brush aside critical voices and subvert them. Epistemicide also includes ignoring the communal basis of our society, not only in the colonial period, but also in the post-colonial period. Thus, both, the colonial and the communal historiographies need to be buried together. Missing one for the other will entrap us in insularity and myopia.

Also Read: Detention Centres in Assam Are Synonymous With Endless Captivity

We ought to cultivate love to get rid of social distinctions. Love can give us all possible worlds. As Dante says in Divine Comedy, love ‘moves the suns and the other stars’. We should invest in love over hate, decolonisation over re-colonisation.

We also ought to remember that discriminatory practice creates grounds for later hegemony and by supporting a process like the NRC, Gohain is exercising a will to power, a form of repressive power, which lack a will to truth by denying criticisms of process and structure and forgoing critical thinking himself.

Gorky Chakraborty is with the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata. Suraj is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at National University of Singapore and tweets @char_chapori. Parag is a doctoral student in Anthropology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his twitter handle is @paragjsaikia.