The current social and political milieu in Assam is replete with claims and counterclaims over citizenship and measurements of being an Assamese. Assam has always been a site of such claims, where different political discourses have fuelled such debates both in public and private spheres. This time around, there are two distinct drivers to this—the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
In this context, we wish to highlight the nature of criticism and the opinions held in the public sphere. Above all, we wish to show the shrinking space for public intellectuals who are critical of authority, in turn, highlighting the social suffering plaguing the NRC process.
A writer should always stand with the victim, above anyone else. For Edward Said, a renowned cultural critique and postcolonial thinker, the role of the intellectual is to understand, interpret and question authority, not consolidate it. An intellectual should alleviate human suffering, not celebrate it. Such a practice also serves as a public memory, one which speaks against the fixed nature of truths—of contemporary events and history.
Now, when we look at contemporary Assam, a public intellectual or any writer that speaks against authority—both of state and culture—in the context of the NRC and the Bill, is targeted, savaged on social media, and even accused of creating social tension. On July 9, a first information report was lodged against Tapodhir Bhattacharjee, citing motive to instigate social tension in his article. We don’t agree with certain binaries drawn by him, but he raises certain very pertinent issues too.
For one, he did not instigate any tension between the “Assamese and Bengalis” in Assam, but rather highlighted the historic tensions already at place, which have taken new life in the backdrop of the NRC. Bhattacharjee’s position resonates with many others who have written about such issues. Hence, this selective targeting reveals a serious claim to knowledge and public opinion which is desired only from the “inside”. Such a practice highlights the social boundary in contemporary Assam, in everyday life, and in terms of public opinion.
Praveen Donthi’s piece in Caravan on the NRC was also severely attacked on social media. Donthi exposed the plight of those who dwell in detention camps and who face persecution at the hands of state infrastructure. He highlighted the social and emotional cost of the NRC—which falls heavily on a particular section of marginalised groups—and questioned the process for its failure to accommodate such externalities.
Another article in The Economist looked at the recent case of mob lynching in Assam and was critical of the NRC process. The author had written under a pseudonym. A social media search was launched to find the author’s identity; apparently, that mattered more than the article itself.
This sort of suffocation is so intense that it has become impossible to express an opinion without consequences. A trial of sorts has been carried out on social media against anyone who has spoken against the legitimacy of the NRC process and its products, including a letter from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
While a section of Assamese intellectuals is against such articles being published in various media platforms, similar opinions have been expressed in regional media as well, but it has not invited similar criticism. For example, in Northeast Now, Parvin Sultana wrote about similar issues that were raised in the Caravan article, suggesting the OHCHR letter be seen as an attempt to ensure human rights protection in the NRC updation process. She also added there has been severe gender discrimination in this entire process.
One aspect is clear from such selective opposition. The “carrier groups” of Assamese nationalism—or one who draws the measurements of the original inhabitants and cultural boundaries—are questioning knowledge production about them by “outsiders”, who are apparently portraying the “Assamese jati” in a particular light. Such a position can be enriching only when it also critically engages with internal criticism, internal racism, and internal power accumulation.
However, the undue criticism towards “outside” agents writing about “the Assamese”—without considering the content in a fair manner—is blindness. It can be best described as philistinism: an anti-intellectual position. It shows the cultural authority of such group members who self-appoint themselves to save their jati from “others”. The residue of such a practice is xenophobia and jingoism, which might be hard to digest for such upper-caste and -class Assamese who are against such intellectual freedom or public opinion.
It appears that in Assam, a certain section of people desire intellectuals who ask no moral question, or question any human rights issues, authority or policy. If such a lack of intellectual vocation is not an indication of fascist and anti-democratic milieu, what is?
Sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas wrote a great deal about intellectual practice. He made a distinction between intellectual and non-intellectuals intelligentsia. The former is in line with what Said argued, but the latter distinction made by Alatas is pertinent. Alatas notes that a non-intellectual is uncritical, passive and obvious, among others—in essence, a non-functioning intellectual. He argued that the intelligentsia in any society promotes a particular type of intellectual that is in line with ideological orientations and groups dispositions.
This gives us the sense of how the link between the intellectuals and the institutions survives a particular kind of culture that promotes the dominant culture. There is a certain academic endogamy that results out of such a marriage.
Contemporary Assam suffers from such academic endogamy and philistinism, where any voice which speaks against the NRC and the Bill — and is also perceived as an “outside” voice — is subjected to naming, shaming, and attack. Tapodhir Bhattacharjee, Praveen Donthi, and The Economist article give us a strong sense of this. The intellectual space is brought under surveillance by self-appointed cultural protectors, aiding the exploitative legitimate bureaucratic infrastructure of the state associated with the NRC.
The opposition to intellectual practice—which goes against a certain pre-determined notion—isn’t surprising. It is so because, after all, the NRC is the most precious gift to the “son of the soil” in Assam, and a marker of symbolic accumulation of primitive power by caste Assamese.
In essence, the public sphere in Assam is such that there is no intellectual freedom and it has become impossible to condemn anything.