It’s time we talk about racism in Assam

Racism as a social construct permeates everyday life in Assam but remains ignored by the media—even normalised by people at large.

WrittenBy:Suraj Gogoi
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The National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) have lit up Assamese nationalism. They remind us of the Assam agitation days that ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. Decades of agitation cultivated a communal social distinction that singled out “Bangladeshis” as an unwanted body “polluting and occupying” Assam. This also made the self prominent as us, while they, the other, were reduced to “illegal bodies” by brushing aside cultural commonalities and shared living. Misplaced ideas of ecology are also used to speak of unwanted bodies. Finally, settled with the “Bangladeshis”, the notion of outsider died down over the years, but the horror remains.

The question of jati-mati-bheti (national identity-land-hearth), as sloganeered in Assembly elections by the governing party in its alliance with nationalist Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), always centred around a sublime notion of an “other”. The notion of “Bangladeshis” as “other” was used in racial terms in many popular slogans during the Assam Movement. Such racial distinctions, hatred and lynching follow from distrust and misrecognition that accompanies this social psyche of othering. The case of Laxmi Orang is an example of such othering.

In 2000, I remember cycling with my friends from my village to Sadiya sub-division’s Chapakhowa town to attend tuition classes on a cold December morning. The teacher announced that the classes were cancelled and he had good reasons for it. When we passed by the Public Hospital we sensed something was wrong. We stopped to inquire. What my friends and I saw terrified me. This was not the first time I was seeing or hearing about killings in Sadiya. But the sheer sight of over 30 bodies kept outside the hospital for post-mortem coupled with the description of how they were gunned down was horrifying. It created a deep sense of self-reflection and raised many questions about our society.

For the first time, I saw what a bullet does to a human body. There was a body with a small hole on one side of the person’s temple and on the other, a hole many times its size had dislodged his ears and created a cavity. That image still haunts me. This incident took place in Sadiya where 30 people were gunned down by United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) militants near the forest in Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.

This is just an example of what love for one’s own and hate for the other can do. But examples of violence go beyond the use of bullets. Violence can also exist in the form of racial abuse or even as neo-racism. Prejudices, discrimination and harassment that are meted out to people also form a part of the racist structure that informs us. Sociologists have identified three kinds of racism that permeate our life—individual, institutional and every day. We see all kinds of racism in Assam today.

Individual racism can be found in people’s beliefs and attitudes toward “Bangladeshis”. This has its limitations as we reduce people or society to two groupsracist or not. Intellectual racism in Assam, where intellectuals manufacture and promote social differences, is also a kind of individual racism.

Institutional racism makes one feel small and hapless. We saw it in the way the NRC process was carried out. Many biases were reported in the booths and Foreigners Tribunals (FT) exposing disturbing acts of exclusion and prejudices during the NRC process.  

Everyday racism, on the other hand, becomes the ordinary. In a situation where there is an explosion of bodies, state infrastructures such as the NRC gives impetus to social hierarchies and enable people from various classes and ethnicities to regroup and form a social order where such differences are produced and performed as the new normal. Sociologist Max Weber attributes an emerging cultural condition and social order to the economic and intellectual conditions, among others.

In Assam, both have been exploited to cast the “Bangladeshi” as collateral damage or an enemy.  The notion of collateral damage is used by many to turn the “Bangladeshi” into an illegal body. But, at the same time, they are comfortable with the idea of detention camps or exploitative ideas such as work permits. By supporting the NRC, one can only be siding with a racist infrastructure which legitimises social exclusion and gives impetus to racial abuses, if not more. Will the intellectual class with their social honour and endogamy, and all those who support such a process, take moral responsibility for such a racial epithet?

We also have a tendency to lose sight of the victim. We tend to shift our attention to the institutions and structures of power. Losing sight of the victim or turning the perpetrator into a victim is also a problem we need to keep in mind. When one talks about the NRC, one also speaks of its legitimate structure and how it is the only solution. But the grounds of those claims have now come under serious contention. It will be a crime to forget the 4 million excluded from the NRC processthe ones that have committed suicide and the ones that are discriminated and humiliated in the streets. It is to them we ought to turn our attention.

In this light, I wish to highlight two disturbing incidents which unsurprisingly remain ignored in the local media.

Abhishek Dev, Arian Barbhuiya, Vivek Jadav and Abhishek Kumar were four young cricketers who travelled to Guwahati for the Under-16 state-level cricket trials organised by the School Sports Promotion Federation.

Jugasankha, an Assam daily, reported that these kids were harassed in the camp. Abhishek and Arian were particularly victimised as their hair was cut and some substance applied on their head. They were asked by the perpetrators how they gathered the courage to come down to Guwahati for trials. Instead of confronting the perpetrators and extending support to the four participants, the organisers of the trials in Guwahati asked the four young participants to leave. One can only imagine what horrors these young cricketers must have gone through.

This incident which took place on January 24 remains unreported apart from in Jugasankha, which reported it on January 31. Are we amnesiac or oblivious to such malaise in our society? Even after being reported by a major daily, this news still has not made it to the public space in Assam, nor has any other media group picked this up. What does such amnesia tell us about our social order?

Yet another video surfaced on social media. It was brought out by Public Press where a few individuals in Assam’s Jorhat district were seen to be involved in a random interrogation of a few youths for being unable to speak Assamese. The fluency of Assamese was determined on the grounds of being a foreigner. One of the interrogators constantly asked if they crossed the barbed wires, meaning the Indo-Bangladesh border. Is fluency in the Assamese language the only criterion for being Assamese? Is it the only language spoken in the state? Who decides these measurements and why is there silence about such measurements? Despite such incidents taking place in Jorhat and Guwahati, why is it not an issue on social media?

These two incidents are the tip of the iceberg. Racism as a social construct permeates everyday life in Assam but remains ignored by media—even normalised by people at large.

Oilullah Laskar, a Guwahati-based lawyer, who suffered such moral policing himself, feels that such acts are not good for a healthy Assamese society. He also notes that such “organised, racially-driven attacks have often enjoyed impunity from various groups, assumes the form of a crime and goes unpunished”.

People who suffer racism live in “double consciousness”, to borrow a term from WEB Du Bois. Such double consciousness, where one sees through one’s own lens while they try to negotiate their image and identity as perceived by others, becomes an everyday lived experience of people.

For me, these incidents are powerful enough to suggest how our social order is. However, racism should not be reduced to these events because the possibilities lie beyond these events and depend on how we draw our social boundaries.


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