Mainstream ‘progressives’ in Assam are actually liberal hegemons

Their seemingly nuanced politics of hegemony and cultural majoritarianism is what allows Assamese ultra-nationalism to prosper.

WrittenBy:Angshuman Choudhury
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The “progressives” of Assam—a motley group of ethnocentric liberals—routinely project themselves as a democratic group that has nothing to do with Assamese ultra-nationalism. “Concerned citizens” is what they like to call themselves whenever an occasion arrives to enunciate their political opinion on an issue. 

This was, once again, seen recently when they tried to wash their hands off the FIR against 10 Miyah poets and other activists, filed last week by one Pronobjit Doloi over a poem titled Write Down, I am a Miyah. This elite group of “concerned citizens and buddhijeevis (intellectuals)”, led by noted Assamese scholar, Dr Hiren Gohain, called the charges undemocratic but only at the very end of the written statement, which in itself was mostly focused on expressing alarm at the usage of the Miyah language by the Miyahs to write Miyah poetry.

“It is a matter of concern that despite having much knowledge about the Assamese language and being educated in the same, the leading figures of this body of poems have tried to create a distinct strand of Miyah language and poetry,” says the English translation of the written statement released in Guwahati on July 13. It goes on to say the FIR “won’t help any healthy, democratic, humane society” and would “greatly harm the Assamese society”.

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The statement by Dr Hiren Gohain and others.

Little do these so-called “progressives”, who have been criticising the Miyah poets for using their own Bengali-origin dialects to write poems, realise that it is their soft-spoken, moderate and seemingly nuanced politics of hegemony and cultural majoritarianism that allows Assamese ultra-nationalism to prosper. Little do they realise that a “healthy, democratic, humane” society does not merely mean the absence of FIRs, but also the mainstreamisation of a culture of acceptance, tolerance and love. It also means challenging, day in and day out, all practices of social, political and cultural hegemony by any one group. And it also means standing up against discrimination of all forms whenever and wherever they unfold, which squarely includes the forced denial of one’s own language.

But history has always had it differently. Wherever a social elite controlling the levers of economic and political power and setting the cultural discourse has existed, hegemony has flourished without restraint. An integral part of this hegemony is the continuing exercise of writing a monolithic history that mirrors the power equations of the present, by means of which, the vibrant but uncomfortable (and often painful) past of the weaker ones are obliterated. The aim here really is to unilaterally define both the “mainstream” and the “margin”, to decide who occupies which.

While conservative despots have done it more explicitly by violently pushing smaller, weaker groups to the farthest, darkest corners of the past and present, liberal hegemons have done it by co-opting them into their own fold and convincing them that they have no history of their own, that their individual histories are all part of an imagined meta-history. At the core of this co-option is the production and marketing of an artificial “collective consensus” that ought not to be disturbed.

The likes of Gohain and his ardent followers take the latter route. They have, rather successfully, managed to convince a significant section of the Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam (alongside the Adivasi communities, including the tea-tribe community) that they have no past or present of their own; that their history is a discreet offshoot of the larger Axomiya meta-history; that their rituals, poetics, dialects are all a minute, even unnecessary, cog in the wheel of the Axomiya social order, which alone shapes Assam’s time-space continuum. If even one cog falls apart, the wheel breaks off and the whole train derails. 

This is exactly why the liberal Assamese nationalists keep repeating, ad nauseam, the belief that using the Miyah language would “destabilise” or “break up” the Assamese society. This is also why they refuse to shine light on or give equal discursive space to the collective trauma and injustice that Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam have faced at the hands of the majority communities in the past, such as during the 1983 Nellie massacre or the 2012 and 2014 violence in Bodoland. 

Instead, they talk solely, and in a totalising fashion, about the collective fear and anxiety of the mainstream Assamese community, born out of “unchecked infiltration” from Bangladesh and exploitation of local resources by the Indian state, as if those are the only anxieties that prevail in the state, as if only one group of people have the right to produce historiographies of trauma and resistance.

The overall outcome of such a liberal hegemonic order is far more dangerous than the outcome of Right-wing conservative despotism. The latter, most often, directly results in rebellion and disobedience from the bottom up. The former, on the other hand, has a debilitating and atomising effect on the weaker groups who begin to believe that they really have no identity of their own and are a disparate set of people. They essentially begin to see themselves as members of an imagined community to which they owe fealty. This then compels them to adhere to an ethical code imposed by the majority.

The successful, yet unfortunate, co-option of Miyah histories and sensibilities by the mainstream Assamese elite has so far had benign consequences. But today, we see a cultural tragedy unfolding. Recently, the seniormost Miyah poet Hafiz Ahmed (who wrote Write Down, I am a Miyah) had to apologise for hurting sentiments of the Assamese people. I don’t blame him for this, given the barbarity with which his group was hounded by the mainstream Assamese elite. But when a poet apologises for his verses, it really marks the end of a “healthy, democratic, humane” society that Gohain and his group of “concerned citizens” so ardently fantasise about.

Such apologia only empowers the liberal hegemons further (besides also the ultra-nationalists), who begin to believe that they really are the masters of the prevalent sociocultural order. Why else do we see mainstream Assamese nationalists attempting to speak for the entire Miyah community and routinely argue that Miyahs are happy to be living the mainstream “Axomiya way of life” or that “not all Miyahs are in favour of Miyah poetry”?

In this context, James Baldwin’s stunning dissection of white hegemony in his iconic essay, The White Man’s Guilt, comes handy:

[…] if I, as a black man, profoundly believe that I deserve my history and deserve to be treated as I am, then I must also, fatally, believe that white people deserve their history and deserve the power and glory which their testimony and the evidence of my own senses assure me that they have. And if black people fall into this trap, the trap of believing that they deserve their fate, white people fall into the yet more stunning and intricate trap of believing that they deserve their fate, and their comparative safety and that black people, therefore, need only do as white people have done to rise to where white people now are.

What is happening in Assam today, the constant slandering of poets and criminalisation of poetry, is not only deeply unfortunate but also endearingly tragic. Because it is not new but simply a dramatic manifestation of a timeless hegemony that the mainstream Assamese elite has exercised for decades now, only to be validated en masse by the current generation. 

I express this remorse as someone who was born in the state and has spent all his formative years there, speaking both Axomiya and Bengali every single day. So I can only hope that Dr Gohain and his friends realise that hegemony, more specifically the denial of one’s natural right to speak and write in their own language (or languages), can have not just political but also personal consequences. 

Do they want to be a part of personal tragedies? Do they wish to be co-authors of a despotic history that privileges the victors? Do they want to go down as Baldwin’s white people? 


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