The recent killings between two ethno-religious communities in Assam, the Bodos and Muslims bring to the forefront many unanswered and awkward questions. The outburst of violence has been thoroughly debated amongst many sections of the mainstream public in Assam largely through the notion of a continuum. The minorities in this regard, the Muslims, have been regarded as the infiltrator. There is a further distinction being drawn along the same lines between the Muslims who have been a part of Assam for generations and assimilated to the culture and those who are apparently new migrants from Bangladesh.
It is interesting to examine the ways in which the popular rhetoric has taken hold, relying on the idea of a bounded state and the notion of the original people of the homeland. The dual threat of losing a homeland and losing all track of the original inhabitants removes all objective considerations from the debate in one fell swoop.
Such rhetoric following on from violence can be read as narrative fables used both in their early and current configurations to redefine locations and the idea of a homogenous culture within them. The notion of the infiltrator in a newly independent nation has to be read through the idea of a geographical area as a statist construction to begin with. What is today understood as Bangladesh was part of India till 1947, which only goes to show the arbitrary nature of the idea of citizen and outsider in this context.
If we move away from the argument of spatiality to that of people and see the threat of infiltration as a threat to outnumber Assamese people, the same fear has to be interpreted through practical concerns for jobs as much as through discomforting questions of authenticity and appropriate culture. In fact in many of the debates amongst people and in some sections of the media too the invasion of physical space and culture have both been dissolved into one threat. This is a very faulty and dangerous dissolve since it gives a profoundly biased view of the situation.
Assam has never been a region in which a single community can lay claim to be its original inhabitant. Although the name itself can easily lead to many misconceptions of Assam being the land of the Assamese people, it has always been a multiethnic state. In struggles for self rule within the state or land acquisition drives, for example, the multiethnic and power relations prevalent amongst various groups within the state have been highlighted. At various points in time, different groups have struggled against each other, showing the need to rethink the idea of how people live together in Assam and the relative expectations of each constituent part.
During times of communal violence, in the popular rhetoric, the fact that minorities are from another country with a different religion and are in large numbers is seen to be a major problem. In the context of Assam this becomes a supposed threat. Assam shares its boundary with the developing country of Bangladesh and there has been continuous temporary and permanent migration from there. The changing cultural geography of Assam as certain areas become dominated by the Muslim population has been viewed as a gradual conquest. Muslims with a long beard who go to Mosques and sing the Azaan in a distinct tone are regarded as untrustworthy outsiders.
Such an attitude does not arise from difference per se, however. It arises from the fact that these differences are not soon erased through total assimilation. Assamese Muslims who can speak Assamese and dress like they do are not regarded as strangers but as ‘one of us’. But the politics of this process of assimilation is concealed and increasingly, homogeneity is understood as natural and as authentic.
In the light of this whole debate, it becomes increasingly important to not confuse the sense of threat with impending danger. While population increase, unemployment and land scarcity are real issues, we are not properly resolving these challenges by premature and facile hypotheses which invoke the idea of an enemy or an infiltrator. No matter how idealist it might sound in the political narrative today to talk about borderless existence and stateless rule, there are in actuality a lot more movements of people than ever before.
As long as people are on the move there will always be adaptation and there should be simultaneous acknowledgement of difference. It is probably because in the case of Assam there has been less interexchange of migrants between India and Bangladesh, that this has been seen largely as a cause of concern for one party. In order to have a sane and humane discussion, political and civic leaders from both countries should think of ways to make their regions attractive to migrants by increasing employment opportunities. Seeing difference as dangerous and the notion of the authentic Assamese people as the solution is a shameful, lazy and cowardly way of avoiding difficult decisions and the hard work it will take to build a congenial environment for the state as a whole to survive.