Assam is multicultural but not plural. No one culture dominates over others here; no one’s culture dominates here. People pursue a soulless alienating modernity. These were only words for me from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and had I not visited Assam I would have never known that such a reality exists. The elite of Assam are government servants; education is a step by step preparation towards appointment in various government posts. As government servants the elite is supposed to control society, verify identities and eliminate wannabes from true claimants. Such elite is an internal colonizer whose idea is to destroy the life of a community and the soul of its culture. Assam’s economy is such that there are government servants and contractors; those who cannot be employed in the government and cannot be contractors become politicians and if the space in mainstream politics is to narrow to accommodate them, then they become extortionists and militants. Education thus serves the only purpose of acquiring social power, inter communal competition over educational quotas thus constitutes the core of politics in the North east. Education neither creates a community life, nor deepens genuine democracy, and much less creates civil societies, skills, innovations or social leaders. In fact, education, the way it is designed can only create oppressors for the society. There is no culture in education, no power in cultures. Assam is a state, which like its other north eastern sister states, is progressing towards culturelessness.
The Bengali speaking Muslims are the socially dominant group. Despite a small demography they have done economically the best. And they are not contractors. They are farmers but so are the Santhals and the Bodos. But the Santhals and the Bodos farm to feed themselves, the Muslims farm to produce surpluses which are then reinvested in shops and agencies of consumer durables or taxi services. The attack against Muslims during the All Assam Students Union days in the plea that Bangladeshi migrants were infiltrating into Assam was a way to intimidate the Muslim community who always seemed to get large supplies of farm hands, who were neither the local Bodos nor the Santhals.
The Muslims could have had their say in Assam politics had they a better participation in the Freedom Movement. Partition of Bengal also cramped their style to a great extent. But the Muslims of Assam were part of the Mughal nobility and in some cases the generals of Hussain Shah as he invaded Kamatapur. Like the rest of their ilk, these Muslims stayed away from the vernacular nationalism of the Assamese Hindus and the Bengali Hindus. Many Muslims of Rangpur presently part of Bangladesh had worked their way up into moderate riches, the very same Muslims of who the famous sociologist Radhakamal Mukherjee regarded rather skeptically. To the Bengali Hindu, the economic prosperity of the Muslim was a problem because not being, to the Hindu mind, of a progressive culture Muslims might use their wealth to enter the elite intelligentsia and corrupt the exclusivity with a lesser culture.
The Santhals are obviously cast away workers of tea estates in Assam who inhabit the trenches and swamps of lower Assam. Poor and backward, the Santhals have awoken to a new consciousness and seriousness after the genocidal attack upon them by the Bodos in 1996. Ever since that year of insecurity, Santhals have become attentive to education, gained more social awareness, come up with a students’ union. But they have also become scheming, wicked, perverted, anti women, female child traffickers, politicized and socially envious and back stabbing. The line is straight; oppression, awareness and then desiring education and falling in the trap of a dehumanizing syllabus where one is straight jacketed, extracted out of culture and hate that self which is located within a system of community and human relation.
The Bodos demographically the most numerous tribes in the north east are expert bamboo craftsmen and weavers. Clans of the Bodos have ruled Kachar, or what is known as lower Assam. It is this space that they wish to rule again as the Bodoland. Assamese deny Bodos their existence as the Bodo demand for Deodhahi script shows. Assamese have not allowed the Bodos to use their script nor allowed Bodos to resuscitate the Deodhahi; the Bodos have to be content with devnagri, a script that does absolutely no justice to the language and its diction.
Apropos to the Bodos desire to return to a pre-British history, there is a demand for Kamatapur as well by the Koch Rajbanshis. Koch Rajbanshis ruled over Kamatapur, an area which covers a huge territory covering Bhutan, Assam, Meghalaya, Cooch Behar in West Bengal and the northern states of Bihar. Maharani Gayatri Devi was from the princely family of Cooch Behar, a Koch princess, who was married into the royal family of Jaipur. The Rajbanshis take this connection seriously and this has taken a stream of migrants from lower Assam into Jaipur and Jodhpur where it is common to find rickshawpullers, cooks and drivers from Bengal and Assam. For the Bengali Muslims who because of their economic wealth are also better educated find Jaipur an ideal city to send their children for higher education. For a small section of families who are directly related to the grand Mughals, Jaipur is home of their historical allies, the Rajputs. History continues here unpunctuated by British colonialism and by the modernizing nationalism of Freedom Struggle. Child marriage is still practiced in the region as witch hunting is a vestige of a medieval tradition. Balbandhus are a modernizing force, who intervene into such traditions and try and reform these.
The Bodo reassertion, the demand for Kamatapur, the rising envy of the Santhals and the gradual cultural marginalization of the Muslims show that every culture is now uprooted and its people fired into the vacuum of an alienating modernity. No wonder then that social conflict among communities becomes irresolvable. Everyone is rendered into cultural homelessness and bereft cultural capital, communities cannot mobilize social capital to sustain economic production or create assets needed for social status. There is only an empty space of the universal human being, uprooted, standardized, branded, and ahistorical. Neither education nor its alter ego politics, tries to revive the community’s soul by which it can become a productive agent, commanding life and controlling life chances. As dehumanized and standardized atoms, they command nothing, control nothing; they play communal politics by which one standardized atom clings to others on the basis of some ethnic tie to become a larger homogenous mass than the others. No wonder then demography becomes important in democracy.
I am the last one to suggest that the citizen should return to the community; I am the last one to revive local ties and reinvent the feudal authority. All that I am saying is when we develop into universal citizens; we should universalize and liberate our cultures to enrich the universal. I am suggesting that if we are pursuing generalizations let not that abstract content dominate us from above; instead become a manifestation of our specific concrete. History becomes crucial to this project and I can see where the demand for Kachar and Kamatapur comes from. But there should be more to it. I ask the Bodo and the Koch student, do you want to rule your lands again? Yes, they nod enthusiastically. Then, imagine you are aleady kings and behave like one; kingdom will follow. But when you raise only demands and stall trains and block highways, you are behaving like victims, like beggars, stripped of all means, and now fighting with other beggars for the crumbs that the state government throws at you as grants and public investments. Communal politics is dog fight over territory for crumbs that someone happens to cast at you; it is not a politics where you command the means of production.
Notwithstanding the close link between demography and democracy, population for every community in Bodoland is declining save the Muslims. No wonder child marriage is so prevalent among them despite being better educated and culturally rooted. What a paradox ! Of the various challenges that democracy faces, demography interestingly is also one. No wonder that slowly, politics of the world’s largest and wonderful democracy is pulling into a zone beyond the will of the people. Political propaganda and the media are creating images to manipulate what people want; I think that I want a plush apartment in a gated colony, why though I have no idea.
Despite the many bandhs and frequent disruptions to normal life, life when it runs it does so with precision. An appointment at 9 in the morning means 9 in the morning; a person waiting at the Gosaingaon crossing means you will find him there. People are hardworking and dedicated and it is possible to call a rickshaw on mobile at the wee hours of the morning when you have to catch the 5 am Intercity Express to Guwahati.
Rakesh and I boarded a rickshaw for the railway station; fixed rates, no haggling and fixed points of boarding and alighting as well. Trains run on time whenever they are not held up. Our train stood there right on time but a backlog of goods trains carrying oil and coal were jostling for signals to clear them. I asked the students how come they continue to tolerate this colonial exploitation of Assam where the non renewable minerals move out of the state and no one but the companies get their royalties? They had no answer; it is so much simpler to fight the state and the political parties than to fight the companies. It has ever been so easy for Bengalis to fight Hindus-Muslims, East Bengal-Mohun Bagan, CPM-TMC than to fight the real looters, the Marwaris who lock up factories and migrate out capital and spread the rumours that Bengalis do not work.
Aboard the train a young woman lawyer who sat next to me told me exactly in five minutes the crux of our story. We are facing the Crisis of civilization; all of us are now consumers and towards this consumption we run exhausting our resources and reducing our opportunities; conflict and not cooperation dominates us. This is low thinking which pervades across Assam; here people imagine that the next door neighbor is the problem. For Assamese, Bodos are the problem, for Bodos everyone else is the problem, for Santhals their own people are problems, for the Muslims loss of power is the problem. Assam’s common life is defined by extreme standardization, mobile and motorcycle.
Back in Guwahati, I called up Tahir Ali, the man who drove us from the airport to the station on our way to Kokrajhar. Tahir was now to carry us back from Kamkhya to the airport. On the way we stopped for lunch at Paltanbazar and opted for a restaurant called Mahalakshmi, the same name as Rakesh’s wife. We ordered for some Burmese food. The man behind the counter refused to serve us the delicacies; they are not good he said. Then get us Assamese thali please, I said. The man said it was better for us to try the Bengali Thali. I understood what he meant. He suffered the same fear of failure I have seen throughout the Kachugaon bloc of Kokrajhar; he deprecated his own culture, felt ashamed of his cuisine, felt that it was not good for our palate. Assamese thali it is to be, I was steadfast. The meal came, sumptuous, salubrious.
Thoroughly pleased with myself after this hearty meal and relieved that Rakesh’s work had been partly complete, I looked around to absorb the sights and sounds. I suddenly realized that all through Assam I have seen something that I often do not get to see in Delhi; namely, the abundance of girl children! I realized that little girls were less seen around in north India, they were so abound in Assam, well dressed, well fed, confident and contented. I thanked Ma Kamakhya.