I am a Bihari, Bangladeshi, Axomiya, Marwari, Jewish, Palestinian, Bahira and proud of it…
By Tarun Bhartiya
...My people, provided that I have one.
Obviously none of the above proclamations of identities, except one, are true. But in these genocidal times one needs to create different imaginations, however naive. Whether it is Bongaigaon of 2000, Bombay of 1992-93 or Belsen of 1939, what is common is the silent majority of the middle classes which has been normalised or should I say brainwashed - into thinking of the victims as deserving slaughter. Maybe Mrs. Kalita doesn’t like the method or Mr. Barua would have the Biharis replaced with another group of that deadly phrase ‘suspected nationalities’ (hereafter susp-nats), but both share almost an innocent belief in the inoculation of their pristine culture, community, homeland, by alien viruses. A pandemic, which needs immediate attention.
Fortunately for any social critic, it is a situation which is not only historically familiar but could be discerned in many other contemporary cultures. So, Mrs. Kalita and Mr. Barua could easily be replaced with Mrs. Deshpande and Mr. Tendulkar.
Over-marrying and over-producing dirty ghettoised Muslims… the myths which people parrot like sacred truths. Or the interesting case of Zionists, who do unto Palestinians what Nazis did to them and represent Palestinians as dirty, violent, reproductionally overactive, before dispossessing and cleansing them out of their god-sanctioned homeland. The demonisation of the Other and establishing for yourself a position of victim in order to victimise the Other. The pattern is familiar. While thinking of examples one gets depressed by their ubiquity, their everydayness, their banality.
My partner and I were travelling to Delhi from Guwahati by the Brahmaputra Mail. Flanked by two very usual kind of North Indian families with sons of similar ages. As is wont to happen, a subtle competition ensued between the families about the relative intelligence of their sons. Lovely middle class ritual. One of the fathers started quizzing the children, typical stuff - Capital of Bihar, prime minister of India … you get the idea. Children are your average knowing all the usual questions plodding kind of children. They are able to answer almost all the obvious queries. Father quizmaster is disappointed. And like a conjuror the quizmaster fishes out that ek karor ka question. “To beta, which language is written ulta?” Children are confounded. The answer he triumphantly declares to be Urdu (not totally right, but..).Further explicated by him as being the language of Muslims. His question becomes an occasion to further the children’s General Knowledge. Its answer turns out to be only the prelude to an exposition of the nature of Muslims, who not only write ulta but do everything else ulta too. They even make their rotis on an ulta tawa. Rumali rotis, boys, haven’t you ever seen them being made? In short they are different because they are ulta people, upside down people. Stereotyping at its most commonsensical. Just an anecdote which you can put down to these people’s ignorance about others. But haven’t we heard similar ‘Islampur’ stories in Guwahati from the mouths of ‘well-educated’ people. It is not just ignorance which can be blamed for breeding such stereotypes.
What do you make of the recent newspaper reports mentioning people of ‘suspected nationalities’.
A story about encroachments on railway land lapses into a rant about the methods which the susp-nats use to encroach. Ergo all the people flanking railway lines are susp-nats. A story on the killings of Bihari labourers turns into a story of its logical consequence, labour shortages in the future and yes, the people of susp-nat who will unfortunately fill that shortage. Or that lovely photograph during the Durga Puja season where workers are shown digging and it is insinuated that even though they are wearing pants their natural dress is the lungi - they are actually susp-nats. And that deduction, leads on to the further query cum caption, how long is it before these Puja celebrations are replaced by another festival, which shall be unnamed?
This frightens me. If the liberal media which is supposed to be objective, prints such classic tales of stereotypes, can mass-fascism be far behind? One of the cardinal rules of journalism is supposed to be ‘two sides to every story’. But I never hear the voices of susp-nats in all this reporting, only voices about them. Before genocidal guns cleanse these susp-nats, the dominant culture has already silenced them.
A Final Solution of bahiras is not just an idea which some murderous fringe chauvinist group dreams of carrying out. I have heard it being gossiped about in nice godfearing middle class homes. By the way, ‘Final Solution’ doesn’t mean some technocratic work permit kind of thing but rather, what the Nazis meant by it, in the context of their ‘Jewish Problem’. And the sense in which I have been aware of it looming, in conversations about the imminent need to repeat ‘47. Or, even the inherently undemocratic and inhuman idea of work-permits which would in a single legal stroke turn a mass of human beings into second class people, being taken as a liberal response.
Sadly, such attitudes are not aberrations but have the justification of Common Sense. Like all commonsense, the commonsensical view on the Bahira issue itself is manufactured. Or rather like all commonsense, there is not much that is sensible about the commonsense. What commonsense actually does, is to distill all the conventional, status quoist ideas into a pithy digestible form. So, the commonsense of hatred is more comfortable than the complex understanding of the social fabric or the inherently unstable nature of cultural identity.
The belief that the Axomiya society would vanish in a deluge of Bahiras with overproducing loins has become a natural truth. But I would contend that Axomiya society does not have a Bangladeshi/Bihari/Marwari problem but an Axomiya problem. Just as erstwhile South Africa had an Afrikaner problem, not a Black problem. Let me pose the question this way - if there were none of these susp-nats and Bahiras, will the problem of identity and Bahira vanish? To arrive at an answer we will have to go beyond the headlines. We will have to forage through history and turn up the signposts and modeling casts which have forged these times and their discourses or myths. To undo the knots of commonsense one has to confront the complexities of history as a social process rather than as a hagiographic narrative. We will have to confront the ideology of Nationalism itself, as the construction of cultural identity continues to be framed in terms of nineteenth century concepts of nationalism, which tried to fix cultural identities into a political straitjacket.
Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically, it becomes tradition.
Historically, the idea of Nation arose in Europe as an antithesis to the aristocratic realms of the medieval and early modern period such as the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Tsarist empires. For a nation to exist it had to imagine or construct a mass of people who would consent to unilingual speech and to derivation of lineage from one great tradition, all in all, to efface their fluid and localised identities into a uni-dimensional notion of a homogenised national self. This supposed national sovereignty of people was led by the newly emergent capitalist groups in association with the professional classes and the salariat. For these groups, territoriality of nationhood meant not only a unified market to profit from but also a national administrative structure to provide employment. But the territoriality of the nation did not automatically confer citizenship to all the people who either lived there or had a relationship of survival with the territory. To be a German, for instance, you did not just live in the geographical territory of Germany, but also needed to swear allegiance to the Germanic culture. But even in the case of this Germanic culture, it was not to be confused with the ‘way of living’ of all the people inhabiting the land of Germany, but only a specific cultural formation which had been vetted and constructed as the national culture by the German elite. Thus the concept of homeland or lebensraum was only applicable to certain groups which inhabited the German territories. The fruits of national development, thus could be denied to those groups which the national imagination deemed to be lesser people. Therefore the Nazi use of the term lebensraum was meant to justify the genocide of Jews.
This short, not so sharp historical account may seem slightly pointless, but I am elaborating upon terms which have become fashionable in recent media and political discourse, without any indepth understanding of them. Homeland or its more fashionable rendering lebensraum is so often used in the newspapers or intellectual debates, that it loses all its historical specificity. I don’t know whether the authors are unaware of the very loaded historical baggage which it carries or, while knowing it, they do not care or an even more frightening possibility, if they actually want to summon up the historical consequences which use of this term led to in Europe of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Although national movements in the European context arose as resistance to authoritarian imperial structures, what they substituted in its place was not necessarily more empowering for all the people. What the nation-state did was to empower its new ruling class – the bourgeoisie. Conditions in the countries of the Third World were slightly different. Here nations were being made in the course of anti-colonial struggles. Specifically, in the Indian context the territorial structure which circumscribed India was more created by the colonial regime rather than positively imagined. With this given territoriality, the nation was made by the alliance of different peoples tempered together in an anti-colonial struggle. India Imagined could only be a multi cultural, multi religious, multi linguistic nation although such a vision was always under attack from traditional elites who saw such a pluralist vision as a threat to their authority. The possibilities of a pluralist national imagination would have meant dissolution of the specter of tradition over the people at large. This is the background in which the persistence of Hindutva and Islamic fundamentalism has to be understood.
Modern Indian history can also be narrated in terms of contending visions of pluralism and authoritarianism. Although the pluralist discourse about India had its own limitations, wrought by the trap of the nation state. India could never fit the typical model of the nation. It could never be held up as an example of an ideal type. It was an unprecedented imagination. It could be that this atypicality was not attractive to the newly emergent Indian political class. They chose to practice the centralising tendencies in the concept of Nation rather than creatively imagine a diffused nationalism. A nationalism which did not trace its roots from the center, but crawled in from the country’s margins, not in regimented straight lines but as smoke travels in a room and finally breaks out of the confines of the room itself.
We all know the story of the crises which the Indian nation has sketched for itself by not breaking out of the accepted national models. The interesting thing, in my view, has been the responses that such an unresponsive centralised Indian nation state has given rise to. Almost all the responses can be classified into ‘national self-determination’. Or break down a monster to unleash more ferocious kid monsters. At least Indian nationalism had a possibility of pluralism in its imagination (which it squandered), but the resistances to India are framed in much more exclusionist terms. Resistances which wear their lack of political imagination as a badge of pride.
Thus the recent massacres are not really anomalies but authentic expressions of the kind of Cultural Nationalist assertion which Mrs. Kalita and Mr. Barua are proud of. They may have middle class squeamishness about the means but the end they share is similar.
With this cursory historical background I have sketched out, it is now possible to attempt to exorcise the ghosts of various brands of nationalisms. And this exorcism can only be done through hallucinating a future based on humanism and freedom. No dreary policy proposals such as the ones framed endlessly by superannuated bureaucrat turned intellectuals, but an arcadia of counter imagination. I know that I run the risk of being tarred as utopian, but then ultimately, to counter the dreary realpolitik of hate, the weapon of Imagination is the most handy.
Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.
Let me begin with Tandoori chicken and Bollywood. One of the most popular joints in Guwahati is Dhaba, near Paradise, the haven of Assamese cuisine. I have normally seen more axomiya bhaalmanuh chomping Tandoori chicken than licking khar off the plate. To turn to another cultural arena, the choice between a Bollywood film and Hiya Diya Niya is actually not a choice at all, it is a matter of choosing to see Bollywood films in two different languages. Perhaps, for some of us, this is cultural degeneration, a matter for national concern about which the Xahitya Xabha needs to pass a resolution.
But do you think Paradise cuisine is more a marker of Axomiya identity than the Dhaba spread?
Cultures are never authentic whose purity can be tested in history, or, to put it in another way, the enjoyable quality of Hiya Diya Niya lies in the very fact of its cultural plagiarism. If we don’t confuse history with sagas of national/cultural triumphs, but try to understand it as a social process which underlays human experience, then we would discover the fluidity of all cultures. Culture is never a thing which can be codified into a set of rules to be pontificated on in Xahitya Xabhas or exhibited in book fairs or museums but a process as slippery, dirty and complex as our everyday life itself. Or what social theorists have called a bricolage of culture. Culture needs to be construed more as a mishmash of Khichdi rather than as white as polished rice. Meaning that we need to defy the cultural schizophrenia we are forced to live with due to the artificial construction of a homogenised cultural identity. Because the artificiality of Axomiyaness is imposed on the authenticity of our lived experience, it is there that the velicoraptors of hate make their expected entry.
Moreover, this imagined identity conceals multiple identities we negotiate in everyday life - identities of gender, class, caste, environment. Allow me to assert that cultural nationalist identity camouflages these actual lived identities in order to allow the elite to control the masses.
Perhaps we are so frightened of freedom that the depressing jailhouse of contemporary unfreedom is more comforting. How else do you explain the letters to the editor which expressed admiration rather than outrage at ethnic cleansing in Fiji?
Anyway, for a still more or less of a bahira tea garden labourer, a yearning to rebel daughter, or those much below the poverty line susp-nats, or that Axomiya small peasant, the livelihood issues may still be predominant. And to imagine and create a civil society based on freedom one would need to begin with more humane and diffused distribution of power - cultural, political and social.
Freedom and democracy is only possible with Mrs. Kalita and Mr. Barua realising that their cultural identity will always be infected because culture never exists in any pristine form. To realise the inherently impure and indeterminate nature of national cultural identity is to start imagining a time beyond Islampur and Bamunpatti. It is to come out from the Fortress of hate into the garden of living.
Tarun Bhartiya is a member of splitENDS media co-op. splitENDS is engaged in documenting Shillong's urbanity. He also teaches video in St. Anthony's College, Shillong.
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