The Price of Goodwill

One of the things that I read while writing the last post on “Miyah poetry” is this article by Dr. Hiren Gohain. Dr. Gohain is one of the stalwarts of the Assamese intelligentsia and while one has to pay attention to his views (he is far too important in that context), a few things that he mentioned deserves a more discussion in its own space. Furthermore, given the stature he holds in that arena, it is important to discuss this article in this context.

Let me paraphrase his article before getting any further. The most important points that he makes are:

  1. He has done a lot for Muslim villages and, hence, the trust that they bestow upon him is not a fluke.
  2. In Assam, things were becoming “normal” after a long phase of ethnic violence.
  3. The “sane and wise” Muslim leaders asked for dialogue and understanding at the time and supported the Assam Accord.
  4. The newer educated class is playing into the hands of Hindutva by writing a “powerful narrative” of Muslim victimhood and that these poets do not really want a reconciliation between the indigenous people of Assam and the descendants of immigrant Muslims”.
  5. They are writing for a different (read: Un-Assamese) audience and ignore an Assamese audience at their own peril.

There are many things that must be taken into account. However, a few lines and phrases need to be pointed out before I go any further. For instance, the phrase he uses while talking about what is at stake is a haunting line:

It is unfortunate that an episode like ‘Miyah poetry’ should be allowed to cloud this goodwill that came at such a huge price.

There is an assumption that Dr. Gohain begins the article with which is a historical timeline – one he uses to contrast with the “abstract rights” that these poets seem to be writing about. The timeline – to mention/remind briefly – is this : Assam Agitation which led to ethnic violence was quelled by the sanity and wisdom of Muslim leaders who did not answer violence with violence and that has slowly become led to a “normal” peaceful phase in the years that followed. I think there is another element in that history that has to be pointed out as well. In the post-Assam Agitation era, most of the ethnic minorities that carried out acts of violence were – in some way or another – pacified by state appeasement. Whether it was Advani coming to Bodoland and giving Hagrama Mohilary the keys to the kingdom or otherwise, the point to be made here is that what Dr. Gohain is calling the “normal” has come after quite a few leaders of those communities were given territorial governance powers.

The result of which – and one must point this out – has been a slow but subtle change in the demography of many cities in Assam. Bongaigaon – for instance – has seen a large influx of urban migrants because there is always a lot of development work that demands cheap labour in both Bongaigaon district and Chirang district. This very often brought in the cheap labour of Muslims from the char area (Dhubri and Goalpara) to both Bongaigaon and Chirang. Of course, as Dr. Gohain mentions, the post-1991 Liberalization of the economy also saw upward mobility of a lot of people and many of them were Muslim in Lower Assam. However, this has to be seen alongside the rise of “Territorial Councils” of Assam that the state negotiated and then the benefits of the economy opening up in India.

This also saw – and I saw this in Bongaigaon for a long time – a resentment towards the Muslim community. What Dr. Gohain calls “some resentment among a few of them [Muslims] against the insinuations, snide remarks and mistreatment at the hands of Assamese chauvinists at workplaces or elsewhere” is a gross understatement given the daily microaggressions against urban migrants in Lower Assam; an example would be this story of a score of Hindi-speaking people in Assam from 2012 and one only needs to take a cursory glance at the number of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have been also killed in similar fashion.

Therefore, what Dr. Gohain is calling a narrative of victimhood orchestrated by someone behind the scenes is – in effect – the result of the gradual “normalizing” of ethno-nationalism in Assam. The kind of which, one can only assume, has boiled over to the point that the disenfranchising of many from that community is not a problem at all.

Instead, what Dr. Gohain tells us, is that the “indigenous” Assamese, whose “national existence” survives on language, “believe, rightly too, that they have never had a real chance to put their house in order”. There is a dangerous conflation here that needs to be pointed out: the “indigenous” Assamese is a homogenization of a population whose language politics is simply too complex to be thought of as something that is contrary to Bengali. In fact, the lower one goes in Assam, the more the language bridges the gap between “Axomiya” and “Bengali”. On the other hand, I would really like to know who would put the house in order and how.

The last point in his article is a haunting one. In concluding his article, he writes of the “indigenous” Assamese, the sense of “goodwill” that Muslim and Assamese share and how “Miyah poetry” ignores Assamese at its own peril. In writing the difference between the two communities, Dr. Gohain himself is creating vague communities which are seemingly at odds. The “other” created in his own article portrays the Assamese Muslim as someone who must be tolerated, not accepted, as Assamese. On three occasions in this article, he very clearly uses the distinctions between Assamese (irrespective of how he defines the term) and the Assamese Muslims; as though the distinction itself does not hint at daily microaggression. The use of the word “goodwill” hints at the “peril” that he picks up later. Like, a host, he charges his Muslim guests of Bengali origin “goodwill” to accept the occasional snide remark and not dare use the language (s)he uses at home to create poetry. The peril – he says – is that of Hindutva. The fear, perhaps, is that Hindutva will do better what Assamese ethno-nationalism has not been able to do so well over the last decades. We live in troubled times indeed.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *