Assam and the Question of National Self-Determination

Posted in Pamphlets and Reports by Karthick RM on March 19, 2011


“To glorify democracy and to silence people is a farce; to discourse on humanism and to negate people is a lie.” Paulo Freire

Claiming freedom from the British rule, India had a ‘tryst with destiny’ on August 15th, 1947. Ever since that fateful day, the India has attempted, many a time with brute force, to shape the destinies of nations that came under its territory. Carrying forward the logic of the British colonial state, and adding theatrics of ‘liberal’ democratic phrase-mongering with a virulent strain of illiberal nationalism, the Indian state has butchered and subsumed many histories in its zeal for integration…

BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: In the colonial period, Assam was the first territory in the northeastern region to be occupied by the British East India Company after the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, using it as a base to extend rule to adjoining hill and plain areas including Naga, Manipur, Mizo and Matak territories. An extractive colonial economy saw the region being envisaged as a huge tea plantation. This was accompanied by forcible dispossession of the tribals and peasantry from their means of production, separation of the historical linkages of the plains and hills people with the Inner Line, infusion of opium along with a banning of local production, exorbitant taxes and a destruction of the collective ethos and local subsistence economy. Cheap indentured labour brought in from central India and being made to work in slave-like conditions ensured the super-profits of the colonialists. The excavation and coal and petroleum since the 20th century added to this scenario as another capital-intensive and extractive industry. To ensure continued economic exploitation and hegemony, colonial rule of law was established militarily with complex network of posts and commands, as well as administratively, with a class of middle-men carved out of the feudal rural gentry of the Ahom era and new traders from Marwar region.

Thee policies and instruments of rule find a continuation in the post-1947 period with Indian State’s occupation of the area. While the region remains a ‘low cash’ economy, the plantations, together with a petroleum extraction industry, are highly capital-intensive sectors that link the region to metropolitan dynamics in a most direct way. In this context, though there is apparently formal representative democracy, the basis of rule is military and it reinforces the racial inflection in the constituting logic of India, treating the region as enemy territory of the ‘other’. There are two ways of looking at the northeast from the Indian hegemonic viewpoint: as a security or law-and-order problem of the ‘frontier region’, and as a zone of ethnic or racial conflicts, where identities of ethnicity/race is the ruling logic. Under this cover, genuine peoples’ aspirations for self-determination and workers and peasants mass organisations struggling against capital and its servile state, are being crushed daily and with increasing vigour and impunity.

IN THE NAME OF ‘INTEGRATION’: The Unified Command structure is the basis of state rule in the region, with the Indian Army along with Paramilitary forces and Assam Police as the de-facto ruler. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which provides the Army with powers to ‘kill anyone and destroy public property on suspicion’ with complete impunity from the courts has been in place since 1958, and an ever-intensifying centralisation of the armed forces is the order of the day (with even the looming threat of air bombing in central India already an experimented reality here with ruthless decimation of Aizwal, Mizoram by hunter and toofani fighters on March 4th, 1966). All movements and appeals against this draconian law have been summarily crushed by the military state which considers it necessary to contain ‘militancy’ in the region. That military is the de facto ruler can be read from the fact that all governors till date in the region have been Retired Army generals with retd. Lt. Col. S.K. Sinha being particularly repressive – he would later render his services to crush the Kashmiri national struggle later. Along with brute military repression, which in Assam alone has killed more than 11000 people in the past three decades, militarization of civilian space is carried forth. Splits within resistance groups were engineered and vigilante groups popped up by the State to counter opposition by the genuine representatives of the people. Creation of confusion by fostering divisions and hampering dialogues between communities in Asom has been a well-used tactic. Historically, these communities have had greater interaction with one another than with the Delhi government. All of a sudden, when the Indian state becomes the patriarchal benefactor of some communities, pitting them against others, one should try to see the designs of the state in its new found love for these communities. The parliamentary institutions and the parties operating in this are mere puppets in this setup, with a section of the Assamese middle-class and upper classes of other communities acting as the lapdogs of imperialist and big capital. The present Congress government is thus leaving no opportunity lost to usher in neo-liberal policies with the extraction of natural resources – already 168 big dams have been built, toeing the ‘structurally-adjusted’ “Look east policy” under the aegis of World Bank and ADB.

RESISTANCE TO MILITARY OCCUPATION AND EXPLOITATION: Against this form of colonial occupation, workers and peasants have a history of resistance since 1827 when Gomdhar Konwar led the struggle against the British. The Assam Movement from 1979 to ’85 is a case in point of the mass participation for struggle to expose and challenge the continued economic exploitation of the region, and the racist logic which informs it. Around the same time, ULFA started its trajectory in April 1979, signifying a progressive nationalism in order to establish a “sovereign, socialist Assam” by overthrowing the occupying forces through armed struggle. Against the exclusive form which nationality movements tend to be pushed into and the chauvinist anti-Bangladeshi sentiment used by the right-wing to communalize the region, ULFA in a document puts forth the concept of Asombasi i.e anyone, irrespective of their “prior identity…is prepared to fight for Assam’s future” rather than the exclusivist Asomiya (Assamese) it says that it would even consider changing the name Asom(Assam) or the term Asomiya(Assamese) “should it be necessary to do so in order to build a revolutionary unity of the people who live in Assam”. It carried forward many developmental drives through community labour with the mass participation and support among all sections of the population including the peasantry, workers and youth. It has also taken a consistent approach against communalism, giving clear warnings and taking action against the right-wing fascist forces- like during and in the aftermath of the Nellie massacres in 1983, and also during the 1992 Babri Masjid demolitions, and politicizing a unity against their attempts to split the people along religious lines.

Along with the demonizing of the resistance forces as coldblooded terrorists and waging a war of hegemony, the state through the Indian Army launched coordinated military attacks as Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino since 1990, (right after the attack by ULFA on tea plantation owners, showing the state’s complicity with who it actually represents) along with constant combing operations.

The killing of Parag Kumar Das in 1996, the former secretary of the human rights group MASS (Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti) inaugurated one of the darkest period in recent memory, that of ‘Secret killings’ which was a joint project of extra-judicial killings sponsored and maneuvered by the Assam police (headed by the IGP, G.M. Srivastava), the ruling AGP under Prafulla Kr. Mahanta, and the state’s sponsored vigilante group SULFA (Surrendered-ULFA). The unemployed youth of rural Assam were used as pawns in this game of fratricidal killings, wiping out entire families of the ULFA cadres, human rights defenders, and organisations speaking up on exploitation of the people of Assam.

Keeping with its big brother logic state, India muscled the Bhutanese King Jigmye Sigmye Wangchuk (check spelling) in 2004 to launch Operation All-Clear to decimate the camps of the resistance forces, who were also working in solidarity with the oppressed peasantry in bordering Bhutan who have historical ties with Assam, and which became a sore to the King. At present the pliant Shiekh Hasina government of Bangladesh is fully hand-in-glove under the Indian State, and has worked in tandem with RAW and the Indian armed forces and attacked the resistance forces sheltered in the country.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: The present situation is one where on the one hand a complete decimation and humiliation of those speaking of sovereignty is taken to be granted, and new justification through an extension of Operation Greenhunt by labeling of groups and activists as ’Maoists’ are given for the state-corporate nexus’s bullets. The vigilante groups are carved from among the militants who have surrendered or forced to do so, by keeping them in designated camps. The 28th battalion of the ULFA coming for talks two years back, are in the tune of SULFA being sought to be used as a lumpen force by the state. And now a breakaway faction of the ULFA, including the former chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, recently came for talks with the central government, while the commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah still commands the ULFA forces struggling against Indian State’s occupation.. This is being projected by the shrill corporate media as the way forward for all struggling forces. Some ‘respectable’ middle class papers like The Hindu have already written the obituary of the self-determination movement in Asom with gleeful malice, and are calling for a return to ‘normalcy’. This “normalcy” is brought about by homogenising of all struggles as some form of terrorism, whose only way ahead is “talks”. The language of conflict-resolution in which these and other such “talks” have been held exposes their farcical nature which is only used by the government to crush the movements under the veneer of democratic dialogue, either surreptitiously or by joining the mainstream electoral process and serve as stooges of capital. Along with this, other organisations working among the masses like Assam Students and Youth Organisation and Brihot Nodibandh Pratirodh Manch (Anti-big Dam Protest Committee) and Asom Chah Jonogosthi Surakhya Samiti (Assam Tea community protection committee), who highlight the plight and conditions of the working class here, which is forged of a violent splitting of communities, against the merely singular identity and ethnicity-based way of looking at the northeast, are being daily attacked

While the loot of resources and pauperisation of the population is declared as a “national goal”, from central India to the northeast, the working masses cannot be totally silenced from their expropriation from their means of production of life and culture. As the ‘nation’ is mapped only through GDP, and any disagreement and resistance against this brutal primitive accumulation, armed or non-armed, is de-legitimised and de-humanised as the terrorists, secessionists and Maoists or as their ‘sympathisers’, with the machinery of the judiciary and media toeing the line, people are daily revolting.

NECESSITY FOR SOLIDARITY: At a juncture when various national liberation struggles similar to that of Assam are being brutally repressed throughout the world, it is imperative for them to unite on a common platform to learn from each other’s experiences and to challenge hegemonic discourses set by the various pro-state media. Coordination Committee for Oppressed Nationalities (CCON) works with the belief that genuine free-union of nations with the right to politically secede is the only way forward for the creation of truly democratic societies. As a platform, we seek to discuss, debate and deliberate on the struggles of various nationalities, with special focus on South Asia, with the aim of standing in solidarity with the struggle of oppressed nationalities.


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