Politicising the ‘Outsider’

Tuesday, 26 January 2021



Politicising the ‘Outsider’

Abhinav Pankaj Borbora | August 11, 2018 19:39 hrs

On 30th July 2018, the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published amidst apprehensions of law and order problems. Such apprehensions were however dispelled as the publication of the draft citizen’s register was followed by a substantial measure of collective peace, endorsement and restraint amongst the participants in the exercise.


This cordiality of the masses to the exercise and to each other has not concurred with the political responses that followed the publication of the draft. The lived experience across the state after publication was largely that of cordiality, peace and restraint. In contrast, the interpretations provided by diverse political opinions have tended to read the situation as one of belligerence, coercion and hostility.


As political opinions ranged from denouncing the exercise, crying foul and aggravating anxieties, the actual participants have maintained a matured composure in endorsement of the exercise. Are the participants simply ignorant or something else better explains their behaviour?


For about a century, Assam has lived under shadow of the ‘Outsider’ from East Bengal. The issue of influx has impinged on structures of the rural economy, politics and the popular consciousness. These structures, on their part, have gone on to shape vulnerabilities as well as excesses. The idea of the ‘Outsider’ has therefore meant differently to different social classes. The atmosphere of relative peace prevailing today in Assam, notwithstanding political opinions and their contrary interpretations, need to be understood against this background.

When migrant communities expand inward, they inevitably enter into antagonistic relationships with existing peasant populations. Continuous influx has not only put immense pressure on land but has contributed to falling size of land holdings and landlessness amongst a broad section of the indigenous peasantry. It is for this reason that the national problem in Assam is intimately tied to the question of land. The native peasantry living under the perpetual gaze of land alienation consequently has a strong rationale for seeking redressal of the problem of influx. This works to build consensus of the numerically dominant class in Assam towards the NRC updating exercise.


The Assamese speaking middle class has also strongly stood behind the NRC updating exercise. The infiltrating ‘outsider’ speaks a language that not only stifles the hegemonic project of the middle class but also revives historical apprehensions. For this class therefore, security against influx becomes synonymous with security in jobs and entrepreneurial activity. It is for such a reason that the middle classes in Assam have always constituted a fundamental bloc of support against the issue of influx.


Regrettably, a popular consciousness against the ‘outsider’ also produces its perversions. Consequently, legitimate religious and linguistic minorities have continued to suffer the excesses instigated by such perversions. Muslims and Bengali citizens of the state have been often viewed with suspicion and had been at the receiving end during the Bongal Kheda Andolon, the Lachit Sena Agitation as well as during massacres in Nellie and Chaul Khuwa Sapori to indicate a few instances. For these minorities, incorporation of their names in the NRC can provide them a powerful right-based claim to citizenship as well as dignified existence. It is on such grounds that the minorities, as a social class, have also largely tended to identify with the NRC updating exercise.


A divergent set of rationale have therefore converged to produce justification for the NRC updating exercise in Assam. The relative peace and cordiality prevailing today is symbolic of the cross cutting consensus that exist among three broad classes towards the exercise in question.


Political opinions unfortunately have not demonstrated a similar consensus as the participants. Their positions on the issue seem to have been shaped more by political expediencies and lack of adequate and sympathetic understanding of this intricate problem. Only such reasons could explain why for Mamata Banerjee, the issue of detection of illegal Indians is similar to an attempt to expel Bengalis and Biharis. Within the ranks of the Congress, while many leaders have derided the quantum of exclusions, Ghulam Nabi Azad made an erroneous claim regarding exclusion of a crore people from the final draft. This plainly showed the ignorance and vested intent of senior Congress leaders regarding the issue. CPI (M) MP, TK Rangarajan went further to call the report “illegal” while Manoj Kumar Jha of the RJD termed it as a “heartless bureaucratic exercise.” The BJP is also not aloof from such biases. Despite this draft not having finality, Amit Shah swiftly chose to aggravate anxieties by terming all the excluded as illegal migrants.


Such a contradiction between the participants and the political classes can have serious ramifications. For it constitutes a form of symbolic violence inflicted upon the participants through misrecognition of their genuine grievances. This can produce a deep sense of alienation among the participants whose life worlds are constantly punctured by the issue of influx. It is such a sense of discontentment that eventually becomes the seedbeds of regional chauvinism and secessionism.  Considering the prevailing political climate, there is now more reason to mitigate such aggressive sentiments. For in Assam, Hindutva nationalism finds a ready ally in regional chauvinism in view of the particular demography of the ‘outsider’ in question.

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