Dear people of Assam,
I grew up in the 1990s. My cousins today do not realise how difficult an era it was. I grew up hearing stories of how “our boys” combated the Army. Some time, I felt proud and, at other times, I didn’t know how to respond. I never witnessed an Independence Day or Republic Day function in my life. Those were the days of Doordarshan and it had its staple diet of nationalism. And it was in this euphoria that during an Independence Day I drew the tricolour on paper and put it atop our house. Immediately, I was slapped and brought to my senses. Not because my parents were anti-nationals but because they didn’t want to incur the wrath of “the boys,” who had eyes and ears everywhere.
As I grew up, I was pulled between my national sentiment and my strong, sub-regional aspirations that began to find expression in my thoughts and action. It was perhaps during my 15th or 16th year that I realised that the grandiose dream of India that I had seen on Doordarshan all my life was not entirely true. My history also spoke of the brave Lachit Phukan, who trounced the Mughals 16 times. Barring the Palas, we were never conquered by the powers in Delhi, not even once. I came to know about the brave Ahoms who ruled for 600 years, defying historians’ perceptions of the “rise and fall of empires.”
And yet when I wanted to read more, I couldn’t find anything. For all their glossy covers, the Macmillan history books, which spoke so eloquently about Delhi and South, failed to mention Assam, the northeast, and referring to it only as a distant region of wild animals and wilder people! Those days, the Internet was not in vogue and this predicament haunted me. I became a staunch sub-nationalist and stopped my attachment to I-Day or R-Day.
And then, as I took the first steps towards adulthood, I realised that I had to rethink my own sub-nationalist aspirations. I began to understand that howsoever I wished to live in the past it was not possible anymore. In this global era, to talk about territorial sovereignty when boundaries are fast disappearing is almost an oxymoron. Among the choices of staying with India, being independent and staying with China, I preferred staying with India. Not because I had a special attachment to Delhi but because the concept of freedom in my mind had changed its definition.
How could I call myself free when the poor were languishing in my State? What good would freedom do if we were to be hit by floods ever year? What good would freedom do if we saw our young men and women leave their home at the first chance, lamenting “lack of opportunities” in their home never to return? I realised that all of this meant nothing. It didn’t matter what national colours I wore, what mattered was whether the poor man in the street was truly free. My guess is ‘no.’
Freedom as a concept is perhaps a tool of the middle and upper classes to fuel their own ambitions firing the gun from the shoulders of the masses. In truth, perhaps, freedom in today’s world is a lie to fuel one’s own gains. Yes, some struggles may be legitimate, some may have historical connotations, but this is not the 1930-40s anymore where there is a global surge against imperialism.
Thus, I was happy to witness the progress Assam had seen in the past 10 years. The Assamese inside me was content. Finally, we were reaching out, leaving the idiom of freedom a vague struggle behind and concentrating on development which is a lofty goal to be achieved. I felt proud when my friends who arrived from every corner of the country and were pleasantly surprised to find the KFC in Guwahati. I felt happy when my friends called up to tell me that Assam had scored in the charts on health, education and other parameters. I finally believed our time had come. We had made peace with the Bodos, the Karbis, the Misings; the Dimasas had finally come together albeit in some crude form to some understanding. I believed it was time we would work for the common good.
And once again, I was proved wrong. Today, as Assam burns, I ask myself: are we going back to the 1980s once more? About 8,000 people lost their lives in that era and a whole generation was ruined; and today we stand at the crossroads again. It is time we looked at the history once more. Immigration — illegal or not — is a universal phenomenon and it is here to stay. We have to find ways to control and harmonise it; but we cannot let ourselves fall headlong into the tumultuous 1980s-1990s once more. It will take our State 20 years back.
Some would argue that the way forward is political freedom for us. Delhi does not understand our feelings. Delhi is a tyrant. But then the question is who has stopped us from making inroads in Delhi. Delhi did not debar politicians from joining North Block, from joining the national media, from joining the administrative services and the armed forces. When was the last time we heard a strong voice from Assam in the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha?
Our MPs mostly sit in the last benches and talk as less as possible so as to attract minimum attention. It’s us we who have decided not be the stakeholders in our own future. And now when hell broke loose, we all went back to what we know best — anarchy. It is time we left behind this quality for striving for anarchy. It is time we brought peace, it is time we the people of Assam reassessed what we want and how we want it. A friend of mine called me and asked “Are you safe? Oh man, Assam has gone back to those dark days once more!”
And I stood there shocked, humiliated and most of all hurt.
(The writer blogs on national and global issues. firstname.lastname@example.org)