The scorching rays of Assamese nationalism

The Darrang incident is not a lone wolf act but leads back to robust and embedded anti-Muslim sentiments

September 30, 2021 12:02 am | Updated October 07, 2021 02:05 pm IST

hads behand red curtains. horror halloween concept

hads behand red curtains. horror halloween concept

The Darrang killings , in Assam, wherein there were casualties in police firing during an eviction drive, have unmasked an evil social character of Assamese nationalism and its further descent into darkness. The event was so macabre and grotesque that I will still call it an act of political sadism. How else can one characterise the emotional matrix of a group of people who defile a body after a person is shot right before their eyes and even go on to celebrate that act of humiliation? Erich Fromm, social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, has reminded us that the only way to understand the spirit of culture and social character is to pay keen attention to the ‘emotional matrix’. Assamese nationalism should be evaluated and diagnosed, among others, for its emotional matrix and how it makes its followers turn to it, like flowers to the sun.

Us versus them

The minority in Assam has been visited by violence so often that it has become part of their everyday life, although it is the tribals who are the historical subjects of evictions. Among the various minorities in the State, it is the Muslim minorities who are victimised the most. Assamese society never opened its doors to them. Assamese nationalists are wont to say, ‘become us’ by speaking our language, but do keep your religion and culture private, or you may live like nobody. The language riots and the Nellie massacre (1983) drew definitive measurements of the horror and destiny of “Bangladeshi” bodies. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is not the last nail in their coffin either.


It was declared much before Independence that the Pakistanis, Communists and Bengalis were enemies of the Assamese. There is a convergence in how the Assamese and the Hindu nationalists think of their enemy in the Muslim or “Bangladeshi” figure in Assam. Somewhere, they both harbour the fantasies of the collective elimination of this figure. However, they have different histories and methods by which they arrived at this similar sentiment. While the latter flaunts its enemy and their desires publicly, a section of the former tries to hide behind the latter. To say that communalism in Assam and violence against the minority is only due to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is either a prayer or a fantasy — a beautiful camouflage.

A marginalisation

Even with such clamour of hatred and enmity surrounding them, they have continued with their life, minding their own business and engaged in deep conversation with the soil and the water of the Brahmaputra. They did not have any community but their own. Everything they did was declared to cause decay to the Assamese and their existence, a danger to Assam. To echo Walter Benjamin, philosopher, critic and essayist, the minorities in Assam are prohibited from investigating (or even dreaming) about the future. They are, as the poet once said, “forever a silent sob”.

In the Constituent Assembly debates on minority rights, Begum Aizaz Rasul rightly qualified that denying a child an opportunity to learn in their mother tongue is militant. The minority in Assam face such militancy in primary education and in all walks of their life. Everything to do with the Muslim is screened. Clothes, children, family, museum, poetry, food, dwelling; everything is questioned, hated, and profiled. Popular songs, newspaper cartoons, wall graffiti, bureaucratic documents, gossip in the streets, classroom interactions, vernacular prose and poetry, cricket practice camps, or even films, vilify and humiliate the “Bangladeshi”. The poignancy of hate is so profound, commonplace and recurrent, that any potential empathy towards the minority is hopelessly out of reach. Everywhere they look, and in everything they listen, they see their mutilated identity being projected with disturbing barbarity. Every social interaction they have with the majority in Assam is filled with dehumanisation and violence.


The reactions to the Darrang brutality expressed by journalists, politicians, and the foot soldiers of Assamese nationalism reveal how hatred has crystallised into the caste Assamese social structure, and how benumbed they are. Their narcissism will not stop even when political sadism is in such naked display. They are so consumed with their self-image that they fail to see any other reality. And like a psychotic, there is no reality but of what they see in and about themselves.

A silence and its import

What can you say about the silence of the victims despite lakhs of them being declared stateless, kept in detention camps, hundreds of deaths by suicide and severe impoverishment? Imagine how deep a social and political legitimacy the NRC process enjoys wherein the victim, who loses everything, will not even protest. Alternatively, should they protest, they know the consequences that will visit their bodies, family and life too well. This absence speaks volumes about the degree of un-freedom the minority has and the brutality with which they are forced to live. Perhaps this silence is also the reason that connects Nellie to Darrang. Ashis Nandy reminds us that the perpetrator remains permanently afraid that whom they have oppressed will strike back, nurturing ideas of revenge. So, they attack again. Was Darrang such an unfolding? I hope I am wrong.


The connecting thread

The Darrang incident was neither an act of a lone wolf nor a disconnected event. The singular event reflects something larger than him. The action of the perpetrators is also connected to the past — to Nellie, Kherbari and the Assam Movement. The singular event takes us to the rightful owners of the sentiments — Assamese nationalism, with its distinct figure of the enemy. How do we erect psychological defences to such robust sentiments of hate for the Muslim distributed so evenly in Assamese society?

I am reminded of a Zapatista slogan that said that we need to learn to host the otherness of the other, not the sameness. Perhaps, there is a lesson there and a need to cultivate such a social character of hosting the otherness and the enemy. This is a possible way to come out of the psychosis and narcissism that plagues Assamese nationalists. The only exit is to annihilate the language and culture of political sadism in its current form and interest.

Suraj Gogoi is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore

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