PEOPLE TOGETHER, KOLKATA)
Neo-liberal Economy and Assam’s imbroglio
Freedom and Social Justice
The word freedom bears different connotation to different class of people. In the name of holding the ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the state economic regulatory institutions, the neo-liberals are bent on dismantling the vestiges of protective measures built on the premise of Keynesian model for full employment to minimize social injustice and economic inequality. This market-centric elitist ideology rests on a premise that completely ignores social justice and denies common cause of identity based groups of people in a culturally diverse milieu. This generates an inherent tension between individual freedom on the one hand and social justice and identity assertion on the other. From the working class perspective, neoliberal capitalist drive from the eighties has set a task for the working class vis-à-vis the new left to transcend this tension. From this perspective let us examine, in a nutshell, identity assertion that causes Assam’s imbroglio and the recent spate of separate state demands.
Linguistic States and Federalism
The contraction of state border is usually driven by the aim of creating a more nationally homogeneous and legitimate small state to bring the proto-bourgeois section of the particular nationality into governance. The working class consciousness always remains contingent to the identity assertion in the underdeveloped country like India. The aspiration of various linguistic groups that were on the rise within the ambit of growing anti-British freedom struggle was ventilated through the formation of linguistic states in independent India. But considering the great cultural and linguistic diversity in India especially in the state like Assam, this linguistic state formation could not resolve the issue of identity empowerment. With a view to establish unhindered hegemonic rule through linguistic homogeneity, the ruling Assamese upper castes resorted to unbridled chauvinist policies and let loose brutal state repression on the Bengali speaking Muslims in Lower Assam in fifties and on the language movement of Bodos in Lower Assam, Bengalis in Barak Valley and on other tribal groups in the sixties and this culminated into re-division of Assam. The Assamese ruling class was satisfied with the new truncated Assam with the voices of the Bengalis especially the Bengali Muslims of Lower Assam and the Bodos muted for the time being. There were regular hiccups with occasional screams from those suppressed voices since then up to particularly early eighties, but the situation has changed thereafter. When the so called Assam movement designed to permanently suppress those recalcitrant voices to tilt the balance of power absolutely towards the Assamese Hindu upper castes hegemony has reached its zenith, its vested class-interest has disillusioned the Assamese masses and thereby blunting their chauvinistic appeal. This has also been the time when the Indian state has ventured into the realm of neo-liberal policy drive and has started losing its efficacy to achieve consent for a social balance in favour of upper caste hegemony. In this backdrop, the distinct political formation of Bengali Muslim community of Lower Assam and politico-social show of strength of Jharkhandi Tea community of upper Assam have upped the ante of identity rights and social justice. These two communities together constitute almost half of Assam population and also major chunk of manual industrial workers and poor-peasantry. New state formation in piecemeal manner cannot entail all the complex mix of overlapping identities of Assam on linguistic as well as on cultural parameters, and this is not unique for Assam, rather it is true to a large extent in the case of other states of India as well and this fact calls for re-constitution of state reorganization commission to be mandated with the task of formulating the criteria for formation of new states with greater autonomy and the greater autonomy for all communities within the states and this task can be summed up as the federal re-organisation of India vis-à-vis states through multi-layered autonomy. We must create a space for the empowerment of all communities who are at their various stages of development to defeat chauvinistic politics and ensure working class solidarity by surpassing community consciousness. But this, I suppose, is a working class perspective which is anathema to the present day neo-liberal capitalists. As the neo-liberalism fetishised and camouflaged real inequality and oppression in the name of formal legal equality between unequal actors, the ruling class has seen a real challenge from the women and working class leadership of Telengana state movement and so they have bitten the bullet to contain the working class perspective to emerge. The situation is different in the case of Bodo statehood movement which can best explain this proposition.
The waning efficacy and support-base of chauvinistic appeal of Assamese ruling class have given rise to democratic space to manoeuvre. But till now, the question arises, why the left and democratic movement is not taking a strong root in Assam politics. The neo-liberal onslaught has set the ground for revolts; but there is ample scope to twist these revolts into sectarian outbursts. The tradition of democratic language movement of the Bodos has been hijacked by the contractor class, the section of lumpen unemployed youths and the middlemen who amassed large sum of money from IMF and ADB funded schemes in connivance with corrupt officials to morph it into chauvinistic-terrorist movement mercilessly killing and displacing thousands of non-Bodos to establish minority rule. The neo-liberals both at centre and the state have given them free hand to loot and plunder natural forest resources and the Government coffers by forming BTC in an area where Bodo population is about 20-25% only. The official left also toed the line of this tribal chauvinism by supporting the so called Bodo autonomy and thus constricted the democratic space further.
The recent spate of violence in the BTC area of the state of Assam needs also to be seen from the perspective of the present phase of neo-liberal globalisation. The immediate cause of the conflict brewed up in the BTC area of the state of Assam has extensively been dwelt upon by many experts in different fields and they have mooted that the extension of sixth schedule to a geographical area of mixed population without paying any heed to the democratic recommendations of Bhupinder Singh committee, and the drive of the militant outfits of the undemocratically empowered minority Bodo community to establish majority rule through the policy of ethnic cleansing are the root causes of this conflict. Without going into the details of this aspect, the other dimension of overarching influence of the neo-liberal globalisation of economy and culture that erode democratic space to cause social/ethnic conflict have been mentioned here.
Communities and democratic space
In BTC and the rest of Assam, the community collectivities are used against one another. A people’s centric discourse to solve this vexed identity question is not gaining ground due to the neo-liberal ideology of new private English-educated middle class who finds unbridled market-economy as the panacea of all ills. This debate could not also happen due to another major factor of anti-Muslim middle class mindset of both Assamese and Bengali Hindu society. The Bengali speaking Muslims of lower Assam being compelled to accept Assamese as the medium of instruction over a long period of time has become “No-Ahomiya” meaning neo-Assamese. But their integrity to the state of Assam is always questioned by the mainstream Assamese society, and their due status is also not overwhelmingly accepted by the Bengali Hindu middle class too and thus they are in a state of confusion and disturbance with regard to their linguistic identity. This increasing anti-Muslim stance has something to do with colonial culture that is spreading its tentacles through the present phase of globalisation of culture.
The historical causation of the emergence of reactionary identity based politics in the peripheral states like Assam is reinforced by the economic policy pursued. The problem of formal democracy is that mass politics are too remote and too disaggregated to ensure that politicians are under appropriate detailed constraint. The peasant movement of seventies was defeated by the Chauvinist Assam Movement and the present democratic space is being constricted by the sectarian movement of the oppressed tribal identities. The communal and chauvinist politics in Assam has not faced the adequate challenge from the grass-root people’s movements which still lack the vision to incorporate the question of democracy, alternative economic model to the neo-liberal growth model and alternative people’s culture to the neo-liberal culture of globalization in their programme. The ruling political class cutting across the party line is now realising that the Assam situation is sliding down beyond manageable level leaving two extreme options of either barbarism under the leadership of crass political class or new democracy under the leadership of working class for foreseeable future, and so to avoid the snowballing of these two extreme situations, some kind of consensus on multilayered autonomy for Bodo people as recommended by Bhupinder Singh Committee, on the formation of upper house to incorporate leaders of different communities into the power structure and on extending economic-sops to the section of people losing out in the spree of all out privatisation is rapidly emerging within the political parties. But a new debate from working class perspective can only find the way out to resolve the disarrayed premise of ‘unity in diversity’ in Assam.