India: The idea of wasteland and two media narratives of citizenship in Assam

Assam Map, Map of Assam

by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya    6 October 2020

I want to make a few observations regarding two widely circulated media articles that invoke ‘wasteland’, a colonial category for land, in speaking about state-sponsored notions of citizenship in Assam, a frontier state in northeast India. The category ‘wasteland’—and its variants “dead,” “idle,” “vacant,” “fallow,” “unutilized” land—facilitated state seizures of public commons for colonial capitalist exploitation in British India and Malay, Dutch East Indies, and imperial central Vietnam. Scholars such as Michael Dove (1998), Jane Ferguson (2014) and Ian G Baird (2014), and Jayshree Vencatesan (2006) have explored how notions of “degraded,” “underutilized,” “derelict,” or “waste” land have been used to legitimize and justify the power to exclude and control access to land across contemporary Southeast and South Asia. The rhetoric used to legitimize contemporary real estate development projects in Ho Chi Minh City resonates with French colonial concepts of ‘wasteland’ in Vietnam, as has been explored by anthropologist Erik Harms (2014). The two articles I discuss here can be located, broadly, in two different discourses of resistance vis-à-vis dominant narratives of citizenship in the state: the first in an identitarian discourse of protest forged by Miya writers and other voices from within the Miya community, and the second, a liberal post-nationalist critique of the citizenship regime.

The first article, “Assam NRC: A History of Violence and Persecution with Absolute Impunity,” published on August 15, 2018, on The Wire, is written by Miya activist-writer Abdul Kalam Azad. The author, recruiting the idea of the wasteland as a deus ex machina in the text, argues that immigrant peasants from Bengal settled on surplus, “abandoned” lands in colonial Assam. He writes:

“In the mid-19th century, a British military officer Maj. John Butler visited and described Assam as “it seemed totally devoid of man, beasts, or birds; a death-like stillness everywhere prevailed”. The sparsely populated, rich in natural resources and abandoned fertile land soon motivated the colonial administrators to bring a large number of people from other parts of British India, including the Bengalis from the overpopulated Bengal to resettle in Assam under projects like called ‘Grow More Food’ with an intention to increase the revenue.”

Here Azad recruits a line from British Major John Butler’s diary entry on 28 November 1845 in which the colonial military officer narrated his journey from Mohung Dehooa to Dheemahpoor (present-day Dimapur), a submontane zone in the present-day Assam-Nagaland foothills. The complete paragraph in which this sentence occurs in Butler’s diary entry for that day reads:

“The distance we travelled today to Dheemahpoor is fifteen miles, which occupied, as yesterday six hours. We crossed numerous small low hills, but the ascents and descents were easy, and the footpath tolerably open. The forest was of precisely the same character as yesterday; not a vestige of any habitation or a human being was seen between Mohung Dehooa and Dheemahpoor, a distance of thirty miles. A more dreary and desolate wilderness I seldom traversed in any part of Assam. It seemed totally devoid of man, beasts, or birds; a death-like stillness everywhere prevailed, broken only by the occasional barking or halloo of the ooluck or ape. (Major John Butler’s Travels and Adventures in the Province of Assam: During a Residence of Fourteen Years).

Azad uses Butler’s diary entry while arguing about the abundance of “abandoned fertile land” in late colonial Assam. However, Azad’s usage of the specific sentence, without reference to the context in which the original author Butler was using it, is misleading. Butler’s diary entry noted that he had seldom traversed such “dreary and desolate wilderness” “in any part of Assam” that he found between Mohung Dehooa and Dheemahpoor. What Butler noted as an aberration became a generalist description of colonial Assam in Azad’s article. Moreover, selective referencing of a colonial source as authoritative and the defining word, Azad subscribes to a dominant form of colonial production of knowledge (and history). By plainly refusing to question a colonial source and recognize the colonial politics behind the creation, evolution, and use of the category ‘wasteland’ in the context of Assam, the contemporary Miya writer gives a new lease to the colonial notion of Assam as a “land without people.”

One can also read a temporal lapse into these lines by Azad. Using a colonial text written in 1845, Azad invokes imagery of mid-nineteenth century Assam as a “sparsely populated” space full of “abandoned fertile land” and recruits it as a “motivation” for the “colonial administrators” in resettling East Bengali peasants under the ‘Grow More Food Campaign’ in the early 1940s. In what William Hanks (2009) would call an “indexical binding” of the temporal and the spatial in the text, the author’s chronotype blurred the temporal, by deploying two incidents nearly a hundred years apart, to suggest abundance of land in late colonial Assam. But were the “abandoned fertile lands” opened for settlement under ‘Grow More Food Campaign’ in late colonial Assam really abandoned i.e. without any previous usufructuary history? It is well documented in the historical scholarship on colonial Assam that lands opened for colonisation under this scheme were highly contested professional grazing reserves (PGRs), village grazing reserves (VGRs) and reserve forests (RFs) depended upon by local graziers and tribal hunters and not ‘empty lands’ (Guha 2014, Das 19811, Choudhury 20072, Goswami 2007, Sharma 2018). In the Sahitya Academy Award-winning Nepali novel Janmabhumi Mero Swadesh (2013), novelist Gita Upadhyay poignantly narrates how Gorkha graziers were evicted by the state from northern Assam’s Burhachapori PGR in order to settle surplus-oriented Bengali Muslim agriculturists.

Azad’s “abandoned fertile lands” in the text serves a similar function the legal-administrative category ‘wasteland’ served for a colonial administrator keen on ‘opening more lands’ in Assam. Thus, Azad’s article, while justly speaking against the disproportionate effects of the contemporary citizenship regime on the Miya community, unfortunately, perpetuates a classic colonial machination of invisiblising usufructuary histories of subsistence land users and their lifeworlds in order to facilitate colonisation of new territories.

The second article, titled “An Open Letter to Noam Chomsky on CAA, NPR, NRC” that appeared on Countercurrents.org on 20 February 2020, is written by scholars  Angshuman Choudhury and Suraj Gogoi, in response to Noam Chomsky’s comment that the “Citizenship Amendment Act poses intolerable threats to the indigenous peoples of northeast India.” Invoking ‘wastelands’, Gogoi and Choudhury argue:

“Ethno-nationalists in the region routinely cite colonial authorities to argue that the region is facing a “settler colonialism” problem. They particularly cite a certain statement by one British census superintendent, Charles Seymour Mullan, who in 1931 wrote about an “invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants; mostly Muslims from the districts of Eastern Bengal. They use archaic, colonial narratives such as this to argue that Assam continues to face a “settler-colonial” problem. This is grossly misleading. This migrant transfer happened almost 80-90 years ago under British rule.

Further, it is to be noted here that the Bengali Muslim peasants who arrived in Assam during the colonial period primarily settled in riverine geographies of the mighty river the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries. These geographies of could be categorized as ‘wastelands’, or as John Locke would say non-economic spaces. These muddy, silty, dirty, malaria-ridden, smelly places were brought into cultivation and use by these peasants.”

In the first paragraph, the authors correctly point out that ethno-nationalists in Assam cite “archaic, colonial narratives” such as Mullan’s 1931 report “to argue that Assam continues to face a ‘settler-colonial’ problem,” which, the authors contend, is “grossly misleading.” Ironically, however, not only the piece falls in the same trap the authors themselves point out in ethno-nationalist discourses i.e. the ‘fallacy of using archaic colonial narratives as sources of validation’, but goes a little ahead in overtly using the language of colonialism. In the immediately next paragraph, the authors recruit John Locke’s text and his concept of “non-economic spaces” that played a vital role in promoting colonisation and continue to weaponize postcolonial states to exclude people from lands. However, the piece doesn’t make any reference to the two-prong violence—the discursive-epistemic violence in erasing the history of pre- and non-capitalist indigenous land users and the real-physical violence in usurping the existing rights of the local subsistence peasants in opening these lands for ‘productive use’—involved in the colonial process of socially and legally producing and settling ‘wastelands’. The last sentence in the second passage is written in an exactingly colonial lexicon: the castigating epithets “malaria-ridden”, “smelly”, “dirty” were extensively used tropes in early colonial descriptions of the landscape of Assam. A host of nineteenth-century colonial writers, using these epithets, discursively produced Assam as a landscape/space that required to be attended with “governmental rationality” and thus promoted colonisation.3

Today, the assemblage for measurement of citizenship in Assam comprises three legal-administrative instruments: the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)-2019, and the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) & Detention centres. The NRC aims to identify citizens on the basis of the date of one’s or one’s ancestors’ arrival in Assam, the cut-off date being 24 March 1971, which was agreed upon in the Assam Accord, 1985. The CAA is a legal mechanism introduced by the Indian Union Government, which makes provisions for awarding citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who have migrated to Assam/India on or before 31 December 2014 in a push towards the Hindu nationalist project of ‘Akhand Bharat’. The Detention centres in Assam, and elsewhere in the country, are used to lock up non-citizens i.e. people who fail the litmus test, adjudicated in Assam by the FT, of these temporalities defining citizenship in the state.

Anthropologist Arkotong Longkumer (2020) has pointed out that the NRC has been a fraught and haphazard process, and “what counts as evidence was fashioned by state-institutional frameworks—ration cards, birth certificates, and land records—that required a ‘certificate of citizenship’,” which made the process exclusionary in nature towards disenfranchised groups who could not participate in “artifacts of modern knowledge.” The NRC, by its very nature, demands participation in the making of what Mathew Hull terms a “regime of paper documents.” Consequently, various disenfranchised communities including, but not exclusively, the Miyasalternatively called the Bengal-origin Muslims or Bengali Muslims—have been automatically pushed to a disadvantageous position for: a) a huge section of these communities live on reclusive char-chaporis or riparian tracts, susceptible to annual and abrupt flood, which makes keeping documents intact a herculean task; and, b) lack of access to education and widespread poverty force on a majority of these communities a “bare life”, effectively making them unable to participate in the “artifacts of modern knowledge” i.e. paperwork.4 The NRC, as a technology of government and the haphazard way it is being implemented, has elements of reducing people into what Willem Schinkel (2009) calls “illegal aliens” or homines sacri.

The Miya identitarian and the liberal post-nationalist critiques of the citizenship regime in Assam emerged in response to these flaws of the NRC and its alleged inherent bias and associative prospects of violence. The point of contention I want to raise is that the critiques of the citizenship regime, such as the two articles discussed here, need not be anchored on instrumentalist use of a colonial legal category i.e. ‘wasteland’ that was widely used as a tool for the appropriation of native public commons by colonial-imperialist regimes of the past.  Such reproduction of colonial continuities will only delimit the possibilities of resistance to the excesses of modern nation-states’ citizenship regimes.

Notes:

  1. Ganesh Das, “Baghbarar Durdanta Sikari Membo Kachari.” Dainik Asom Durga Puja supplement magazine, September 1981.
  2. Prasannalal Choudhury, Prasannalal Choudhury Rachanawali Edited by Sivanath Barman, Guwahati: Publication Board Assam, 2007.
  3. These colonial writers include Major John Butler, John Peter Wade and John M’Cosh, among many others.
  4. The various discourses of the NRC have connected flood almost exclusively to the Miya community, but flood affects multiple indigenous communities too—particularly the Mising tribe who inhabit riparian areas of northern Assam.

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