Book review-India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality



Author:            Sanjib Baruah  Publisher:  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, ©1999.

ISBN-10:         081223491X    ISBN-13:         978-0812234916    Paperback $ 25.12


By Unmilan Kalita    13 October 2021

Politics, as a discipline, is marred with theoretical conceptions and critical approaches. Whereas politics as a practise, is conceptualised as a skill of the empirical realm and therefore, is perceived to be detached and distant from the jargon-loaded academic interpretations and questions on rights, justice, nationality, security, i.e themes on which the politics of a region mainly revolves around. Sanjib Baruah, a Professor of Political Science at Bard College, New York and a leading commentator on the socio-political concerns of north-east India, has assessed the broad contours of socio-political concerns of Assam – a frontier province of north-east India by blending empirical events and policy matters with a strong theoretical reappraisal on the same. Researched and written at a time around the last decade of the twentieth century and published during the onset of the new millennium, the book assesses a period when the scope, relevance and importance of civil politics was at its lowest in the region which was a result of post-colonial inheritance of a colonial policy of resource extraction and administrative arrangements that was incongruent and in conflict with the socio-cultural grammar of the region. The book encompasses the South Asian experience of decolonised spaces and the inherent tensions that often arises in federal configurations that States in the region adopt to accommodate a range of ethnic, linguistic and religious communities.

A remarkable feature of the book is the methodological clarity that it possesses. Baruah makes an outright departure from the convention in which most texts and political commentaries were written on the region’s socio-political history. Forbidding the intensive state-centric bias that most analysis on the region inherited and carried, Baruah opens up the discussion on issues that has crippled Assam’s post-colonial politics to a wider purview – bringing non-State, civic and even geographical causative factors into the discussion. Going beyond an elitist reading of political history and a mundane chronological assessment of colonial and post-colonial policies, the chapters in the book forward an intersectional reading of political history, historical fissures and the contemporary political developments of the region. Thus, Baruah engineers a readjustment of the contemporary academic gaze in assessing contending discourses of the Indian State and its federal policies.

In the opening chapter, an elaborate analysis in done on the complexity and contestations on the theoretical concept of ‘nation-building’. Critiquing the paradigm of nationalism in lieu of Assam’s post-colonial experiences, Baruah opines for a theoretical reconsideration by proposing the notion of ‘sub-nationalism’ in regards to the collective interest and aspirations of the Assamese population at a ‘particular historical moment’, thereby adding another dimension to the notion of Assamese jatiyotabad, i.e nationalism. The utility of sub-nationalism finds prominence in the fact that it refers to ‘patterns of politicisation and mobilisations that meet some criteria of nationalism but is not committed to the idea of a separate statehood.’ (Theoretical Considerations, p. 5.) Baruah also asserts that subnational narratives are not ‘age-old constructions of peoplehood’ but are modern-day reconfigurations and are significant in a decolonised multinational, multilingual and multicultural polity. A sceptical assessment is made on the quasi-federal character of the Indian Union as both nationalist and sub-nationalist demands arose from across the north-eastern region with regular occurrence of region-wide protests and violent skirmishes between the protesting mass and the State’s iron force. A primary demand of the agitations was around the demographic question of Assam and a guarantee for more cultural and political autonomy; and in case of the insurgents, full sovereignty. This translated to a serious conflict of interest and a major disjuncture between the then Union’s federal policy and the aspirations of the people living in the given set-up, thereby indicating the inability of India’s federal project to accommodate what federalism in principle claimed to uphold.

The following two chapters deals with the advent of the East India Company into the region and how the colonial history that followed moulded Assam’s political and social character thereafter. Baruah explains the massive change that underwent in the erstwhile existing political and cultural relations amongst the region’s diverse inhabitants with the introduction of imperialist cartographic changes – mainly by focusing on the age-old relation of the Ahom throne with the Naga tribes. Using the edge of modernity to consolidate administration and the imperial aim of resource extraction, the colonial policy of introducing of geo-administrative arrangements like the Line System resulted in a policy of segregation and a transition from soft to hard boundaries. The rearrangement of the province’s status from being an appendage of Bengal to a Chief Commissioner’s province and again as an extension of East Bengal followed by the restoration of its earlier status resulted in a myriad of tensions – political, bureaucratic, cultural and demographic all alike including the Sylhet question. The third chapter explains the issue of immigration in colonial Assam and the dichotomy of native/alien or indigenous/immigrant that developed as a result – a debate which has affected the region’s political discourse the most.

The subsequent chapters comprise the prime crux of the book – the post-colonial breakup of Assam’s colonial geography, the politics of cultural clash, the transformation of colonial immigration policy into a ‘demographic issue’ and the subsequent rise of agitation, insurgency and counter-insurgency that resulted in gross human rights violation in the region. Baruah assesses the Assam Agitation of 1979-85 and the militant years of the insurgent organisation United Liberation Front of Assam’s role and the State’s coercive role in solving the ‘Assam problem.’ An important observation is that while discussing the theoretical basis of sub-nationalism in the introductory chapter, Baruah considers the insurgents’ aspiration of sovereignty as a nationalist demand and not a sub-nationalist one but interestingly Baruah uses the term ‘militant sub-nationalism’ while addressing the ULFA years in detail.

A chapter thereafter is dedicated to the Bodo issue – an issue where Bodos, the largest autochthone tribe in Assam undertook a path of reverse assimilation for having an identity bereft of ‘Assamese’ and a call for political-economic autonomy. This explains the complexity of Assamese sub-nationalism and how contradictions between the political framework and the cultural grammar of the region leads to years of instability, widening of cultural cleavages and failure of just governance. Baruah amply refers to songs by Bhupen Hazarika to add dimension into the contexts and gives him a status of a musical chronicler of the region. The concluding chapter, titled ‘India Against Itself’, champions a robust federal policy and asks the questions that are often left unanswered – questions on the region’s developmental and cultural policy and the perennial question of the region’s the control over its resources. The book therefore, by assessing Assam’s colonial and post-colonial realities, is a critique of the State’s ad hoc project of addressing deep-rooted political and cultural issues and offers a scope to undo the maladies of India’s federal policy.