The topic I have chosen for my lecture today is “Assam, India and Identity”. I finalised this subject with some care and some trepidation. “Identity” is a sensitive subject, particularly in the backdrop of Assam. As a sympathetic outsider, I was and remain concerned that I should not be misunderstood. In fact, one of the oft-heard laments of my Assamese friends is that policymakers, academics and media persons in New Delhi continue to see the state and its society through the prism of northern India, and are neither alive to its multiple complexities and identities — nor to the astounding sociological diversity in Assam and across the other states of the Northeast.
Identity is not a simple black-and-white phenomenon. Every human being has multiple identities. As we have seen in Assam, linguistic and religious identities both clash and intersect. Then there are regional and sub-regional identities, identities rooted in both shared and contested histories, and identities born of ethnic and community kinship. Today we are in the midst of a churning of identities, in Assam as well as in the rest of India. I would go to the extent of saying that it is a global churn, exercising different societies in different ways.
It is important to understand what the different debates related to identity are, why they are taking place, and the interplay between them. Assamese identity is seeking a stronger footing within the broader Indian identity – and yet Indian identity, while changing in itself, is also changing and reshaping Assamese identity.
How is the Indian society changing? We began our journey as a nation in 1947 when we gained Independence from a common adversary, the British empire. In 1950, our sense of nationhood was codified by a Constitution that made India a republic. Today, 70 years later, our national identity is being reinforced and reforged by new social forces that are creating a bottom-up, organic sense of nationhood and belonging.
What are these forces? I would like to devote time to three of them:
- Our youth population
- Urbanisation and the urban-centric national economy
- Communication technology, including television, social media and the wider Internet
Let us examine each of these.
The first underlying social force is the creation of demography, and of the growing youth population. India will have the largest working-age population for any society in the first half of the 21st century. What does this amount to in numbers? It peaks in 2030 with a youth population of 485 million aged between 15 and 34 (of a total population of 1.5 billion). All the members of this generation are now alive; the youngest were born in the past five years.
This youth bulge is both an opportunity and a challenge. Like young people everywhere, this generation is impatient, energetic and hungry for prosperity — and proud of its identity. This identity could be Indian or a function of pride in language, region and community. Often it is a mix of two or more of these. As can be expected of young people, this generation is also ambitious about India’s place in the world, of making it a better country as well as a safer country. A young population on such a large scale offers scope for national renewal, but also for pockets of resentment.
The second social force is urbanisation and the urban economy. India’s GDP reached US$ 1 trillion in 2007 — 60 years after Independence. It reached US$ 2 trillion in 2014, only seven years later. Today, our GDP is valued at about US$ 2.7 to 2.8 trillion and the government projects that by 2024 it could touch US$ 5 trillion. In 17 years – from 2007 to 2024 – India’s GDP would have expanded 500 per cent and grown five times.
We can see that as an economic achievement, which it is. It is also a signal for change at a ferocious pace, for disruptions and inequities, and for risks to predictability and cherished certitudes. Such an evolution offers hopes as well as anxieties, and necessitates an interrogation of old and new identities. For example, some 70 per cent of that US$ 5 trillion GDP will be in urban India. An urban economy will in turn incubate an urban society, very different from the age-old reality of a rural India and an India that lives in villages.
Such an urbanised economy – particularly when built around specific urban centres of growth – is leading to an internal migration of a quantum unknown in India’s history. It is linking aspirations in one part of India to the economic well-being of another part of India, and giving a village in one corner of the country a stake in a city that may be at the other end. Inevitably, it is expanding how people approach and perceive political geographies and national politics.
Politics is not just what affects your village; it is also what affects your daughter’s job in a far-off city. This influences how people think, and how people vote. What we are seeing is the beginning of a pan-Indian, macroeconomic middle class — of an identity formed not by a common hostility to an empire and its viceroy, for instance, but by a shared stake in national well-being.
The third social force is technology, particularly communication technology. Television and the data revolution – social media, WhatsApp, among others — are building all-India constituencies and causes. There are an estimated 380 news television channels in India — across languages — that carry news bulletins and current affairs programming. The number of internet users in India is expected to cross 625 million in 2019. About 180 to 200 million of them use English, but that number is now static. Ninety per cent of new users use an Indian language other than English. There are more than 250 million Indians on Facebook. If they seceded from India, they would make up the world’s fifth most populous country.
What is all this doing to Indian identity? Television and affordable data access have helped unite Indians across regions in terms of lifestyle choices, consumer habits and attitudes — in emotive reactions, whether to a cricket match or to a terrorist attack; to Hima Das’ superlative running or to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s walk back to freedom.
The distinction between local and national news, between local markers of identity and national markers of identity, between local figures of respect and reverence and national figures of respect and reverence, is blurring. The definition of a community is enlarging — and so is room for pan-Indian issues and pan-Indian preferences, hopes and grievances. It goes without saying that there are political consequences, but that need not detain us today.
Instead, I would like to illustrate my point with a sombre and tragic example — the suicide bombing that killed 40 men of the Central Reserve Police Force in Pulwama in February this year. Those 40 martyrs came from 16 of India’s then 29 states. Their bodies went home to emotional funerals in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, Karnataka, and even here in Assam. Sorrow and anger were experienced on television screens across the country. It was felt across the country, not merely in one or two regions or states.
Such shared experiences too shape identity. In this case, they shaped common perceptions about terrorism and security, about Kashmir and its future, about an appreciation of nationhood. Tomorrow there could be other anchors and other issues, but the broader lesson is communication technology is enabling Indians to grieve and celebrate together.
While each of us subscribes to increasingly wider identities — national, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, or even global — we have a unique bond with the identity we were born with and born into. You could call this a mother culture, a native language, a place that gives you a sense of belonging. This sentiment and its expressions cannot be ignored or discounted. They are as important and as sacred as our connectedness across cultures; they cannot and must not be crushed by larger identities.
In 2016, the Brexit referendum saw a majority of British voters choosing to leave the European Union. The referendum led to a torrent of debate and inquiry into the causes of rejection of the European Union. Many of the reasons cited were specific to the United Kingdom and to Europe, and may not be relevant to us. However, there was an observation by the author and former journalist David Goodhart that travelled well and had cross-cultural salience.
The essential tussle, he argued, was between “Somewhere people”, people with a particular sense of belonging, however that may be defined; and “Anywhere people”, who could live anywhere, in any megapolis or global capital and had a technocratic and mobile identity rather than a structured and anchored identity. Many of you would be nodding your heads. Assam would understand what Goodhart was trying to say.
Sitting on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra, Mahatma Gandhi was overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and the magic that the women of Assam, he remarked, wove in their looms. Why and how this land of such ethereal delight has suffered so much turbulence in recent times will remain one of the mysteries of fate.
Notwithstanding aberrations, Assam is justifiably proud of its pluralist traditions and liberal outlook. In fact, in resolving the intricate problems of today, Assam needs no sermons from others. It can draw from its own moorings and its heritage of humanism — as propagated most famously by Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva six centuries ago. He preached God residing in every living being, he preached religion and faith, without caste or race.
The religious harmony represented by Ajan Fakir still echoes in the zikirs sung in the far corners of Assam by Hindus and Muslims alike. The pride of Assam, Bharat Ratna (awardee) Bhupen Hazarika, echoed the same philosophy in his song that said, in translation: “If people do not care for people, who will?” Such is the rhythm of Assam. The influx of illegal migrants who may not share this liberal ethos has tended to create fissures in the integrated matrix of the Assamese society. The inability or reluctance to accept this, especially in our national politics, has had unfortunate consequences.
To cite an instance, it is worthwhile to recall the report of then governor of Assam, Lt General S.K. Sinha, in 1998. He remarked with dismay that while the border fencing in the Western Sector had been completed in three years, in Assam it started only 12 years after the Assam Accord was signed in 1985.
It is telling and tellingly unfortunate that many of these issues are still amid us. The problems related to illegal infiltration and demographic change, the National Register of Citizens, and the Citizenship Amendment Bill have agitated minds here. There are many implications of these issues, and a degree of anxiety is natural. I cannot predict the final shape of the resolution to these matters — nobody can — but I would like to mention some fundamental parameters that must be adhered to:
- The key objective of the NRC is to ascertain all Indian citizens and ensure that non-citizens, who have in all probability entered illegally, are identified. It is critical that not even one genuine citizen is excluded.
- Undoubtedly the question of what becomes of those who are identified as non-citizens has enormous logistical and humanitarian implications. This is a separate question and deserves national attention. It is not Assam’s burden alone; it is India’s burden. Assam has a duty towards India, but India too has a duty towards Assam.
- Clause 6 of the Assam Accord called for “constitutional, legal and administrative safeguards” to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. For 35 years, it has awaited attention. A new committee has been set up. I trust it will do justice to its mandate.
- Related to the previous point, the identity of the Assamese people and the primacy of the Assamese language must be secured and guaranteed as non-negotiable and as integral to the destiny of Assam. Given Assam’s composite culture and ethnic mix, it may be difficult to define an Assamese identity — but I am sure the committee will be equal to the task.
- Our Constitution has enough flexibility and avenues for innovation — ranging from sub-regional protections to reservations in the legislature. Perhaps the applicability of laws for the Brahmaputra Valley could require mandatory endorsement not just by the state assembly, but by a majority of MLAs from constituencies of the Brahmaputra Valley. I would like to draw the attention of the committee to the “West Lothian Question” debates in British parliamentary politics.
I am told that Assam has one of the oldest written histories in the country. Assam’s past is inspiring. Lachit Borphukan’s cry that “My uncle is not greater than my country” motivates us to this day. It is appropriate that an award named in honour of this brave hero of Assam and of India is given to the best cadet at the National Defence Academy in Pune. The history, cultural identity, ecology and natural heritage of Assam make it central to the Indian imagination.
There is one element missing: an economy of matching size and weight. From New Delhi, sometimes everything seems far away. In such a reckoning, Assam has, unfortunately, been consigned as a “frontier”. Actually, if you consider south and southeast Asia as a cultural, economic and trading continuum — Assam is far from a frontier; it is right in the middle of a region of spectacular potential.
In recent years, a decisive infrastructure push in Assam and in neighbouring states is facilitating a realisation of that potential. Nevertheless, much remains to be done. In personal life, I would recommend a “lahe lahe” approach; but not in policymaking. Assam is unimaginably beautiful, and on a clear day the horizon is endless and boundless; its endeavours too must be unimaginably ambitious, endless and boundless. I wait for the day when Guwahati airport becomes a regional hub, not just for this part of India but for countries in this part of the world — when a passenger from Bangladesh travels to Guwahati to take a flight to a third country.
The skies beckon and so do the waters. It is a paradox and a pity that the mighty Brahmaputra, which has nurtured Assam for millennia, is allowed to cause such misery year after year. It is worth noting that the Yellow River in China, Huang He as it is known, was once nicknamed the “River of Sorrow”. With scientific control of its waters, judicious use of technology and development of waterway-based trade and tourism, it has been transformed into a river of prosperity. The Brahmaputra deserves as much.
Some of you may be wondering why I am bringing the economy into a lecture on identity. It is because the two are intimately and inextricably linked. When a region — whether a state or a city — loses its economic vitality, its culture and identity also suffer. I was born in Calcutta; I have seen this happen. On the other hand, a prosperous economy, open to trade and commerce and currents from other lands and other regions, is more confident and better equipped to foster, preserve and export its identity, culture and cultural products.
A society that closes its doors may appear the most culturally pure and secure; but in some measure, its identity is the most fragile and vulnerable.
In this context, I am confident that Assam will continue to make the right choices. I am also confident that it will continue to make the right choices while taking care of hopes and fears of every section of its multicultural, multilingual society; while looking into apprehensions of minorities with understanding and compassion; while adjusting the rights of the majority with the aspirations of the minority; while resorting to that subtle and understated, collaborative and non-confrontational statesmanship and sensibility that is quintessentially Assamese.
May Ma Kamakhya always bless Assam, and may she always bless India.
This is an edited excerpt from a lecture delivered by Ashok Malik on “Assam, India and Identity” at the Harendra Nath Barua Annual Lecture on 31 August 2019 in Guwahati, Assam.