A CONVERSATION BETWEEN NILANJANA BHATTACHARJEE AND VEEWON THOKCHOM
This epistolary exchange between Nilanjana Bhattacharjee and Veewon Thokchom attempts to understand the absurdities and anxieties surrounding border-making and naming in the region we know as India’s “North East.” Often, in the dominant colonial imagination, the region is either produced under the myth of “unity in diversity” or is relegated to layered forms of erasure by citing its “complexity.” Given their own experiences of the everyday in Assam and Manipur as well as their distinct identity locations, their conversation reveals the entanglements of cartographic and epistemic fictions in the nation-building project in the region.
When I was tasked with exchanging these letters with you, I did not know where to begin. In Delhi, winter has begun setting in. The city is a polluted gas chamber and I try to remember what blue skies look like. There is no easy route to enter into the discussion on what the north-east of India is. I wonder if it is adequate to begin by differentiating between “North East” in uppercase, sold as one geopolitical, strategic unit whose “diversity” exists as a monolithic block to add to the nation-state’s unity, as opposed to “north east” in lowercase, a mere directional indicator revealing only as much as it promises. In the uppercase, it becomes a “region,” a “strategic military interest,” a “national security threat”: jungles, rivers, hills, and land that need to be “tamed,” put through a rigorous regime to discipline—Disturbed Areas Act, Evacuee Property Act, Cattle Preservation Act, Assimilation Acts, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Official Language Act—to become the “North East.” It can then be talked of in listicles citing simple examples of continuity, bereft of any complicated history, through pictures of “simple-minded” tribal women dancing over bamboo by the edge of a forest punctuated by shots of elephants, hornbills, rhinos, and the solitary tiger. The mainland’s preoccupation with depicting the “beauty” of this mystical land becomes clear when all advertisements selling the region showcase empty landscapes and animals, but never people. On the rare occasion that humans find their way into the narrative, they are shown as mythical beings, locked in time, whose only responsibility is to regale the mainland gaze and soothe it with their esoteric ways. I read your essays, and I wonder where and how and if you weave yourself into the north east, in lowercase, of “India?”
Hope you are well when you read this.
It has been a long time since I wrote anything at all. I am at a point where I feel that sitting down and writing something is one of the hardest things in the world. It is like you would rather jump off a cliff than sit staring at a blank screen. But you do also realize that it is only you who can save you from a fall that would break every bone in your body and crush your skull to a pulp. Only you. No one else.
From Manipur, I see all this news about the pollution in Delhi. And it is scary. They say that it is now the most polluted city in the world, that breathing its air is like smoking ten to fifteen cigarettes a day. In 2020 alone, air pollution caused about 54,000 deaths in Delhi. Is this the price people have to pay for “progress?” Seeing how much the present ruling dispensation succeeds in crafting any narrative out of a crisis in their favor, it would not be a surprise if they added a tinge of roaring and chest-thumping nationalism to the story of pollution in Delhi and claimed that Pakistan was invading Delhi at midnight with smoke-filled drones.
What you have pointed out here about the “Northeast” is so fascinating. The differentiation of the term in two sets. It’s like how we see the yolk and the albumen of the egg when we break it open. However, I have never seen it that way. For me, the term has always been something that is shoved down our throats, played perpetually against our ears, and carved across our brains. It’s like we all are herded inside an indoctrination chamber, an enclosure where everything is and for the “Northeast.” Do you realize that we even perform, dance, and sing in front of an audience that is infinitely eager to know the “Northeast?”
Historically, the place has been given romanticized descriptions that seem like they are straight out of Victorian literature: “Land of the Rising Sun,” “Land of Festivals,” “Scotland of the East,” “Jewel of India.” These naming and categorizing are deeply rooted in a racist and Brahminical colonial production of knowledge, a project in which we must be simultaneously portrayed as angels and demons. It’s only a matter of choice between the two images, depending upon the time and situation.
On the other spectrum of the categorization is what we can call “threat perception.” According to this line of thinking, the “Northeast” is a threat, a violent incomprehensible web of jungles inhabited by unintelligible tribal people whose only language is violence. These resentful people carry bitterness and frustration in their hearts, which all stem out of their habits and attitudes. Thus, they are unemployed and underdeveloped and always in want of aid.
I want to stay here for some time, here in this conversation around the “Northeast.” The term carries different weight and meaning for different people. It is essentially a brand now. This brand is flanked by Indian academia, policy makers, bureaucrats, etc. This imposes an overarching narrative where multiple cultures, different histories, and politics of vast geographical regions are relegated to the margins, pushed to the peripheries, and buried in the ground. Don’t you think it is a magnificent achievement for this nation, that’s only 75 years old, that the imposed decorative term “Northeast,” and its usage is so pervasive that our own languages lack in their vocabularies the translation of this English term?
Hoping you get to see blue skies soon.
How are you?
Do you remember those Assam tourism advertisements with Priyanka Chopra waving at thin air from the middle of the river and patting elephants? I am in absolute agreement with you, when you talk of how strategic interests of the center lead to the creation of a “brand” used to various (mostly nefarious) ends by academics, policy makers, and administrators. I find difficulty in weaving myself into any part of the nation-state. I say I belong to Barak valley, as the piece of land is instrumental in my ability to articulate my body politic. I am deeply conflicted by where this valley is situated in my imagination and in that of the Indian and Assamese nations.
Before I write further, I must delve into the specifics of my identity. I am a Bongal to the Assamese; a Bangal to West Bengalis—both pejorative in value, but to very different ends—and a Sylheti when allowed to go into the specifics of my ethnic identity. I am from the oppressor caste, adhering to the oppressor’s religion. While I would figure at the bottom of salaried middle classes, I am in possession of an English education from a private school, ensuring I am able to distance myself from my family or neighborhood and wield a very different kind of social capital from them when required. I am a woman. My ethnic and linguistic identity predicates that I face ethno-linguistic discrimination that no matter how many layers of my identity I peel away to assimilate, assimilation eludes me. My education ensures that I am able to talk about it. I am able to buy myself time if faced with the possibility of being marked a D-voter. My caste identity ensures that I am able to insulate myself in ways I have the choice not to engage with issues of race, oppressed caste, and Indigenous experiences. I am even able to pack them into a neat box while fixating on my uncomfortable experiences of being a borderlander when I talk of the culturally conditioned ways of inclusion and exclusion in spaces. What I am trying to say is, the forms that discrimination takes are very specific to our context. I do not wish to simplify them for a general framework that can be easily theorized, for, if anything, the very generalization and making of monolithic identities are how the rather dynamic instruments of oppression are developed. Discrimination as a term itself needs contextualization beyond a victim-perpetrator logic. I would like to know what you think.
It has been a while since the day I wrote to you when I was at home. I am now at my university campus. It is here that I feel I can really get into writing. Unlike at home, where I was increasingly feeling cramped and suffocated by the many elements that essentially constitute a home. Here, I can take my time to reflect on what I want to say, to search for the right word that harmoniously rhymes with my feelings and thoughts. At home, as I did not have a proper writing table, I sat in bed and did my writing. Here, I have a proper table, white in color.
Coming to what we were talking about, belonging to a majority community in my own state, I have never had to go through any form of internal discrimination from neighboring communities. This is a privilege I derive from my ethnic identity as an indigenous Meetei. We are a majority community that has historically occupied the seats of structural and administrative power. In doing so, we exercise our own regime of exclusion and marginalization against the “tribals” (ethnic Nagas and Kukis). However, despite this privilege, my community (and all the other communities) experiences violence that takes the form of state power: police, bureaucracy, Indian armed forces, and Indian laws. It was only a few years ago that I finally found the tool, or I can say, the language to understand and to articulate my experience, both at home and in the Indian metropolis.
Over the past few years, I took shelter in “racism.” The discourse on racism in this country is so lacking that sometimes one can be easily branded a racist for speaking and writing about racism. Race as a social and discursive construct is sustained to give life to a structurally hegemonic and violent relationship between people. First of all, we need to accept that to be able to enquire and critique the idea of race, one does not have to believe in the objective reality of race. When we speak of “race,” we are not trying to enforce racial differences or prejudices. What we seek is a critique of oppressive relations among races.
There are two sets of race experience. These are not merely an interaction with “race,” but a fundamental encounter with the Indian state. In the first case, when I live in my homeland, Manipur, I live in one of the most militarized zones on earth; we come quite close to Kashmir. Along with this package is the blessing of the Indian law: the 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA. The formation of the Indian nation underlies the fact of AFSPA. Where the imagination of India is already extended in the minds of the architects of the nation, but not in the imagination of the people of a specific region. AFSPA occupies the vacuum left by the lack of that imagination; AFSPA is what will make the people of the “Northeast” purely Indian. AFSPA, institutionalized and legally sanctioned, allows the Indian armed forces unquestionable power to shoot, even to the extent of causing death of a person who is a “suspect,” and therefore can be arrested, maimed, tortured, killed, or raped at any time. Moreover, the Act allows no prosecution or any legal proceedings against any armed force officer who carried out his “duty” under its protection. This impunity thrives as a result of a general consensus among Indian policy makers that such a freehand for the brutalities committed by the nation’s military may be necessary for the general good of the population. They need to maintain order by eliminating all forms of perceived disorder and chaos, a land and people who are a “national security.” In institutionalizing a law that takes away life, the Indian state subjugates, controls, and disciplines our people. You mentioned assimilation. I feel these are means some people in a conference room came up with to assimilate us into the fabric of the nation.
The second type of race experience is the one we encounter in Indian mainland metropolitan cities. We leave our militarized land for polluted cities across India to work as waiters, receptionists, and salespersons. Many of us work in higher education too. This outmigration happens against the backdrop of a violent history, a corrupt state infrastructure, deplorable education facilities, and a faulty extractive economy. Our not-so-Indian and exotic Mongoloid appearance is capitalized in the neoliberal market. At the same time, we become targets of racist attacks and discrimination.
In most cases, mobility and navigation around these mainland spaces is entirely dependent on how much we are willing to assimilate into the dominant race, culture, and society. And when this assimilation takes form in a manner that is unwitting and sometimes collaborative, it can lead to a phenomenon of internalizing negative stereotypes perpetuated by the dominating race and culture. The body of the assimilated can suffer from psychological low self-esteem or self-hatred. They start to look down upon themselves and the group they belong to as an apolitical entity. This springs from a wounded psyche damaged by internalized racism. The dominant group, with power at its disposal from being in that group, creates a mechanism of collusion and complicity of its own. In this setting, the relation between the mainland and the peripheral “Northeast” becomes exclusively a relation of power and domination.
I believe that a lot of us write our way out of pain, just like a lot of us drink our way out of grief. As I write to you about my people, I think I am a bit fanatically more drawn towards this belief.
Writing more next time.
With warm regards,
Good to hear you reached safely. These days, my only source of comfort are my plants. I hope they never have to choke on Delhi air like I do. I haven’t seen the sun in days now.
I am glad you brought up race, assimilation, and the impunity of the militarized occupation. I would not have been able to put things into words better, if not for your perspective. When I was first tasked with exchanging these letters, I wondered to what end I was writing. If it were to talk of how difficult histories must be written, how do I, in my writing, remain faithful to my principles that histories must be written to disrupt narratives and understand victims and perpetrators beyond an easy binary. Picking up where you left off, I would like to situate the experience of the “other” kind of borderlanders, who belonged to ecologies that were forcibly partitioned.
It has been routinely organized and reorganized to govern and rule over the geography, and arrange the population in ways beneficial for the colonial state. Assam in the present day includes parts of Sylhet (annexed in 1765), the Ahom Kingdom (Brahmaputra Valley, annexed following the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826), and Cachar (annexed in 1832). Starting in 1874, Assam was “organized” as a province for the first time by the British by adding the non-Assamese districts of Sylhet, Cachar, and Goalpara drawn out of the Bengal Presidency to meet the revenue deficit of the newly formed province and also give rise to two monolithic identities of power in the east, the Assamese and the Bengali. Changes to the composition of the province continued to be made in 1892, in 1896–97, and in 1905 as per planter interests, and in 1947 as per the interests of the caste Assamese elite. Upon arrival into the “post-colony,” it saw three new states Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Nagaland, carved out of its landmass over the imposition of a homogeneous Assamese identity. Given this background, what are the pitfalls of imagining Barak valley in Assam, as opposed to Purbachal as the people there wanted it to be? How does the former imagination cleanse and reorder the landscape in keeping with the colonial knowledge forms under which the region was first conceptualized? What would the creation of Purbachal mean for the Bongal in Brahmaputra valley who are routinely painted as insects or pests on the walls of Guwahati “mahanagari” (metropolis)? More importantly, are you able to read through the silences I must maintain to write this story?
When I think of the politics of language, I think of the assimilationist trend in which such geographies require presenting to simplify and order them. In case of Barak, it becomes a Bengali-speaking valley, where the Bengali is seen in vain to that of their counterpart in West Bengal as part of the mainland mission to occupy, or variously as an alien refugee, migrant, encroacher, infiltrator, when the body arrives in Brahmaputra valley as a minority. This at once homogenizes the “Bengali” experience and simplifies it in ahistoric ways, limiting the linguistic and ethnic identity to the Nadia standard and Ghoti (West Bengali) respectively, and social identity to that of the Bhadralok Bangali. Bangla, like Assamese, is a language of power in the geography under scrutiny; it has been standardized and imposed at the cost of other languages which maintained a fluid identity with the language of power, and which were relegated to being colloquial “dialects.” The opposition that Chattgaiya and Sylheti pose to Bangla is the same as that put forth by Kamrupi and Goalparia to Axomiya. These two languages clinically determine the projected identity of the region while ensuring the “smaller” cultures within their ambit become sanitized wholes bereft of challenges and contradictions. The history of ethnic cleansing of the non-Assamese, non-mainland, non-indigenous ethnicities in Assam is the context in which the subscription of these ethnicities to a Bengali identity must be understood. It is at once an act of political subversion and an attempt to root identities in a case where geography is socio-politically denied to them. To give a very personal example, this is why I call fiddlehead ferns “faloi” (Sylheti) and not “notey” (Bangla) or “dhekia” (Assamese) and cowpea “ramais” (Sylheti) and not “lesra” (Bengali) or “borboti” (Assamese).
The other implication of robbing the Bengali identity of its socio-political context in Assam is the ease with which the cleansing and structuring of the “correct” population can be undertaken through exercises such as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). I see these two as the natural outcome of a long history of ethnic cleansing that started off with the 1961 massacre at the Silchar Railway Station, Bongal Kheda through the 1960s and 1970s, and the infamous supposedly subaltern Assam “Andolon” of the 1980s led by caste Assamese touting as the victimized “indigenous” to safeguard their political and economic interests in Assam. Every year when the “martyrs” of the “Andolon”—860 in number—who took part in a movement to oust the “outsider,” the Bongal settler colonizer, are commemorated in statewide ceremonies, I wonder what of the unnumbered others who are to remain forgotten in their death? In presenting the very precise number of 860, by the “indigenous” caste elite, what happens of the 10 Bengali Hindus killed at Goreswar and 11 Bengali Hindus in Silchar, both in 1960, the 500 Bengali Hindus killed in Khoirabari, the 50 Bengali Hindus killed in Silapathar, the 10,000 Bengali Muslims killed in Nellie, all in 1983, the 80 Bengali Muslims killed in Bodoland in 2012, the 12 Bengali Muslims in Baksa in 2014, and the 5 Bengali Hindus gunned down by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in 2018? All of these people are connected in death by their ethno-linguistic affiliations packing them neatly into the bracket of settler colonizer even as their origins are closer to Assam than to Bengal, be it East or West.
In giving these figures I make a distinction between major and minor events that predicate the lives of those designated to be of “East-Bengali” lineage even though East-Bengal ceased to exist in 1912, and the landmass has since traveled to be East Pakistan (1947) before becoming Bangladesh (1971). The minor events that I do not mention are when you purposefully hide your ethnic identity or when non-indigenous colonies are attacked by the “sons of the soil,” or when you get called a “Bongal,” “Bangladeshi,” or “Gedi” in jest by friends who are quick to clarify it was all in good humor, and so you smile along, hoping to be assimilated in the correct way, complicit in your own dehumanization.
I see it as a ripe opportunity here, to talk of how the violence and brutality of AFSPA goes beyond state-sanctioned militarized violence alone. The “disturbed area” tags overlap with the economic and social marginalization of a region. Colonial law-making pits marginalized communities against each other to benefit itself and solidify a network of collaborators. What entails these law and order “reviews” undertaken by the government remain vague so that regimes of mass incarceration and murders may be normalized. In the case of Assam, the law has ensured a regime of violence by non-state actors who, in retaliation, have targeted the non-indigenous, believing them to be collaborators. This tag of non-indigenous, therefore, in itself is a way of sanctioning violence. I trace much of my childhood through my mother’s premonitions to not look the man with the gun in the eye and newspaper headlines of encounters. Writing this has brought back memories of when Manorama was assaulted and killed by the Indian army, and when ULFA had bombed a school in Dhemaji on the 15th of August. Timelines for both the events overlap as much as the kinds of violence did. I do not have much else to say anymore.
I hope there are blue skies at your end when you see this.
As the morning fog cleared, the deep blue sky revealed its face to me. In between my writing, I go out to the balcony to feel the breeze on my face and hair. I sip my tea as I am about to start writing to you.
I would like to talk specifically about the regime of violence. The persistent militarization of my land is physically and traumatically experienced through mass fake encounters. It accounts for 1,528 cases on which the Supreme Court of India constituted a CBI Special Investigation Team on July 14, 2017, after a writ petition was filed by the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) and Human Rights Alert in 2012. Moreover, there have been a number of massacres over the past few decades (Tera, RMC, Oinam, Heirangoithong, Malom…), and instances of rape and mass rape (the Oinam incident, Manorama, Ahanjaobi, Mercy…). In many cases, the survivor killed herself from shame and despair, and I am thinking of Rose Ningshen.
There are more than twenty cases of documented rape (including mass rape) that had been committed by the Indian armed forces in Manipur. Rape is deployed by the armed forces as a weapon to intimidate, coerce, and force the population into submission or teach them a “lesson.” Looking at the ways of demonstration of punishing an enemy community, it may be said that the deployment of violence is a gendered activity. Because of the ideologically and culturally ascribed gender roles, and the military institution only constituting male actors, women and men of the resisting group as political and social actors experience violence differently.
Ethnic and linguistic distribution do not correspond neatly with state boundaries in our borderland regions. The logic of the boundaries between different states is framed by the politics of nationalizing these frontier landscapes. In British colonial times, the “Northeast” was the most heavily capitalized fringe of the Subcontinent, divided by “Inner Lines” for the sustenance of an extractive tea economy that functioned like a paralegal empire within an empire. The Indian state project of nationalizing space is multifaceted. It takes form in the cultural as well as the demographic front. After 1947, Sanskritized names were assigned to Arunachal Pradesh (The Land of Mountain Sun) and Meghalaya (Abode of Clouds). These are names that in the Hindu Brahmanical worldview project the land’s historical and cultural ties with the Hindu mainland. Just after the Indo-China war in 1962, Indian policy makers proposed to settle 100,000 farmers from Punjab in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) i.e. present-day Arunachal Pradesh.
Presently, there are demographic threats in the region, a trend towards minoritization of the indigenous population. A few years ago, despite wide discontent and protests, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed in the Indian parliament. The act legalizes unabated and unchecked influx of non-Indians from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, belonging to six specific religious communities that the Indian government has termed “religiously persecuted minorities” (Parsi, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, Jain, and Buddhist), conveniently leaving out the Muslim community. The historical genesis of the act can be traced back to the partition of India in 1947, when the Indian nationalist leadership made clear, during the Constituent Assembly Debates, their concerns regarding the Hindus left out in East and West Pakistan.
With this political development against the backdrop of the region’s history, we need to engage with the concept of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism aims to eliminate an entire disposable native people, with the erasure of indigeneity, language, cultures, traditions, ways of life, names of places, etc., of the native population being its essential component.
With no mechanism for wage negotiations, our youths are exposed to the most brutal form of wage theft by multibillion dollar companies in a structurally limited and exploitative capitalist labor market. Hitherto remote, our land will be usurped and acquired by capital over which modern industries and markets must be established. The rights of the capital to buy always supersede our rights not to sell.
In a case of classic perversion of Marxism, Indian left-liberals tend to look at the influx of population in the frontier borderlands as the proletariat. By curtailing the indigenous mode of production, the external so-called proletariat serves as a tool for the Indian bourgeois project of fulfilling the market’s imperative for expansion. Despite witnessing decades of insurgency, militarization, and bloodshed, the Marwari and Bania traders have settled here, kept a low profile, and consolidated their wealth. The contradiction within the Indian mainland societies, too, provides a condition for immigration in frontier societies at the expense of native land, water, minerals, and livelihoods. On the back of this so-called proletariat, the Indian Marwari and Bania traders now control almost all the economic activities in the entire “Northeast” region. It can be aptly put that India, with a project that primarily assigns capital over indigenous land and peoples, accumulates a large immigrant population base that can be mobilized as a political counterweight to indigenous politics and aspirations.
I did not have much to say when I first started this conversation with you. It is like until we have started to write, we do not clearly know what we want to say—and how much. As I continued, I learned more about what I think. And now I want to write more to you. But time and space allow me only this much for the moment.
Much love and care,