Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Interview with Sanjib Baruah

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (1999)

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (1999)

Assam, one of seven states in India's northeast, has been home to a militant separatist movement since 1979, and unlike the conflicts in either Kashmir or even Punjab, the uprising in Assam has received little media attention both at home and abroad. Asia Society spoke to Professor Sanjib Baruah, author of India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), in an attempt to explore the origins of the conflict as well as the systemic reasons for its continuation. Professor Baruah discusses the importance of colonial policies in understanding the conditions under which the conflict arose as well as the failure of the postcolonial Indian state to deal adequately with the problem.


Can you explain the conditions under which agitation in Assam began? Did this movement have much popular support?

The Assam movement of 1979-85 – a campaign that protested what the supporters described as a de facto policy of admitting and enfranchising "foreigners" -- is certainly an important watershed in the political history of Assam. Assam's present ruling party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), as well as the insurgent organization, United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) both have their roots in the Assam movement. The movement was popular in the sense that there were hundreds and thousands of people out in the streets to support the campaign. But there is an important caveat. What may be equally important is the hundreds and thousands of people who were not out in the streets. For supporters of the Assam movement were unlikely to include Assam's so-called "immigrant communities." Indeed the indiscriminate use of words like "foreigner" and "Bangladeshi" during the campaign made many people in these communities quite insecure.

The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was initially a movement with mass popular support. Is this still true today? Where does ULFA receive its funding (from NRIs or through extortion or voluntary donations? There has also been some speculation that Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, covertly provides funding). How has ULFA's ideology changed over time?

I will not go so far as to say that ULFA ever had "mass popular support." But there was once a significant level of sympathy, for sure. While writing my book, I struggled with finding a way of describing the particular relationship between ULFA and Assamese society. The relationship cannot be reduced to how much support there was. I borrowed the term intertextuality from literary theory to come to grips with that relationship. Literary theorists use the term intertextuality to talk about the complex ways in which one text (e.g. a story, a poem or a film) is related to other texts. The term "intertextual" allowed me to get out of the simple-minded question of how many Assamese supported Assam's independence. Because while the answer to the question may be less than 1 per cent, it would not explain ULFA's influence. The point is that issues that ULFA raised were connected (in complex ways) to issues that had been central to Assamese mainstream social discourse.

About ULFA's funding, apart from ULFA leaders, probably no one knows the full story. There is no doubt that enormous amount of money was collected from businesses in the 1980s. Even major Indian business houses involved in Assam's tea industry are implicated in giving money to ULFA. Certainly large amounts were collected from the hundreds of small traders or businessmen. I have not heard of NRIs funding ULFA. In Indian newspapers there are speculations about ISI involvement. But there is no way of knowing for sure.

Has ULFA's ideology changed over time? In the face of Indian security operations, I doubt if ULFA today functions as a unified organization, with a clear program, where loyal cadres carry out policy decisions. The violence by ULFA, by pro-government former militants referred to as SULFA (the 'S' stands for surrender), and the government's counter-insurgency operations have combined to create a rather murky situation of many unexplained killings. Among the victims of secret killers, or death squads, if you wish, are families of top ULFA leaders. Then there were a number of mass killings of Hindi-speaking peoples late last year. Some news reports have speculated about a possible shift in ULFA's ideology from these ethnically targeted incidents. But the circumstances simply are too murky for me to engage in such speculation.

How closely is Assam's future linked to other northeastern states where there are also insurgency movements (the most obvious examples being Manipur and Nagaland)?

The tragedy of northeast India is that it has been a relatively sparsely populated region in a densely populated sub-continent. The numbers comprising groups like Assamese, Manipuris, Nagas or Mizos are not small by global standards, but tiny by the standards of the sub-continent. For Indians from the heartland, it is easier to think of the whole region as a single region, rather than make distinctions. I can imagine Indian policy-makers, say in the Home Ministry in Delhi, making India's northeast policy. But the region has peoples with distinct histories and concerns. At the same time there is also a sense of a shared predicament. Regional political parties, student organizations and insurgent groups have from time to time tried to co-ordinate their activities.

But it is important to emphasize the distinct histories and issues, for often they animate particular insurgencies. Let me take one of your examples – Manipur. Many in the Indian heartland have barely heard of what, in the Indian scheme of things, is only a tiny northeastern state of less than 2 million people. But to most Manipuris their polity was one of the oldest cases of successful state formation in Asia. Indeed the Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur, lists a continuous lineage of kings that goes as far back as the year 33 AD.

Manipur became a part of British colonial India in 1891. The British ruled it as a "native state." Four days before India's independence on August 15th 1947, Maharaja Buddhachandra Singh signed the instrument of accession entrusting only defence, communication and foreign affairs to the government of India. But soon after, Manipur had to give in to independent India's larger project of bringing all the former "native states" firmly under its control.

A merger agreement signed in October 1949 under very suspicious circumstances, according to which Manipur lost the autonomy that it had negotiated two years earlier, arouses quite a bit of emotions in Manipur. Manipuri insurgent groups regard the merger as illegal and unconstitutional. The controversy is not unlike that surrounding the merger agreement on Kashmir. But how many people in India have ever heard of this controversy?

Why is it that the insurgency in Assam doesn't seem to have the same hold over the Indian popular imagination as for example the one in Kashmir or even in Punjab? Assam gets much less press coverage and clearly does not elicit comparable popular reactions (as for instance any discussion of Kashmiri secessionism does).

The Indian popular imagination probably has far too many issues competing for its attention. Kashmir is different because the issue has been at the center of India and Pakistan's collective self-definitions. It is both an international and domestic conflict. Punjab's location – next to Delhi -- and the fact that the conflict involves a community that is at the very heart of the Indian establishment – from the military to the business world – perhaps accounts for the interest.

By contrast, Assam and the northeast are very far away; a "sensitive border region" to use an Indian cliché; the image it evokes is of a borderland full of deviants conducting subversion.

But the Indian lack of interest is understandable too. After all, everyone has limits to what they can be interested in. So the question is why should northeasterners have to go to Delhi and plead with the Indian media: "Please, get interested in us"? The reason they have to do that is obvious: because decisions are made in Delhi. I am therefore more interested in changing that structural situation. Hence my emphasis on decentralization.

A common assumption regarding insurgencies in the Third World in general, and the movement in Assam in particular, is that these are the result of an incomplete process of modernization. Could you comment on this?

I don't think the notion of "incomplete modernization" is very helpful to understanding sub-national conflicts either in the "third world" or anywhere else. After all, some of these conflicts are there in fairly "developed" or "modern" places: think of the Basque issue in Spain or Quebec in Canada. In India itself, one of the bloodiest sub-national conflicts was in Punjab, one of India's more "developed" regions.

I locate these conflicts in the contradictions inherent in a very "modern" institution: the nation state. In the annals of human history, the notion that the boundaries of a political entity should neatly coincide with that of a cultural formation – which we like to call a "nation" -- is rather new. We have all got used to seeing nation states as the most "normal" way of ordering the world – after all we call the premium global organization, the United Nations. But making nations has actually been a very bloody process, not just in the "third world," but even in the case of more established nations like France. We have developed an amnesia about the histories of what appear today to be coherent nations. The sub-national conflicts of today are part of that bloody history of nation-building -- of trying to create a global order of nation states.

You suggest in your book India Against Itself that the formation of Assam as a colonial province in 1874 marked a significant break from the past since it allowed for the implementation of policies that irrevocably changed the nature of relations among the different peoples there. One of these is the distinction the colonial authorities drew between hills people and plains people (as with the Nagas and the Assamese). Can you explain the importance of these policies in understanding the nature of the conflict as it persists today?

The problems created by the way the British colonial rulers went about forming provinces are not unique to Assam. Administrative convenience rather than pre-colonial political or cultural boundaries guided them. Postcolonial India went through an elaborate process of reorganizing states in order to have some correspondence between units of governance and India's sub-national formations.

The second part of your question, however, brings up a feature that is indeed peculiar to colonial Assam. The Inner Line introduced in 1873 sought to exclude most of the hill areas from the plains. After that, people from the plains – indeed any non-official, Indian or European – had to get special permission to enter the hills. To take your Naga example, while the Nagas and the Assamese are not the same people – and in our ethnicity-obsessed era, it may be hard to appreciate this – that did not mean there were not substantial interconnections. For instance, Assam's kings appointed Nagas to important positions like Borphukan. A powerful reminder of that historical connection is the dialect called Nagamese -- a creolized form of Assamese -- that Nagas still use as their lingua franca. The colonial inner line created the foundation for separating the hills from the plains. At the same time, the inner line had an unintended beneficial consequence. Compared to areas like Assam and Tripura, thanks to the inner line, states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram have been protected from a large-scale influx of population.

Another important colonial policy with important implications for the present was the fact that Assam was simply treated as an extension of Bengal. Could you comment on this?

The British colonial tendency to treat Assam as an extension of Bengal had a number of consequences. First, British officials saw the empty lands of Assam as a solution to the problems of land-scarce Bengal and, in the 1920s and 1930s, they settled East Bengali peasants in Assam as a matter of policy. Later the process acquired a life of its own. Second, the province of Assam, as constituted in 1874, included large Bengali-speaking districts, most importantly, Sylhet (in today's Bangladesh). Indeed for a brief period from 1905 to 1912, the British even experimented with a new province called East Bengal and Assam with Dacca as the capital. Third, before 1874, Assam was ruled as part of Bengal and, until 1873, Bengali was the language of the courts and government schools in Assam.

Given this history, it is hardly surprising that Assam has a very large Bengali population, though one has to remember that large numbers of the people of Bengali descent in Assam speak Assamese. At the same time, because of this history, differentiation from Bengal and Bengali culture has been a major theme in Assamese identity politics – which has made Assamese-Bengali relations sometimes conflict-prone.

In what ways did policies in the immediate postcolonial period either exacerbate or break with policies implemented previously? On a related note, it has been suggested elsewhere that the highly centralized nature of the Indian State (formed ostensibly as a result of various nation-building and developmental exigencies) has contributed substantially to feelings of alienation and marginalization among the Assamese (as with others). Could you discuss this?

On immigration from East Bengal, the situation only got worse in the post-colonial period. For apart from the continuation of the flow of economic immigrants – to which the emergence of an international boundary line (between India and East Pakistan, and subsequently India and Bangladesh) made little difference -- there was now a new flow of immigrants from the same region: political immigrants, i.e., Hindu Bengalis who came after the partition. When you consider how politically explosive the issue of immigration changing Assam's demographic balance had been in the 1940s and, would once again become in the 1980s, it is extraordinary that this was allowed to happen with utter nonchalance. The indigenous/non-indigenous issue in Assam is no less explosive an issue than, say, in Fiji or Malaysia. Yet the fact that in the Assam case, the question does not receive the sort of policy attention it deserves, I believe, is a function of the fact that since Assam is part of a larger polity, its concerns -- no matter how crucial for its political stability -- get lost in the larger pan-Indian noise.

Here the point you make about political centralization comes in. For, in theory, this is exactly what federalism is designed to stop. Federalism, after all, is a way of checking the tyranny of the majority (of countrywide populist majorities) by leaving constitutionally guaranteed autonomous realms of action for states. India may not be centralized in the way that say, China is. But for the kind of political entity we are – a multiethnic country with the world's second largest population – the kind of mess that has been created in Assam by inattention to the immigration issue illustrates that India needs a more decentralized political system than most countries.

How does the BJP being in power affect, if at all, Assamese nationalism? Regional parties have come to play an increasingly important role in politics at the national level. The AGP has in the past supported the BJP coalition. Could you discuss the importance of this?

It is possible that the AGP and the BJP may land up as electoral allies. The BJP has found similar regional allies in other states. AGP did very poorly in the last parliamentary election and is unlikely to win on its own. But to answer your question let me go beyond the BJP and bring in the allied phenomenon of what in India is referred to as the sangh parivaar: the larger "family" of Hindu organizations associated with Hindu assertionism. There is a danger that a BJP-AGP alliance might give fillip to Hindu assertionism and give a new Hinduist thrust to Assamese nationalism, which has historically been very inclusionary on the Hindu-Muslim question, thanks to the important place that indigenous Muslims have in the Assamese cultural formation.

How has your book been received in intellectual circles in India? And more specifically, among the intelligentsia in Assam?

Oxford University Press did a reprint for sale in South Asia and OUP tells me that the edition sold out quickly. Most major Indian newspapers and magazines have reviewed the book. In the northeast I have been invited to speak at major universities and colleges. I even gave a press conference in Guwahati last November.

But my book, while in the language of the publishing industry is a cross-over book, is still an academic book. It is probably not as accessible as it could have been. I would have been happier if Indian discussions of the book had taken on my major claim: that India's approach to the insurgencies in the northeast may be militarily successful, but it has high costs in terms of the quality of India's democracy. In the long run, neither the nation-in-crisis mind-set that shapes these policies, nor the economic determinism that leads the government to pump resources to the region can win the battle of hearts and minds. Only a radically decentralized constitutional design can bring all of the northeast firmly and voluntarily into the pan-Indian dispensation.

Sanjib Baruah was born in Shillong, a hill station in northeast India. He was educated in Cotton College in Guwahati, Assam, the University of Delhi and the University of Chicago. He is currently Professor of Political Studies at Bard College in Annandale on Hudson, New York, where he teaches Comparative Politics and International Relations.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society