As I wake up every morning, I ask myself a question: Am I alive? Do I exist among human beings? Will my child grow up and live to old age? The pessimism comes from two major crises looming over mankind today: A minuscule virus and the colossal climate crisis. As much as we try to close our eyes to the larger perspectives, as we speak to ourselves or to our children, the basic questions of human lives have always remained the same.
If the 2020 experience has shown us anything, it is that the human struggle for survival would continue, as it has since time immemorial, amongst hope and despair, love and conflict, living and dying, empathy and hate, birth and death. The mythical Old Fellow, my imaginary and constant companion, whispered to me that 2020 was the year for appreciating everything that we have with us, not the year to possess all that we yearn for.
If the virus does not discriminate, one may ask how relevant are questions of identity, ethnicity, class, and caste, while the world unites in suffering. In the state I call home, Assam, identity remains a fraught issue, even in the backdrop of a pandemic. Assam has witnessed a lot of turbulence, due to several mass uprisings and social movements, the latest being the anti-CAB/anti-CAA movements in the last couple of years. In the year gone by, too, we have seen how a divisive socio-political agenda created vertical divisions and distinctions among castes, religions, class and multi-fragmented Assamese identities. It set the stage for several incidents of mass hysteria, like the fears and misinformation about Tablighi Jamaat.
As an Assamese poet-writer, I also represent the descendants of tribals, socially downtrodden backward castes and classes, brought by the British colonial government and tea planters in the 19th century, as indentured and forcibly displaced labourers from central and central-east India. It is to be noted that these large populations, except for a few cases, never went back to their original birthplace. We, the descendants, have an independent history and a rare cultural sense that resists being absorbed into the cultures of the upper caste people. That’s why the Adivasis tea garden labourer communities coexist with the mainstream Assamese society rather than assimilating themselves completely. We are an integral part of the greater primitive and Adivasi nationality of India, but we actively and passionately take part in the formation of the heterogeneous greater Assamese nationality. Naturally, I believe that “Assamese” is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, heterogeneous and democratically placed identity.
The clash of cultural identities is fundamentally a conflict among dominant cultural practices, promoted by a social order governed by the agents of capitalism for their own benefits. But at the same time, culture has the potential to become subversive and can challenge the ruling order as well. What is happening in Assam is an outcome of one dominant culture attempting to hegemonise another. At stake is the question: Who really belongs to this land?
In this, what is forgotten is that Assam is a land of various democratic cultural practices; since we only talk about the dominant among them. “Assamese culture” is not one-dimensional but rather consists of heterogeneous, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-placed and multi-displaced cultural identities. But to think of culture in terms of a binary shrinks the space for the lives of others.
It makes us wonder if we have already lost the battle. Will Assam be forced to forego its own distinctively heterogeneous cultural identity in the face of an invading and expanding hegemonic force from north India and the mainland?
To oppose such a cultural onslaught, we do not need to erase diverse identities. Instead, the dominant Assamese cultural identities should accommodate and be accompanied by other forms of living. Considering the current scenario, I urge that we have to provide the necessary democratic, horizontal spaces to various voices from all communities, both dominant and non-dominant, across disciplines, thereby creating a coherent voice to be heard by the academicians, intellectuals, social workers, politicians and the common people. This will create a realistic sense of belonging to the land and its people. It will pave the way for cultural exchanges and sharing of cultural knowledge in a real sense, which will ultimately create a complete democratic space and domain for all equally important cultural identities.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, moreover, we should realise the interconnected-ness of all life on the planet, that the questions and challenges we face are both global and local. And as flag-bearers of our respective societies, we should look at the common crippling questions of contemporary times, because, despite all the tall claims of progress and development on all fronts, all the vitally important questions of humankind — the questions of daily sustenance, poverty, land, human rights — still remain the same. If these questions are not addressed, then the earth would not be livable anymore for common folks with dignity, whatever be their identity.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 1, 2021 under the title ‘We are in this together’. The writer is an award-winning bilingual poet, academic, critic and translator, based in Assam.
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