Citizenship Debate Over NRC & CAA: Assam and the Politics of History; Nani Gopal Mahanta, Sage Publications, Pp 326 , Rs 1395.00
When I received a review copy of ‘Citizenship Debate Over NRC & CAA: Assam and the Politics of History’ by Nani Gopal Mahanta, I assumed it would be just another work of monotonous academic writing on the vexed issues of citizenship and identity, many of which I had already read. I therefore put it aside to read some other day, having flipped through its pages only once the day when I first got hold of it. But, it has been rightly said that there comes an opportune moment for everything in life.
I was searching for a book in my bookshelf while I was about to leave on one of my field visits. My hands had picked up Prof Mahanta’s book this time, and I carried with me to read on my road trip from Guwahati to Meghalaya. As I opened the book now with the purpose of ‘serious’ reading, very soon I realised that this was no ordinary book on citizenship and identity with reference to Assam, or even a ‘What is’ template and a guidebook dealing with immigration and citizenship in India.
The book busts some artificially engineered academic myths surrounding the discourse of citizenship and identity, particularly in the context of Assam. It takes the reader along on a journey as well, a journey that seeks to trace the origins of a problem that has now metastasis. I finished reading the book within two days, so riveting was the narrative that it kept me hooked through late into the night.
It analyses the immigration problem of Assam in exactly the same manner the common Assamese people have understood it for several years now, with mixed feelings of fear and anxiety at the thought of becoming an alien in one’s own land. There are many portions of this book where the author’s narration is too gripping, especially when we try to analyse his multi-layered arguments in the light of present-day events such as the ongoing eviction drives in different places of Assam under the current Government led by Chief Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma.
The author’s insights are deeply academic and yet, have not failed to lose their realistic appeal. The book is divided into 7 chapters and each chapter dwells on an interesting topic, peppered with examples from both history and politics. In the introductory chapter itself, the author first critiques and then rejects the binary worldview of academic writing that tries to fit everything into an either/or category. In so doing, he lays bare the one-sided, tunnelled vision of what I would rather prefer to call Abrahamic thought, which clashes with the Dharmic worldview. His knack for data-driven research, supplemented with well-documented facts and figures, gives a clear picture of the larger conflict.
The book touches upon several aspects related to land, citizenship, and identity, while at the same time countering the propaganda that the NRC is a tool of Hinduisation of the Assamese nationality at the behest of the RSS-BJP. The author then goes on to ask several pertinent questions with respect to the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 and thereby throws light on the historical wrongs of the Partition, providing a nuanced and balanced understanding of the need for the CAA.
The chapter on NRC explains elaborately the peculiarity of Assam’s problem with the immigrants, and as well as the reasons behind why it cannot be understood through the binaries of religion and language. I found it extremely insightful when the author says, “Assam has adopted one of the most flexible accommodative approaches to the issue of inclusive citizenship. This process of accommodation shows how Assam’s citizenship discourse is inclusive and not exclusive; no other states in India have legally borne such a huge number of immigrants.”
The chapter on NRC explains elaborately the peculiarity of Assam’s problem with the immigrants, and as well as the reasons behind why it cannot be understood through the binaries of religion and language
Without succumbing to the fantasies of being politically correct, his stance on the citizenship issue of Hindu refugees is well-articulated. Several writers and academics on the subject have deliberately neglected this aspect because of their ideological orientations. But, the author is dispassionate in his tone and tenor while presenting a critique of their writings. His views on ‘Miya Poetry’ are unapologetically true with respect to the false claim spread by an elite coterie of “intellectuals” that the Assamese people are a xenophobic lot when it comes to accommodating the ‘other’.
However, while analysing Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankardeva’s Bhakti movement, the author could perhaps have looked into it as more of what I would like to term it a movement of ‘cultural resistance’ by the Hindu society against the Islamic invasions and the massive destruction of temples that was taking place throughout the length and breadth of the country. Was Vaishnavism really a ‘means to bring reforms to the society’ as the author has argued?
Well, it might have been, but the spiritual significance of naam espoused by sants like Sankardeva, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Madhavacharaya, Ramanuja, etc. at exactly the same time-period in history, cannot be overlooked while we deal with some stark historical truths. Their objective was to preserve Dharma in its simplest possible form, to keep intact the Sanatan culture and civilisation of this land, in the face of the enemy.
Published by Sage, Citizenship Debate Over NRC & CAA: Assam and the Politics of History would make a great gift to young Indians who are interested in knowing more about the history and politics of Assam, especially in the backdrop of the rise to power of CM Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma. The book is a milestone in itself, but it can be a stepping stone for exploring the still unexplored realms of the history, culture and civilisation of Assam.
(The writer is a political commentator, researcher, writer and columnist on issues related to Poorvottar Bharat)