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Black Holes of the East

Migration, and the agonies of the inside/outside

Black Holes of the East
Black Holes of the East
Rites of Passage -- Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India
By Sanjoy Hazarika
Penguin India Rs 295; Pages 347
I always have a strange feeling reading Sanjoy Hazarika's books. I make it a point to read them and end up with a feeling that this is a black book, in the sense of the blackness of a hole. You have the dry mirth, the wry tone, the caustic evocation of a disaster, and then you are left there to choose for yourself—the underlying pessimism, the occasional reference to reconciliation, the varied justification of the received narrative of hatred in the northeast, his assertions about the unpalatable nature of the truth he is recording, his stern verdict on the weird phalanx of Left politics-intellectuals-academics-utopians-Muslim politicians. His skill in describing the scenario of illegal immigration, which he thinks has produced the politics of hatred in Assam, takes the narrative beyond a simple right/wrong description. And therefore, the reader's uncertainty will be on what to make of his exasperation with the follies of the phalanx on which he passes his verdict.

Unwillingly, by vocation, I belong to that damned group—a writer by designation, an intellectual by avocation. Having studied migration from across the border to West Bengal, I have again that feeling of strangeness as I encounter in Rites of Passage the power of description of the reasons of barbarity, hatred, exclusivity on which current nationalism thrives, and realise the powerlessness of the ethic of reconciliation. I shall explain.

Sanjoy says the issue of immigration is beyond counting figures or denying numbers. The problem is not about truth, but truth itself. If that is so, why harp on the legality/illegality, political contrivances, and why justify hatred that led to the massacres of Nellie and Mongoldoi? If migration in the east and northeast of South Asia reflects an integrated labour market, probably imperfectly integrated, shall we not pass on to the other scenario of the vast world of labour and petty production, where ways and means can be found to reconcile the flow of labour with the apparent immobility of ethnic identities? Sanjoy himself suggests such measures. But perhaps the thing is not so simple. For, to ensure even that amount of reconciliation, Assam, Tripura, other states of the northeast, and the two Bengals must overcome the politics of hatred to imagine ways of reconciliation, minimal justice, and accommodation. We have reached a situation where besides the boundary between Assam and Bangladesh, as Sanjoy so vividly describes, Assam is producing internal boundaries—Bodos and non-Bodos, Assamese and Nagas, Hindus and Muslims, Assamese speakers and Bengalis. These ethnic frontiers are being reworked and redrawn—including some, expelling or killing others.

The politics of homeland is a product of nationalism, which relies in almost each case on a fictive ethnic core that wants to discipline the faultlines within by creating a barrier against the outside. But almost everywhere the faultlines within become the new frontiers. That line has been replicated already within the country, dividing how many times, how many entities, and in how many forms, historians will find out someday. Visible and invisible frontiers have been created. The feature of these nouvelle frontiers is that they are being produced internally; they are not vertical lines separating two spaces, but concentric circles continuously dividing and then locating these to rejoin them in the universe of the nation. Law, citizenship, rights, obligations, morality—all are caught in this universe of concentric circles.In a situation where geopolitics has imprisoned democracy, the agenda for democracy begins with a realisation that the reproduction of frontiers as a disciplining tool is not a condition of normalcy. Taking that as normal means a lack of acknowledgement of plurality of communities.

The line that divides Assam and Bangladesh also divides Assam inside, not in two, three, but several parts. After all, any policy of reconciliation in Assam will have to begin with a recognition of that specific history of Assamese identity which tells us of its internal forms of accommodation and disciplining, histories of friendship and enmities that Sanjoy has described. Democratic politics will have to begin with a refusal to deny this past. The dividing lines in Assam render the political class incapable of coping with the torment of the inside/outside—democracy that appears as an internal problem and immigration that appears as a problem related with the outside.
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