My Days with Nationalism in Assam: Ankur Tamuli Phukan


Many of us who have been studying the political process in Assam were surprised when we received the news in December 2009 that Chairman Arabindo Rajkhowa and some of his colleagues of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) had been arrested in Bangladesh. This moment had to come some day, but we were not prepared to face it. We were familiar with the brave and somewhat legendary image they had created for themselves and needed time to believe that they could be defeated.

We grew up with them in the early nineties, formed our political opinions from their rhetorical statements. We had grown up with the ULFA publicity secretary’s statements that used to come out almost every day in the newspapers, furious and inspiring headlines of the late Parag Kumar Das and Ajit Kumar Bhuyan in their editorials and commentaries in op-ed pages of vernacular newspapers; some of the finest poems written by leaders of ULFA (mostly from Publicity division), the tales of dead ULFA cadre killed by Indian army after torture, the sad and tragic stories of those innocent young women who were raped and sometimes killed in front of their parents only because they had fed or given shelter to ULFA cadre, helped us to frame an unwavering hatred for the Indian political system.

We joined public rallies, wrote poetry and commentaries with despair. Without noticing the transformation, we transcended to a new kind of political truth when we found out our heroes with their dignified, furious political statements could not make any difference towards our goal to push back the Indian army or the people whom we labelled as Indian people. It was a kind of shift from rhetorical nationalism to deep, theoretical extravaganza of Marxism. Our impatient, honest and creative souls were rested upon the perplexities of Marxism. Soon we found our new foe. The Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM) became a reactionary, Bengali-dominated Communist party for us. Though they barely had any influence in the ongoing political process in that time, our ideologues – may be a schoolteacher or a lecturer of a neighbourhood college – used to tell us the story of the Assam movement of 1979-85. For them, the CPM’s orthodoxy and wrong assessment of Assam’s national question as an anti-working class, reactionary struggle, was proof of how we missed a golden chance for a working class, peasant-based communist movement in Assam.

They were more impatient than us. They were all from a Naxalite background of 1970s and they felt that they missed their chance for a revolution during their youth, so this time they did not want to miss the opportunity. We believed them, tried to think like them, talk like them. With that strain of ideological righteousness, we used to debate with our CPI(M)-aligned Students Federation of India friends in our colleges, where we accused them for their wrong party line.

Everybody got their due in the Assam movement, friend and foe. From towering intellectuals like Hiren Gohain (who now heads the ULFA peace process formed under the guidance of the Arabindo Rajkhowa group) to a local CPM party worker, all had experienced the euphoria of the Assam Movement. For Gohain it was a public assault in the capital city of Assam, but for many CPM party workers during these long six years it was a situation of life and death.

In Assam’s intricately connected and socialised village life, they fought and died bravely, in the process of resisting the fascist tendencies that somehow infringed upon their own people. Whatever their dogmatism and orthodoxy, it is true that the CPM and many Marxist believers stood by their ideology in the toughest of situations. I do not know if they succeeded, but after the Assam Movement, Assamese society embraced them all. But as a political party, the CPM never had the opportunity for expanding their base in Assam. Slowly and silently they evaporated from the social milieu, making room for nationalist ideologies that at least at a superficial level embraced Marxism.

Marxism, with a nationalist face, had always been an undercurrent of left-wing movements in Assam or vice-versa. During the Assam movement, or after the movement, a new group of people mostly coming out from Maoist, Leninist background, started to formulate a national question along orthodox Marxian lines. Thus Lenin, Stalin emerged as ideologues for nationalist-Marxist thinkers. I can still remember quite clearly that the first book of Lenin’s that I read, was not What is to be done?  but his book on the national question. It was brilliantly translated in Assamese and one of my ideologues gave it to me to read. The point was quite clear why I needed to read this book. He told me that I would get a sense that why at some point of history the national bourgeois can also be a friend of working class people. I was not sure what the national bourgeoisie looked like. Whoever I had seen in those days felt deprived and used to tell me why we need industry, saying that without industry we cannot survive. People debated in newspapers on how to create national capital for Assamese people.

The Assam Accord, which came much before we had an opportunity to engage with it in the political milieu, had the most concrete preambles on the issue of founding industries in Assam. I was told by my same ideologue that Assamese at one point of time even fought a brave war for an oil refinery in Assam. I was too young to think, I was too young to follow the debate of what the national Bourgeois in Assam means. Lenin had a devastating impact on me. So I moved to Che Guevara and caught up with two interesting books immediately. One was just translated and published in Assamese and sold like hot cake both for us the aspirant revolutionaries and obviously for ULFA cadres. It was on guerrilla warfare.

The second was Guevara’s diary on the Cuban revolution in Bengali. I found it in one of my ideologue’s book shelf. The moment I took the book from his bookshelf he told me quite agitatedly: “Please return this book, for I have brought this book five times and I don’t want to buy it again.” He told me that the ULFA cadre, whom he knew, used to borrow this particular book and never return it after reading. Then he told me a long and somewhat curious story on the impact of Guevara’s diary among ULFA people. He told me that following Guevara’s way, ULFA cadres used to take a diary with themselves, in which they used to write about their everyday life, their ideological perception, internal factionalisms, conflicts, love, family and many organisational details.

Over the years it became an important source for intelligence agencies to chase and kill them out, to make a database of who is who of them and to create fissures within their organisation. Today, when I recollect this detail, I want to draw your attention to an irony: whatever feelings we have for Bengali imperialism; or though we have formulated a Bengali language conspiracy theory and fought a war against Bengali language during our Bhaxa Andolan days in 1962, the books published in Bengali language have nothing to do with all of this in later years. For those who cannot understand English, the only access to Marxian world is Bengali. Because non-theoretical books like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro are until then only was in Bengali. Though some important Marxian book like How can revolution be possible? or What does a true revolutionary mean? translated in Assamese from progress publisher, USSR during 1970s and 80s. But the translations were terrible and people do not like them. That is why Bengali books are eternal and their impact is eternal, though we used to have borrowed words, which were either not available or obscure in our language.

My Bengali friends would love this detail that Bengali literature still has that kind of fame!

Marxism had nothing to do with ULFA leaders in most cases. Their self-determination movement had got a new endorsement from Marxists and probably during this period, the 1990s, they adopted a resolution by which they appended the word Socialism in their constitution. I was not sure whether they had declared socialism as their goal or not, and many of us are still trying to get ULFA’s constitution to understand the politics of that time.

However, I can share an interesting story I heard years ago, from a friend who works with the Assamese media. It was about socialism. Some over enthusiastic middle level leader debated within the organisation that ULFA should adapt Marxism in true sense of the term. After they had been heard, the elusive commander in chief of ULFA, Paresh Barua told them: “Don’t learn Marxism from Bengali communist. If you want to learn Marxism seriously, tell me and I will send you to Cuba and learn Marxism directly from Fidel Castro.” I don’t know if this anecdote is true or false but it is a kind of legend that reflects the cynicism upon which our movements take positions where lines are thin and blurred.

A small group of Naxalites (in Assam) decided on a new party line after a long debate in 1986. The party was renamed many times over the years because of the constant change in their line. Finally, they called themselves ‘United Revolutionary Movement Council of Assam’ (URMCA), and came up with an interesting party line. They decided that small nationalities were actually exploited by the upper caste Hindu/Assamese elite, so the legitimate right of nationality formation process of small communities need to be represented. They did not have points to dispute with ULFA and at least at the theoretical level, ULFA also espoused similar arguments. I can remember in one commentary Chairman Rajkhowa also argued that Assam’s nationality question only can be solved by giving equal rights to all indigenous communities of Assam. But practically it was impossible. When URMCA went on to mobilise among the communities who were believed to be part and parcel of the Assamese nationality, like Ahom and Koch Rajbanshi, military power began to define relations between them and ULFA. Some of the best cadres of URMCA were killed during 1988-89. Like many of us, I still believed that URMCA had come out with best possible solution to the nationalities problem of Assam. But they miserably failed in practice. Their focus upon small nationalities and identity movements only helped in fragmentation rather than forging any united people’s movement.

I am not very sure whether it was a general trend or not, but in local levels ULFA had a plan for nationalities problem. Near my small town, a big forest area was cleared under ULFA’s supervision during 1992-96 and they gave land rights to indigenous people, who were allowed to settle there. Recently I had the privileged to talk to the person who undertook this huge project. Now retired and living a simple life, he told me that the moment of realisation came when flood affected indigenous Bodo people showed up there. They (ULFA cadres) sheltered them up and asked them to clear some areas and enabled them to settle there. This news spread all over Assam. Desperate peasants who lost their lands to flood, riverbank erosion, or to moneylenders, gradually showed up in the area and were resettled there.

The ULFA cadre tried to induce some other indigenous communities, so that they could create a micro-Assam here. They had found support almost all communities, because every indigenous community remains haunted by forced displacement. Riverine communities like Mishing had not joined this venture, the former ULFA cadre informed me, though some of them came for a brief while. Each and every house hold got four puras or eight bigas of land. It was based on reconstructions of the old Ahom paik system, and the Ahom political state that the nationalist drew their inspiration from. Whether it was reiterated or reinvented, the achievements of the historical Ahom political state was the grand narrative of singular Assamese nationality.

This narrative was enabled by destroying seven pre-existing states in historical times. (Sat Raj Mari Eak Raj). Despite Lenin, despite the communist theories, a theory of assimilation was redeployed in the centre stage. Many Marxist-nationalist thinkers had helped frame this theory along Marxian line. I can remember to a memorandum presented to the Prime Minister of Government of India, sometime in 1991 by a naxalite-nationalist group called “Sangyukta Yuba Marcha” demanding true federal structure ofIndianStatehad quite intelligently narrated the assimilation theory there. Assamese nationality or more truly theAhomStatewas the product of that assimilation. The memorandum spoke about the history of assimilation in the past and this is what would influence the future. There were parallels, there were multiplicities and you never know which was yours and which was not.

The theory of assimilation did not come from oblivion. From early part of twentieth century we have been haunted by a fear from the superior people. They are skilled smart people. They took away our land, made big huge business establishment –everything which helps you survive in this cruel world. So in desperation we only had made a theory of assimilation- we needed to assimilate these people to our fold. But that never happened. Slowly we forgot the difference between a Bihari trader of Tinsukia or a Bihari labourer working in the suburban area. All became the same for us. Because we had seen for generations, how some humble Bihari labourers of our neighbourhood became incredibly rich overnight. We do not know their tricks of how to become a millionaire so quickly. We saw that the government of India was prompt to respond to threats against them. I still do not know why the Government of India replied promptly when a Bihari or a Marwari Mahajan was killed or abducted. I still do not know why the government of India did not respond when an indigenous person was either abducted or killed by the same organisation. Like most of us in Assam, I still feel the disrespect and anger when government of India declared that they did not want to deploy Indian Army against their own people in Maoist areas in central India. In some way or other by this statement they declared to us that we belong to the colony and that we are not legitimate citizens and that is why they could deploy Indian army against us for such a long period of time. We don’t have the power to react.

Our soldiers came home after a devastating war of thirty five years or so. We don’t want to wage a war again. We lost many things in the last thirty-five years. We learnt from our own experience that if you want to burn others, it is mandatory to burn your own hand. So we welcome them home. But we still could not understand why revolutionaries like them need Ambani-like three-piece-suits for every public appearance. We still cannot understand why our leaders needed to go for sightseeing and shopping in the capital of the enemy state. We still keep our faith in them, in the hope that in the course of the new Assam Accord they will never betray us.

Like many, I the quasi-activist, take refuge in more mundane issues like river erosion, big dams and a host of other matters that have asserted the need for attention in last ten years or so, especially in the wake of the market economy in our small state. I was recently in Dibrugarh with a group of local activists who had been waging a glorious war against the state administration on the issue of river-borne erosions. Over the years a deeply populated, rich and bountiful area, lost all its glory. The hungry tides of Brahmaputra took its two beautiful rivers, thousands of small forest areas and hundreds of thousands of land and homes. They took me to a nearby village, where I met a humble, religious old man. He began with the same story of the glory days but he asked me a blunt and direct question: “Are you going to take to arms?” I did not understand at first and when I did, I replied in the negative. He became furious and said: “What the hell are you are coming for then? Without arms and ammunition, is it possible to wage a war against Police and Indian Army? Impossible! Come with arms I will join your movement.”

I was shocked; I never heard such sentiments even in peak of the ULFA period. For many of us this incident unravels the deep interactions with the coercive state. The old man had experienced how power comes from the barrel of the gun. For me it is a deep revelation of how, over the years, we lost our capacity to think creatively and to wage our war creatively. The peace talks are crucial for Assam’s future, though many of us do not put much hope upon this process. We will see what role the Indian state plays this process and Assam’s future political destiny depends on how they treat our genuine demand. Firecrackers are still ready in the backyard, as I said, and all the people need is a little help to burn them.

(The writer is a PhD Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Calcutta.)

From Kafila archives:

9 thoughts on “My Days with Nationalism in Assam: Ankur Tamuli Phukan”

  1. “Like most of us in Assam, I still feel the disrespect and anger when government of India declared that they did not want to deploy Indian Army against their own people in Maoist areas in central India. In some way or other by this statement they declared to us that we belong to the colony and that we are not legitimate citizens and that is why they could deploy Indian army against us for such a long period of time. We don’t have the power to react.”- Ankur Tamuli Phukan hits the iron right at the very basic point.

    Sub national aspirations and centre’s colonial antics- both contribute to each other in its growth. However, nationalist aspiration in Assam could very well be looked from a concrete economic viewpoint. The author could have brought a little more context into the idea of “drain of wealth” from Assam to substantiate this fabulous essay.The perceived exploitation of state’s resources could be a ground of strong separatist narrative. Hence to build the national capital of Assam, the author could have brought forth the ideological vision prevalent in the Assamese intelligentsia on the redistribution of Assam’s economic resources.

    On a general note, this is one of the best reflective essays in the recent times on the ideas of sub nationalism in India. No one in my memory, before this, articulated the entire story of ULFA from the ground so well from an intellectual angle in a national discourse.

  2. “This is probably the most intense write up that has come from Assam in the recent times! but we all need to re-read this piece again and again.” This was my facebook comment. I eagerly waited last night for my friends from Assam to comment on this post. Because, even if we (me and my friends) were educated in English medium schools in Guwahati, and formed a part of the Hindu -Assamese elite, we used to have intense discussions on nationalism, sub nationalism. We may have missed out on Marx and revolutionary spirit of this movement. The arguments would mostly challenge Nehruvian perception of the North East and some amount of apocryphal stories about how the Indian leadership wanted to
    “give up” the North East during Indo-China war. This is about 10 years back. Today, not a single comment from any of these friends, who I am in touch with over facebook. They may have read it as one called and said: “oi ai Hindu Assamese elite’or kotha enekey kio koise (hey! why is this piece talking about hindu assamese elite in such a way?).” I tried explaining, he made an excuse that he had to get work from noida to gurgaon. I am shocked that we have become so numb.

  3. this is really a very gud write up about the problems that has never ended in Assam. but there r still some issues to b touched. what about the other fraction of ULFA???? the people r right now devided.. yes, peace must come. but can we hope fot permanent solution from the present discussion going on between the govt n the Rajkhowa fraction of ULFA????

  4. I’m amazed that anyone still thinks of Marxism, socialism and communism as viable. Yes, I’m sure there’s a big difference between the 3. If the sort of corporate lobbyist influences in India and the US to take 2 examples are at one extreme, Marxism is at the other.
    Look at the history of bloody violence, stifling of individual freedom and corruption in every country(including this one) that followed/follows a combination of these ideologies.

    The very fact that you need to be taught the ‘ideology’ and ‘doctrine’ shows how it fails against basic human nature that has lasted for millennia- be it individual freedom or the desire to trade/barter. Nobody needs to be taught freedom or capitalism out of a book. And well, we know how any such Marxist etc society will wind up with its secret police and censorship of those who don’t toe the Party line, with ‘political officers’ appointed to every public institution having extra powers to keep dissidents in check.

    If it’s such a great ‘ideology’, why fear dissidents? Look at China – as long as they were under Mao, they had to endure idiocies like the Cultural Revolution and remained as backward as India, up until the early 80s. Pragmatism of leaders like Deng Xiaoping ensured that they would do whatever it took to grow their economy, communist/Marxist ideology be damned. Look where they are today, you can’t say Communism got them there!

    1. Dear friend, the article is not a thesis on Marxism, socialism and communism. Despite weighing your points to a certain extent, you haven’t grasped the essence of the piece.

      Any movement on self-determination acquires a socialist character for the larger cause of addressing the nationality question on economic models. The article narrates author’s personal experience of his intellectual evolution with the changing political dynamics of Assam, and not lessons on which ideology is right to sustain a democratic state.

  5. The essay no doubt touches some hitherto unnoticed elements regarding ‘jatiyotabad’ (personal preference of this term) in Assam. The time and need has arrived to conceptualize the causal factors of ‘nationalism’ in Assam. Is it shaped by inevitable historical dynamics, or resultant from the post-colonial circumstances which can be viewed both from the socio-political and economic angle? We need to ask those questions, along with whether there exists any scope for self-expression and self-governance for the people of Assam.

  6. In a very common parlance, the write-up is is however the feelings or voice of every Assamese youth who were the swimmers in between Marxism, Nationality Question and Indian State in their early days of forming a concrete ideology . The leaders who were like Robinhood in our schooldays, their fall is quite pathetic for me and most of our friends of our generation(of course there is hardly any influence to our next generation or they didn’t ever think of them) those who still are in the Pandora box or feels of the Utopian Assam in the hands of ULFA or minus Indian State.Its like the poetry of Keats “heard melodies are sweet, melodies those are unheard are sweeter”. Still Personally I am not an active supporter of the Indian state rather to say critique of the state as well of the different new social movements of NE in general and Assam in particular. Both are seen as anti-people in most of the time. Marxism enlighten us every now and then. The rhetoric of Marxism of both state and ULFA or other insurgents groups or of civil society is become fallacy in praxis. THe irony is that some people still have the faith in such fallacies.

  7. state reorganization commission of the 1950’s perhaps revalidated the concept of “probashi/probaxi” in our socio-cultural as well as politico-administrative milieu in India, it bothers me, who am i? an assamese, no not at all, since my biological mother tongue is not assamese, a bengali, as my biological mother tongue is bengali but then i am a “probaxi”, hell with it, where is my domain, which is my abode, to which state or nationality/ sub-nationality i belong, questions that have haunted all through out my life, which is now more than “dui kuri” old.
    i, a wretched of the earth, a victim of hatred generated by Assam Agitation, whose childhood seemed to have been ripped apart by the movement,gathered solace, respect and recognition when ULFA through its leaflets addressed one and all like me as Asom Baxi, it was historic for me, who has grown with the label of Ke.. Bongali during those days, it touched an instant chord along with other slogans related to the proprietorship of resources, particularly land and mineral etc.
    Todya, when Ankur talks of ULFA, i feel proud of my friendly brother since he shows the rare courage of highlighting certain issues which the ULFA and its leadership seems to have forgone, it is a timely intervention from Ankur
    but why are you so bothered about assimilation, leave it as a historical process, give it due time,things will settle down, i just fail to understand why till date the dominant nationality in Assam feels threatened about its loss of identity when it has time and again never failed to assert its symbols and tools when their arose an occassion?
    even the unfolding of events in media after the sad demise of Bhupen Hazarika bears its testimony…. i can undearstand the grief, pain, angst, desperation at the passing away of Bhupen Da… every person who has some sort of connection with assam will feel so… that is what culture is all about, do one need to assert and re-assert the nationality issue with it as has been done by the media… ofcourse for them it was Bhupen, Bhagobot and Bhogbad.. it was all TRP
    Comming back to ULFA, i think it has touch with reality, it has not only failed to realize what it professed and in the end it will become a tool in the hand of Indian state
    socialism, marxism and all other ism’s were/are meare hats, to be worn on special occassions, to arouse sentiments….
    come Look East Policy and we will be blown off our feets by the whirlwind of private and state Kapital
    Will our ethnicty be a critique of the market or a partner, will North East be a “passage” or “partner” in India’s Look East?
    Perhaps history is emerging for a new breed of insurgents with a different worldview, when our heroes are busy bending their knees and mending their ways into the corridors of power of the Indian state
    carry on Ankur, we need for introspection

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