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Ethnic Conflicts and Internal Security
A Plea for Reconstructing Civil Society in Assam*
Samir Kumar Das#

This is certainly not the first plea for reconstructing civil society in Assam, but it can definitely be argued that most such pleas in the past have largely turned out to be ineffective – if not counter-productive. The plea in the present paper is predicated on the key assumption that, in recent times, such a reconstruction has become the sine qua non of the country’s internal security.

The paper takes its cue from current theoretical writings on the notion of security, which have undergone a paradigmatic change since the turn of the 1990s. This ‘paradigmatic change’ is manifest in at least three relatively distinguishable, yet closely inter-linked, areas:

  • First, the state is no longer looked upon as the sole agency vested with the responsibility of ensuring and providing security to what it claims to be the ‘nation’. While in modern times, each state is supposed to enclose and represent ‘a nation,’1 its security is seldom regarded as the exclusive domain of the state. In fact, it is progressively looked upon as just one of the agencies – and often not even the predominant one. The point is not so much that the state is unable to ensure and provide security to what it claims to be the nation, but rather that, in the name of ensuring and providing security, the modern state has arrogated to itself extraordinary powers and displayed tendencies to become all-powerful and authoritarian. Security in other words, has become a ‘New Reason’ of the modern state.2 Recent research for example, has indicated an unmistakable connection between counter-insurgency operations (CIO) in India’s North East and the growing powers of the state. At times, certain special laws are enacted and promulgated in order to facilitate these operations. New administrative mandates are issued from time to time to keep in abeyance the rights that are enshrined and guaranteed in the Constitution and are otherwise available to the people living in other parts of the country. In other words, the normal ways of government come to a standstill with the evident objective of adding teeth to Operations. Ironically, the more the state commits itself to the cause of ‘national security’, the more insecure the nation reportedly feels. The argument is sometimes stretched a little further in order to conclude that the best way to guarantee a nation’s security is to get the state’s hands off from it. There is reason to believe that the argument takes us back to the eighteenth-century laissez faire era when the dominant idea was that ‘the best government is one that governs the least’.

  • Secondly, there has also been a change from a somewhat ‘hard’ notion of security to a relatively ‘softer’ one. Earlier, security was taken to mean defense of a country’s territorial integrity. The more impenetrable its borders are, the more secure the nation was believed to be.3 Accordingly, national security was defined in more or less negative terms – as security against external aggression, foreign attacks or concrete and visible cases of violation of international borders. This paper does not argue that such an orthodox concern has been completely overshadowed by the changed notion. But, it has been sufficiently broadened to include such intangible and albeit less concrete indices as, enjoyment of rights including (‘third generation’) cultural rights, ‘good governance’, persistence of ‘rule of law’, willingness and ability of a people to continue to live as a single nation etc. Barry Buzan, sums up the transition in these terms:

States are vulnerable to physical damage and deprivation, but the state appears to be much less intimately connected with its ‘body’ than is the case for an individual. A population and its associated territory comprise the physical foundations of a state, and yet both of these can exist without the state. Conversely, damage to territory and population does not affect the survival of the state nearly so directly as damage to the human body affects individual survival. We can infer from these points that the state exists, or has its essence, primarily on the social rather than on the physical plane. In other words, the state is more a metaphysical entity, an idea held in common by a group of people, than a physical organism.4

  • Thirdly, earlier, the exterior of the nation-state was taken to be the only source of threat to a country’s security. Aggression, violation or attack is believed to be invariably spearheaded, organized and, most importantly, launched from outside the territory of the nation-state. Now, the interior is also believed to be as much a potent source of threat, in the sense that a section of what the state claims to be the ‘nation’ – however small and peripheral it be, may publicly withdraw its consent and openly refuse to acquiesce to it.5 What is significant to note in this connection is that the concern for internal security is irreducible. For it cannot simply be reduced to the external one as the more dogmatic protagonists of the ‘Foreign Hand Theory’ would have us believe.6

It is in the context of this larger paradigmatic change that a plea for reconstructing civil society in Assam is put forth here. This paper has several limitations. Three of these deserve a mention at the outset: Firstly, the plea for reconstructing civil society is actually an exercise in finding out an appropriate and more or less consensual organisational principle for reconstructing civil society. ‘Consensual’, in this context, basically refers to the mutual acceptability of the organisational principle – even to the insurgents. The point requires further clarification. It is now being increasingly realized that the transition from a colonial society to a post-colonial one has a critical bearing on the character and conduct of counter-insurgency operations (CIO). The colonial modes of CIO are both irrelevant to and counter-productive in a post-colonial society. Vijendra Singh Jafa for example, shows how the Indian Army’s counter-insurgency strategy of ‘grouping’ the villages in Mizoram in the late-1960s not only caused unimaginable hardship to the local people but also did not bear fruit in the long run. As he comments: "One hopes that Indian government would not use such outdated colonial military strategies while dealing with our own ethnic minorities who have not been able to finally settle their terms of political association with India."7 In a region where it is often very difficult to differentiate the insurgents from ‘the ethnic minorities’, the state discourse cannot but address the insurgents as ‘our own’ and handle their problems with the kind of rare sensitivity that Jafa has shown. The insurgent was not just an ordinary enemy in colonial times; he was also ethnically and racially different from the colonisers. The state-insurgent conflict in other words, coincided with the racial divide that separated the British from the Indians. The post-colonial condition has transformed the ethnic other into ‘an intimate enemy’. An insurgent is one who is up in arms against the state. But for him, insurgency may be the last-ditch attempt at protecting the identity and culture of his community and at coming to terms with the post-colonial social and political conditions. It is interesting to note that certain words presently figure in the state discourse that speak of this changed perception. By way of addressing them as ‘misguided youth’, the state insists on differentiating them from ‘the foreign mercenaries’. Obviously, nobody will agree that the way the foreign mercenaries are dealt with ought exactly to be the way we deal with the misguided youth.8 Hence, the state does not and, may we say, cannot belittle the importance of initiating discussions and dialogues with them in the long term, howsoever diabolical their short-term actions may be. Even our much-maligned state discourse is gradually coping with the changed post-colonial scenario. It is for this reason that a plea for a civil society, which under post-colonial conditions can exclude neither the insurgents nor the communities they claim to represent, is put forth. It is for the same reason that this paper proposes to organise it on terms and principles acceptable to all the warring parties. Furthermore, post-colonialism, despite its many pitfalls, has also given us an opportunity of founding a civil society that cuts across communal and ethnic divisions. At first sight, the arguments enunciated here might appear to be too broad to the point of being vague – broad principles of agreement are likely to be vague. But these are tentative and provisional formulations aimed at generating debates rather than putting an end to them.

Secondly, the plea is made in the larger context of growing incidence of inter-ethnic conflicts and insurgencies in India’s North East in general and Assam in particular.9 Thirdly, the reconstruction of civil society in Assam is obviously a long haul. While the state cannot deny the importance of immediate and short-term counter-insurgency measures, it must see to it that they do not adversely affect the efficacy of long-term measures. Insurgencies all over the world have a tendency of engaging the state in short-term responses. Yet, the fact is that since insurgencies are not open and direct warfare, they are always long-drawn and protracted affairs. When the state commits itself to counter-insurgency operations, it is always optimistic about completing the ‘business’ within a short while and getting out of the ‘mess’ as quickly as possible. All comparisons of respective force levels weigh heavily in its favour. Yet, the business of ‘finishing off’ the insurgency always turns out to be disproportionately longer than anticipated. In simple terms, insurgencies draw the state into a long and protracted battle that it cannot foresee and that perennially denies it the advantages of proper time budgeting. As a result, to the extent that they keep the state engaged in short term measures, the insurgents distract it from the long-term agenda of restructuring and overhauling the society. This breakthrough from the realm of the everyday into the future is perhaps the most important and urgent step required for reconstructing civil society in Assam. This paper seeks to underscore the importance of making the requisite breakthrough.10

Perspectives on Civil Society in Assam

A review of discussions on the question of reconstructing civil society in Assam discloses at least two mutually incompatible projections. On the one hand, there is what is referred to as the romantic projection: civil society is defined as the space in which Assamese ‘micro-nationalism’ germinates, articulates, organizes and disseminates itself. The scope of civil society according to this view is coeval with that of the Assamese community. Since India is divided into a multiplicity of communities, one uniform civil society has not come into being except on very rare occasions. As Sanjib Baruah, one of the principal theoreticians of community-specific civil society argues:

It is perhaps best to speak of civil society in India in plural. That may be the reason why India’s subnationalist dissents – each of them located in particular civil societies – have never posed a unified challenge to the Indian state … There are of course political moments in India when it may be possible to speak of a pan-Indian civil society – at least of an incipient one – say when Gandhi launches a civil disobedience movement or a J. P. Narayan launches a pan-Indian movement against corruption.11

There are two significant problems with such a projection: Firstly, what about those who are members of the community by the accident of birth but do not necessarily subscribe to the dictates of the community – more particularly, of the insurgents making the claim of representing the community? Under modern conditions, it is highly unlikely that the community will speak in one single voice. Contemporary research on political anthropology of the region has raised doubts about whether there was ever any community that had spoken in one voice even in the past, though, of course, the records of dissent might have been lost or deliberately excised from the pages of history. What if the voice of a dissenter is not in concordance with that of the initiators and perpetrators of insurgency? Do the insurgents speak in one voice? Why then is there a plurality of insurgent organisations claiming to represent the same ethnic community? Are all members of the same insurgent organisation never in discordance? How are agreements and concordances obtained within an insurgent organisation and at what cost? Why does one faction then kill another and establish its supremacy over it? If Jaideep Saikia’s accounts are to be believed, while foreign forces operating from abroad are bent on unifying the insurgent forces of South Asia, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) – just one of the hundreds of similar organisations operating in the North East – is shot through with internal foibles and bickering.12 Saikia actually goes the other way round and generates the expectation that these internal foibles and bickering are bound to result in the disintegration of the organisation sooner rather than later. He does not tell us for example, how ULFA deals with such dissension and how, in spite of all this, ULFA has been able to survive for more than two decades. Are the dissenters simply intimidated and wiped out? Or have there been ways of accommodating them? Was there any attempt at introducing democracy within the organisation? How worried is the leadership in the face of these organisational troubles? There are innumerable examples of dissent and dissenters within all such organisations, as well as in the larger communities. This paper prefers to broaden the scope of the notion of civil society in order to include both dissent and the dissenters.13

Further, how are inter-community relations conducted? Are these outside the scope of civil society? If we restrict civil society to the confines of a particular community, then how are relationships between communities to be conducted? Will it be the exclusive preserve of the state? Is the state free to legislate on aspects regarding such relations? Is this not an invitation for state intervention and interference in what otherwise would be construed as social issues? Should these not be left to the communities themselves? Can a ‘free-for-all’ of the communities resolve and settle the conflicts that often set them apart? Unfortunately our historical experience shows that communities left to themselves have been singularly incapable of governing their own affairs. This more often than not has led a formidable section of policy advocates to look forward to the state as the ultimate body that has the potential of delivering us from the blood-soaked and macabre chronicle of inter-community warfare. A number of liberal theorists have actually pointed out that such an approach reinforces people’s reliance on the state and demonstrates their faith in its credibility. The objection to such an approach is that it does a great disservice to the state by way of asking it to resolve what simply is irresolvable. Inter-community conflicts, as will be seen later, are very unlike the millions of everyday conflicts that we get involved in while living as social beings. Moreover, it tempts the state to interfere in the social realm at every pretext and thereby makes society surrender at least a part of what ideally should belong to it.

It is within this context that a plea for the reconstruction of civil society is made; civil society is the space where inter-community conflicts can be resolved, most importantly, to the state’s great benefit. The problem as it appears, is not so much with the state’s unknowing slide into authoritarianism, as many commentators would have us believe. The problem rather is that, by way of getting into a conflict that is otherwise irresolvable, the state runs the risk of losing its credibility; and it is likely that, since the stakes are very high, the tide of discontent may simply be turned against it. The state’s transformation into a party to the conflict is the last thing that the modern state should seek while dealing with inter-ethnic conflicts and violence. Once again, consequently, this paper prefers to use the term ‘civil society’ to include both these sets of relationships – those within communities and those without, both intra and inter-community relations.

On the other hand, there is the projection according to which civil society in Assam is believed to be in a hapless state. It is, in the words of Udayon Misra, ‘in a shambles’.14 It is caught in a tug of war between the state on the one hand and the insurgents on the other. The conflict between them seems to centre on the issue of representation. While the insurgents take their representative character for granted, the state often accuses them of having ignored the community they supposedly represent. Sanjib Baruah, more than Udayon Misra, points out how the state’s involvement in CIO has silently contributed to its authoritarian transformation and, as a corollary, the shrinking of the democratic space:

State’s response to ULFA has been more militarist than political. The Indian army and paramilitary forces have been employed to deal with the challenge, and in the process extreme authoritarian methods have been introduced into the fabric of everyday life, especially in those parts of Assam that are seen as ULFA strongholds.15

Similarly, the dominance of the military wing over the civilian one within insurgent organisations like ULFA has cut into what in Marxist circles is known as ‘inner party democracy’. The whole process operates through a vicious cycle: the more the military wing establishes its supremacy over the civilian, the less there is of ‘inner party’ democracy and the greater will be the alienation of the insurgents from the common masses. The greater such alienation, the higher will be the feeling of desperation amongst the insurgents, and the tighter will be the noose of the military wing. Misra’s recently published work cogently illustrates how the continuing spate of insurgencies in present-day Assam has led to an erosion of democratic space due to a rise in militarism, whether of the state or of the insurgents.16 As the state and the insurgents, according to this projection, fight between themselves, it is the people who suffer much in the same way as the grass suffers when elephants fight.

Civil society in Assam, however, is not to be considered in as much a hapless state as this projection would have us believe. The moot point is that it has the potential to develop and much depends on how or whether at all we choose to actualize this potential. The portents of Civil Society Building (CSB) are slowly becoming clear in the distant horizon.

Situating Civil Society in Assam

It is necessary, at this juncture, to situate civil society in the context of Assam. This paper proposes to locate it in the zone that extends between the state, on the one hand, and the multiplicity of ethnic communities, on the other. By way of this location, civil society is called upon to constantly negotiate its way through the tug and pull that is likely to characterise state-community relations, at least in the short run. Since it is situated between them, it is likely to have a sobering or moderating influence on both of them. Thus, it is expected to go a long way in not only conducting and, wherever necessary, balancing and fine-tuning inter-community relations relatively independently from the interference of the state, but also by reducing the intensity of the tug and pull between the state and the communities. Accordingly, the analysis here is divided into two parts: state vis-à-vis civil society and community/communities vis-à-vis civil society.

In recent years, one notices a tendency, particularly on the part of a section of albeit serious scholars, to view the state in India as the cornerstone of civil society. If the presently existing state is not up to fulfilling expectations raised by this notion of ‘being the cornerstone’, we need to ‘find ways of compelling the state to perform this task’.17 Indeed, according to Gurpreet Mahajan, it is more accurate to describe civil society as part of the state.18 In social and political theory, we make an apparently clichéd yet useful distinction between society and civil society. The state invests the society with the element of ‘civility’ and transforms it into civil society. While any given society does not necessarily fit into the category of civil society, in a country like India, it is the state that has the bounden responsibility of creating and sustaining civil society. On the one hand, the state establishes a ‘rule of law’ by setting forth rational and uniform rules to govern the complex inter-relationships between various individuals, citizens, groups and communities and, most importantly, subjecting them to these rules. Thus, to cite an example, the state emphasised that talks with ULFA could take place only within the framework of rules laid down by the Constitution of India. The problem with the state is that it cannot act in violation of these rules that it has set for itself. If the Constitution does not authorise the Indian Parliament to consent to any secessionist demand, then that is it. Under all normal circumstances, no government can concede to this demand without violating the Constitution and correspondingly negating itself.

Ajai Sahni and Jacob George, in an interesting paper, draw attention to the rising frequency of cases in which the duly elected civil governments in the Northeast region are seen to function in close collusion with insurgent forces. All these cases show that the critical distinction between the legal and the illegal, as we all know, is indispensable to the functioning of a democratic polity, and that promises to guard against all sorts of whimsical and arbitrary exercise of power, gets blurred in the region under review.19 On the other hand, the state sanitises the civil space by way of doing away with the traditional and closed hierarchies of birth, status and land, bringing into existence a more open system of stratification based on merit and achievement. The state, in simple terms, brings about this great change from ‘status to contract’. As the closed hierarchies are undermined, the individual, as it were, is set free and, more importantly, is free to critique the groups and communities through which these are reproduced. While critiquing, the individual sometimes positions him or her self outside these archaic structures. It takes a lot of courage and resilience on the part of the individual to snap ties with the community and stay away from it. We know the plight that the individual dissenters had to undergo during the Assam movement (1979-85) when they were ostracised and denied any kind of social connection with the larger community. Not all of us are prepared to take the distress gracefully, if at all. But the individual dissenter may also voice his or her dissent within the community. What this requires is that the individual dissenter while voicing dissent communicates with the community in a manner that does not attract any extreme punitive action, such as ostracism or social boycott. In the second case, the individual member has to be patient enough to engage oneself with the community discourse and, whatever dissent is voiced, is couched in terms that do not threaten the existence of the community. This also means that the individual dissenter is adept with the language the community understands and appreciates and yet does not compromise on the point of dissent. F.G. Bailey – one of the leading political anthropologists of civility – describes such dissenters from within the community as ‘middlemen’20. They stand right in the middle – constantly strive to bridge the distance between the community and dissenters of the first variety.

In this connection, a plea is often made in favour of the first group of dissenters. While it is through millions of micro-dissents by dissenters of the first variety that a rapid transition from ‘status to contract’ is possible, the state as the cornerstone of civil society should compensate for the plight, ordeal or loss that they are required to undergo while voicing their dissent. The state, according to this argument, is explicitly called upon to identify itself with the dissenters of the first group and stand by their side as and when necessary. The duties of the state may range from providing armed bodyguards to rewarding and honouring them in public in ways it thinks they deserve. This paper contends that such an argument envisages a maximalist role of the state in creating and sustaining a civil society. Since the dissenters are unlikely to be in a majority, the state is expected to side with the small and minuscule minority of dissenters.

Such a maximalist role of the state is counter-productive. For it is too easily interpreted – not just by the insurgents but also by others – as the state’s encroachment on the space that legitimately belongs to the community. ULFA is certainly not the first in the region to accuse the Indian state of having unleashed a ‘cultural invasion’. Prior to the ULFA, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN-IM) in its Manifesto adopted in 1980, accused the state of being a mouthpiece of ‘decadent Hindu culture and literature’.21 ULFA seems to subscribe to the same view. As Ajit Kumar Bhuyan – known for his strong sympathies with ULFA observed:

The Indian state has clearly let us understand that the Assamese nation is unable to survive in the way it wants, it will never be given the right to survive in the way it likes under any condition. That is to say, the Assamese nation has to live like slaves, or in the way intended by the Hindi-speaking politicians and bureaucrats who exercise their domination on the conduct of the state.22

This has led ULFA ideologues to conclude that the Assamese as a community are closer to the Mongoloid groups than to the Indo-Aryan ones. Parag Kumar Das’s Swadhinatar Prastab is an interesting text that seems to have been inspired by the single-point agenda of driving home the point that the Assamese have always been ethnically different from the rest of India. It is the principle of difference that also articulates in them the idea of a separate ‘nation’ (jati). We may note here in passing that Parag Kumar Das was for long associated with the Budhbar and is often regarded as one of the finest theoreticians of ULFA who reportedly fell prey to the bullets of the surrendered militants of the ULFA (popularly known as SULFA). The Assamese, according to him, are closer to their ‘Mongolian brothers’ rather than part of the ‘Indian socio-cultural ethos’. The book identifies certain anthropological traits of the Assamese and shows how they are different from those of the ‘Indians’. Thus, to cite an instance, Sankaradeva, the Vaishnavite mendicant of the late-medieval era, was not part of the ‘Indian socio-cultural ethos’ as he was a fish-eater. While the book is often accused of being ‘simplistic’ and ‘selective’ in drawing our attention to these ‘anthropological traits’, it seeks to celebrate the principle of difference as a means of establishing the community.

It would be wrong to assume that this kind of argument is only peculiar to the insurgents. Even during the Assam movement (1979-1985), the Indian state was depicted much in the same manner and was accused of exposing the Assamese to the dangers of incessant influx from across the borders. It was feared that the alarming influx of immigrants would, in the near future, turn the demographic ratio in favour of the foreigners and reduce the Assamese to a minority. It was also apprehended that, as the immigrants started outnumbering the natives in their own land (as in Tripura), political power would slip out of their hands in a democracy governed by the rule of numbers. The Assamese in short, were sure to lose their language and culture even in what they consider to be their ‘homeland’. Asom Sahitya Sabha (Asom Literary Society) – the organisation that provided the intellectual and moral leadership to one of the most protracted mass movements of post-colonial India, for example, lashed out:

… the Assamese people are going to lose their linguistic-demographic majority status, their cultural identity, their economic interests and political rights in their own home state. If these genuine causes behind the movement are neither understood nor taken into consideration, we are afraid, the Government will not be able to find out a solution to the problem.23

In simple terms, any attempt on the state’s part at touching upon the cultural realm has not only been condemned but, more often than not, vigorously resisted by those in the region who do not consider themselves to be an integral part of the so-called ‘Indian mainstream’.

If communities outside the mainstream in general perceive the state as a ‘cultural invader,’ then we suggest that it ought to withdraw from the cultural realm as quickly as possible. If the communities can withdraw from the state, the state can also withdraw from them. This policy of state secessionism will have two implications: First, this will force the dissenters to register their voice of dissent within the community discourse – instead of looking towards the state. The state should not pull them towards it; it should rather push them towards the communities. By way of pushing them, the state is likely to bring about reforms from within the community. Under conditions of insurgency, any initiative of reforming the communities – howsoever progressive they may appear – is likely to send wrong signals and elicit adverse reactions from them.

It is pertinent to focus on ULFA’s theoretical position in this context. It makes a distinction between two sets of criticisms: one from within the community and another from without. The inside/outside distinction, according to it, also coincides with a qualitative distinction between them. Criticisms from within do not question the propriety of the community and are conducted within the terms and conditions of the community. On the other hand, criticisms from without are directed against the community from outside the community with the objective of breaking it. The second set assumes that the communities are too ‘traditional’ to be reformed. They are, so to speak, ‘un-reformable’. Hence, it interrogates the very propriety of the community. It is obvious that the ULFA is at least theoretically receptive to the criticisms from within, while it always smells ‘the state’s hand’ in the criticisms from without. It cannot be otherwise. Any insurgent organisation has an abiding interest in taking for granted what it claims to represent. The survival of one who ‘represents’ is put at stake once the existence of the ‘represented’ is doubted. The represented is always placed above the world of debates and discussions. The presence of the represented is necessarily the given from which the representative begins his or her journey. For the representative, the represented exists only as a presupposition.

The same is true of the nation-state. Does a nation-state ever agree to ‘prove’ its claim to represent the nation it does? The negation of the nation amounts to the negation of the state. In the neologism of the ‘nation-state’, it is always the presence of the state that proves the presence of the nation and not the other way round. If the state is branded a priori as an external agency, then it means that the state’s criticisms are dubbed as criticisms from without. It is always better that the state encourages the dissenters to engage them in a dialogue with the community rather than turning them outward. Further, this would also be beneficial for the state. Instead of making others play its game and getting branded as an external agency, it is always better that the community plays its own game and the dissenters register their voice of protest within the community discourse. The state’s strategy should not be to ‘wean away’ the community and turn it against the insurgents as some of our colleagues would advocate. This will be tantamount to joining the game that others force the state to play. It is like sharing the same turf with the insurgents. The strategy should, instead, be to let the community articulate itself independently of the state’s interference and acquire certain maturity and adulthood so much so that the insurgents at one point feel answerable to it and not necessarily with a grudge. This would gradually result in a certain democratisation of the sphere of the community. If the community acquires a force of its own, then no party will be strong enough to hijack it. Historical record has shown that communities, however isolated and ‘primitive’ they may appear to be, have always been amenable to change. It is only a particular stream of anthropology that has a vested interest in making us believe that the communities do not change unless fractured from outside. Most of the colonial administrators and chroniclers definitely gained by way of harping on the point that these communities were not apt to change, and were consequently best kept in isolation from the mainland administration. The civil society project that is envisaged here aims at restoring to the communities their internal dynamic and discursiveness, so much so that they make room for dissent in a language that is intelligible to them.24

Turning away from the interior of the community, it is necessary to focus on inter-community relations. Once again, the dominant argument here is that the state is – or in case it is not, has to act as – an umpire, a neutral body, so to say, lying above the contending ethnic communities. Donald Horowitz has lauded the state’s role in this respect as a ‘third party’ in the management of inter-ethnic conflicts. This paper contends that it is not that the state has persistently failed in acting as a neutral umpire. That may (or may not) be a very valid criticism and also raises doubts about whether the state will ever be able to act as a neutral, impartial and credible arbitrator once conflicts break out and are referred to the state for settlement and resolution. The track record of politicians and bureaucrats – politicians more than bureaucrats – bears ample testimony to the above conclusion. The argument is rather that this plea tempts the state to indiscriminately jump into any and every kind of conflict, thereby tarnishing its credibility. For not all conflicts at their initial stages, that is to say, at the stage when they just break out, are resolvable or for that matter manageable. For purposes of convenience, one may distinguish between two very different kinds of conflict: zero-sum and non-zero-sum. Non-zero-sum conflicts leave scope for compromises and the communities involved are ready to sacrifice a part of their interest in return for some quid pro quo. Zero-sum conflicts are ones in which conflicting interests that the communities pursue are thought to be mutually incompatible and hence do not leave any scope at all for compromise and adjustment. It may be noted that the interests of the conflicting communities are more of the second type than of the first.

In the case of zero-sum conflicts, the state would do well not to rush in and not even try to play the role of a neutral umpire. Instead, the issues underlying the zero-sum conflicts may be allowed to settle down and be debated in the civil society, so much so that their rough edges get blunted and they get transformed into non-zero-sum conflicts. The state can wait till the zero-sum conflicts get converted into non-zero-sum ones. It is only after this that they hold out real prospects of resolution. Thus, to cite an instance, never before in the history of Assam has the ‘Varna-Hindu’ chauvinism been so much under fire than in the 1990s and in the present decade. The Varna-Hindu Assamese chauvinism that was strident during the two language agitations of 1960 and 1972 is criticised in contemporary Assam much less by the non-Assamese-speaking sections and more by the so-called Varna-Hindu, Assamese-speaking intelligentsia. What looked irresolvable in those days seems to have lost much of its steam now. Assam, in that sense, has experienced a silent revolution. The Assamese auto-critique has substantially blunted the sharp edges of chauvinist stridency. It is certainly not time alone that has brought about this transformation, but the growth of civil society discourse that has rendered this miracle. The proliferation and wider circulation of little magazines, the overall ambience of debate and critiquing ultra-ethnic positions, and, most importantly, the role of alternative sources of information have done wonders in making this possible. The Assamese chauvinist press is no longer the only source of information today. This, in a sense, marks the rise of civil society in Assam, and has contributed to a de-intensification of the conflicting interests in the so-called Varna-Hindu, Assamese-speaking mainstream.

If the scope of civil society remains restricted to the community, how are inter-community relations to be administered? This question assumes relevance as the state, more often than not, finds it difficult – if not impossible – to act as a neutral umpire and the communities, left to themselves, are often unable to conduct their inter-relationships in a manner that ensures their mutual and inter-locking interests of survival. Prasenjit Biswas has argued that in a situation of acute inter-ethnic violence, the ‘non-presence’ of the other is widely considered to be a precondition of the enjoyment of a community’s right to difference in North Eastern India.25 Thus, the objective of ‘Bodoland’ or even ‘Bodo Autonomous Council’ (BAC) cannot be realised as long as non-Bodos like the Santhals or the Bengali-speaking Muslims continue to live in significant numbers in the proposed area to the extent that the Bodos are reduced to a minority. If the extent of concentration of the Bodo population is made the yardstick for determining the jurisdiction of the BAC, then, perhaps, exterminating the ‘other’ ironically becomes their condition for enjoying their right to difference and autonomy. For what will the Bodos do if they are already reduced to a minority in an area that they consider being their homeland, or if they are too dispersed to prove their majority in it?

Clearly, inter-community relations are too serious a matter to be left either to the state or to the communities involved in a fratricidal conflict. It is in this context that the plea for reconstructing the civil society appears not only sensible, but urgent. No single community can exhaust the scope of civil society in Assam, since it is home to a multiplicity of communities.

How can such a society be reconstructed and organised? Negatively stated, it cannot be inimical to community. The problem with conventional theorists of civil society is that they always emphasise the need for ‘secularisation’, and on this ground, seek to evict the communities from the discourse. This subscribes to a notion of the modern-secular that stands in an antagonistic relation to the community. This is a narrow notion, and Ashis Nandy pertinently refers to it as a ‘patently Western’ definition of secularism. Further, secularising civil society in a way that is compatible with conceptions of scholars like Gurpreet Mahajan and others is not only impossible in a region like the Northeast, but could have dangerous consequences. Such an attempt on the state’s part would abruptly align the communities against the state, in spite of their differences. In the Northeast, no social body can be viable unless it confers recognition on the identity of the communities and their respective right to be different from each other. Once the right is mutually respected, it would inherently incline all of them to accept the imperatives of co-existence. A civil society of communities is perhaps the more acceptable alternative in the Northeast than a fully secularised and homogeneous civil society excised of the last traces of the communities. The advocacy for constructing a civil society composed of free and rational individuals not only ignores the fact of the individual’s embodiment in multifarious communities, but also posits the latter in a necessarily antagonistic relationship to the formation and development of civil society. For us, the basic unit of civil society is the community rather than the individual. To say this, however, is not to indicate that the community exists or has precedence over and above the individual. We envisage a civil society in which individuals are also free to register their voices of dissent with varying degrees of success. Our construction of the community as a discourse is in consonance with this idea of civil society. More positively stated, civil society in Assam ought to be reconstructed on the principle of difference. In it, one’s enjoyment of the right to be different is inseparably connected with another’s enjoyment of the same right. To say that I am different from you is also to say that you are as much different from me. The principle of difference can operate only democratically – insofar as the other does not project itself or is projected as a threat to the self. The presence of the other is not destructive of the self. Implicit in this is the conceptual distinction between the threatening other and the fraternal other. A community may not think that the presence of the other per se threatens its existence. It may, instead, think that its presence has actually given it an opportunity to widen its world, to join hands with it and work on common programmes. Udayon Misra points to the growing fraternity between the Assamese and the Bengalis in the Brahmaputra Valley. Such a fraternity, to our mind, reflects the widening network of civil society in Assam. The challenge of reconstructing civil society in Assam is to convert the ‘threatening other’ into the ‘fraternal other’. This is of course a long haul. But, pending that, civil society in Assam can strike roots among those who consider themselves in fraternal relations with each other – the ‘natural allies’. The more such a fraternity develops, the more it will serve as an agency of conflict management and resolution within the region. The task of civil society is precisely to engage these multiple social forces in a continuous process of dialogue, and to subject them to critical processes of social audit. To establish civil society is also to ask for accountability from both the communities as well as the insurgents.


* This article is a revised version of the author's paper presented at the seminar 'Addressing Conflicts In India's North East' organised by the Institute for Conflict Management, June 25-27, 2001, New Delhi.
# Dr. Samir K. Das is currently Reader in the Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta. He received his Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, USA, in 1993 on the topic "State and Ethnicity: Assam Movement". His publications include ULFA: A Political Analysis (1994) and Regionalism in Power: The Case of Asom Gana Parishad (1998). Besides publishing a number of research papers in Indian and International journals, he also contributes articles to some of India's leading national dailies including Hindu and Telegraph.
  1. The multi-nationality of a nation does not negate its singularity. By projecting itself as the sole spokesman of the nation – however multi-national it is in reality, the modern state imagines the nation-as-one existence.

  2. In India, Ashis Nandy happens to be one of the most vigorous and consistent advocates of such a thesis. See for example, Ashis Nandy, ‘The Political Culture of the Indian State’ Daedalus, Cambridge, Ma, Fall 1989, pp. 1-26.

  3. Post-War writings on national security seem to be marked by a narrative of regret. Most of them regret the state’s inability in the new era to render its territorial borders impenetrable. See for instance, John Herz, The Nation-State and the Crisis of World Politics, New York: David McKay Comp. Inc., 1976.

  4. Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations, New Delhi: Transasia, 1983, p. 38.

  5. Sajal Nag describes it as ‘the withdrawal syndrome’. See, Sajal Nag, "Withdrawal Syndrome: ‘Secessionism’ in Modern North-East India", in Milton Sangma, ed., Essays on North-East India, New Delhi: Indus, 1994, pp. 294-317.

  6. While there is no denying the fact that foreign powers are always more than keen on fishing in troubled waters, one must note that unless the waters are already ‘troubled’, such ‘fishing’ is ‘simply’ impossible. For a critique of the so-called ‘Foreign Hand Theory’, see, Samir Kumar Das, "National Security and Ethnic Conflicts in India: A View from the Northeast" in Arun Kumar Banerji, ed., Security Issues in South Asia: Domestic and External Sources of Threats to Security, Calcutta: Minerva, 1998, pp. 102-18. Ajai Sahni and Jacob George in a recent paper dismiss the theory as one that ‘entirely ignores local dynamics’. See Sahni and George, "Security and Development in India’s Northeast: An Alternative Perspective", Faultlines: Writings on Conflict and Resolution, New Delhi, vol. 4, February 2000, p. 58.

  7. Vijendra Singh Jafa, "Counterinsurgency Warfare: The Use and Abuse of Military Force", Faultlines: Writings on Conflict and Resolution, vol. 3, November 1999, p. 127.

  8. I have argued against the strategy of equivalence in a forthcoming paper. See Samir Kumar Das, "National Security in the Age of Globalization: A Study of State’s Response to Ethnic Insurgency in Assam", in Gurnam Singh, ed., Ethnic Dimensions of International Politics, Amritsar, Department of Political Science, GND University, Forthcoming.

  9. While there has been no uniform trend towards increase in the number of incidents of inter-ethnic violence, their nature has changed and lethality definitely has increased multifold.

  10. I do not even claim that I know how that can be done.

  11. Sanjib Baruah, "Politics of Subnationalism: Society versus State in Assam" in Partha Chatterjee, ed., State and Politics in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 510-1.

  12. See Jaideep Saikia, Contours, Guwahati: Sagittarius, 2001.

  13. My view of civil society is too broad to exclude dissent and the dissenters.

  14. Udayon Misra made this point in one of his lectures in April 2000. See, Udayon Misra, "Ethnic Movements and Silent Voices" (mimeo.), paper presented at a seminar on ‘Community, Violence and Rights in Northeastern India: Strategies of Conflict Resolution’ organized by the Department of Political Science, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong (Meghalaya), on 17-19 April 2000.

  15. Sanjib Baruah, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 144.

  16. Udayon Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the Nation-State in Assam and Nagaland, Shimla: IIAS, 2000.

  17. Gurpreet Mahajan, "Civil Society and its Avtars: What happened to freedom and democracy?", Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, vol. 34 no. 20, May 15-21, 1999, p. 1195.

  18. Ibid. p. 1196.

  19. Sahni and George, Security and Development in India’s Northeast, p. 58.

  20. F G Bailey, Stratagems and Spoils: A Social Anthropology of Politics, London: Basil Blackwell, 1970, See chapter VIII.

  21. See "Manifesto of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim",

  22. Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, ‘Eya Netritwar Atmaraksha Ne Jatir Atmaraksha’ (in Assamese) (‘Is this the self-defence of the leadership or of the nation’ in Ajit Kumar Bhuyan and Parag Kumar Das, eds., Aami Ji Katha Koisilo, Guwahati: Purbanchal Prakash, 1993, p.21, author’s translation.

  23. Asom Sahitya Sabha, "An Appeal to the Honourable Members of Parliament", Asom Sahitya Sabha, Jorhat, 1980.

  24. Political anthropology of the Nagas, for example, suggests that some of the Naga groups have the democratic tradition of debates and discussions within their village communities or even across them. The modalities of community discourse constitute an area that requires further research. While we should guard against any kind of romanticization of village democratic systems, we need to learn from indigenous and local modes of conflict management instead of indiscriminately wiping them out on the ground that they are ‘tribal’ and ‘primitive’.

  25. Prasenjit Biswas, "Theorizing Oligarchies of Violence: The Case of Northeastern India", 2000 (mimeo).





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