-Sanjay (Xonzoi) Barbora |
At the outset, I would like to thank the organisers – Multicultural Educational Development Trust and Association for Environment and Development Research – for having invited me to speak to this august gathering. My fellow panellists on the dais, as well as other speakers are all well versed with policy matters, so it is a little overwhelming for a sociologist like I, to even begin a conversation about something that I have done no research on. The questions that I have been asked to address are immense in their scope: what paradigm of development can we hope for in the India-ASEAN free trade agreement? What are the options for the state and people of Assam after the Act East Policy becomes a reality? These are indeed weighty issues that require both optimists and sceptics to put their minds together, so that like everything else in life, we will have a balanced view of the world. I confess, knowing very little about the subject, I am cautiously optimistic about the prospects of change and to be honest, if I am to choose a side, I would fall within the ranks of the sceptics. I hope you will indulge me my minor transgressions into the sociologist’s self-absorbed world of melancholia and mistrust of grand narratives of change.
The Act East Policy and the Free Trade Agreements mark a period of transition in the history of the region, especially for us in Assam. Transitions are always tricky. They bring with them great possibilities of progress and also the potential for irreparable loss. Throughout human history, societies and regions in transition have attracted towards them all sorts of soldiers-of-fortune, well-meaning evangelists, cunning opportunists and radical entrepreneurs. One of my favourite novels that captured this spirit of transition is George Orwell’s Burmese Days. It is, in the end, a bleak and disheartening story about grand narratives that failed completely. The real tragedy of the story however, was the fact that even in failure, these narratives managed to survive and grew into disturbing fantasies that ended up destroying lives and landscapes beyond repair. In the end, the whiskey-soaked, well-meaning timber merchant John Flory was driven to suicide because of the unbearable weight of the contradictions that he had to bear. These contradictions had several layers: his occupation (as someone who ransacked Burma’s teak forests for a living); his social awkwardness (his best friend in that seedy town was an Indian doctor who loved the English and was convinced that non-Europeans were lesser human beings); his political convictions (he sympathised with the Burmese); and his eventual disillusionment with imperialism and racism. Both were important in maintaining the social order of early 20th century Burma that was undergoing a revolutionary social, economic and political transition.
I think that is where we are at right now. This is a transition that we will have to negotiate with care. The last three decades have created different, sometimes jarring, worlds in Assam. We would do well to remember that Assam was already connected to the world of commerce, trade and global flows through tea and oil in the 19th and 20th centuries under British colonial rule. It disrupted the old world of paiks, bhokots, kings, nobles and commoners. Historians like Amalendu Guha, Rajen Saikia, Yasmin Saikia, Indrani Chatterji and Arupjyoti Saikia have written extensively about the kind of changes that took place and how the world of the peasants and monks was one of material and non-material wealth. In its disappearance, we have been left with a sense of loss of ideas about the past and how it can impact on the future. Colonialism brought with it a tumultuous period of social upheavals, where small groups of people joined a fairly large bureaucracy in the establishment of the plantation and oil industries that we continue to nurture today. Despite its obvious shortcomings, there was an expansion of education and healthcare to far more people during this period. Under such conditions, the region also became a land of opportunity for different kinds of people. European planters came from different parts of the British Isles; engineers who constructed railway lines and oil derricks came from various European countries; peasants, graziers and clerical workers came from undivided Bengal, other parts of the Gangetic plains as well as Nepal. Today, as we deliberate upon the future of the Act Easy Policy and Free Trade, it would be a sobering idea to reflect upon the kind of social change that took place a hundred and fifty years ago. This is more than necessary given the conflicts that have emerged in the wake of colonial contact. We are more divided as people than we are connected through markets and Guwahati is a perfect example of this process.
Here, in Guwahati, one sees the world of speculative capital and a violent militarisation converge in uncanny ways. The city is bursting in the seams, partly because people have been running away from rural Assam since the 1990s in an attempt to scratch out a living in this harsh, unforgiving city. For every mall that you see here, you have an alternate reality of a larger cross section of people who can never afford the goods that are displayed in them. The tragic contradiction however, is the fact that these are the same people who are providing us the services that we need to maintain our islands of comfort: they are security guards, sales persons; vegetable vendors; domestic help; construction workers and every other level of service provider that one can find. On the other hand, you have the world of land sharks and builders who have benefitted immensely from the denotification and deregulation of government land and common property. How long can we sustain these contradictions, is a question that I often ask myself.
Today, more than 70% of Assam’s population lead vulnerable lives. It is impossible to make a living through agriculture alone. Most subsistence farmers have to find other ways to make a living. Some take to contracts, others look for gifts from nature: the logs that come floating down angry rivers during monsoons; the dreamy wisps of cotton that float around in spring; the rocks on the river bed that surface in winter; sand; pebbles and all the things that we take for granted. And this, unfortunately, is another recipe for sorrow and tragedy. Imagine a group of Bodo boys attempting to draw in in driftwood from the Lokhaitora river and they find themselves competing with another group of Bhatiali-speaking Muslim boys, who are able to reel in the logs. In most other parts of the world, this would pass off as a minor skirmish among young men trying to make the best of a quick business opportunity, but in western Assam it would result in untold violence and displacement, involving all organs of the state and every layer of civil society.
The truth is, Assam has been ravaged by four decades of brutal militarisation. During this time, we have managed to forgo every notion of civility and peaceable qualities that make for decent living. Our political vocabulary has swung from emancipatory ideals of freedom to crass notions of fiefdom. Today, when we are confronted with multiple conflicts in almost every district of the region, we have to acknowledge the depths to which our problems have taken root. We are unable to allow people from one district to move to the other; unable to allow churches of different denominations to coexist in the same village; unable to live as a people in a village. And into this incendiary mix, we would like to nurture fantasies of wealth and fortune beyond our imagination.
Much of this is because we have become immensely poor in the last four decades. Our political language has become crass, our livelihood options have become even more vulnerable and we constantly see a threat to our cultural survival. More than economic progress, I think we need to be able to have political reconciliation, so that we are able to encourage and nurture an environment of equality, dignity and compassion. Any effort at sustainable development has to also take into consideration questions of equitable distribution of wealth. Simply put: if our policy makers fantasise about the wealth of possibilities with the Act East Policy, they would also have to figure out ways by which this material wealth can be redistributed in an equitable manner among the communities who are going to do the sharing.
If we are unable to do so, we will be left with George Orwell’s tropical nightmare, where our dreams of a good future are undone by the crassness of our contemporary political realities. Most of us in this room would like to see an Act East Policy that succeeds in changing the status quo in Northeast India. However, we have to ensure that this change benefits the millions who have been marginalised by decades of militarisation and counter-insurgency. Unless they are invited to the discussion table, all our efforts to ensure sustainable development will seem like another edition of Orwell’s tragic book. In conclusion, allow me to state with no degree of uncertainty two final points: first, none of this effort to Act East and Free Trade will make any sense if we are unable to involve the people of Assam. Second, should we fail to include the people, we would be confronted with a violence that even George Orwell would be unable to explain.
(Deliberations by Sanjay (Xonzoi) Barbora, on the summit held at Guwahati on 15th of December 2017, on India-ASIAN free trade agreement with special reference to Assam , organized by Multicultural Educational Development Trust)