Occupying Imagination, Affiliating to the Nation
[My translation of an excerpt from Benudhar Sharma's Kangrecar Kanciali Rodat (1971), published in Asymptote Journal, January 2011.]
The northeast of India has, since the inception of the Indian State, been constructed as the nation’s periphery. Much has been written on how it became one of the most conflict-ridden zones of the country as well as on the political engineering involved in incorporating this periphery into the larger Indian nation. Little scholarship, however, has gone into exploring how the periphery began to imagine itself as a part of the nation. The manipulation of popular imagination that went into creating a subnational consciousness where there was none needs to be studied in the context of current insurgent movements in the northeast, many of which claim to be ‘anti-colonial’ and not ‘secessionist’ vis-à-vis the Indian state. Some of the best sources for such study are the memoirs of early members of the Indian National Congress (INC) active in interior regions of the northeast. On the Indian mainland, the INC was constructing the notion of an Indian nation while also fighting the British colonisers. Meanwhile, the elite of the northeast came into contact with the INC’s ideology during its pursuit of higher education and other activities in neighbouring Bengal. I have had access to a few accounts written by Axamiyā writers who represented the INC in Assam, which at the time comprised most of the rest of the northeast. Attracted by the ideals of the Indian nation and its fight against colonialism, these writers were instrumental in spreading these ideas in their native lands.
But just as the British occupied Assam and other parts of the northeast nearly a century after annexing the Indian mainland, Indian nationalism also took a long time making inroads into the psyches of the Axamiyā and the northeast. The extract I have translated (Sharma 1971: 50-53) is an account from the early days of proselytising by INC workers in Axamiyā villages. The author, Benudhar Sharma, recalls that even in the 1920s, when Gandhi and his non-cooperation movement were whipping the Indian nation into an anti-colonial frenzy, Axamiyā villagers nursed antagonistic sentiments towards INC volunteers. For them, Gandhi was ‘like the paddy-devouring gandhi insect . . . out to devour the nation.’ By the 1940s, however, folk songs began to laud Congress workers; Gandhi became an avatar of god; anti-British sentiments were visible. Indian was now hailed as the motherland and ‘Bande Mataram,’ the clarion call of the Indian nationalist movement, was heard in folk performances.