“Divide Assam fifty-fifty” From Movements to Accords and beyond: the critical role of Student organisations in the formation and performance of identity in Assam

Kaustubh Deka, JNU, New Delhi, India

The paper seeks to posit that student organizations have provided crucial platforms for the performing and performance of different identities in Assam at various levels, from the inceptions and articulation of identities from within the ‘movements’ to acknowledgement or ‘deliverance’ of it in the form of accords /negotiations as well as their further ‘circulation’ beyond these arena. The unfolding of this process has largely shaped the discourse(s) of identity politics in the state. Post Assam movement (1979-85), student groups claiming to represent the different ethnic group in Assam had taken the initiative to forge an intimate bond between the concepts of ethnicity, identity and group rights largely reacting to the hegemonic putative univerasaliation of the Assamese identity preached and practiced by dominant student organization All Assam Students Union (AASU). In the recent times, the All Bodo Students Union’s (ABSU) rhetoric of ‘divide Assam fifty-fifty’ has captured the imagination of many, debates have flared up on the question of Assam’s territorial integrity viz a viz the question of ‘homeland’ and ‘identity’. In a similar vein, ethnic minority student groups like the Karbis, Dimasas, Mishings among others have also rallied behind ideas of territoriality and indigenity. The resultant conflation of ethnic-nationalist discourses has often led to demands for some measures of autonomy and at times even secession from Assam.

However, as my fieldwork with different student organisations in different areas of the state shows there co-exists a politics of solidarity with a politics of difference here due to a sharpening of the existing class-relations of mutual dependence between different ethnic groups and communities in recent years and student politics have been one of the most powerful and early receptor of these changes. Issues like the threat of displacement due to plans of big dam construction, threat of massive influx of illegal foreign migrants into the state, floods and erosions have moved many a student groups with seemingly diverse agendas into common platforms of struggle and thus broadening the ambit of the identity discourse in Assam from the path of an essentialist- exclusivist, unipolar one to one open to multiple-interpretations and implications. The relationship between AASU and the other ethnic minority student groups like ABSU, All Assam Mishing Students Union (TMPK), Karbi Students Union (KSA) is one of changing strategies and shifting narratives that throw crucial light on the observation that identities are not fixed. They are constantly being defined, redefined, reworked and reconstituted through interactions and deliberations enacted at all levels of states and societies. Identities are simultaneously being reproduced and resisted though processes that challenge as well as reappropriate meanings.
In this sense one has to critically engage with and study the formation of alliances and strategies as well as the nature of conflict and co-operation between the various student organisations in the state to understand whether Assam will move towards a multiple, nonessensialist politics of identity or that of closed circuits of ethnic consciousness.