Muslims and Hindus in Assam are very similar. We are all affected by the same reality; we are people who live along the Brahmaputra. Our lives are enriched or destroyed by the river. The land and people here are connected, it ebbs and flows.1
HISTORY is as much about process as it is about politics. It is in the interaction between the two, between process and politics that history takes shape which, in turn, informs us of the world around us and our place within it. In postcolonial South Asia, history has become one of the most active sites for constructing identity to mark difference and separateness. The search for self as exclusive and unique is intrinsically connected with negation of others’ identities by using violence. The power to exclude allows for making claims of superiority and purity (particularly evident in caste Hindu politics in India, Islamism in Pakistan, and linguistic chauvinism in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). Liberation from subjective identities promised at the end of colonialism continues to be elusive; rather, in postcolonial South Asia, the reproduction of demarcated national identities is performed, over and over again, in violence.
The postcolonial trap of encumbered and bounded national identities enslaves us, disallowing choice to know self and others differently. Ranajit Guha in a short essay ‘Not Home in Empire’ (1997) reading George Orwell’s compulsion of shooting an elephant that had temporarily run amuck, draws for us a parallel in our postcolonial predicament, of our incapacity to choose alternatives for realizing identity. Guha provides a lengthy discussion of Orwell killing the elephant, an act that was predetermined for him by the colonized Burmese subjects and his position as a colonial officer called upon to uphold the image of the colonial state as strong and decisive by using violence.
As Guha argues, Orwell did not choose to walk away from the scene of violence, but committed predictable violence in the name of duty. Might we, like Orwell, be doing the same thing? Finding it impossible to choose alternative peaceful methods for constructing inclusive and flexible identities, we continue to produce notions of self as fixed, imagining power in separating from others. We are not only negating history’s alchemical process that produces complex and messy concoctions of identities, but by substituting it with neat and fake stories seduce ourselves into believing the purity of identity. Occasionally, interruptions and glitches messing up the picture appear in some unexpected places, though.
In this paper, I explore one such space of interruption by reading stories of exchanges, transactions and changes at the interstices of Assam, in India’s northeast corner. The history and people of Assam offer an opening to investigate the weaving of a variety, producing a rich and complex narrative of borrowings connecting South with Southeast Asia – India, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, and Thailand. The hybrid, but legible composition, is proudly presented as Assamese identity, a mix of many cultures and histories. I read Assam and her people as a ‘contact zone’ where mixing is the norm, exchanges create opportunities, and everyone is infected by the contagion of sharing. The contagious influences penetrating from outside ‘contaminate’, but the cultural ‘impurities’ are proudly embraced as the power of inclusiveness by the Assamese. The Assamese ethos of becoming transformed by inputs serves as a powerful expression of making a choice, producing a borderland that is not a margin or a periphery of a fixed centre but a place and culture in motion that is continuously evolving and growing.
Assam is an example of what I call ‘kinetic history’ – dynamic and mobile, porous and absorbent – that celebrates hybridity. Here I am not using the term hybridity in Homi Bhaba’s parlance of postcolonial ruptures of the colonized self that is produced and reproduced through mimicry (1994), but I qualify hybridity as amalgam and mixing that is consciously fluctuating, where agency is a shifting condition among multiple partners and fixity is disregarded. The contagions producing Assam’s hybrid culture work from within as witnessing a shared human identity at the borderland. My argument echoes Sara Horowitz and Emmanuel Levinas’s assertion in another context, of the Holocaust, calling upon scholars to ‘witness’ the event as insiders infected by the virus of associating with the perished (Horowitz 1992:62; Levinas 1981). In the Assamese at the borderland we witness transcendence, where people and place are engaged in dialogical conversations with various interlocutors and accept change as a way of being.
Iam using the term borderland as a contact zone that is between political, regional, and cultural entities where geographic, economic, political, and demographic circumstances and processes interact. I distinguish the borderland of Assam from the border territory determined by the Indian state that is maintained with the help of the army. Also, it is different from the frontier in the sense of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s edge of civilization, where settlement and wilderness encounter and produce dynamic outcomes (1893). Nor is it the image of the frontier in the terms of Richard Eaton’s ‘shatter zone’, where the unsettled ferocity of invading groups clash with sedentary rivals and embedded systems (Eaton 1978).
The borderland of Assam is a central space of exchanges that is dynamic and transformative, where multiple overlapping boundaries connect and produce complex matrix of historical narratives. Connotative terms such as civilized and wild, sedentary and unsettled, are not in focus here because each interactive moment and group is part of a symbiotic exchange. Internally coherent and continuous, the borderland is also a place of ambivalence and fluidity. To understand the borderland of Assam, it is better to engage it on its own historical terms and not through the prisms and vocabularies of simplified theories generated by external modern commentators. Gatekeeping does not work in a place where heterogeneity opens up new vistas and nurtures overlapping cultures that are historically rooted and embraced by the people.
The study of borderland histories in South Asia has gained currency in recent times and interesting dialogues are emerging. Willem van Schendel, who has done some pioneering work on the India-Bangladesh as well as the Thai borderlands, provides us nuanced stories of connections spilling out of the legal and geographically restrictive controls of border regulations shaping new lives and cultures of economies (Schendel 1997, 2002). Likewise, James Spain in his study of the Pathans draws attention to the complicated business of pastoral activities and movements of people living along the Durand Line separating Pakistan from Afghanistan (Spain 1954, 1961). In Pakistan’s Northern Areas, even today, the Gujjar sheep and goat herders continue their traditional practice of searching for high alpine pastures each season; they halt where the grass ends. The borderland in their terms is a natural space of connecting ecosystems and their traditional practice of pastoralism produces new histories for family and community each season as they move back and forth.
Even in the man-made borderland of India and Bangladesh, Ranabir Samaddar finds the richness of human activities. People and goods move legally and illegally through check-posts and custom points producing vibrant economies and cultures of adjustment. Movement is about human survival, Samaddar argues, and draws our attention beyond the economies of flows. (Samaddar 1997, 2001) David Ludden has shown that in the deep history of the region of Sylhet, in modern-day Bangladesh, the continuous movements of people and goods created a new concept of geography of the region as porous and transformative. The linking of national territoriality and control of nature, Ludden asserts, is a modern development that is deeply opposed to mobility (Ludden 2003).
To evade the delimiting rules of the state and subvert the hegemony of lowland power structures, James C. Scott provocatively argues, it is not new or unusual for borderland people to flee from the valley to the hills (Scott 2009). He suggests that this act of defiance – of people fleeing valley cultures, polities, and economies – acts as resistance against coercion, particularly against the taxation policies levied on both people and nature by hegemons. For overturning restrictive control and producing a new imprint of legibility of hill culture, the borderland is necessary. It is the space of possibilities, the gap offering new and different choices to become unencumbered. Engaging these exciting and provocative conversations on borderlands, I move beyond the binary of state and non-state dichotomy to offer a historical account of people living at the borderlands, in the contact zone of Assam.
The postcolonial Indian state’s approach to Assam as a place of fluctuating movements, volatile politics, and confusing tribal and plains communities produces a problematic set of images – the people and place become a metaphor for chaos. To appreciate Assam as a borderland as it is understood internally, we have to get rid of terms such as core and periphery, centre and frontier, tribal and non-tribal, state and non-state, and pure and impure history. Without the maps provided by terminologies, in the rest of the paper I will explore the story of Assam’s continuously evolving identity, highlighting the contagious influences rather than fixing their meaning. I will draw on a few episodes encompassing the pre-modern and postcolonial periods to tell the story of multilayered realities and their relevance that stand in sharp contrast to polarized identities dominating the world today.
The place and people are encapsulated in the name – Assam, deriving from asama meaning uneven, asymmetrical, different, undulating, and surging. The hills and vales of Assam are cut through and landscaped by the river Brahmaputra, producing an uneven terrain of pathways connecting diverse geographies, cultures, peoples, and economies of lowland with highland, and South with Southeast Asia. Stretching from the town of Sadiya, located in the northeast corner of modern day Assam, to the environs of the present-day capital city of Guwahati, in the West, this area was known in the British colonial lexicon as the heartland of Assam. Curiously, the colonial heartland, although presented as a delimited and controlled territory, was historically known to the locals as an expanding and elastic borderland.
The local texts called buranjis focus on the ebbs and flows of life at the borderland. In the buranjis the area is mapped as the region of an extensive community that is cleverly designated as ‘Ami’ or ‘Us’. Us designated an inclusive and evolving society that incorporated multiple people producing a flexible identity. To understand this identity, the buranjis, which are a synthetic product of the borderland, must be examined.
The textual tradition of writing buranjis developed initially in conversation with neighbouring courts in the East, of Tripura and Manipur. The writing tradition in these courts, in turn, drew upon the Burmese chronicle of kings. Also, the Brahmanic tradition of writing vamsavalis or genealogies that emerged in the Gangetic valley, had their imprint on the Tripura and Manipur chronicles. Brahmins who had migrated to these courts cleverly ingratiated themselves to the kings by writing hyperbolic stories of their origin in gods and divine personages.
Following this style of narrative, in the Assam buranjis the kings are referred to as swargadeos and presented as heaven-born and sacral. The early buranjis tell the story of their descent to earth, and the emergence of polities in the area of Southern China and Upper Burma (this is perhaps a borrowing from the Chinese tradition, see Saikia 1997). From there they migrated in the thirteenth century under the leadership of a semi-divine personage called Sukapha to mung dung sung kham (land of golden meadows). Mung dung sung kham is the contact zone where a new history was inaugurated by Sukapha and his progenies. The buranjis are their stories.
In the initial period of writing buranjis, the knowledge of divinations and oracles that were guarded by the priestly class called deodhais and bailungs, who were different from the brahmins and were most likely their rivals, dominated the narrative composition. But buranjis being porous artifacts, changes became evident after the entry of the Muslim conquering armies into Assam in the seventeenth century. The tradition of writing buranjis underwent some marked changes and they became self-conscious representations of statecraft influenced by the Persian tradition of chronicles. They functioned as state documents announcing the politics and administration of the swargadeos, strategies of war, population and human development, taxation and revenue matters, culture and society – all these were subjects of social history of the emerging borderland.
The language of the buranjis also underwent visible change. The Tai script of the deodhais and bailungs was replaced by the newly developed lingua franca, Assamese, that borrowed its vocabulary from multiple sources, including Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and local dialects. Thus, in investigating the history of buranjis, we encounter a story of a long duration of interaction and layering reflecting a textured weave of history and a diversity of narrative concerns.
Buranjis are more than documents of the past chronicling the development of a community. They signalled the nature of political formation and social realities of identity at the borderland. On this site, the swargadeos’ rule was sanctioned as divine by the scribes, but it also created a social memory of the combining groups for enabling kingdom building. Power sharing between king and community made the borderland polity of the Assam kingdom a discursive experiment; the nobility called Ahom was inclusive of all representative groups (and not an ethnic community) empowering them to select their swargadeo from the progeny of Sukapha.
In the plural world of multiple rivals and heterogeneous neighbours, the swargadeos based their power on the flexible system of inclusion and supporting community growth. The ‘Us’ group continuously expanded as new entrants joined the milieu. Nothing in this system was fixed, not even the personal identity of an individual. In one lifetime a person could move between fluctuating hierarchies. An enslaved person could transition into the status of a freeman, even become a noble and member of the ruling class, and equally quickly lose the elevated position and become a commoner. Likewise, people could move from one clan to another in search of power and recognition. Buranjis tell about people’s ambiguous relationship with social as well as personal identity, thriving in the lack of fixity.
Political power of the swargadeos, in turn, grew and prospered due to the networks of continuously forming and reforming powerful groups. The undefined, composite community under the rule of the swargadeos being quite confusing, invading groups distinguished them by imposing a community identity. In the Persian documents they are referred to as Achamers. This was later modified into Assamese by the British colonials. The people referred to as Achamers or Assamese never used those names themselves and in the buranjis they continued to be remembered as the ‘Us’ community. The politics of Assamese identity is a twentieth century phenomenon.
People and ideas continued to mix easily at the borderland in the pre-colonial period. Visible expressions of these encounters are evident in the physical architecture. The buildings are literally multi-storeyed. In them we see the influences and combination of heterogeneous styles, motifs, and themes that appear like a continuum celebrating historical encounters. Given Assam’s humid and damp climate, very few of these structures have survived the ravages of nature. Masonry buildings are our most important evidence and witnesses of the new and unexpected combinations that took place. Masonry buildings developed with the entry of the Muslims. When did the Muslims come to Assam? A slight caveat here is necessary to probe this question.
The story of Muslim settlement is complicated and is very poorly documented to ascertain when the initial groups came to Assam and settled there. Today, Assam has one of the largest Muslim populations in India.2 Various local oral traditions narrate the story of the arrival of small groups of Muslims in the early thirteenth century; some even claim they were there before the swargadeos arrived (I heard this oral narrative in 2008 from a local Ahom schoolteacher in a village in Mathurapur, Sibsagar). The Muslim expansion eastward from Bengal in the early thirteenth century is a definite possibility. Bakhtiyar Khalji, a renegade and ambitious Turk of the Delhi Sultanate during the rule of Iltutmish (1210-1236 CE), had moved to the East and established himself as a ruler in Bengal.
New breakaway groups from within the immigrant community on the lookout for new territories probably moved further East. Sufi and religious teachers, too, traversed eastward as Richard Eaton has argued (1993). The movement to Assam was probably part of this expansionist drive. Beyond this initial political impulse, it is well known that Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325 CE) organized his students to expand the reach of Islam to eastern and central India (Nizami 2007). The arrival of Muslims in Assam in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries can be mapped within the Sufi migration and expansion of religion.
The oral traditions on Muslim settlement in Assam are corroborated in written accounts such as Shabuddin Talish’s Fathiya-i-Ibriya, commemorating the Mughal general Mir Jumla’s invasion of Assam in the seventeenth century. Talish writes that when the Mughals arrived in Assam they found several existing Muslim settlements. But the people were so thoroughly assimilated and integrated with the local non-Muslim communities, that they were indistinguishable and had nothing in common with the Muslim invaders.
My own family history is located within the group of ‘impure’ Muslims recorded by Talish. In 1595 CE, one of my ancestors, Shaikh Azimuddin, whose grandfather belonged to a small village in Ghazni in present-day Afghanistan, was inducted into the nobility of the Assam kingdom, married a noble woman, was given a large land-grant and the title of Saikia through royal proclamation that was recorded in a copper plate inscription. Integrated within the local society as ‘namati Saikia’ or ‘Saikia of the new land’ (as the family became known), he was established as an insider. Thus my last name, Saikia, the title bestowed on my ancestor continues, and we belong to the clan of Saikias who some refer to as Muslim-Ahom. I encountered this during my initial research in the village of Patsako when Domboru Deodhai, the last known deodhai, recognized my grandfather as ‘one of us’ – Ahom in spirit and Muslim by culture. Perhaps my ancestors or men like them were the ones Talish had encountered and remarked that they were ‘Muslim only in name.’
The early Muslims of Assam, although assimilated within local society, their culture survived in certain ritual practices that penetrated other groups. In a ritual ceremony called Rati-khuwa, we find an overlay of Muslim devotional chanting that was combined with local shamanistic practices. The ceremony of rati-khuwa mixed zikr, involving continuous chanting of the names of the divine in the presence of a religious teacher, along with bloody rituals performed by bailung priests that pressed followers to enter into a trance like experience.
Buranjis record the nightly performance of this ceremony by different groups of men, but it was banned in the nineteenth century by the swargadeo who feared the congregations were a fomenting ground for conspiring and staging revolts. But the system continued in hiding even in the twentieth century, so it seems. A retired Ahom teacher and journalist whose father was a practitioner told me about his memories of witnessing this ceremony. He remembered it ‘as a combined ritual incorporating Islamic and Ahom’ practice. Assembled men formed a circle in a standing position and chanted the name of the divine while holding their hands together and moving in a circle. Later, a sacrifice used to be made and the guru blessed the congregation and the food (conversation in summer 2008, Sibsagar).
Returning to the traces of masonry buildings of the seventeenth century, it is obvious that the Muslim settlers produced this architectural style in Assam. The patterns of the building construction combined with the Bengal style called chou-chala or sloping roof and the decorative motifs, tell the story of a variety of influences. The flying dragon symbol evident in all royal buildings of Assam is a borrowing from Assam’s eastern neighbours, while the mastaka or pinnacle of the buildings is of Buddhist influence, and the arched doorways, the mounted horsemen, camels on the relief walls, decorative flower motifs, and jharoka (window balconies) are directly borrowed from the Indo-Islamic style.
Another site of exchanges in the pre-modern period is evident in book illustrations that illuminate a visual history of the multiple convergences. The Hasti-Vidyarnava, a treatise on elephants, shows the wonderful mix of Mughal painting style integrated with topics of concern to local culture, such as the manner and customs of elephant hunting and herding called the kheda system, also practiced in Burma, and the use of elephants in recreational sport that was common in the Thai court. Generally, in the Indic Hindu tradition elephants were used in battle or for executing capital punishment, as Simon Digby has argued (Digby 1971). The practice of elephant hunting and elephant sport entered Assam from the eastern quarters, from Burma and Thailand, perhaps.
Likewise in the royal inscriptions, coinage, and objects of royal use multiple influences of both Indic and Asian forms are evident. Particularly, both inscriptions and coins exhibit styles, motifs, and themes inscribed in several different languages, including Tai, Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Assamese. They suggest interactions and exchanges with neighbours in the East and West. Many of the agricultural terms used in Assam are of Arabic origin. The story of agriculture development in Assam parallels the experience of the Bengal frontier that Richard Eaton has documented (1993).
In the social and cultural life of the borderland traces of a variety are clearly evident as well. Marriage and familial relationships are mostly denoted by Persian and Arabic terms. The art of jewellery making was influenced both by eastern and western neighbours – Burmese, Bhutanese, as well as craftsmen from Delhi and Rajasthan. The music of the borderland evokes multiple carryovers. The buranjis record the story of importation of musicians from the Mughal court to train the women of the royal household.
In the development of religious music, the zikr tradition is obvious. Interestingly, the first proponent of zikr in Assam, Azan Pir, an immigrant Sufi who is recorded in the buranjis as a bairagi (unattached holy man, in Sufi terms a qalandar), was a close friend of Sankaradeva, the Bhakti Vaishnava leader (1448-1568 CE). He learned Assamese through his association with Sankaradeva, so it seems according to the well-known Assamese writer, Imran Shah of Sibsagar (personal conversation, 2008). Azan Pir composed zikrs in his adopted language to sing the glories of Allah as well as a new humanism focusing on man’s interdependent relationship. These zikrs borrowed as well as influenced the singing of borgeet and naam written by Sankaradeva, whose composition echoes the Indic tradition of bhajan.
As well, the well-known dance style preserved in the Sankari Vaishnava tradition called Satriya is suggestive of the whirling of Sufis and the attire of the dancers combines influences of Manipuri, Burmese, and Islamic traditional forms. Another dance form called deodhani that is performed nowadays for entertainment was originally borrowed from the Bodo-Kachari religious ritual for the goddess Kesai-khati (recorded in the buranjis). It was likely a precursor to the development of tantric rituals for goddesses Kamakhya and, later, Kali in eastern India. In Assam, tantric roots derive from local shamanistic religions and Buddhism.
Making sense of the multiplicities converging and mixing at the borderland was not an easy task for the contemporaries then and they continue to baffle us even today. The British seemed to be particularly perplexed by the mix in Assam and the confusion, they argued, had to be sorted out. The British intervention almost forced the fluid contact zone to change and through division of hills and plains, the people, too, were separated. The Assamese were identified as the core group of the Assam valley and a narrative of this identity specifically highlighting this imagined community was written up.
Sir Edward Gait, following in the style of James Stuart Mill who wrote the first (artificial) history of India in 1835, arbitrarily decided that the Assamese were the subjects of the swargadeos. In his narrative, they morphed from the ‘Us’ community into Ahom and then Assamese without explanation. They were presented as the governable plains people.
The interactive past and the exchanges of the different groups in the contact zone of the borderland were thus ironed out and the Assamese as a community were selected as representatives of a superior group, amidst the so-called ‘inferior’ tribal communities surrounding them. The impurities of the hybrid Assamese were washed away. Happily, those who were identified as Assamese did not question this makeover of their identity and finding themselves designated somewhat ‘superior’ and better than the so-called ‘rude tribes’ of the hills, they accepted the British imposition. The public self of the Assamese thus underwent dramatic changes under colonial rule. But did the inner domain of Assam, the zone of contact and exchanges, also change?
Partha Chatterjee has argued in the case of Bengal that colonial policies transformed the public sphere of the subjects’ world (Chatterjee 1995). But the inner, private domain remained outside their influence; it remained pristine and traditional. In the case of Assam, too, the inner domain of the people and place remained immune to the British penetration and changes. But the story of Assam is somewhat different from the Bengal episode. The inner domain of Assam, the place of contact, underwent continuous changes throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other words, the pattern of the borderland remained stable; it remained a contact zone even though the British administration codified and regulated exchanges at the frontiers and created strict surveillance to seal off the movement of people, goods, and ideas across the imperial boundaries.
In conclusion, I would like to turn my attention to two sites that are visibly evident and express the story of continuities at the Assam borderland even today. One is a place called Hajo, and the other is the spring festival called Bihu. Both these sites are prisms for understanding and negotiating a new borderland history of Assam that is waiting to be told.
Hajo is located close to the capital city of Guwahati, fifteen miles to the West. One of the main attractions of Hajo is its unusual mix of religious communities that fluidly exchange spiritual knowledge and sacred resources without barriers. The place attracts Hindus, Muslims, as well as Buddhists. A revered site for the Assamese Hindus in Hajo is a temple dedicated to the god Hayagriva Madhab, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. But in the local tradition the identification is not that simple. The temple is variously claimed to be a Shiva temple, a Vishnu temple, and even a local deity. Likewise, the Buddhists claim it as their shrine.
Today, Hajo is a site of an annual Hindu pilgrimage. The same spot of the Madhab temple, according to the Buddhists, is the place of Gautama Buddha’s parinirvana. Hence, it is one of the most important sites within the scared geography of Buddhism and hosts an annual pilgrimage. Until recently, it was an active site of pilgrimage for the Bhutanese Buddhists (since the rise of the Bodo and ULFA movements the route of pilgrims travel has been blocked by the state security forces). Pilgrimage combined with commerce made the place a thriving space of religious economy.
Across from temple site, on another hillock is the resting place of a Muslim Sufi saint. Some call him Giyasuddin, others refer to him as Sheikh Jalaluddin. The history of this Sufi saint, some say, is recorded by the fourteenth century Moroccan traveller, Ibn Batuta in his Rihla.3 In Batuta’s account we read of his visit to the saint sometime in 1345-46 CE. Describing the journey to meet this saint, he recalls, ‘I set out for the mountains of Kamaru… which is a vast mountain range extending into China and also to the land of Tibbet. The inhabitants of this range resemble the Turks. My purpose in travelling to these mountains was to meet a notable saint who lives there… The inhabitants of the land, both Muslims and infidels, come to visit him bringing gifts and presents and the darvishes and travellers live on these offerings.’ (Gibb 1958-1971)
Ibn Batuta goes on to describe his meeting with the Sheikh, his prophecies that later came true during his visit to China, and the peaceful ambiance of the place. A seventeenth century marble inscription dedicated to the shrine of the sufi saint states that it was constructed in 1657 CE and the place was declared as darul aman or ‘place of peace’ by the lord of the people, and was called Shujabad, being protected by divine grace.
Hajo is a testimony of the contacts and penetration of multiple layers of histories, peoples, cultures, and religions. Each found a welcoming and peaceful site to contribute to and, in turn, they were transformed by the place that skilfully incorporated the variety and wove a tapestry of society in which the patterns were distinct yet fused in amity.
Bohag Bihu, the most loved festival of the Assamese, also tells a story of layering, exchanges, and encounters. Bihu is the celebration of spring and marks the beginning of a new year. Bihu is variously claimed by different groups and its origin is unknown. The Ahoms claim Bihu is a Tai-festival for celebrating the beginning of spring. Even today in Thailand, spring is welcomed with rituals connected with a water festival. In eastern Assam, alongside the public celebrations of Bihu, the Ahom communities offer special worship to multiple forest deities and ancestors. At home, they perform the worship of ancestors called dam-pata, which is similar to the Thai ritual of ancestor worship. The Assamese Hindus locate Bihu’s origin in the change of season during the March equinox. It marks the first day of the Hindu calendar and is a common festival shared with people in Bengal, South India, and Punjab.
Bihu’s popularity is not confined to religious activities and to a few communities. In the very text of Bihu we see the convergence of other cultural forms, including indigenous Bodo-Kachari and Muslim influences. The Hosori or chorus sung from house to house in celebration of Bihu follow a particular order and popular opinion asserts that it is a borrowing from the local Bodo-Kachari tradition. The form of holding hands and clapping during singing the chorus is a borrowing from the Muslim tradition evident in the performance of zari during Muharram. Bohag Bihu, as Sanjib Baruah argues, is a regeneration of culture that makes a covenant with nature and people because it is their festival and is created by them as a testimony of the encounters and meetings at the borderland (Baruah 1999). Thus Bihu continues to be a continuously evolving community text and contemporaries in Assam today do not hesitate to borrow from Bolywood and western Christmas celebrations that are showcased in the urban festivities in Guwahati
Ihave argued thus far that Assam’s history is a story of unfolding connections and the contact zone that evolved and formed a distinctive borderland culture that was continuously in the making. The borderland was a fluid and happening place and one can imaginatively argue that it was a land of fleeting romance. No one was permanently established on this site, yet everyone left their flavour. To use a dance metaphor, it was a tango of changing partners. The ethos was dynamism and vivacity, adopting and adapting to new rhythms.
What is the meaning of the Assam borderland today in the context of the Indian state that is driven with the ambition of creating a homogenous and singular Indian identity? This is captured in the repeated television advertisement of ‘Hum sab Bharatiya hain’ (We are all Indians). My purpose in emphasizing the lived realities of the borderland of Assam is not to suggest a local narrative as a substitute, but simply to reflect on the new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas and politics that are the theme of the region. They must be evaluated within their historical processes that continue to combine accommodations with defiance, of micro and macro history at work separately and together.
Anchored in spatial mobility (Ludden 2003; Saikia 2005), local contingencies (Schendel 2002; Samaddar 2001), astute understanding of ambiguities of identity and the power of institutions (Muller 2009), and the local creating connected histories (Zimone Davis 2011; Hamaleinen and Truett 2011), Assam is a story of history within the global process of borderland. It is not simply a frontier or a border to service the nation-state’s territorial ambitions, but is a contact zone where periphery is central and impurities are the stuff of history and identity. Who defines the meaning of the symbol of the borderlands? How would our perspective change if we took seriously the realities of contacts, exchanges, and unfinished creations in Assam?
My own view, though hardly mine alone, is that national history suffers from an over-rationalized, narrowly defined institutional conception – a legacy of the colonial historical tradition and of categorizing born out of imperialistic impulses toward totalization, unification, and integration through erasures. One could argue further that the purity of national history is a hyper-colonial and now a postcolonial concern paralleling the rise of intolerant religious and ethnic identities. In a peculiar sort of way, it must be understood to be a problem with categories that cannot accommodate mixes, blending, and impurities without passing normative judgment. But the borderland of Assam continues to defy encapsulation of the master narrative of statist history. The region is at the vanguard of a ‘reflexive spirituality’, in the terms of Anthony Giddens (1992) that is self-conscious and deliberate, expansive and open. If the reflexive self-searching involves continuous conversation with multiple partners, then Assam provides a model on which India’s 21st century might build.
Almost 500 years ago societies in Assam were organized by forward looking people who believed that exchanges and contacts would benefit them and those around them. Today, that vision lives on, and the horizons have broadened. Assam is an intellectual borderland of evolving, cross-pollinated vocabularies, and I think this makes for an exciting and creative future for scholars to engage in and for the Indian state to take lessons from.
1. Discussions with a variety of Muslim and Hindu civic society actors in Dibrugarh in 2006 about the experience of the partition of 1947 in Assam. They glossed over the event as ‘something unnecessary’ that happened because of politics, but focused their attention on the entwined history of communities connected by the river Brahmaputra, whose course shifts and re-forms everyday realities.
2. There is an ongoing struggle to distinguish the local Assamese Muslims from the suspected immigrant Bengali Muslims. At the level of the public, the Assamese speaking Muslims are considered ‘indigenous’, while the others are deemed ‘illegal immigrants’. Rhetoric and politics cloud rather than enable an understanding of the movement of new people and their process of settlement in Assam.
3. There is a debate whether Batuta visited the area of Hajo in Kamarupa (as it was known then) or Sylhet in Bangladesh today. Shah Jalal is a well-known Sufi saint of Bangladesh. The name of the Sufi saint buried in Hajo is not well-known, but the site is considered so sacred that it is called Poa-Mecca, a fourth of Mecca. Pilgrimage to this place is deemed almost sacred by the Assamese.
Sanjib Baruah, India Against Itself and the Politics of Nationality. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1999.
Ibn Batuta, Rihla (translated by H.A.R. Gibb). Travels of Ibn Batuta (3 vol.), revised edition 1958-71.
Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture. Routledge, London, 1994.
Partha Chatterjee, Nation and its Fragments. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995.
Natalie Zemone Davis, ‘Decentering History: Local Stories and Cultural Crossings in a Global World’, History and Theory 50, May 2011, 188-202.
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