Set in the backdrop of the Bodo society, Janil Kr. Brahma and Katindra Swargiary’s short stories “Dumphao’s Phitha” and “Hongla Pondit” respectively reflect the aspects of nationalistic strife undertaken by the Bodo people to assert their ethnic identity. In both the stories it is projected that Bodo people seek to stabilize their ethnic identity in terms of the rhetoric of difference. This rhetoric of difference explicitly points to conscious cultural practices—rituals, customs, names—which are used not only to assert the Bodo identity but also its discernible difference from other ethnic groups for both political and cultural cause. The implicit questions that arouse from the stories are—is ethnic identity entirely based on the rhetoric of difference? Is it not possible to retain the difference without being hostile to other ethnic groups in particular and to the idea of Assamese in general? The Bodo nationalism seeks to justify that it is the rhetoric of difference that aids in structuring their ethnic identity. With linguistic and cultural differences the Bodos strive to differentiate themselves so as to preserve their identity. Indeed, for them it is a political as well as cultural necessity. These aspects are sought to demonstrate in this paper.
Janil Kr. Brahma and Katindra Swargiary’s short stories “Dumphao’s Phitha” and “Hongla Pondit” respectively reflect the Bodo consciousness of their origin, history and culture. In “Hongla Pondit” through the attitude of Navajyoti or Irakdao it becomes evident that the Bodos regard Assam as their homeland and claim with the weight of historical affirmation as the original inhabitants of Assam. But the irony is that they do not call themselves Assamese. This becomes evident from Navajyoti’s changing of name to Irakdao. On the other hand, the story “Dumphao’s Phitha” shows the resurgent Bodo ethnicity in its political dimension. Opposed to assimilate or homogenize themselves under the umbrella term of ‘Assamese’ the Bodos endeavour to recognize their difference that will, as desired, establish their ethnic identity. This paper is an attempt to address these issues.
Ethnicity and the Rhetoric of Difference: A Reading of Janil Kumar Brahma’s “Dumphao’s Phitha” and Katindra Swargiary’s “Hongla Pandit.”
The central theme in Bodo cultural politics today is to repudiate the process of unequal assimilation into Assamese subnational formation and to seek differentiation from, and equality with, the ethnic Assamese. (Baruah, 2001:183)
The relationship of an ethnic tribe to the state of Assam has been a problematic one for the Bodos because of the surpassing importance in the ideology of the values of freedom, equality and the autonomy of the tribe. In these circumstances the questions, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where do we belong?’ become inevitable. Set in the backdrop of the Bodo society, Janil Kr. Brahma and Katindra Swargiary’s short stories “Dumphao’s Phitha” and “Hongla Pandit” respectively deal with these questions and reflect the aspects of nationalistic strife undertaken by the Bodo people to assert their ethnic identity. My attempt in this paper is to project how in both the stories Bodo people seek to stabilize their ethnic identity in terms of the rhetoric of difference. This rhetoric of difference explicitly points to conscious cultural practices— rituals, customs, names— which are used not only to assert the Bodo identity but also its discernible differences from other ethnic groups for both political and cultural causes. A sense of uncertainty regarding their future identity and existence, confused by the prevalent nationalist discourses and frightened by the prospect of being submerged in the Assamese hegemony the Bodos in Assam faced an ethnic crisis and as such they preferred a confrontationist path in order to establish their ethnic identity. Indeed, for them it is a political as well as cultural necessity.
“Dumphao’s Phitha” and “Hongla Pandit” reflect the Bodo consciousness: their origin, history and culture. In Janil Kr. Brahma’s “Dumphao’s Phitha” Somen Master, Dumphao’s husband is projected as a common man whose job as a school teacher is yet not permanent “my job is also not yet permanent. One cannot get a job when one wants it!” (Brahma, p 22), but is devoted to work for the upliftment of his community. This is evident in the following statement:
But what have I given to the community? You have seen Dumphao, how nowadays everyone wants their community to prosper. All communities are progressing. Only we Bodos are lagging behind. Will our community survive if we sit back and say we are poor? You are a literate woman. If all of us, you and I, do not do anything to uplift our community a little, who will do it Dumphao? (Brahma, p 22)
Somen’s statement projects his growing ethnic consciousness and a call to the Bodo community to work progressively for affirming their Bodo identity. Their marginal position serves as the battle ground for reclaiming their ethnic identity. Moreover, Somen’s urge to work for the upliftment of the Bodo community in particular acts as a means of resistance to the grand Assamese discourse. Opposed to assimilate or homogenize themselves under the umbrella term of ‘Assamese’ the Bodos endeavour to recognize their difference in order to establish their ethnic identity.
Inspired by her husband’s words, Dumphao makes up her mind to assist her husband in every step of life. With this objective she sets out to sell phithas (rice cake) in the Samthaibari market. If women from other communities could thrive trading in items like betel nut and tea, why can’t the Bodo women? I am also human, thought Dumphao. Thus, Dumphao set forth to do just as she had thought. (Brahma, p 22)
This knowledge of the position of the ‘other’ is crucial in determining one’s subjectivity. Opposed to the theory of assimilation the Bodos regard the Assamese as their ‘other’. However, this opposition amongst the Bodos has been the result of the oppression to which they have been subjected to throughout history being the original natives of Assam. They have been the victims of land alienation, poverty, severe unemployment, economic exploitation and cultural and political oppression in Assam. Monirul Hussain in his essay “Tribal Question in Assam” states:
There are also numerous cases of land alienation from tribals in which the state government itself was involved. In a memorandum submitted to the president of India, the Plains Tribals Council of Assam (PTCA) specified several cases in which state government agencies were involved in depriving tribals of their land in the tribal belts to accommodate non- tribals. (Hussain, 1992: 1049)
Being subjected to state oppression, deprivation and discrimination the Bodos become homeless in their own homeland and as such seek to regard Assamese as the ‘other.’ They, in turn, started articulating their identity to gain political power and to overcome their socio-economic backwardness and oppression.
One of the most essential grounds by which the Bodos maintain their rhetoric of difference from Assamese subnationalism is through language. Sonam Babu, a youth leader in “Dumphao’s Phitha” raises a proposal to set up a Martyr’s Tomb in Samthaibari Market commemorating the leaders who sacrificed their lives in the Roman Script Movement. It is noteworthy that in 1974, a movement demanding the introduction of the Roman script for the Bodo language was launched by the BSS (Bodo Sahitya Sabha) with the active support of the ABSU (All Bodo Students’ Union). The Bodo leaders of that time felt that the Roman script was easier and more susceptible to the peculiar phonetic sounds of the Bodo language. But the government of Assam opposed the demand and the Script Movement turned violent resulting in police action against the agitators. Jadav Pegu states:
More than fifteen Bodos had to lay down their lives during the course of their agitation. In the end, there were no gainers: the Bodos discarded the Assamese script and the Government accepted the compromise option of allowing the Devanagiri instead of Roman script for the Bodo language…The Bodo language and literature could not develop satisfactorily due to this long drawn out struggle to find the right and widely accepted script. (Pegu, p 89)
Dumphao delivers a sum of rupees five thousand to Sonam Babu for the noble cause of erecting a permanent Martyr’s Tomb made of marble in honour of the leaders who sacrificed their lives for the “Bodo cause” (Brahma, p 24). Three months later when the work of the tomb has been completed a meeting is organized with a view to inaugurating the tomb. Somen Master, who is also a devout social activist, is invited to inaugurate the Martyr’s Tomb. Dumphao accompanies her husband to the meeting. After felicitating the invited guests with traditional Aronai, Sonam Babu delivers a speech in which he formally introduces the guests to the masses gathered on the occasion. Apart from complimenting Somen Master for his untiring zeal for the Bodo cause he also commends Dumphao who establishes herself as a leading woman trader amongst the Bodo women. Next Somen Master delivers a speech recalling the people who fought for the cause of Bodo language and literature which not only moves the masses to tears but also imbibes in their mind the consciousness to assert the distinctiveness and equality of the Bodos vis-à-vis the ethnic Assamese.
Katindra Swargiary’s “Hongla Pandit” also centers on the issue of Bodo-Assamese conflict. Being the first matriculate in the Samthaibari area Hongla Pondit was proud of his career as an L.P. school teacher and preferred to be called Pandit rather than ‘Master’ or ‘Teacher’. He felt that the terms ‘Master’ or ‘Teacher’ failed to encompass his wide range of knowledge and wisdom. But Hongla Pandit is retired now. He never allowed his children to mingle with the ordinary village folks because he feared that they might assimilate into the local language and culture. He too distanced himself from the people of his village. He regarded his native language as inferior and forbade his children to speak in their native tongue at home.
“Hongla Pandit never encouraged speaking in Bodo in his household from before. If somebody in the house violated this rule, s/he had to face Hongla Pandit’s glare.” (Swargiary, p 56).
Instead, he resorted to the Assamese language because of the power and prestige associated with it and even gave Assamese names to his children—Ram, Arjun, Devjani and Navajyoti. He sent his children to be educated in the town. Hongla Pondit’s preference to the Assamese language over the Bodo signifies to the fact how the Bodos once upon a time sweated to learn the Assamese language and adopt the culture of the Assamese-speaking class. For many members of the Bodo community the ability to speak the Assamese language was considered an achievement in itself. In this context it is, however, noteworthy that Assamese can be regarded as an outside language which imposed itself steadily on the Bodo communities through its superiority gained from its written script and its Sanskrit base, and the rich Hindu culture and tradition that it carried. Jadav Pegu in Reclaiming Identity: A Discourse on Bodo History asserts:
Indeed, the original Assamese-speaking people can be seen as outsiders who brought ‘Aryan’ culture and developed a Sanskrit-based language in the region and imposed themselves on the aboriginal groups. (Pegu, p 6)
He further claims:
It can, therefore, be deduced that a superior language [‘Assamese’] fostered by ‘higher’ caste people and apparently favoured by indigenous kings and chieftains under the influence of Brahmans representing a higher civilization and religion, had, over the years, in the period of medieval and modern history, hijacked the identity of a region that was originally dominated by communities speaking dialects belonging to the Tibeto-Chinese family and especially to its Tibeto-Burman subfamily [the Bodos]. (Pegu, p 11-12)
Thus, it becomes evident that the caste-Hindus were able to establish Assamese as the dominant language in Assam and exert its influence over the other ethnic tribes. Therefore, many members of the ethnic tribes have themselves adopted the Assamese language and culture to form a major chunk of the Assamese-speaking milieu. Moreover, the history of the assimilation of the Bodos and other ethnic tribes into the Assamese formation provides one of the most dramatic examples of how Aryan civilization in India’s northeastern periphery managed to recruit converts from the aboriginals of Assam and thereby continue to maintain the differentiating policy of caste and tribe. For those who remained outside the Hindu caste order was stigmatized as ‘Kacharis’, a term which among the caste-Hindu Assamese have a rather pejorative connotation. Hongla Pandit’s recourse to the Assamese language in lieu of his mother tongue Bodo is Katindra Swargiary’s projection of these issues. But with education and enlightenment drawing upon them and due to many socio-economic factors, the Bodos become conscious that their original identity shall not be allowed to disappear. This becomes evident when Hongla Pondit’s youngest son Navajyoti changes his name to Irakdao after he goes to pursue his education at the university. Irakdao was the Bodo name of the last Kachari king Govinda Chandra. He now speaks only Bodo and prefers not to speak Assamese.
“…Navajyoti or Irakdao speaks only in Bodo, mixes with the ordinary people, goes out and eats with them. Not only that, sometimes he would bring them to his house and would be found in deep discussion with them.” (Swargiary, p 56).
The implication of speaking Bodo operates as a powerful marker of differentiation by which Bodos differentiate themselves from the ethnic Assamese. Through the attitude of Navajyoti or Irakdao it becomes evident that the Bodos regard Assam as their homeland and claim with the weight of historical affirmation as the original inhabitants of Assam. But the irony is that they do not call themselves Assamese.
In order to assert their difference from the Assamese sub-nationalism, Irakdao finally joins the Bodo militant organization called Bodo Liberation Organization. The Bodo Liberation Organisation ambushed an army convoy and killed eight of them on the spot and seized their weapons. Violence acts as a political strategy to reclaim their ethnic identity. The power structure of the state fails to give an ear to the voices of the Bodo ethnic community. According to Irakdao, the Bodos have been colonized and exploited in their own homeland as the democratic mechanism of the state has been largely biased in favour of the majority group in a polyethnic society. The democratic mechanism of the state government that operates in the guise of colonialist regime fails to conceptualize the voices of the Bodos thereby displacing them from the centre to the periphery. Violence, for Irakdao becomes an inevitable option that represents the deep sense of frustration permeating his social psyche:
Violence has become a strategic political tool particularly in the hands of the smaller communities whose interests are not adequately looked after by the majoritarian democratic institutions working in a polyethnic social space. (Das, p 44)
The ideology behind their indulging in such militarism is to assert their rhetoric of difference from the Assamese sub-nationalism. And the politics behind such rhetoric of difference is to gain autonomy. In this regard it seeks to differentiate it from the Assam movement as the Bodos realize that the policies of Assam movement do not figure out the Bodo voice.
Indeed, to some extent the movement for a Bodo homeland was an outgrowth of the Assam movement. … Assam movement contributed to the process of ethnicization of the Assamese. Bodo student leaders accused ethnic Assamese leaders of anti-tribal prejudices and portrayed the first AGP government as an “Assamese government,” meaning a narrowly based ethnic Assamese government that cannot be trusted to speak for Assam as a whole. (Baruah, 2001:175)
It is this sense of ethnic insecurity that facilitates the ground for Bodo insurgency. As a counter to Bodo insurgency the State also exerts legitimized violence to contain and incorporate Bodo insurgency within the state apparatus. The state uses the military power to impose coercive laws in the region. The army immediately starts ransacking the villages after the killing of their officials near the Samthaibari area by the members of the Bodo Liberation Organisation. One of the military personnel comes to Hongla Pandit’s house for investigation and interrogates him in Hindi. But Hongla Pandit fails to grapple the questions of the army personnel because he does not understand Hindi. The army asks:
Where, where is your son Navajyoti alias Irakdao alias Nerson? Where does he stay? Are you aware that your son is the captain of the banned organization Bodo Liberation Organisation? It was your son who led the army ambush a while ago. Where, where are the guns? (Swargiary, p 57)
As the army has been interrogating Hongla Pandit four of them enter his house and rape his daughter Delaisri. Entrapped in such a helpless situation he swears at the army man in Hindi though he does not know Hindi, “Kutta ka baccha, Army” (Swargiary, p 57). The army men ransacked his house and assaulted him physically. So, it is evident that state sponsored violence has intensified the sense of insecurity among the Bodos, and subsequently it nurtures the breed of radical ethnic sentiment in the Bodo psyche. In this regard Hiren Gohain observes:
The army’s favourite method is to terrorize the countryside, the supposed base of terrorists, with indiscriminate acts of repression including brutal beatings of the elderly and the alleged rape of womenfolk. (Gohain, p 52)
It is the common people who become sufferers of this insurgency and the resultant violence between the state and the Bodo insurgents. This is evident from the predicament of Hongla Pandit and his family. The story vividly portrays the Bodo indulgence in insurgency to attain their ethnic identity. Navajyoti’s transformation to Irakdao justifies this fact. So, it can be rightly said that “Dumphao’s Phitha” and “Hongla Pandit” bring to the fore the urgency of the Bodos to assert their ethnicity through the rhetoric of difference. It can be construed that in the context of Assam ethnic identity and culture are based on the rhetoric of difference which, in fact, points to the inner turmoil of the land.
1. Baruah, Sanjib. India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.
2. Brahma, Janil Kumar. “Dumphao’s Phitha” in Anjali Daimari and Pranab Jyoti Narzary Ed. & trans. Sagan: A Collection of Bodo Short Stories, Guwahati: DVS Publishers, 2011, pp.19-25.
3. Das, Gurudas. “Small Societies in Large Democracy: Problems of Conflict Resolution in India’s North-East” in Monirul Hussain Ed. Coming Out of Violence: Essays on Ethnicity, Conflict Resolution and Peace Process in North-East India, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2005, pp. 39-47.
4. Gohain, Hiren. “Human Security in North-East India” in Akhil Ranjan Dutta Ed. Human Security in North-East India: Issues and Policies, Guwahati: Anwesha, 2009, pp. 45-53.
5. Hussain, Monirul. “Tribal Question in Assam” in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 20/21: Economic and Political Weekly, May, 1992, pp. 1047-1050.
6. Pegu, Jadav. Reclaiming Identity: A Discourse on Bodo History, Kokrajhar: JWNGSAR, 2004.
7. Swargiary, Katindra. “Hongla Pandit” in Anjali Daimari and Pranab Jyoti Narzary Ed. & trans. Sagan: A Collection of Bodo Short Stories, Guwahati: DVS Publishers, 2011, pp.53-58.
Author’s Bio: Miss. Mridula Kashyap is a research scholar in the Dept. of English in Gauhati University, Assam. She has also completed her M.Phil on African Literature from Gauhati University. She has been pursuing her research on Egyptian Literature. She has the experience of working in different colleges of Assam. She has been regularly contributing her writings to the Institute of Distance and Open Learning, Gauhati University.
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