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When things Fall Apart

H. Kham Khan Suan

By Uddipana Goswami
Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 223, Rs. 695.00


As a theatre of ethnic conflicts, India’s North East has generated a corpus of studies and policy prescriptions. Yet many of these, informed as they are by brief field visit/administrative posting in different parts of North East India, fail to capture the multilayered nature of conflicts among indeterminate ethnic groups in the region. The book under review is an exception as it is based on extensive ethnographic fieldworks in four districts of the Bodoland Territorial Administration District (BTAD) in western and northern Assam, viz., Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, and Udalguri (p. 14).   The central argument of the book is that ‘ethnic or nationalistic politics has, more often than not, introduced structural violence and shaken up “deep structures”’—that is, the ‘patterns of relations between the segments of society’ (p. 1). Organized in two parts, the first examines the underpinnings of disruption in the development of Axamiya identity as an ‘interethnic identity’ and the ensuing ethnic conflicts in Assam (pp.19-128). The second part analyses Indian state’s responses to ethnic conflicts and suggests ways and means to bring about lasting peace in the region (pp. 129-96).   In order to make ‘an extensive exploration of the correlation between deep culture, structure and the ethno-nationalist conflicts’ in Assam (p. 2), Goswami gives brief, useful ethnographic accounts of the Bodos, Koch-Rajbangsis and Axamiya and underscores that ethnic segments of Axamiya like Kochs, Dimasas/Kachari, Jaintias, Morans, Chutias, and Borahis maintained regional kingdoms of their own which enjoyed considerable degree of autonomy prior to and after the Ahoms became prominent in what is now known as Assam (pp.19-43). The Ahoms assiduously set in motion the construction of an ‘interethnic’ Axamiya identity by accommodating cultural, ethnic and religious diversity (pp.69-70). However, in their overweening ambition ‘to shape Axamiya as a sub-nation of the great Indian nationality’ the Axamiya Hindu middle class increasingly identified Axamiya with Aryan elements, relegating their indigenous/non-Aryan roots to the background (p. 65). So much so that Axamiya got conflated with Hinduism during Assam’s ‘sons-of-the-soil’ movement (1979-84)(p. 6). The traditional attitude and assumption of cultural superiority and social dominance by the Axamiya Hindu middle class and their attempt to impose Assamese as Assam’s official language in 1960 led to a series of contestations and conflicts (pp. 5-6; pp. 87-99). As a corollary, hither-to constituent ethnic groups of Axamiya principally led by the Bodos and Koch-Rajbangsis began to radically assert their ethnic ...

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