“Are you from Assam?” Dilip Singh, a middle-aged autorickshaw driver of New Delhi, asked me when I was taking a ride in a cold winter morning a few days ago.
I took a pause and looked at him, but his attire did not seem like that of Assamese. However, my confusion cleared once he started talking in the typical Assamese accent of middle Assam. I was sure that he belonged to Assam but still there were some doubts regarding his identity. In the next 45 minutes, we conversed in Assamese and Singh expressed his happiness to be able to speak in the language which he loves the most. I observed that he did not use any English or Hindi word during our interaction. Indeed, he was very fluent in Assamese.
Dilip Singh is very disturbed regarding the ongoing situation of Assam. He expressed his concern that many people from the capital city are not aware of the ground situation of Assam as well as in Northeast India
His mother is originally from Nagaon district of Assam. She married his father who came from Bihar but later settled in Nagaon. Singh spent his childhood in Assam, however, he has been living in the capital city of India since 1990s. Very proudly, he told me that he has purchased his own house and runs a small milk business. Singh informed me that he regularly visits Assam Bhavan of New Delhi, where he could speak in Assamese, as well as taste Masor Tenga (a fish curry cooked in Assamese style). This signifies his bond with the language and Assamese culture.
Currently, Singh is very disturbed regarding the ongoing situation of Assam. He expressed his concern that many people of the capital city are not aware of the ground situation of Assam as well as in North East India.
When I was about to reach my destination, Singh asked me a question, “Can I call myself Assamese? I along with my other family members speak in Assamese but our surname is Singh, and our father is originally from Bihar.” He wanted to understand the definition of Assamese as in the last few years there has been a lot of confusion going on regarding Assamese identity. I wish I could have an easy answer to his question.
Before leaving, Singh said, “I feel proud to call myself Assamese although I lived in New Delhi for more than 25 years.”
I was surprised how with a lot of emotion, Singh touched a very pertinent issue related to Assamese identity. His emotion touched me as well as pushed me to see the definition of identity in a new perspective. Singh even told me about the Sikh people living in the Nagaon district of Assam. I also know that the Sikhs of Nagaon speak in Assamese and even many prominent Assamese writers come from their community.
The discussion with Singh indicates an important element in regards to construction of Assamese identity. Who is Assamese? This still needs a wider discussion and many elements regarding greater Assamese identity are yet to be addressed. There are many instances in history where narrow definition of identity leads to violent situation.
As John Paul Lederach, the eminent peace scholar says, “All conflicts are identity conflicts.”
The peace building perspective of construction of identity stress on more inclusive approach while construction of identity of a groups or a community. We must not forget that not only in Assam but many ethnic conflicts of Northeast India are actually identity-based conflicts. People often misunderstand the complexities of identity ignores its diverse elements. Identity is not lucid.
If one goes in a foreign land, the person is likely to focus on national identity rather than his/her ethnic identity. The same individual will focus on his/her ethnic identity while communication with others within his/her own country. The important fact is that identities are often overlapping. The construction of identities should focus on commonalities rather than differences. Two individuals may differ along racial lines; however they might both be women, mothers, teachers, etc.
It is interesting to trace that identity based conflicts still exist even in the countries like United States of America. Many people migrate to the USA from Mexico for better life opportunities. These people absorbed in the US culture, however the classification of their identity is not a straightforward process. They cannot be easily categorized as Mexican or American, they speak two languages, and they have bicultural features on their persona. This group of people often gets discriminated against by monoculture/ monolingual individuals. The above example is the testimony of the fact that construction of identity should not be black and white; rather it needs a full circle approach.
The study also points out that there are risks that unity may be undermined where people are unable to adequately resolve tensions. However, identity conflict may occur even if group norms are the same where these norms are defined in terms of actions in multiple dimensions
There are many like Dilip Singh (who are not monoculture/monolingual) who exist in Assam as well as in the entire Northeast region. They speak the local language and respect the local culture. Should we include them in the process of the construction of identities? Perhaps, this will be the big question not only for Assam but also for the entire region.
The study conducted by University of Sheffield UK, titled ‘Identity conflict: A framework and empirical investigation’ indicates that in a society where people belong to multiple social groups, there is always the risk that people will struggle to satisfy the norms of all groups to which they belong.
The study finding also points out that there are risks that unity may be undermined where people are unable to adequately resolve tensions. However, identity conflict may occur even if group norms are the same where these norms are defined in terms of actions in multiple dimensions.
The undermining factor is how to construct identity encompassing diverse elements as well as minimise risk of conflicts. Identity should not be a hindrance towards a progressive society.
The cultural diversity should be recognized and action needs to take place, then only people like Dilip Singh will be included in the process of construction of greater Assamese identity
Miller (Miller, 2000: 72), the great thinker, stresses that identities are not fixed but rather are multifaceted in complex and contradictory ways; tied to social practice and interaction as flexible and contextually contingent resources. He recognised the contradictions and complexities. In addition, there are research evidences which reveal that individuals can successfully internalise or identify with more than one culture.
The cultural diversity should be recognised and action needs to take place, then only people like Dilip Singh will be included in the process of construction of greater Assamese identity.
(The author is a Fulbright Conflict Resolution Fellow. Views expressed are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)