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Review of Sanjoy Hazarika's Rites of Passage: Border Crossing, Imagined Homelands, India's East and Bangladesh

India’s Northeast is an arena where a great tragedy has been unfolding for well over eight decades, three of these prior to Independence. The original communities inhabiting the region are facing a sustained cultural, political and religious assault, largely as a result of the movement of disadvantaged communities from contiguous areas, particularly Bangladesh, and also through a process of large-scale conversions as a result of competitive missionary activity. The imminence of a loss of identity engenders emotional responses that have led to mass movements, large-scale civil disorders, secessionist insurgencies and terrorism.

Despite decades of turmoil, this region has remained an area of general neglect in the literature, and only occasional research has shed small pools of light on the multiplicity of problems that plague it. Sanjoy Hazarika’s Rites of Passage: Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East and Bangladesh, is a welcome addition to the discourse on some of the most fundamental issues that underlie the unremitting crises of the Northeast.

In the tide of violence and the politics of hate that is sweeping across this region, it is difficult to retain objectivity and balance, and this is more the case for a writer born to the area of conflict. Hazarika has, however, achieved this in substantial measure with peculiar equilibrium between a passionate narrative style and a descriptive veracity, to write a book that will remain a seminal work, providing important insights on the apparently irreducible problems that arise out of the distress movement of millions of people across the international border between India and Bangladesh.

Hazarika closely documents the inexorable economic, environmental, demographic and historical pressures that have created this movement, and rubbishes the pan-Islamist ‘Greater Bangladesh’ conspiracy, even as he records the callous and short-sighted political manipulation that has sought to mobilize popular and sectarian insecurities for partisan political ends instead of exploring constructive solutions. He has, moreover, displayed an even-handed acuity in discovering the roots of much of the conflict, not in communal differences, but in the linguistic and cultural parochialism of both the ‘indigenous’ and migratory communities. It is certainly the fact, for instance, that the processes of assimilation in Assam would have been far smoother had Bengali speaking migrants not insisted on retaining Bengali as an official language in the 1950s. Even today, it is linguistic sub-groups in Assam, and not the ‘Assamese Muslim’ – predominantly earlier migrants who accepted the local language and culture – who arouse the greatest hostility among locals. There is, equally, an extraordinary fairness in Hazarika’s treatment of a wide range of disconcerting conflicts and issues between the many States within the region and with Bangladesh, an urgent effort to find solutions, rather than a fruitless fixation on historical grievances – real or imagined.

Hazarika’s declared intent in writing this book is "to force a debate, to shake up governmental and societal approaches to the issue of migration." The problems he documents have remained intractable despite the many ‘solutions’ offered by politicians, administrators, intellectuals and rabble-rousers, alike. In the final chapter, ‘Seeking Partnership, Renouncing Confrontation’, Hazarika offers a "checklist of ‘doable’ programmes which could transform the region." Many of the programmes listed are capable of execution, given the necessary goodwill and understanding. But in the tangled political situation that prevails in the region, these suggestions will inevitably fall by the wayside. Demographic destabilization is presently entrenched as a plank to power, and no party has displayed any commitment to the implementation of pragmatic policies once it has secured power.

Nevertheless, Hazarika’s effort is exemplary, and Rites of Passage is an important book not only for everyone who has an interest in India’s Northeast, but also for those who concern themselves with the overall problems of the great migrations that have taken place, and continue to occur, throughout the world.

(Published in Sunday HT, January 26, 2001)





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