Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hegemonic nomenclature over ethnic minorities' place in Assam: The latest example from Indian Railways

There has been a consistent effort from chauvinist quarters to undermine and destroy the identities of small ethnic groups in Assam. The ethnic groups are victims of suppression in terms of the language and culture because they are hardly influential in political arena where electoral politics takes precedence and more importance to numbers than humane consideration in a populous country like India. I would like to point out a latest unethical public policy carried out by the Indian Railways where Mising ethnic group's identity has been sidelined in their own inhabited region which can be called "denial of identity, recognition and belongingness"through hegemonic nomenclature practice on  particular train that connects to their soil from the main city of Assam, Guwahati.
The railway notification for the nomenclature. Source: NFR/ Facebook page

The Kamakhya-Murkongselek Intercity Express that was started in 2015 after a gap of decade due to conversion to broad gauge (BG) brought many cheers to the people in upstream north bank of Siang river, the region characterized by underdevelopment and non-industrialization in Assam. Being inhabited mostly by tribals, it is one of the most neglected region in the state. Silapathar, which is in the same region, was recently in news due to the attack on a local office of influential student union by supporters of refugee rights body.

The train to Murkongselek, which was once a part of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) now Arunachal, was introduced post-1962 Sino-Indian war as metre gauge (MG) line in 1976. The foothill Mising inhabited region was clubbed under the  "Excluded Areas" (Sadiya and Balipara Frontier Tracts ) in the colonial British period that followed restrictive intervention in interaction and policy matters and total exemption from provincial laws unlike the other plains part of Assam.The then MG train was named Arunachal Express. But, what surprises many in recent times in greater Murkongselek region (also known as Jonai) is the Indian Railways lack of  demographic and cultural sensitivity after the introduction of BG  line. Without any consultation with any quarters, the train was named via notification in March , 2017 as Lachit Express, which has no cultural resonance with the place. The Mising people, who are otherwise the second largest tribal group, having their own language and culture, came under the grip of hegemonic project adopted by ruling elite's parochial nationalists. The Mising has no influential and conscious leaders in the political quarters which could had exert influence or offer resistance to such chauvinist policy. There has been many trains running from dominant Assamese elite belt such as Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Guwahati , Kamakhya which are also a developed and industrialized region located in the south bank for many decades almost to all parts of India. The majoritarian communities has produced influential leaders who has enormous say in policy matters of Assam since the post-independent period. There cannot be just one but  ten of trains named after the great general Lachit Borphukan. But it remain a questionable policy as to why the north bank's tribal belt was targeted?
The order copy from Indian Railways to Guwahati office. Source: Facebook

These trains running for decades in southern bank of Siang/ Brahmaputra has never been named Lachit Express but some has quietly pushed the nomenclature to a place where train has been introduced in recent times. It may be noted that Rajen Gohain, a long time BJP Assamese MP is the minister of state for railways in India whereas Suresh Prabhu is the union minister of railways. The policy matters relating to Assam and the northeast must have been under the Assam minister's charge. If he was not aware of it or involved in naming it, he should help in withdrawing the same as matter of ethical public policy practice .
Screenshot from IRCTC app, notice the nomenclature
Source: The Assam Tribune news on  inauguration of new train to Murkongselek in June 19, 1976
The train to Murkongselek was named  Arunachal  Express. The news report also mentioned Murkongselek was in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Naharlagun-Guwahati Intercity Express was named Donyi Polo Express with an indigenous name which literally means Sun-Moon, respecting the animist belief of the indigenous tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. In the same vein, why the only train that connects Mising inhabited place from Guwahati be not named with a fitting cultural nomenclature? If not, the train should be reverted to previous name itself i.e. the destination nomenclature and be left without any hegemonic politics. This hegemony over small tribes by majoritarian elite must stop in Assam, they should know to respect and provide  space of identity of belongingness and presence in the fruits of infrastructure development too.
The train was inaugurated by then Assam CM Sarat Chandra Sinha,one of most progressive chief minister Assam ever had, in presence of S. Tayeng from AP due to absence of CM Prem Khandu Thungon..

Oi nitom, a form of Mising folk song, composed based on "Intercity Express" will be a living testimony against  imposition of nomenclature.
There must be equality for all people irrespective of their numbers in our democracy. There should not be forced and malicious imposition. Assam has multiple cultures, it does not just belong to certain privileged linguistic groups. The composite character must be uphold.

N.B. We are not against Lachit's ideals and his great deeds in protecting Assam. One of our great warriors Miri Sandikoi was subordinate of Lachit, fought in the historic battle of Saraighat of 1671 to repel Mughal invaders. Many Mising soldiers took part in the battle. For further details on the role of Miri Sandikoi (Hazarika), please read  eminent historian Surya Kumar Bhuyan's book , Lachit Borphukan and His Times. The step taken by Ministry of Railways reflects Mising's contribution to peace and harmony being undermined, cultural insensitivity and ignorance about the demographic significance of the region.

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