It haunts me today, even more than when it happened, two and a half years ago; an upper-caste, Assamese female anthropologist, accused me of not knowing the ‘real’ ‘Assamese’ woman, whose ‘real’ attire, according to her was the Mekhela-Chador. This occurred at a conference focusing on ‘Northeast’ India.
It was, of course, a discomforting proposition, that homogenised the female body from an elitist upper-caste lens, and in present political times in Assam, such incidents cannot be taken as mundane affairs. Also, how conveniently we have forgotten the incident from 2007, when Lakshmi Orang, a 16-year-old girl belonging to the Adivasi community was stripped naked on the streets of Guwahati.
When I introspect a little deeper into such incidents, and the otherisation happening in Assam today, the realisation sets in, that we are basically dealing with the question of the body; a body embodied with a culture and identity. In this framework, as the hegemonic narrative goes, some bodies are regarded ‘ours’ and some ‘theirs’; ‘our’ bodies need to represent and preserve ‘our’ culture and identity, as they are under a threat from the bodies of the ‘others’.
As scholar Gargi Bhattacharya argues, “We know only too well that the battle is between ‘us’ and ‘them’, that it is a battle of cultures and values, that what is under attack is ‘our very way of life’. The body then, is not only a subject of the state that has to be controlled but also the society, and market forces, especially in the neo-liberal structure that we exist today. We know, only too well, how the imagery of ‘Mother India’ is being sold in the profit-oriented, neo-liberal market and without a doubt, it is being appropriated by the state to produce nationhood.
Now, the phrase, ‘sons of the soil’ is more than just mere assemblage of words, that is evoked time and again to demarcate the boundaries between ‘us’, ‘others’, who belongs to the soil and who does not; who all need protection, and who all need to be erased from the imagination of ‘sons of the soil’.
Assam, today, has become a battleground on the basis of this. An entire community of people not perceived to be ‘Assamese’ enough are under fire in the entire exercise of NRC – the Muslims of Bengal descent, the Hindus of the same descent, various indigenous groups, transgenders and women.
Nonetheless, the origin of such exclusionary politics, that is in vogue not only in Assam, but the entire world is not a one-time product of the state machinery, but the ideas and imaginations which are associated to elitist, casteist and hegemonic, patriarchal societies. This exercise of boundary setting never ends with simply drawing lines between ‘us’ and ‘others’.
The offshoot of producing this ‘us’, again produces imaginations of whose bodies need protection and who all would be responsible, for this, and what are the measures that the protectors would have to take. In other words, the ‘daughters of the soil’ seem to be in need of protection from the ‘sons of the soil’. Without such protection of the ‘daughters’ which is marked in the form of aggressive masculinity, the soil/nation/community itself is perceived to be in danger of getting polluted. When we trace back to this protector and protected narrative from a feminist perspective, we can only become aware of the violence that succeeds such imageries.
Firstly, it demarcates strict boundaries between masculinity and femininity. Rather than seeing the discursive and fluid terrain of gendered manifestations and performances, these binaries of masculinity and femininity become a pawn of the patriarchal order, dominant in the discourse of nation-making and preservation.
Secondly, not only have women been victims of such binary setting in patriarchal, elitist and casteist nationalist lines, but the men too are forced to carry the burden of hegemonic masculinity, that should be able enough to protect the nation/culture/community and its women. Any alternate manifestation of masculinity and femininity is regarded as an aberration, and thus, attracts diverse forms of violence against it.
For instance, Partha Chatterjee, in his The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question, argues that one of the crucial elements of the anti-colonial resistance in India was demarcating the domain of the household, the private and the spiritual as the domain of the Indian women. The domestic space, much like the nation, was a sacred space that had to be protected from colonial influence. This could be only done when women subscribed to the ‘new’ rules, in regard to their roles as the Indian women, in the anti-colonial struggles, where men were dominant in the public space of the nation.
As far as the patriarchal nationalist imageries go, this has not changed much. To be sons and daughters of the soil is to imbibe in the material, the moral, and symbolic ethos of nationhood that is produced today by the state, in line with a certain ideology of ‘Hindutva-ness’. The body exists as the material proof of such an imagination.
Thirdly, the bodies which are excluded from the purview of the category of ‘us’ becomes the ‘other’. The other body, especially the bodies of women, have always been sites where aggressive forms of masculine nationalism have been projected. As women are considered the carriers and bearers of a nation and culture, a transgression of their bodies, then, is assumed equal to transgressing an entire nation. It becomes a marker of the virility of the ‘sons of the soil’. This resonates with feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s argument, that imperialism, militarisation, and globalisation, all traffic in women’s bodies, women’s labour; and ideologies of masculinity/femininity, heteronormativity, racism, and nationalism, to consolidate, and reproduce power and domination.
For instance, the phase right after Independence, was an anxious one, for the recently created Indian state, to ‘restore’ our women, specifically the ones who were widowed and raped during partition. The exercise of defining citizenship is, thus, an exercise of gendered violence on and about the body. Heteronormativity, ascription to bi-polar models of aggressive hegemonic masculinity, and submissive ‘motherly’ femininity, and burdens that such constructs result into, form the basis of such violence. The body becomes a battle-field of this violence.
Hence, it is urgent and necessary, in times such as these, that we understand the ‘body’ that is in question, in the prevailing nationalist discourse in Assam. To question what is it to be sons and daughters of the soil, whose bodies are considered ‘ours’, which bodies are ‘others’ and why, is to interrogate and dismantle in the words of Laxmi Murthy, “impregnable fortresses of impunity” which are the family, community and state.