Postcolonial ethnic management: assam through the prism of the malaysian experience

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Anindita Dasgupta

In May 1998, the world was surprised when ethnic riots flared on the streets of Southeast Asia, spurred by a spiraling economic crisis. But while neighboring countries like Indonesia and Thailand burned, Malaysia remained relatively calm.1 At a time when the fear of economic deprivation was leading communities to become more insular and chauvinistic, Malaysia as a multiethnic country seemed to buck the trend. Even though it was as badly hit economically as the other countries, why did it not go the way of the others? At least part of the answer seemed to lie in how Malaysia had evolved its intercommunity relations, particularly in the last three decades, and developed a capacity to minimize ethnic conflict in the country through effective use of political institutions. The 1964-65 conflict between the ruling Alliance Party and the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) of Singapore, the National Language Act controversy of 1967, the Labor Party-led strike of 1967 and the electoral campaigns of 1969 all contributed to increased ethnic confrontation, which culminated in the violence of May 13, 1969. At that time, too, Malaysia had seemed to be on the brink of a serious ethnic crisis. The country, however, not only held together but also achieved a degree of coherence that provided the foundation for rapid economic growth in the next two decades.
A noted Indian political scientist suggests that the experience of Malaysia may be significant for India’s northeastern state of Assam, which has similar tensions and cleavages between the immigrant populations and the indigenous peoples (Baruah 1999). The postcolonial Indian state’s management of ethnicity in Assam has been problematic as Assam continues to experience bloody ethnic strife, ruthless insurgencies, and the deaths of civilians. The critical question this research seeks to address is: does Malaysian ethnic conflict management provide directions for ethnic management in the indigenous-immigrant conflicts of Assam? Assam constitutes an interesting case for comparison with Malaysia. While the indigenous groups in both situations have viewed the immigrant population in similar terms, the “management” of the indigenous-immigrant relationship bears important differences. That Malaysia is an independent country with the sovereign capability to decide on all aspects of its inter-community relations as well as immigration matters seems to make its situation different from Assam. The modern state, both at the province or federal level, is a critical participant in inter-ethnic affairs as governments reflect the distribution of power and prestige among ethnic communities as well as influence these relationships by the policies they enact and enforce (Esman 2000). Moreover, the postcolonial Indian state, committed to upholding territorial integrity and nation-building, has tended to treat regional assertions (in Assam’s case triggered primarily by immigration) as “subversive,” most of which ironically came to be framed in language and symbols critical of Indian federalism.
Conflicts differ so markedly in history and context, issue and character, intensity and outcome that processes to address them must respond to each specific set of circumstances.2 The fact that an approach works in Malaysia is no guarantee it would succeed in Assam, but the process of comparison can still be invaluable. Thus, at a specific level, one might look at the elements of a negotiated ethnic settlement in Malaysia for clues as to how to reach the same in Assam. For all their differences, there are also similarities: indigenous-immigrant tension and clash, son-of-soil movements, demands for affirmative action for the backward majority indigenous population, primacy of the indigenous language, culture and public symbols, deep-rooted identity issues intertwined with perceptions of socioeconomic domination and discrimination, and so on. While respecting the uniqueness of a particular conflict, lessons from other situations can nevertheless be instructive. For instance, it can create an awareness of strategies that have been done elsewhere and help tease out symbolic, institutional and structural arrangements and flows of resources that may induce the conflicting parties to co-exist on civilized terms (Esman 2000: 7). Even developing an answer to the question “Why wouldn’t that work here?” would engender an analysis of the situation that promotes definition of what could succeed (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 1998).
Ethnic conflict has become a “shorthand way” to discuss almost all violent confrontation between communities living in the same nation-state. But such an uncritical view misrepresents the reality of the shared past of these communities, evolving cooperative and sustainable community living strategies, and conjure up images of “ancient tribal hatreds”(Bowen 1996). While some of the current conflicts may have overt ethnic or cultural dimensions, the core issues are about gaining more power, land and other resources. There is no academic consensus on the concept of ethnicity and space does not permit here its extended discussion. Here I adopt the a priori assumption that ethnicity is a modern phenomenon in the colonized South spurred by colonialism and the nation-building project of its successor postcolonial states and that its various manifestations, including conflict, are related to political power. For the purpose of this paper, “ethnic conflict” refers to a situation of tension with the potential for civil disorder and violence.
In the main, there are two philosophical approaches to the study of conflicts in society. From Hegel through Weber and Parsons, theorists have analyzed sociopolitical units as coherent and stable systems which, when subjected to various technological, social and/or ideological forces, respond and develop in characteristic patterns. Another equally respectable intellectual tradition is based on an opposing vision of society. From Hobbes through Durkheim, Dahrendorf and Samuel Huntington, societies have been analyzed as agglomerations of individuals and/or groups whose interests and desires conflict. The problem, then, is to explain how some societies, such as that of Malaysia, maintain political stability over time despite their “deeply divided’ nature” (Nordlinger cited in Luctick 1979) while admitting that such a state of stability will have its own challenges.
There are two theoretical approaches that apply to the problem at hand : the “consociational” and “control” models. The study of ethnic politics in Malaysia has long been dominated by the first perspective. Such a perspective views Malaysian politics as a process of managing inter-ethnic divisions, tension, and conflict amidst the efforts of the avowedly ethnic-based political-party leaders to advance the interests of their own communities. To the extent that these political elites cooperate, compromise, and bargain, the inter-ethnic differences may be contained within manageable limits at non-dangerous levels. By and large, most writers of this school believe that ethnic management in Malaysia has been successful as shown by the absence of conflict, racial violence, or intemperance.
Some others argue that the “consociational” model has been deployed effectively in Malaysia only because a complementary analytical typological category of “control” is available after all. The Constitution has been periodically adjusted by the dominant Malay political parties to suit Malay interests as well as enshrine Malay political supremacy. Twenty long years of unchanging political leadership seems to have institutionalized a tight hierarchical system in the shape of a “democratic-authoritarian” system (Crouch 1993). In a recent survey of democracy in developing countries, Malaysia is mentioned among countries where evaluation of democratic status is “replete with nuance and ambiguity” and place it in the “semi-democratic” category where “the effective power of elected officials is so limited, or political party competition so restricted, or the freedom and fairness of elections so compromised that electoral outcomes, while competitive, still deviate significantly from popular preferences.” While Lijhpart holds up the Malaysian case as a “reasonably successful” instance of consociational democracy, “there is little doubt that by 1969, the foundations of consociationalism had become very shaky in Malaysia” (Crouch 1993: 20).
Despite the many excellent studies on what causes conflict and on how to build peace in divided societies, particularly Malaysia, there remains a dearth of practical suggestions for policymakers on how to design and implement democratic levers that can make inter-community peace endure, even as times change and new stimuli energize the communities. Management of conflict, once such conflict has begun, is more critical and urgent than the more mundane, although more useful, efforts to defuse potential tensions before they begin. Peaceful management of domestic conflicts needs approaches that recognize the importance of building sustainable internal political structures. This means that today, issues about a state’s internal political organization are more important in managing conflicts and accordingly, there has to be a greater focus on domestic political actors, most of all the state itself. The Malaysian experiment with ethnic conflict management, I argue, throws up new and interesting suggestions for peaceful management of conflict by the state in another part of Asia, the strife-torn Assam. While all the Malaysian tools may not be appropriate for Assam, some will certainly be useful.
Assam is part of a Tibeto-Burman ethnic continuum that starts in Indo-China and ends in the hills of Eastern Nepal. The “gray zone” or penumbra that links South Asia to Southeast Asia is the Indian Northeast, of which Assam is a pivotal province, bordering Bangladesh on the west and Burma/Myanmar on the east. It is because of the separation made by the nation-state boundaries that the two regions, the Indian Northeast and Southeast Asia, are seen to be more different than they are. With an overwhelming Tibeto-Burman presence in this region, a result of long-term migration from and through Burma and Thailand, the seven states of the Indian Northeast could even be said to be culturally and ethnically closer to Southeast Asia3 than the rest of India. Therefore, there is also a need to reach across the continuum towards the east in trying to study issues of inter-community conflict.
But despite cultural and ethnic continuity with Burma and Thailand, on the other hand, Assam cannot quite look to them for “ideas” because they have different political experiences throughout their respective histories.4 In Southeast Asia, it is possibly Malaysia alone that can be compared to Assam, besides farther countries such as Fiji or Guyana. Assam’s political crisis over immigration since 1979 has some structural similarities to the political crisis in Malaysia (1969) and Fiji (1986). But while both Malaysia and Fiji have tried to respond to indigenous issues, the larger Indian nation-state has conceded little recognition to this critical issue, one that requires robust policy response.
The similarities in the situations in Malaysia and Assam were brought about by the following: a) colonial advent strikingly changed the precolonial demography by bringing in migrants who were ethnically different; b) the circumstances that led to the ethnic crisis in Malaysia were different from those in Assam, particularly in the postcolonial years, but underlying both cases was a “threat” perception among the depressed majority group toward the more successful minority; and c) in both situations, ethnic identities represented instrumental group-identity assertions that respond to the demographic/ethnic transformation of the pre-British homeland and that demand political and cultural primacy as the dominant pre-British collectivity.
But while there were undisputed similarities in the way their colonial histories were ordered, both societies responded to the demographic and ethnic transformation in different ways in the last years of the colonial period and the beginning of the postcolonial era. Some critical differences in the two situations can be discerned.
First, immigrants to Malaya were nationals of sovereign countries, China and India, while the “immigrants” to Assam were internal migrants from other British provinces in India. Thus, while an “ethnic bargain” on the basis of indigent primacy was possible during the making of the 1957 Malayan Constitution 1957 regarding citizenship and rights, all immigrants to Assam became equal citizens of India following independence in 1947.
Second, Malaysia, being a sovereign country, can make her own laws but Assam being a constituent state of the federation of India cannot make her own laws on immigration. It can only implement such laws after they have been enacted by the center.
Third, Malaysia has officially frozen immigration whereas the settlement of refugees went on in the postcolonial years in Assam, despite opposition, thereby reopening the matter of citizenship. The complicated situation that led to the Partition and creation of a new migrant-exporting state, East Pakistan/Bangladesh, brought an additional element into the Assam interface that does not exist in Malaysia.5
Fourth, postcolonial political institutions developed along different lines in Malaysia and in Assam. In Malaysia, a dominant party composed of different ethnic components bargaining and negotiating emerged in the 1950s and has remained in power since. In Assam, the contentious forces in the polity either led to unstable or inefficient government. The immigrant Chinese population in Malaysia could enter into political pacts with the majority, while the immigrants in Assam found themselves scrambling for friendly patrons—particularly the “secular” Congress party and the ineffective “minority” parties—none of whom could devise a programmatic solution to problem.
Fifth, unlike in Malaysia, the economic sector was not sharply ethnically divided and social relations and economic pursuits overlapped among the ethnic groups even during the colonial years.
Sixth, India’s immigration policy is framed by a pan-Indian formulation of the problem and embroiled in an extra layer of two highly sensitive issues: the treatment of India’s minority Muslim population and India’s de-facto obligation to allow Hindu refugees from East Bengal/Pakistan to settle in the country (See Baruah 1999, Introduction). The political tradition in Malaysia since the British days, on the other hand, has been to regard the indigenous Malays as privileged and protected as the owners of land. This tradition is amply demonstrated in constitutional measures like the differential incorporation of Malaysian citizens, Malay Special Rights, the National Cultural Policy, and the primacy given to Malays in employment, scholarship, and education.
Finally, in India, tension over immigration and citizenship exists in the northeastern states because this region has been forced to accept the majority of postcolonial immigration from the East Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh region in spite of vehement protests. However, these grievances have been lost in the pan-Indian noise and consequently, triggered a series of dangerous insurgencies. Malaysia, on the other hand, has officially “frozen” immigration and clamped the lid firmly on the citizenship issue.
Assam and Malaysia: Colonial Parallels
Historical accounts of both Malaysia and Assam show that in the precolonial period, both societies had survived by recognizing various diversities as well as the notions of multiplicity and co-existence. Identities being fluid, “Malay” and “Assamese” were umbrella concepts encompassing a wide spectrum of distinct sociocultural, even religious, identities. Assam as an area of high migration from Southeast Asia as well as the rest of the subcontinent and the Malayan coastline, rooted in the maritime commerce of the Malay Archipelago, were both extraordinarily multicultural settings involving constant inter-ethnic mixtures layered over by Hinduism and Islam. The forested expanse of Assam at the base of the Eastern Himalayas, well watered and fertile when the trees were felled, provided an ideal ground for rulers and peasantry alike to come and sink their roots. In both places, conflicts erupted over territory, political power, economic competition, violation of borders of little kingdoms, the unbridled expansionism of some local prince, and so on. However, the communities had built their own coping strategies in the face of such heterogeneity. In Assam, the collective identity was helped by an “Assamese way of life” that included the neo-Vaishnavite religion, the Assamese language and the use of labour intensive wet-rice cultivation. In Malaysia, it was the Raja (King), agama (religion) and bahasa (Malay language) which together constituted the Malay adat or way of life. Both ‘Assamese’ and ‘Malay’ were open categories into which newcomers could be easily integrated as long as they purported to adhere to the notion of a collective belonging.
Ethnicity in both settings was a product of modern politics and the roots of current ethnic consciousness lay in modern attempts to rally people around ‘nationalistic’ ideas.6 They began to see themselves as members of vast ethnic groups opposed to others only during the modern period of colonization and nation-building. The British colonial order, which provided the political and economic conditions for large streams of newly arrived immigrants to enter Malaya (old name for peninsular Malaysia) and Assam weakened the process of acculturating immigrants to local society. In addition, the colonial creation of an English-speaking elite belonging to a particular ethnic group and the entry of colonial officials from outside resulted in inscribing official categories of ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ in the collective consciousness of the colonial subjects which were further embittered by the successive colonial reports, head-counts and population censuses. The British colonial officials’ success in pursuing a policy of demographic change through immigration cannot be separated from the question of political power either in Malaya or in Assam. For colonial conquest meant that British officials with novel views about population, progress and civilization were in power and they could now make and implement policies of populating the colonized species. In Assam as in Malaysia, there was a compartmentalization of ethnic groups by virtue of their occupation and area of settlement, though the lines may have been sharper in the latter country. In the colonial economic order, the indigenous population was not in general as commercially successful as the immigrant, producing from time to time ill-feeling and suspicion in everyday encounters between members of ethnic groups. The unequal positions in the colonial economic system in turn ordered the status system of colonial society. Economic differences and stereotypical understandings of ethnicity, though, do not appear sufficient to explain growing suspicion, misgivings and competition between the two major ethnic groups either in colonial Assam or Malaysia. What made ethnicity a crucial factor in postcolonial years in both situations was the competition over power, cultural symbols and access to resources in the respective newly formed postcolonial states. While Malaya asserted an indigenous-Malay hegemony over the multicultural pre-colonial/colonial society, the indigenous-Assamese in Assam vied for a public ‘Assamese’ face in order to form a linguistic province based on majority language and culture as laid down by the States Reorganization Commission in 1955. 7
In Assam, the principal immigrant group were the Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, from the erstwhile British province of (east) Bengal, while there were smaller streams of migrants from other parts of British India and Nepal. In Malaya, the major immigrants were the Chinese small traders and labourers for the tin mines and the Indian indentured labourers for the rubber plantations of peninsular Malaya. The indigenous in Assam were perceived as those with origin in the two valleys of colonial Assam, the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valleys; in Malaya, the indigenous were those who originated in the Malayan peninsula.
In colonial Assam, the policy adopted by the British towards their multi-cultural subjects was, as elsewhere in the colonial world, to introduce competition between the communities by persistently playing off one colonized community against the other. While the English-educated Bengali Hindus from Bengal and Assam’s Bengali dominant districts of Cachar and Sylhet were given preferential treatment in government appointments, the Assamese were overtly recognized as the indigenes with a right to the native land. In spite of their overwhelming presence in the local bureaucracy and middle class jobs, the Bengalis were not considered as locals. This is clear from the colonial definition of the ‘immigrant’ that singled out persons from “.. all districts of Bengal and the Surma Valley (Cachar and Sylhet)...”(Report of the Line System Committee 1938). Again, the British on the one hand actively encouraged immigration of Bengali Hindu middle class and the Bengali Muslim landless peasants, and on the other, repeatedly warned the Assamese of the possibility of being outnumbered by such immigrants. In this way, the British maintained a precarious balance between the two major communities in colonial Assam giving rise to a ‘tense competitiveness’ between the two. The indigenous Assamese civil society, on its part, encouraged a coercive ‘assimilative’ strategy whereby the immigrants were induced into abandoning their original identity, accepting membership in the dominant community, and adopting its culture.8
Of course, not all Bengalis in Assam could be seen as immigrants. From 1826 to 1874 the British ruled Assam as part of Bengal (the first Indian province to be colonized by British in 1757), and again from 1905-1912. Assam’s Barak Valley districts historically possessed a sizeable Bengali speaking population and even as a separate province, Assam, until the very end of the British rule, included the large Bengali-speaking district of Sylhet. From 1837 to 1874, Bengali was the official language of the courts and government schools of Assam.9 While that was changed in 1873 (1875?), the policy of encouraging large scale immigration from Bengal to Assam, particularly landless Muslim peasants since 1901, the way that Assam’s boundaries were drawn as well as a much older diversity, produced a demographic balance that kept Assam’s language question highly controversial throughout the entire colonial period and beyond (See Baruah 1999: 39). In fact, when to the population of the two valleys one added the number of East Bengal Muslim peasant migrants to the Brahmaputra Valley, there were more Bengalis in colonial Assam than Assamese. At the same time, there was a grudging cultural admiration for the Bengali Hindus from Calcutta, the capital of Bengal and the dynamic centre associated with modernity. In the initial phase, Bengali language, culture and fashion were imitated by the Assamese.
Some of the earliest assertions of Assamese cultural pride grew as a reaction to the colonial decision of making Bengali the language of administration and power in Assam. Growing as it did as a reaction against Bengali economic and cultural dominance, Assamese nationalism was characterized by a strong anti-Bengali edge and language became a contested space that required constant defending and articulation. The immigration issue shook up Assam’s politics in the 1930s and 40s, and was a major cause of political instability as the Bengali Muslim immigrant population took up the Muslim League for inclusion of Assam in a six-province Pakistan in the hope of getting more land to settle upon. But following India’s independence in 1947 most of the Bengali Muslims accepted the reality of living in Assam as Assamese and by and large adopted the Assamese language in return for Indian citizenship and permanent land rights in the valley. Also, following a referendum, Sylhet was ceded to East Pakistan in 1947. With an increase in the number of Assamese-speakers on eve of partition and separation of the Bengali dominated Sylhet, the Assamese took control over the new postcolonial state, excluded Bengalis from the state apparatus, jobs etc. and began to build the new state on the basis of indigenous primacy and the Assamese language.10

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