How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency, edited by Aruni Kashyap, is an effective acquaintance with the three decades of insurgency in the northeast Indian state of Assam that began in 1979. As the title of this anthology conveys, its intentions are straightforward and declared at the very outset. The collection draws a circle of intimacy around the reader and pulls them into the processes of articulating a complex history, at once public and intensely private. The insurgency was a long, complicated and violent period spanning a range of separatist militant groups with the goal of seceding from India which was seen as an exploitative and subjugating force. The political concerns that fueled these violent decades continue to animate the public life of Assam through the debates and protests surrounding the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019.
The tensions around “How to” and “tell” in the title run through this book which comprises fifteen short stories originally written in Assamese, Bodo, and English. Through its focus on the ways to ‘tell’ the story of insurgency in Assam, the anthology foregrounds a plural view of the process such that we are presented with a diffuse and varied set of tellings. The “story” is thus refracted through multiple lenses to steer the reader away from any expectations of a unified whole. The myth of “authenticity” that pervades the reception of cultural texts from under-represented areas is mitigated here through a multiplicity of voices, and the many stories in this collection articulate the ways in which political conflict intersects with and shapes ordinary life.
Aruni Kashyap deserves credit for the difficult task of drawing upon a large volume of writings about the decades of the insurgency to select fifteen stories for this anthology. His multilingual reading interests and prolific writing career is significant here because he is clearly grounded in the vibrant print literary culture of Assamese periodicals and dailies where these stories were often first published. Kashyap writes that, “anthologies of Assamese literature published by major houses in English have included only Assamese-language stories. I wanted to change that, make this collection different. That is why the stories in the collection are originally written in three languages: Assamese, Bodo and English.” Translation has also received greater attention in India recently through efforts by literary prizes like the JCB Prize, for example. Kashyap demonstrates the crucial role played by multilingual intellectuals as interlocutors and advocates of nuanced narratives from so-called peripheral parts of the world such as Northeast India.
It would not be erroneous for a reader to expect depictions of extreme violence, considering the central theme of insurgency. However, it takes one by surprise that only by the fourth story in the collection, “Charred Paper”, are we presented with a direct account of physical violence. Even this is a relatively mild scuffle scene between political demonstrators and the police. The book frustrates any expectations of explosive accounts of violence and instead paints a complex picture of the insidiousness of political violence in determining the rhythms of seeming ordinariness.
The nature of violence therefore is not merely episodic in the book but an extended long view beyond the official “end” of the conflict picking at neat timelines that often leave those most affected by political violence forever in its shadows. For instance, a recurrent theme in the book through various stories are ex-militants, and kidnappings and disappearances. The presence of characters who are ex-militants of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) who have surrendered their arms, or SULFA (Surrendered ULFA) as popularly known, such as in “Surrender” by Anuradha Sharma Pujari (excerpted here on Warscapes in 2014) reveal the uneven processes of assimilation and rehabilitation into civil society. They serve to show how the conflict perhaps never entirely reached a conclusive end but has seeped uneasily into the contours of family life and relationships.
Similarly, kidnappings were a widely used strategy by rebels, and the disappearances of rebels as they exited domestic circles to join the movement left a real void. There is no concrete expression for the experience of conflict by those left behind. The book deftly demonstrates how silences are overwhelmingly full of the dreaded unknown and are expressed through trauma. In “The Vigil,” Jahnavi Baruah captures the solitary silence of grief and mourning. Amit R. Baishya has noted that this is one of the ways in which literary works provide “narrative and figurative shape to the experiences of terror undergone by populations inhabiting zones of emergency’ and phenomena such as ‘secret killings.’” The silence of trauma is countered by the parental figures in the stories who secretly long for news and reassurance about their sons who left home to join the insurgency, and thus stand in shocking affective resistance against the lack of empathy in the state’s violent reaction.
The insurgency has been overwhelmingly remembered as fueled by the actions of men who joined it, or perhaps the agents of the state, including politicians and the army at the other end. Scholars such as Rakhee Kalita Moral have shed light on the role of women rebels in the insurgency as well as the modes of personal memory and archiving that women’s writing, including autobiographical accounts by female relatives of the militants, have contributed to the complex ways of understanding the insurgency. Unfortunately, the book does not have any stories of female rebel characters. However, there are representations of female grief and suffering as a result of the conflict. In “Stone People” by Manikunatala Bhattacharya, we encounter the sister of a male rebel who is relegated to second place in the parents’ attentions as they are consumed by worry for her brother.
In stark contrast to the poignancy of silence in the book are the instances where words become explosive in their political charge, such as the communal and class-inflected pejorative “miya” used against those of allegedly Bangladeshi origin to draw deep lines between those who belong to the land and those who are deemed outsiders, or even ‘dubious’ as the legal language of the National Registry of Citizenship has validated. Furthermore, the stories “Maryam” and “Run to the Valley” respectively demonstrate the supposed purity of the Assamese language such that one can be instantly identified as legitimately Assamese based on the accent and the symbolic authority contained in language use such that the violent, alienating presence of the army is embodied in their use of Hindi, the hegemonic language of the nation. Language is a site of power relations, and Assamese, for instance, can be a minority in one set of interactions and a majoritarian cultural force in another. Similarly, English plays the double role of upward mobility and cohesion between the diverse socio-cultural landscape of the region.
The anthology is impressive due to its ability to include majority of the stories in translation. Overall, the role of translation performs a fine balance in the book between relaying the text to a larger, dispersed readership and maintaining a local quality. Certain words are left untranslated, subtly conveying that although the stories echo beyond their dramatic center, they emerge from situated experiences.
A real pleasure of the book is that one can sometimes hear the many tongues in which the insurgency is narrated. Nitoo Das in “Charred Paper” beautifully capture the cadences of Assamese even though the story is written in English. Perhaps, it would have been helpful to have the original publications of the stories listed in the anthology so that readers could get a taste of the active Assamese print sphere that is an important site to understand how the insurgency was written and discussed in print networks.
Along with complicating notions of the temporal limits of the insurgency the book also explores spatiality. The book poignantly reveals how the “ordinary” intersects and exists in juxtaposition with the repressive machinery of the state. Urbanscapes are dotted with army barricades and it becomes difficult to demarcate any particular areas as battle zones as spaces blur into one another.
The space is also loaded with secrets and hidden possibilities, a river or a forest can lead to a rebel camp as in “Stone People.” The geography is not always what it looks like. Barely visible nooks and tiny rooms attached to the back of kitchens like the dhekixal in “Koli-Puran” become sites of shadowy encounters between civilians and rebels, the legal and the extra-legal. The stories present extra-terrestrial narrative loci such as the rivers of Assam which in turn allow for move away from the bracketing of Assam as ‘peripheral’ or ‘marginal’ when viewed only in its relation to the Indian state. This opens up new directions for comparative dialogue through fields such as transnational oceanic and archipelagic studies and riverine histories.
The lines between the victims and the perpetrators of violence are often blurred. Kaushik Baruah’s story explores the slippery terrain of police violence in a region which has been legally exceptionalized to the point where the usual procedures of judicial accountability do not hold weight. It deftly captures the hauntings of individuals negotiating mundanity in highly militarized zones where simple acts of truancy result in devastating consequences and personal memory and the apparatus of the law stand at odds. Although the collection situates itself in Assam, it shares the lament echoing across the wider Northeast, controlled by the “center” through extra-legal measures such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA): who does the army identify as the enemy of the nation?
The book reminds us that the complexities cannot be reduced merely to a tripartite division between insurgents, the army, and the civilian population. “Colours” by Uddipana Goswami, “Maryam” by Jayanta Saikia and “Our Very Own” by Arupa Patangia Kalita show in different ways that the idea of an Assamese caste identity is a hegemonic one that has resulted in numerous violent fissures between ethnic communities and the rhetoric of hatred against Bangladeshi migrants. These become important in order to steer clear of tendencies to mischaracterize the decades of insurgency purely as clashes between the central government and the militants; instead, they are indicative of a vast, messy network of ethnic tensions that have long histories and endure to this day.
The stories sometimes veer away from the explicit theme of the insurgency and bring up the vitriol directed against Bangladeshi migrants by the Assamese. “Jiaur Master’s Memorandum” by Hafiz Ahmed situates the insurgency within a tense social fabric and also redirects and shuffles the categories of victim and perpetrator of political violence. It is perhaps fitting that the anthology ends with this story by renowned poet Hafiz Ahmed who, along with other self-fashioned Miya poets, has been severely criticized by the Assamese media and intellectuals for their efforts to articulate the stigma attached to Muslims living in the Chars or floodplains of the Brahmaputra.
A panoply of ethnic tensions have splintered the Northeast region at various points in its postcolonial history, and the story provides occasion to think how the specter of the migrant lies at the core of intensely fought identitarian struggles. Even as the book ends with Ahmed’s story, the narratives of the insurgency do not.
Sneha Khaund is a doctoral student in the Comparative Literature program at Rutgers University.