Saturday, 26 December 2009

Some thoughts on Assamese Mentality

Largely based on a section from my M.A. Thesis, Univ. Wuerzburg, 2008

Attributing a mentality to a set of people is not a very usual thing to do. But during my investigations on Assamese identity over the last years, I have often wondered if there were certain attitudes and modes of behaviour of the Assamese that could contribute to (or detract from) their sense of ‘Assamese-ness’. I was reasonably certain that there was something more to this thought, I also had a vague idea what it could be, but not enough to be able to pin it down. So I asked a few people in Assam for their opinion, and also read up a little on what writers in the past had to say about the subject. I present some of those opinions and my findings in this article.

Let me first indicate what I mean by mentality, in order to clarify why I think it makes sense to attribute a mentality to the Assamese as a people and why I believe mentality to be relevant to the question of identity. I will assume mentality to be defined as a characteristic attitude of mind or way of thinking of a person or a group of persons. “Identity”, as defined by Kakar, “is meant to convey the process of synthesis between inner life and outer social reality as well as the feeling of personal continuity and consistency within oneself” (2). Identities, therefore, are constructs that an individual (or groups) creates for himself ; furthermore they are also formulated in ways that he considers appropriate. What we consider ourselves to be depends on how we perceive ourselves, and how we perceive ourselves depends also on our mental set-up: if we have an understanding of what our mentality is and how it works then it is perhaps easier for us to construct an identity, or at least to figure out that part of our identity which stems from our mentality.

Let me next specify the section of population I am interested in. I shall use the marked word ‘Assamese’ to mean the urban, literate Assamese middle class, most of whom are caste Hindus living in the Brahmaputra valley in Assam and who have Asamiya as their mother-tongue. A majority of these ‘Assamese’ have jobs either in government, universities, or other public and private sector undertakings. In the context of the ‘Assamese’ , I am convinced that there is something in their nature and mental make-up which poses a big obstacle in the ‘Assamese’ project of self-definition. In other words, it is their mentality, real or presumed, which influences, in a very crucial way, their efforts at identity formulation. Let me try to substantiate this claim in the following pages.

The legacy of the past
Let me begin by listing some baggage that the ‘Assamese’ have carried from the past, which impacts on their present. This is because when one hears something often enough for long enough one begins to believe in it -- that is the power of auto-suggestion. For instance, after having been told time and again that they are slow, lazy and good-for-nothing, from all quarters, the ‘Assamese’ today believe that they are really like that. In the Asamiya novel Ai Samay Sai Samay, one of the characters, Arun Bora (who is portrayed to be very much an ‘Assamese’ himself) declares loudly that the ‘Assamese’ are “a race of lazy bums, good-for-nothings, dhodar jaat.” He goes on to say that nowhere else in this world but in Assam can one find a road named after the lazy bums “Dhodar Ali”. “Here is a country” he continues, “where to make these lazy bums budge out of their houses, one has to set their houses on fire” (Chowdhury 207; trans. mine). Even if this story is largely apocryphal, the labels have stuck.

Perhaps there is even some truth in that allegation . In any case, many clichés, real or imagined, that have come to be associated with the ‘Assamese’ over time. As Misra tells us: “Some representations that have come down from the colonial period still prevail. For example, the Assamese are lazy, indolent and xenophobic, Assam and the north-eastern region are full of jungles and primitive tribals” (178).

Nari Rustomji, describes a few more still-relevant clichés: [T]he Assamese are, by temperament, an easy-going people not given to reacting sharply to provocations. The first words of the Assamese language that a newcomer to Assam learns are lahe, lahe, (‘slowly, slowly’), an expression that has come to be accepted as summarising the Assamese disposition of patient tolerance, if not indifference. Until the last century, the Assamese led a comparatively easy life. […] There was no need for hustle and bustle, food was plentiful, and if things occasionally went wrong, they righted themselves in their own good time. The smoking of opium contributed to the general euphoria of the people and the philosophy of ‘lahe, lahe’ gave complete satisfaction. (9) It is not my intention here to investigate the veracity of these labels, what matters is that most of these attributes still apply to the ‘Assamese’ even today.

On the positive side, the ‘Assamese’ are supposed to be a simple, generous, decent folk, easily satisfied, not overly ambitious, not guided by considerations of ‘doing better’, happy and content with their lot, and generally not given to too much thinking and worrying. But there can also be other interpretations based on the same evidence. All of these could be considered to be euphemisms for plain laziness. They could also be read as a ‘sakalu asil, sakalu ase’ (which roughly translates to a ‘we-had-everything, we-have-everything’) attitude, as pointed out by S.G. Kashyap, who also explains where the twist could lie: “We have plenty to be proud of, problem is that we seem to take pride in the wrong things”.

And this old acclaimed virtue of the Assamese of being content with very little can also be read as a lack of curiosity. As Arindom Borkotoki, rather ironically, put it, “The Assamese view of the world is restricted to their ‘aag baari’ and ‘pis baari ’”, that is, to their ‘front garden’ and ‘back garden’. And this lack of curiosity extends also to themselves: not many ‘Assamese’ could tell you what the population of Assam is, whether Assam shares a common border with Sikkim, or whether it was Srimanta Sankardev or Sri Madhabdev who wrote the NamGhosa. These examples serve to illustrate the fact that the ‘Assamese’ have a very weak sense of their own literature, geography and history , and a very confused and mixed-up sense of their own cultural and religious traditions . They are also very naïve when it comes to other communities living in close proximity to them in Assam.

Sharma reiterates my view about the ‘Assamese’ in the following quote:
They are completely indifferent to the Asamiya language, literature and culture, to Assam’s history and completely ignorant and unenthusiastic about all those who have made significant contributions to Assam’s social life, […] it is doubtful whether they can be really called Assamese. (67; trans. mine)

The romantic Assamese
But there is more to it than just indolence, a restricted world view, a bad education and a muddled head. Sometimes the ‘Assamese’ are even willing to disbelieve facts, in order to promote their favourite fictions. For example, many ‘Assamese’ even today may be willing to believe that a ‘Swadhin Asom’, a ‘Free Sovereign Assam’, could become a reality, many gloat over the greatness of the Assam football team (even if the fact is that most of the players have been hired from other states), many will proudly wax eloquent on how Assam has captured the music scene in Bollywood (even if that is not the whole truth). Furthermore, they can also be ‘fed’ ideas, made to believe that they are their own , in order to be assured of their enthusiastic and unflinching support . The overwhelming support the people of Assam gave to the hosting of the National Games in Assam last year, or more recently to the SMS campaign to crown a television idol, are good examples.

How does one explain this? Perhaps this is because the ‘Assamese’ are generally considered to be a trusting and gullible lot. A more generous explanation would be that they are a romantic lot, given to day-dreaming and to building castles in the air. Or is it because they have been so badly deceived and betrayed in the past (by the young student leaders for example) that they need a few good stories to keep them going.

Whatever the reasons might be, it would be hard to deny that there is a degree of wilful and deliberate blindness and unwillingness to admit to the whole truth that is involved in this. While being enthusiastic about half-truths can be considered to be better than cold indifference, what is worrying is the fact that the ‘Assamese’ use more often their hearts and only seldom their heads to arrive at their conclusions.

This comes as no surprise as the ‘Assamese’ have always been considered to be very emotional and sentimental. It is only in waves of emotion (for one fear or the other, today the fear of being superseded by the Bengalis, tomorrow the fear of being outnumbered by the Muslims) that the ‘Assamese’ react at times of crisis. Furthermore, as we have seen during the Assam Agitation, most ‘Assamese’ seem to be able to know their minds only when they are part of a crowd.

While, to be fair, this is not true of all the ‘Assamese’, it is still true for a large majority. Why do the ‘Assamese’ get carried away like this? Can this be explained just as a kind of herd instinct or does it imply that the ‘Assamese’ are simply incapable of taking a more objective, reasoned approach? Whatever it might be, it does point to a kind of childishness, to some inbuilt immaturity in the adult ‘Assamese’ psyche , and to a deep-rooted sense of insecurity and a lack of self-esteem.

The poor Assamese victim
Let me give another example before embarking on the discussion: each year there are floods in Assam in more or less the same times in more or less the same places – this has been happening for a long time now, but how do people react to this? A Guwahatian living in say Silpukhuri, when he reads about floods in Dhemaji or even in Nalbari, simply ignores it – those places are just too far away. When he hears that the waters have topped the Bharalu and have entered houses in Machkhowa and Santipur he begins to feel a little uneasy but still does nothing. Finally when one fine morning he wakes up to find that his own slippers have floated away, he is forced into action. He does what he can to rescue himself, his family and his belongings (very often, in a sloppy, casual and disorganised manner), but even in the midst of all that he makes it a point to complain, long and loud, about how nobody has come to help him in his hour of need, how the government has completely failed etc. etc. The moot point is, how many people did he help before the waters reached him?

Perhaps we can give the Assamese the benefit of the doubt by claiming that the ‘Assamese’ aren’t, as a rule, proactive. They have no ability to initiate action. They can only follow, not lead. But if one thinks about it for long enough one will see that there can be also another way of explaining this. They have got so used to the idea that they are ‘victims’ that they almost wait for the next opportunity to prove that they are really so – it is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy – as if they almost will it to happen, so as to have yet another reason to feel sorry for themselves, and also to have more grounds to continue to grumble.

I am reasonably sure that if one took a vote to determine one word with which most ‘Assamese’ would like to describe themselves, then the winner by a huge margin would certainly be the word ‘victim’ – they consider themselves victims, victims of huge conspiracies hatched by everyone around them, victims of state apathy (“nobody cares about us”), victims of exploitation (“look how our oil is being stolen”), victims of natural and man-made disasters (like floods and bomb-explosions), victims of heinous conspiracies (hatched between the Bengalis and the Muslims), victims of their large-heartedness and generosity (which is exploited by the immigrants), and so on. Naturally related to this is a perception of threat from all sides.

This could very well be symptoms of what is called a ‘minority complex’, which is a well-known phenomenon in such situations. The curious phenomenon of numerically dominant ethnic communities manifesting a ‘minority complex’ or anxieties about minority groups [….] Cultural nationalism has not been confined to minority groups fighting for self-determination against assimilation by the majority. Rather, cultural nationalism is as evident among numerically and politically dominant national groups as it is among minorities. (Pfaff-Czarnecka 13)
Even though it must be admitted that the ‘Assamese’ have plenty of valid reasons to feel slighted and, to complain could be a good defensive strategy, as a survival tactic it is bound to boomerang sooner or later.

This attitude to always pass the blame to someone else also makes it harder for the ‘Assamese’ to sift out those situations where they could actually do something to change things for the better. Sanjoy Hazarika mentions a conversation he once had with a government officer who, referring to fish having to be imported into Assam (instead of producing it locally) told him that “[t]he fact was […] that the Assamese still took life too lightly and were not prepared to work hard and use existing opportunities – or create new ones. ‘It’s the easiest thing in the world to blame someone else for your problems,’ he said, referring to long-time Assamese grievances of neglect by the Centre” (Hazarika 265).

I have talked about traits in the ‘Assamese’ which point to some sort of inherent immaturity earlier, one can add their natural tendency to blame others for everything that goes wrong to that list. This also often implies an inability to accept responsibility for one’s own actions. Because of course, when things go wrong, then it has to be somebody else’s fault. The total lack of initiative of the ‘Assamese’ (not just in setting up fisheries but also in exercising control over their own lives), as well as their childish habit of pointing fingers at others without trying to do anything themselves, can be so self-defeating that one could even go so far as to say that ‘they deserve what they get’.

The Assamese rule of expedience
We have already seen many instances of how the ‘Assamese behave when they are part of a crowd. But what happens when an ‘Assamese’ is not part of a crowd? Let me state my guess first. When faced with having to make a decision, an ‘Assamese’ will first try to do what everyone else is doing; if that it not clear then he will try to follow the path of least resistance; alternatively, he will lie low and hope that the issue will blow over before he is forced to commit himself. In other words, he will try to postpone taking a decision by himself. So that, when things go wrong, he can reserve the right to complain, which he very much likes to do, as I have already pointed out.

Let me try to substantiate why I think like this by asking a few questions that have bothered me for a long time now. Why is it that when there is a call for a black-out or a bandh, most ‘Assamese’ automatically comply, without even bothering to ask or find out what the action is against? If it is a call for a bandh, then of course, there are no further questions asked – after all who could object to an extra holiday? If it is a call for a black-out people grudgingly switch off their lights and see out the time in darkness, more out of worry of their window-panes being smashed than out of any great sense of solidarity or conviction for the cause. These calls have become such a normal part of everyday life, and people have got so used to having a bandh every now and then (conveniently timed to make possible longer weekends) that in recent years, many do not even bother to find out who is calling the bandh – it might be in support of something one day, and in protest against exactly that same thing the next day, doesn’t matter, people stay home on both days!

Of course one can explain this by saying that it could be physically dangerous to venture out – true, but should we also not be asking how it has come to be that the ‘Assamese’ as a community have made it possible for a mere handful of protestors to bring a whole city (or even the whole state) to a standstill by doing no more than simply calling a bandh? Has anyone worried about the loss in man-days incurred to the community in the process? One has cared about one’s own security but has one spared a thought about the greater well-being of the community? What I am trying to say is that it is often expediency rather than commitment to a cause or a sense of responsibility towards the community that prompts the way an ‘Assamese’ behaves. I return to this last point about community later.

But this rule of expediency seems all-pervasive at the moment: one sees it in so many different forms – in college students preferring to read only the ‘Notes’ to the prescribed texts without bothering to look up the original texts, over-anxious parents doing the children’s home-assignments for them without stopping to think how much harm they do their little ones in the process. This attitude is ‘penny wise but pound foolish’ to say the least, but more seriously, by making it seem to be the default mode of normal behaviour, this rather dishonest and unhealthy attitude seems to be getting handed down from parents to children.

I am not saying that an individual should be an expert in everything, but why is it that many ‘Assamese’ have no reasonable idea about anything, even about the things in which they have supposedly been trained. Even if we could excuse drivers, plumbers and electricians for not knowing their jobs because they were badly trained, what excuse do we have for their trainers, for teachers who don’t know their lessons, for PWD engineers who build roads which do not last a season, for high-ranking bank officers who need calculators to add four plus seven? I bring this up not only because there is a huge systemic disorder in our society that needs to be addressed but also because the ‘Assamese’ not only do not know, they will also not admit it. They will rather pretend that they know, which is much more worrying, and points to a basic dishonesty of character. The ‘Assamese’ would much rather prefer to fudge things as long as they can get away with it, rather than try to learn how to do something properly -- so much so that this is fast becoming a significant character trait.

They also pretend to be concerned about the general good, but in reality they do not care to look beyond their noses. They would like to have principles but only as long as they do not make life too difficult – of course the Bangladeshis must go, there is no question about that, but on the other hand, they must also stay otherwise who will do all the heavy work at construction sites to build the posh houses for the rich ‘Assamese’! When others jump the queue, they are very unhappy; but they would not miss even half a chance to do so themselves – the guiding principle seems to be: when at a disadvantage assume the high moral ground; when there is a chance, have no compunctions about grabbing it. But one cannot have the cake and eat it too!

The non-existent sense of community
Let me return once more to the Assamese man-on-the-Guwahati-street, and examine, a little closely, whether he has any sort of civic sense of community. If somebody fell into a manhole in Ganeshguri perhaps the irate family members would make sure that that particular manhole got a cover, but from that it does not necessarily follow that open manholes in Silpukhuri will also get covered – see what I mean? The ‘Assamese’ are able to do things when they are emotionally charged and as long as it affects them personally, but they are reluctant to extrapolate from there, and do something for the general good or to pursue matters to an end. Lalit Barua was of the view that, “in Assam, one does not see a collective mind at work. There is something missing about us. The whole culture of informed public discussion and debate is entirely absent in Assam.” He believed that one principal reason for this is that the ‘Assamese’ find it hard to take a reasoned logical stand (as opposed to extending emotional support) over issues of general concern.

I could keep giving other examples, but I hope I have demonstrated that there is something about the ‘Assamese’ – call it pure selfishness, call it short-sightedness, call it absence of commitment as a community – that one sees in these examples. We lack a sense of community , we live each one for ourselves, as best we can. And not just that, as I hinted at earlier there is also a degree of dishonesty, of wilful avoidance, of hypocrisy involved. We either do not know our minds, or do not have the spine to speak up publicly. Instead we readily submit and go along with the tide, even while denouncing it in private circles. And what is the result – things that nobody really wants (like the ULFA and insurgency) come into being, and things that everyone really wants (like peace and order) do not stand a chance. And we give a very poor account of ourselves as adult human beings and responsible members of the community in the process.

This ‘save-your-own-skin’ attitude of the ‘Assamese’, implies not only that one cares only for oneself (and for one’s own immediate family), but also that one does that to the absolute exclusion of everything and everyone else. Between his feeling that he is a victim of vicious forces with hidden agendas against whom he is completely powerless, and his efforts to try to keep himself and his family safe he has no more time or energy left for anything else, to think of the wider world. In fact he tries not to look, hear or see too much for fear of having to do something for others. That is always somebody else’s job.

So what is the picture of ‘Assamese’ mentality we have at the end of this discussion? Besides being guilty of an appalling ignorance of and confusion about one’s own history, culture and traditions, the ‘Assamese’ are also lazy, almost to the point of being callous and irresponsible. And when an ‘Assamese’ finally does act, he does so just in order to tide over the immediate crisis rather than taking a long term principled stand on the issue. Most often he waits for others to decide for him, which then gives him the scope to complain if and when things go wrong.

But this is not to say that the ‘Assamese’ do not ever support public causes – they do and in great style as we have seen so many times in the past – but the reasons for doing so are more emotional than rational – they are not based on any objective reasoning, nor arrived at through collective discussion. And in all matters which require his personal exertion and initiative, he thinks only about his little world – himself and his immediate family and friends – anything beyond his ‘aag baari and pis baari’ does not matter.

I have not focussed on the reasons for why the ‘Assamese’ behave the way they do in this article. I am also aware that by focussing on only the unsavoury stories, I have presented a very negative picture of the ‘Assamese’ and his mentality. I also know that random examples cannot be proof of anything, and for every example I have used to illustrate something there are probably many others which would prove just the opposite. It is also a fact that no ‘Assamese’ is as unpleasant as I have painted him here. If I have still used this method, it is because it has been my aim in this article to point out some of our weaknesses, in order that we can together think about the issues I have raised, maybe find ways to answer some of them and in the process become more worthy of praise. If I have been needlessly harsh then my only plea is that I have not spared myself, for this has primarily been an exercise in introspection and self-evaluation. And in so far as I have substantiated every claim I have made with examples from real-life, the case I make and the conclusions I draw from it cannot be written off as pure spiteful thinking. Even if it is only to prove that this will not become another case of wilful refusal to face the facts, the ‘Assamese’ will have to hear me out. And then decide, each one for himself, if there is any truth in at least a few of the many allegations I have made, and whether there is anything that he needs to do in order to make sure that I do not get another chance to be so critical. I would be happy if this article is read in that light.

Bhattacharjee, Meenaxi. 2008. Problematising Identity in Assam. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Wuerzburg University, Germany.

Choudhury, Rita. 2007. Ai Samay Sai Samay. Guwahati: Banalata.

Kakar, Sudhir. 1981. The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic study of Childhood and Society in
New-Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hazarika, Sanjoy. 1994. Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s
New-Delhi: Penguin.

Misra, Udayon. 2000. The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the Nation-State in
Assam and Nagaland.
Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

Pfaff-Czarnecka, J. & Rajasingham-Senanayake, D. 1999. “Introduction.” Ethnic
Futures: The State and Identity Politics in Asia.
New Delhi: Sage. 9 -- 40.

Phukan, Mitra. 2005. The Collector’s Wife. New-Delhi: Penguin & Zubaan.

Rustomji, Nari. 1983. Imperilled Frontiers: India’s North-Eastern Borderlands.
Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sharma, Chandan Kumar. 2006. Asamiya Koon? Guwahati: Span Publications.

The Guwahati Notebook, 2007 (unpublished field diary compiled by Meenaxi Bhattacharjee).

The Guwahati Notebook, 2008 (unpublished field diary compiled by Meenaxi Bhattacharjee).


  1. One particular aspect of Assamese mentality which is quite disturbing is our inward looking attitude! While the whole world, for example even our neighbouring West Bengal, is beginning to look at things with an outward vision, we are still obsessed with a somewhat "narrow" definition of things! This is hindering our "networking" ability with the rest of the world and so some of the best Assamese talents are not getting the recognition that they deserve!

  2. interesting observations ethnographically relevant and fill with personal touch and 'agency'/

  3. This author is an Idiot, it is not only Assamese, every human-being is just like this.