Assam Riots: Brahmaputra’s Sorrow

With terms such as ‘immigrant, non-citizen, foreigner’ floating in public discourse, and the xenophobes upping their ante, the deepest fears of Indian Muslims are stalking the tragic landscape in Assam

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee Delhi 

Assam has never had a moment of quiet for over a century now. The recent outbreak of communal conflict between the Bodos and non-Bodos, particularly Bengali-speaking Muslims, leading to large-scale violence and loss of lives in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Chirang districts (the three are part of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts/BTAD) and Dhubri district of western Assam, is yet another testimony to the bloody, non-stop conflict. With lakhs homeless and forced to live in refugee camps in dismal conditions, the situation continues to be critical. Two prominent Bodo outfits have ‘declared that Muslim migrants displaced in the ongoing Assam violence won’t be allowed to return to their homes unless the state government identifies foreigners by taking 1951 (and not March 25, 1971, as laid down in the Assam Accord) as the cut-off year.

In the standard rituals performed by the political class and sections of the media, to make up for the gross negligence of the escalating crisis and human tragedy in Assam, what has been missed is a historically informed understanding. It is the consistent misreading and distortion of Assam’s history (including census data) that has brought things to such a pass. The current communal conflict is a product of this paradox, as also about power sharing and competitive control of land and other economic resources. All the religious and linguistic communities that inhabit the area are equally implicated in the brutal conflict, and, surely, not without the overt or covert support of this or that political party. 

Much has been discussed, in the Economic and Political Weekly editorial (August 4, 2012), and in essays by Harishankar Brahma (Indian Express, July 28, 2012), BanajitHussain (The Hindu, August 8, 2012) and NilimDutta (www.kafila.org) about the conflict. Lawrence Liang (www.kafila.org) and SubirBhaumik (Hindustan Times, August 19, 2012), have reopened the debate, the former drawing attention to the efforts of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in containing the conflict. The most disturbing long-term consequence is the accentuation of communal racial/linguistic/religious) profiling of members of both the communities, contestations notwithstanding. 

Let me take the case of the Bodos and their ‘look alikes’ first. It is well known that people drawn from the Mongoloid stock have been targets of hate crimes for years now. I have discussed this in the context of the deaths of Northeast students in April this year (Hardnews, June, 2012). These incidents, including the mass exodus of north-easterners from southern cities — with the current riots as the new found raison d’etre — raise a critical question: who and what constitutes the Indian nation? 

Conflicting notions of inclusion and exclusion in the national scheme of things has led to the near complete disconnect between the Northeast and the rest of India. The profiling is the result of a complex historical-political process. It is a grim reminder of how the Indian political class and civil society has failed the Northeast. 

The Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam in particular and Muslims in general have fared no better. Time and again their allegiance to the Indian nation has been questioned. The loyalty of both the communities — the tribals, their ‘look alikes’ and Muslims — has never been above suspicion. To say that the case of Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam is complex is actually an understatement. The irresponsible and indiscriminate use of the term ‘immigrant’ in public discourse has done immense damage to the community — in a way to its Hindu counterparts also. 

An Assam-based VHP functionary said that Bengali-speaking Muslims have clear plans of ‘demographically, and hence, democratically, taking over Assam’

My concern is neither with the alleged presence or absence of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh on Assam’s soil. What is shocking is the public perception about Bengali-speaking Muslims, who, with a few exceptions, are uniformly profiled as foreigners — as Bangladeshi immigrants. It is, therefore, crucial to trace the historical legacy of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam. 

Within the broad category of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam are two sub-categories concentrated in the two river valleys of Brahmaputra and Barak. Encouraged by the colonial State and a substantial section of the Assamese-speaking gentry, a large number of Bengali- speaking Muslim peasants from Mymensingh in East Bengal (now, Bangladesh) moved to the Brahmaputra Valley in the 19th century. The case of those in southern Assam — popularly known by the epithet Barak Valley to represent the three districts, namely, Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi — is slightly different. In 1874, the chief commissioner’s province of Assam was carved out of the Bengal Presidency. To this newly created province were attached the predominantly Bengali-speaking districts of Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara, and some hill districts. Assam, thus, after 1874, officially included the Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, of these districts. The Bengali-speaking Muslims of Brahmaputra Valley were there too. 

Nothing turned out to be in harmony between the Assamese and Bengalis, and by the 1920s, alarm bells began ringing. The Assamese leadership read the situation carefully, and delineated, as historian SujitChoudhury (2002) writes, two objectives for the future: first, “save Assam from the constant flow of Muslim immigration”, and second, “separate Bengali- speaking districts of Sylhet and Cachar from the administrative unit of Assam in order to free government offices from the clutches of the Bengali Hindu employees”. 

Sylhet was also a Muslim majority district. Accordingly, a referendum was held in July 1947 in Sylhet and the majority voted in favour of the district’s merger with Pakistan. A slice of the district — three and a half thanasof the Karimganj sub-division — remained in Assam and is now the present Karimganj district. Partition served a dual purpose for the GopinathBordoloi-led Congress provincial government of Assam: one, it ousted the Bengali-speaking, Muslim majority Sylhetis out of the province, and two, it turned eastern Bengal into an official foreign entity to which Assam had no obligation save a diplomatic one. 

However, despite the large-scale movement of Sylheti Muslims to Pakistan, a substantial number remained in Assam. The Barak Valley comprises of predominantly Bengali-speaking Muslims — Sylheti and Cachari — who are the ‘sons of the soil’ and have never been anything but lawful citizens of India. The Bengali-speaking Muslims of Brahmaputra Valley too chose to stay on, and continue to be part of the nation’s citizenry.  Therefore, it is absurd and unlawful to profile all Bengali-speaking Muslims as immigrants. 

Partition served a dual purpose: it ousted the Bengali-speaking Muslim majority Sylhetis out of the province, and it turned eastern Bengal into an official foreign entity to which Assam had no obligation 

What the larger Indian public apparently thinks today stems from the forever shifting, hence dubious, political alliances between the Assamese and the Muslims, particularly those of the Brahmaputra Valley. The RB Vaghaiwalla supervised 1951 Assam census, conducted in the aftermath of the riots in East Pakistan in 1950, is a testimony to that. A large number of Brahmaputra Valley’s Bengali-speaking Muslims declared their mother tongue as Assamese — and came to be called NaAsamiya(Neo Assamese) – thereby raising the population of Assamese language speakers unexpectedly. 

The alliance of the two groups was of mutual benefit pitched vis-à-vis the Bengali Hindus; the BangalKheda (Oust Bengali) drive is an instance. Following the Bangladesh war in 1971, Assam witnessed a heavy influx of refugees. The porous border with Bangladesh, it was alleged by the Assamese, also facilitated undocumented movement of Bangladeshis who illegally laid claim on its resources, primarily in the Brahmaputra Valley. The previous political alliance of the Assamese and Bengali-speaking Muslims of Brahmaputra Valley gradually began to run into rough weather with the former accusing the latter of collusion with “infiltrators”. 

By the late 1970s, terms like the ‘immigrant’ and ‘foreigner’ became the rallying points of the anti-immigrant Assam movement led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the AsomGanaSangramParishad (AGSP), which saw, among others, the gruesome massacre of Bengali-speaking Muslims at Nellie in 1983. The truth is, immigration had always been at the heart of Assam’s imagination but the movement provided it with a new and lethal lease of life. 

The period also saw the introduction of a new act for Assam; the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT) came into force in 1983 (it stands repealed now). The end of the movement with the Assam Accord of 1985 saw the AsomGanaParishad (AGP) led by student leader PrafullaMahanta come to power. It also marked a shift in the political strategy of the Bengali Muslims of the Brahmaputra Valley. 

The aftermath was hardly one of calm. The calm was deceptive. The AGP and BJP continued with the anti-immigrant (anti-Muslim) agenda accusing the Congress (now, the BadruddinAjmal-led All India United Democratic Front-AIUDF) of playing vote-bank politics. Ajmal, as is well known, has the Bengali-speaking Muslims of the Brahmaputra Valley as its core constituency and currently leads the Opposition in the Assam Legislative Assembly. 

With the myopic political class and media trapped in clichés, prejudices, vested interests, an enlightened civil society must resist the profiling and polarization of communities

Predictably, despite the mass tragedy, human suffering and bloodletting, xenophobic parties have neither shown sensitivity, nor responsibility. The BJP and similar political formations have put the blame squarely on AIUDF for the current communal conflict in Assam. An Assam-based VHP functionary told me that Bengali-speaking Muslims (immigrants) have clear plans of “demographically, and hence, democratically, taking over Assam”. The Congress, as always, remains the fence-sitter heaping the blame upon miscreants and anti-social elements. 

What has happened as a result of this conundrum is the generation of acute anxiety among Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam, who, in any case, have been grappling with the (doubtful/disputed) ‘D Voter’ factor, and the preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The ‘D Voter’ issue has been discussed in detail by Kamaluddin Ahmed, a Karimganj based historian, in Assam’s ‘Doubtful Citizens’: Fact or Fiction? (2011). 

Now, with terms such as ‘immigrant, non-citizen, foreigner’, and so forth, floating in public discourse, the deepest fears of the Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims are palpable. Interestingly, Ahmed had seen that coming a year ago. In the present scenario, what is crucial is to work towards dispelling such incorrect notions about the community of legitimate Indian citizens. Indeed, with the myopic political class and a big chunk of the media trapped in clichés, prejudices and vested interests, finally, an enlightened civil society must resist the profiling and polarisation of communities.   

The writer teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2012