Assam Violence and Beyond

The Muslims of Assam are in the news once again. Thirty-eight have been killed so far within days, and the state’s Congress Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, has announced a judicial probe into the bloodbath. Earlier, politicians had blamed Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim remarks for the violence. The BJP has said that if Modi comes to power, all Bangladeshi Muslims will be deported. But it would be grossly incorrect to link the whole violence to this one statement of the BJP. The fact of the matter is that over decades, Muslims in Assam have been denigrated as Bangladeshis, and it is only a matter of time before they are ethnically cleansed from the region.

The other fact is that the Indian state has already disowned the entire community as “others,” as foreigners. In 1983, when several thousand Muslims were killed in the Nellie Massacre, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, heading the anti-Muslim agitation as a student leader of the Asom Gana Parishad, became so immensely popular that he remained in power for decades and almost rose to the stature of a national leader. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was nothing but the Narendra Modi of Assam in 1983. His fame skyrocketed because of his anti-Muslim campaign which led to the Nellie Massacre in 1983 and several other bloody episodes, though not on the same scale, later on.

Assam has a 30 per cent Muslim population. Under the various schemes of partition in the run-up to 1947, it was grouped with the Muslim-majority state of the then East Bengal with an 80 per cent Muslim population. In 1947, the population ratio was even higher. But later,  only Sylhet became a part of East Pakistan, and Assam with a Muslim population of more than 30 per cent, remained with India.  In the 1971 war in what is now Bangladesh, a few thousand people, mostly Muslims, fled their homes and were granted asylum in Assam because the war was fed and led by New Delhi. With the passage of time the actual percentage of the (native) Muslims was obscured, and the few thousand migrants from Bangladesh magnified so highly that all Muslims of Assam were labeled as Bangladeshi.


It was also adopted as a strategy to counter the armed separatist movements in Assam and other eastern states. By focusing on “Bangladeshis,” the aim was to communalize this separatism and make it a warning for others, even when Assamese Muslims were not in the separatist camp and have been loyal Indian citizens. But nevertheless, they have been the targets of hate and violence over decades now, and victims of massacres intended at ethnic cleansing.

It was a few years ago under Congress rule and its then Home Minister that a political and military scheme was put in place for the final dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Assam. New Delhi signed an accord with the Bodo Liberation Tigers, a militant outfit, which was not asked to surrender arms but merely donned a political mantle as the Bodo People’s Front, or the BPF.

Again, a few years ago a Bodo Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) arrangement was set up where Bodos have all the power and rights.  In spite of being 30 per cent of the population, Muslims cannot sell or buy land in BTAD, and so cannot claim other rights. They have already been disposed and “killed” legally and constitutionally under the Bodoland Territorial Council.

Though the Bodo population percentage is far lower to Muslims across Assam, it now constitutes 30 per cent in these areas, and is growing because of taking over Muslim villages and lands. For several years now, the Bodos and the Congress have been running a coalition government in these areas. Hence, the Congress has already accomplished what the BJP and Modi would want to do. The Muslims of Assam are doomed politically, militarily and legally.

Two years ago, the Bodo-led violence killed many and displaced no less than 50,000 Muslims. They still languish in camps in sub-human conditions. Indian history and democracy is on the verge of another mega change, but Assamese Muslims are being destroyed. The thousands of victim of the 2012 violence have not been rehabilitated. So is the case with the 50,000  Muslims uprooted in the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh last year – the same story of death, destruction and disposition that befell the Muslims of Gujarat.

Indian democracy changes hands, but power, for all practical purposes, is wielded with the same majoritarian agenda, without justice and rights for citizens of India who profess other faiths. This is the reality of Indian pluralism. The power structure of the Indian state is decisively bent against Muslims.