May 24, 2016

India - Dilemma of Assam's Muslims: Neither Assamese nor Muslim enough (Satyen K. Bordoloi)

sify.com - May 24, 2016

Dilemma of Assam's Muslims: Neither Assamese nor Muslim enough

Source : SIFY By : Satyen K. Bordoloi

He scratched the back of his head slowly in a gesture of calculation rather than to remove an itch. “The wind is clearly towards the BJP sir. Even my family voted BJP,” the Muslim cab driver finally answered as he drove me to the airport. It was April 22, just 11 days after the Assembly elections in Guwahati, Assam and less than a month away from the counting of May 19.

I could tell from his reluctance that he wasn’t comfortable. I resorted to what every journalist wanting the truth out of his interviewer does: empathize, anticipate and talk from his zone of comfort.

“Everywhere BJP has tried to divide into religious, casteist, tribal fragments. I expected your community to be smarter than to fall for their games,” I baited. He scratched the back of his head again and focussed on the road as he drove in silence for a few minutes.

Then, I asked him where he was from. The village in lower Assam he named has a Muslim majority. “What about your village,” I asked, “did they vote BJP too?” He answered in the negative. AIUDF then? This time the ‘NO’ was emphatic. “Ours is an old Muslim village,” he said, “No one there likes the AIUDF or their politics.”

I did not need to ask him who they voted for but he said nonetheless. “These old people from the days of Nehru and Shastri, they will never vote anything but the hand.”

As the BJP has come out winner with 60 seats in Assam, I find myself thinking about that driver and the hundreds of conversations I have had in my month and a half stay in Assam about Muslims.

The middle class was emphatically in favour of BJP with most people having promised that they would have the ‘lotus bloom’ this time.

Though the BJP did learn its lesson from the debacle of Bihar and Delhi where they tried communal politics by inciting violence before elections, they had not abandoned their Islamophobic agenda completely in Assam. All that it did, was to preach it tacitly.

The slogan that was never relayed publicly or before the media but was there on the lips of every middle class Hindu Assamese was: protect ‘Jati, Mati, Bheti’ translating to protect ‘our race, our land, our house’. The BJP did not fight Assam elections only on the developmental agenda, but on this.

As the results showed, this was a masterstroke. Despite getting less votes than the Congress, 29.5% for BJP against 31% votes for the Congress, it got a larger number of seats with 60 versus Congress’ 26.

This ‘jati, mati, bheti’ has a direct relevance to Muslims in Assam. Jati or ‘Our race’ in the slogan means the Assamese Hindu race. Assam’s heterogeneity – with Muslims and Christians being part of its land and culture for hundreds of years - is being sought to be cleverly overlooked.

The ‘mati’ or ‘our land’ again refers to the land that it is claimed the ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi immigrant is trying to usurp. Local News channels owned by BJP supporters regularly show encroachments by Bangladeshi immigrants as proof of the conspiracy by the Congress to overthrow Assamese culture just to maintain their Muslim vote bank. There is truth to it, but the exaggeration is so excessive that it takes objectivity from the claim.

‘Bheti’ in Assamese roughly translates to the plinth of the house that is raised before constructing the house over it. This protects the house from floods and other dangers. This again refers to protecting the house and the state from foreign Muslims.

“I saw this small ticker that ran in News Live (a local, popular news channel in Assam) few days ago,” the driver began in earnest this time. “A Muslim man, an ancient resident of Assam who had everything to prove he was a local, be it a ration card or voters card, was denied by the NRC (National Register of Citizens). Unable to take the humiliation, he hanged himself.”

This cuts down to the crux of the issue in Assam which has seen it plunging into conflict since the last four decades. It is very easy to enter the northeast from Bangladesh because the border has not been sealed properly. The Border Security Force manning the region are human and sometimes don’t mind a little bribe. Then there are places where the landscape and jungles are such that it makes patrolling extremely difficult, if not downright impossible.

The result has been infiltration of Bangladesis, both Muslims and Hindus, into India, mostly since the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971. Most crossing the border are either the poor lot or the persecuted Hindu lot.

The fear of a Bangladeshi population overcrowding and outnumbering the local population, has left the entire North-East alarmed for decades, leading to the Assam Agitation in the late 70s, then the insurgency during the 80s and 90s that has dwindled considerably in this millennium, something for which the Congress government that governed Assam for three terms from 2001 to 2016 takes credit.

The insurgency might have reduced to negligible proportions at least in Assam, but this does not mean that the issue under which it took birth, that of Bangladeshi immigration, died. Indeed, if anything, it seems worse, repeated as it is endlessly by channels favouring BJP in the state.

In words that are placating in places, threatening in others, BJP leaders – both local and national – in the run up to the elections, talked about deporting every single Bangladeshi out of Assam. This isn’t the problem. Local population the world over would welcome deportation of people who do not belong to their side of the border i.e. the foreigner. The issue that comes before deportation, is identification.

The NRC (National Register of Citizens) is an attempt to trace the ancestry of people in the state. Old state and election records have been dusted off and are being used to create, what will be one of the most unique governmental attempts to trace a person’s ancestry, a sort of family tree of the entire state and its inhabitants. If your ‘ancestors’ name is in the Electoral Rolls of any elections upto March 24, 1971, you are a citizen of Assam. The logic is, those who are not residents of the state i.e. the Bangladeshi migrant, will fall out of this family tree web of the state.

The mapping of every resident of Assam is a little Kafkaesque exercise that has thrown up a small parallel system, run often with the collusion of the administration, of fudging official records to include some names of Bangladeshi Muslims and even Hindus. And as I also heard, some Marwari and Biharis of Assam are also using this ‘opportunity’ to become ‘Assamese’ once and for all.

The main problem is being faced by the Assamese Muslim. And the problem is that he is automatically looked at as a suspect, an ‘illegal human’ as the slang goes on the ground. That they are Muslims is obvious but the onus to prove they are Assamese, is on them. That is the reason why that suicide of an Assamese Muslim ran as a tiny ticker instead of being front page ‘breaking’ news which it would clearly have become had it been a Hindu.

On April 17, The Assam Tribune in a front page anchor story highlighted difficulties in finding and deporting Bangladeshis. A total of 489 people have been caught by officials and lodged in detention camps. Of these, “law enforcers could only gather information about the addresses of only 179 detected foreigners which also include some Myanmarese nationals caught in Assam.”

Of these 489 detenus 143 were convicted under various sections of the Foreigners’ Act, Passport Act and other sections of the Indian Penal Code. 310 Bangladeshi detained “expressed ignorance about their place of origin in the neighbouring country despite admitting their foreign (Bangladeshi) nationality”. Of these, in the last 15 months only one Bangladeshi has been deported to Bangladesh from Assam.

Spending hundreds of crore of rupees to deport one foreigner is what gives this whole exercise the tinge of a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Now that the BJP is in power would it do any better? Unlikely. First, as evidenced above, the problem is identifying and then finding the person’s place of origin to deport them. It is an impossible exercise that will cost the state and central government a few hundred crores more before sense will dawn, and it will be abandoned.

The issue is also that those who are crossing the border are not the ones who have ‘left behind’ something to go to. Like one man from a village in Gujarat making his way to the USA finds enough opportunities for others to follow his path till often, most of his village folk have found their way there, poor Bangladesis often make incursions into Assam looking for opportunities, finding it because there is a lot of work in Assam and not many hands to do it. The Assamese gentry hires these cheap labour giving them the opportunity to get others along.

A lot of people I talked to state that the numbers of Bangladesis in Assam are hugely exaggerated. Some, like NDTV strategically did during a program on April 8, make the often deliberate ‘mistake’ of considering every Muslim in Assam as Bangladeshi thus falsely ballooning their population. The truth is Assam, like Kerela, has a large percentage of ethnic and ancient Muslim population. The first premier of Assam before independence, was Sir Syed Muhammad Saadulla and Assam even sent a Muslim man Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to the President’s chair in Delhi.

It will not be possible for the BJP government in Assam to keep its promise of deporting Bangladeshis out of Assam. Perhaps they do not want to for as long as there are Bangladeshis, they can keep communal, regional fear alive in the Assamese mind.

Where does it leave the Assamese Muslim?

The Muslim man who committed suicide, becomes a symbol of the dilemma that the Assamese Muslims find themselves in, neither Assamese enough anymore to be accepted among the Assamese, nor Muslim enough to be associated with the politics of Muslim parties like AIDUF who play their own fear card much like the BJP among the Muslims of Assam.

The condition that the Muslims of Assam find themselves in after the rise of BJP in Assam is also perhaps the condition of Muslims in India, perennially threatened and challenged to prove their nationalism in quite unfair, crude terms.

It was only when I was getting my boarding pass that I realised that I had not bothered to reconfirm with the cab driver if he and his family had indeed voted for the BJP. Perhaps I do not need to. The marginalised and oppressed do not make costly mistakes.

Whether external mistakes will consume them remains to be seen as BJP is sworn in for the first time in the history of the Northeast of Assam.

(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)

Read more at: http://www.sify.com/news/dilemma-of-assam-s-muslims-neither-assamese-nor-muslim-enough-news-columns-qfyijNhhbeaig.html