On April 8, a 68-year-old Muslim man, Shaukat Ali, was attacked by a mob in the Biswanath district of Assam and allegedly forced to consume pork. Ali was accused of selling beef.
The ambiguous law on cattle slaughter in the state, the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950, allows the slaughter of cattle over 14 years of age, or if the animal, out of injury or deformity, is incapacitated for life. In such cases, a ‘fit-for-slaughter’ certificate is to be obtained from a doctor of the state husbandry and animal welfare department.
The legal injunction, however, does not differentiate between buffaloes, cows and bulls. It steers clear of holding the cow sacred, and elevating its status. Nor does it prohibit selling or consuming beef. But currently the politics of vigilantism supersedes the law to establish its own mob justice.
In a video of the incident circulating on social media, Ali is on his knees covered in slush, with a harrowed expression on his face. The mob surrounding him, fire a barrage of questions at him in Assamese: “Why did you sell cow meat here?”, “Do you have licence?”, “Who gave you a licence?”, “Are you Bangladeshi?”, “Do you have your name in the NRC (National Register of Citizens)?”Ali tries to reply but is cut short by angry voices. The mob won’t listen to Ali. What Ali has to say doesn’t matter. What they tell him matters.
The scene that follows is even more disturbing.
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Ali is then allegedly handed a piece of pork meat and is forced to eat it. There are threatening fingers egging him on to consume the meat that his religion forbids. The men, with hound-like focus, prey on Ali’s humiliation. It is the barbarism of territorial vigilantism, where identity is the territory. They humiliate, all at once, Ali’s conscience, his body and his political status. What is common to all three – conscience, body and political status – is his Muslim-ness. It is in the name of being Muslim that the mob could ask him if he was Bangladeshi and if his name was in the NRC. Ali, before being anything else in the eyes of the mob, was politically suspect because of his religious identity.
Ali suffers this humiliation in the name of an alleged crime that is being thrust upon him. Or he suffers it simply out of his fear of the mob. It is not possible in such situations, to distinguish the cause of fear, to be able to tell one fear from another. The nature of this fear is political because Ali suddenly finds himself under question, accused of breaking the law.
The mob that asks him questions acts like a vigilante that assumes the responsibility of the state. It wants to ascertain multiple legalities, from Ali’s right to sell beef, to his being a citizen of Assam. Being a Muslim is enough to have your citizenship under a shadow of doubt. Ali receives a political lesson from this episode: A Muslim in Assam has to prove his citizenship first, because it does not naturally belong to him. Once his citizenship is under question, his rights are stripped of everything ‘human’. Citizenship is reduced to a majoritarian concept, where minorities are being identified as potentially illegal subjects. Subjects subjected to arbitrary coercion.
The other disturbing aspect of this episode is related to the way both the state and Central governments have played on the NRC issue to engage in divisive politics in Assam. In a recent interview to Indian Express, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who just a few years ago shifted loyalties from the Congress to the BJP, made a distinction between “Bangladeshi Muslims” and “indigenous Muslims”, emphasising that Bangladeshi migrants “do not share our common identity” and “pose a cultural threat to Assam.”
Biswa Sarma’s dubious distinction between “Bangladeshi” and “indigenous” Muslims does not hold water. Bengali Hindu refugees share the same cultural identity and history as the Muslims. The “common identity” Biswa Sarma refers to, attaches a majoritarian Hindu meaning to a bogus claim of commonness that is strictly based on religion.
Last September, Amit Shah had used the word “termites” for Muslim migrants from Bangladesh in a political rally in Rajasthan. The US State Department had taken note of Shah’s slur. Last month, campaigning for a candidate of their ally, the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), Shah had reiterated BJP’s commitment to driving away infiltrators if voted to power.
The most instructive comment, however, came from the prime minister. In February, while addressing a rally near Guwahati, Modi essentially said the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will rehabilitate all non-Muslim migrants from the subcontinent (“Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parses, Christians, and Hindus”, who “faced persecution” and “came to India seeking refuge”). Territorial lines were drawn to make a sharp and clear demarcation between Muslims and migrants from other religions. This divisive political language makes Bengali Muslims in Assam politically vulnerable.
Ali’s humiliation at the hands of an Assamese mob is an indicator of how territoriality dehumanises the human condition. The mob represents the legitimate gang of the nation. Ali represents the ‘termite’. The mob resorts to moral, religious and political bullying, to ascertain the language the nation’s gangs will unleash on minorities as it patrols the nation’s boundaries. Ali is reduced to bare life. It is not the bare life of a human being. The mob that surrounds Ali, isn’t talking to a man with whom it feels it shares an equal status, moral or political. They are talking to an insect. Ali is robbed of his speech because speech is human. In the preying eyes of the gang, Ali is not human.
Ali is identified simply as Ali, a Bangladeshi, someone illegally selling beef, and a possible, illegal migrant.
Migrants are termites in the Hindu right’s fascist vocabulary and mindset. Ali turned into an alien, deserves suspicion and wrath, not compassion and other feelings we associate with human fellowship. The slush where Ali sits on his knees is the slippery ground of his human existence. The sight excites the mob as it turns itself into a pack that hounds Ali. The animal game of territory is played with claws, teeth and growls. What we understand as ‘human’ does not function under such conditions. The nation conditions the human by the language of territoriality.
In Assam, the NRC has turned the citizen-migrant distinction into a game of uncertainties that can transform into games of humiliation. A simply ‘human’ distinction won’t be enough to maintain the difference between citizens and migrants. The migrant will be reduced to an insect, to prove the citizen alone is human. But the territorial citizen will trample on that distinction and dehumanise himself and the migrant. It is in the nature of territories to turn human nature into animal nature. This is the price that nationalism, ethnic or religious, makes you pay.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).