Today's Assam Looks More and More Like the Violent 1980s

A ripe ground for terror operations has been prepared.

The National Register of Citizens exercise has been resurrecting many fissures in Assam. Some of the fissures are old, half-forgotten. The troubled years of the early 1980s had almost become the stuff of nostalgia – but not anymore. Those times of suspicion, distrust and insecurity are back.

People are once again divided along community lines. Mass violence has made a comeback, albeit in a different avatar. Instead of mobs hacking helpless people, people are internalising the violence wrought by the state and are killing themselves. The number of suicides related to the NRC crossed 17 among Hindu Bengalis alone. Even this has not been enough. A ripe ground for terror operations has been prepared. On the night of November 1, about five to six unidentified armed men killed five unarmed men in Tinsukia district of eastern Assam. While initial reports said the attack was carried out by ULFA (Independent), the organisation has since denied its involvement. The gunmen ordered the young men to go with them to a secluded spot by the river, told them to sit and then opened fire upon them. Most likely, the fault of the massacred was their Bengali Hindu identity. But why target Hindu Bengalis? We need to contextualise the politics that is being played out in recent years to understand this.

Also read: Suicides of People Excluded From NRC in Assam Trigger Alarm Bells

Shiladitya Dev, BJP MLA from Hojai assembly constituency, is a prominent character in this play. The powers that be, for reasons best known to them, would not reveal the district-wise rejection data. Unconfirmed media reports suggest the NRC rejections figures in Hojai district are quite high. Being the MLA from a place with a large Bengali-speaking population is not an easy job in this NRC season. Especially when the president of your own party, Amit Shah, has called your loyal voters who have been left out of the NRC list Bangladeshi ghuspetiye (infiltrators). Shah went on to compare the infiltrators to termites, out to destroy Hindustan. One can almost empathise with Dev.

Shiladitya Dev. Credit: Facebook/Shiladitya Dev

But then Dev is no innocent to the game of communal attrition. He is known to make communally-coloured incendiary remarks. His Hindutva-fevered brain takes two leaps of faith. First, miyas (Bengali-speaking Muslims) living in Assam are Bangladeshis. On this count he finds co-travellers in the Assamese ugra jatiyatabadi (extreme nationalist) fold. The latter also view Muslims of East Bengali origin with derision. But the contempt has to find an acceptable, legitimate way to articulate itself. Labelling Bengali-speaking Muslims as Bangladeshi is a convenient resolution. By marking miyas as Bangladeshis, therefore non-citizens, one de-recognises their right to exist in this country. A matter of ethnic or religious prejudice gets a legitimate, nationalistic tone and sanction. But raising the Bangladeshi bogey could be a dangerous gambit for Dev. To the Assamese ugra jatiyatabadi Bengali-speaking Hindus are also suspect. Dev fits that description. To blunt this, he deploys a second and more deadly weapon.

His second leap of faith is, miyas are jihadists, hatching a conspiracy to turn India into an Islamic state. The invocation of religion, jihad and ISIS separates Dev from his fellow-Bengalis who happen to be Muslims. It brings him closer to the Assamese jatiyatabadis. For good measure, he keeps insisting that satra (Assamese Vaishnavite monastery) lands have been encroached by miyas. One can suspect him to be a Bangladeshi but who can deny that Dev is a Hindu? Dev’s compassionate Hindu heart bleeds for the hapless Assamese satras which symbolise a sect of his own faith. The same could not be said of miyas.

To be sure, these Hindutva motifs are not new to anyone familiar with the politics of the RSS. This explains why Dev is not censured. What makes his shenanigans ominous is not that the tropes that he uses are unfamiliar, which they are not, but that these are being deployed in a charged atmosphere, in a region which has had a troubled past of ethnic conflicts. This atmosphere, of late, has been created by the NRC process. All of a sudden we have been dragged back to that ‘80s show.

To the common residents of the state, the ULFA did not make its presence felt in the early years of 1980s. It was in the latter half of the decade, under the Asom Gana Parishad government, that the organisation started to gain attention. Let us not deny that the urban middle class found many things valuable in the politics of ULFA in those early years. This is not the occasion to elaborate on the politics of the ULFA. However, it is noteworthy that the longstanding neglect and exploitation of the region lent credence to the politics that the ULFA espoused.

Also read: ‘Miraculous Escape From Army’: A Survivor Recounts the 1994 Fake Encounter in Assam

The degeneration of ULFA’s practice has been evident for some time now. The popularity, gained on a plank of linguistic nationalism, has frittered away. But the loss has been hard to accept. The leaders are taking a short-cut to regain popularity: a visceral, violent form of nationalism tuned to the popular majoritarian mood. Recently, opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been a battle cry of Assamese nationalists of all shades. The Bill grants amnesty, and later on citizenship, to Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants. This raised the hackle of Assamese nationalists that Hindu Bangladeshis, under the protection of the amended Citizenship Act, would swamp Assam.

For Dev and the BJP, who stand to the face wrath of Hindu Bengalis of the state excluded from the NRC, the Bill is a clever ploy to filter out Hindu NRC-rejects from Muslim NRC-rejects and save the day. The Bill therefore pits Dev against the jatiyatabadis. Mrinal Hazarika, a pro-talk ULFA leader, threatened Dev for planning to organise a pro-Bill rally in Guwahati. Hazarika also explained how the Bill could be scuttled. To force the RSS, to stop the government from raising it in parliament, terrorise the Bengalis, he advised (by Bengalis Hazarika probably meant Bengali Hindus). Bring back the days of 1982-83, enter their houses and threaten them. Put up posters, and send a message that they would be driven out of Assam if they dare to support the Bill. If necessary do massacres, Hazarika happily elaborated on his plan. All this was in a meeting in Guwahati organised by the Khilonziya Mancha (the Indigenous Forum) on October 24.

Hazarika was subsequently questioned by the police for his provocative comments. But his tactic is probably finding takers. The ghastly killing of five Bengali young men, most likely of the Namashudra (Dalit) sub-caste, in Tinsukia underlines its growing popularity. To be sure, the ULFA had deployed the terror tactic to protest the Citizenship Bill earlier than the tactic was articulated by Hazarika. On October 13, immediately before the Durga Puja, a bomb went off in the heart of Guwahati city. The ULFA (I) claimed responsibility. We wanted to send a note of protest, Paresh Baruah, leader of the ULFA (I), said. The actions by armed militants in the middle of a distressing NRC process, with the parliamentary and panchayat elections looming in the horizon, spell political uncertainty. The fear is, clever communal manoeuvres by the Sangh can trigger an ethnic conflagration which they would be singularly incapable of controlling.

When history repeats itself, they say, tragedy turns into farce. Farce it may be. For, BJP MLA Dev has decided to utilise life-long communist Hemanga Biswas’s birthday to further his political purpose. But this farce is taking too many lives.

Debarshi Das is at the Humanities and Social Science Department, IIT, Guwahati.