Dehumanising Muslims in Assam

BY Abdul Kalam Azad| IN Media Practice | 23/09/2016
Cast as the ‘other’, dubbed ‘Bangladeshi’ and incessantly victimized, the Bengal-origin Muslim is fair game, with the media actively whipping up hatred.
ABDUL KALAM AZAD expresses his dismay

TV grab: An Assamese Muslim who is being dubbed a Bangladeshi

 

The nightmare which has been haunting Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam for quite some time became a reality on September 19 when civil officials accompanied by nearly 3000 security forces arrived at Bandardubi and Deosursang villages in the Kaziranga National Park area to evict nearly 300 families.

The families had been pleading with the administration for compensation for the last one week before they were evicted and nothing had materialized. As a last resort, they protested against their eviction. Fifteen minutes into the protest, the security forces fired their guns, killed two persons on the spot, including a girl child, and wounded six others. By evening, almost 300 houses had been bulldozed and set ablaze.   

Meanwhile, NewsLive, a television channel owned by the wife of Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, started justifying the carnage and arson by saying the victims were of “suspected origins” (read illegal Bangladeshi)[i]. There is nothing new in this. In fact, the media have been campaigning to create a public perception that people living in the vicinity of Kaziranga are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The houses in Banderdubi and Deosursang were evicted as per an order passed by Gauhati High Court in response to a PIL filed by current Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Mrinal Saikia  in 2012 (Kaziranga National Park vs Union of India and others, 2015. pp. 36-37).

However, during the trial of the case, Advocate-General of Assam acknowledged and supported the contention of the applicants that as per the revenue records. Banderdubi and Deosursang were declared as revenue villages by the government in 1961 and therefore are not part of the Kaziranga National Park, which makes eviction of any villager from the said areas illegal (Kaziranga National Park vs Union of India and others, 2015. pp. 21). These villages came into existence even before the official recognition of  Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary as a National Park. As per the records these two villages were set up in 1951 and land patta was awarded in 1961. The names of the villagers were inserted into the voters’ list in 1965 for the assembly election, and a government school was established there in 1966. On the other hand, Kaziranga was declared as a National Park by the central government on 11 February 1974[ii].   

 

"The media have been campaigning to create a public perception that people living in the vicinity of Kaziranga are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh."

 

Even though, the villagers were ready to move out of their villages, they were only asking for fair compensation and time for relocation. The villagers complained that state finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma played a communal card and assured seven Hindu families that they would be paid four times  their loss, while Bengal origin Muslim villagers were left feeling like illegal Bangaldeshis [iii].

In the last few decades, the media has tutored the Assamese people on the art of demonizing and dehumanizing Bengal-origin Assamese. Soon after the eviction drive, a BJP activist who calls himself Khati Axomiya (‘The True Assamese’, also imprinted on his T-shirt) wrote on his Facebook wall “Happiness is knowing that I will get to see greenery and spot a rhino or two in Kaziranga and not the usual huts and lungiwala Bangladeshis”!

This is not an isolated incident--something equally sinister is happening in the state on a large scale. The background is this: Since the great earthquake of 1950, the river Brahmaputra has flattened and the intensity of floods and erosion in the valley has increased. The subsequent construction of dams, embankments and deforestation has accentuated the problem.

An estimated seven per cent of Assam’s land has been eroded by the river Brahmaputra between 1950-2000, displacing lakhs of people, most of whom are Bengal-origin Muslims, because they constitute the bulk of the population settled in the Char and riverine areas (Hussian, 2006). Many of the erosion-induced IDPs  ( internally displaced  families) take shelter on embankments and government land i.e. khas land, grazing land, and forest land and a large number of them migrate to urban areas in search of livelihood.

In addition to Banderdubi, in Hatimuria (Morigaon district) more than 260 erosion-induced IDPs who originally belonged to the neighboring Darrang district had acquired periodic patta land from the local Assamese Hindu community on lease[iv]. After the 2014 general elections, the district administration passed an order to relocate them to the nearby Hiloikhunda Char and subsequently the families moved out.

The next day, almost all the newspapers published from Guwahati carried photographs of relocated huts on the Hiloikhunda Char with headlines screaming that hundreds of Bangladeshis had occupied land belonging to the indigenous community.[v]

The media campaign continued. There was a clash between the two communities in which more than half a dozen people were injured[vi]. And the displaced families were evicted once again[vii]. Consequently, the government sent notices to all district officials to evict IDPs settling on government land without any kind of rehabilitation.

Similarly, two villages - Dolpur and Phuhuratoli in Sipajhar Development Block (Darrang district) - became media targets when Upamanyu Hazarika, convener of a forum called Prabajan Virodhi Manch and apparently a junior associate of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, submitted a report to the Supreme Court mentioning that the two villages had been illegally occupied and were being used as grazing grounds by suspected Bangladeshis. The media went into a frenzy over his claim and published hundreds of stories with distorted facts and imaginary threats[viii].

 

"The villagers of Dolpur and Phuhuratoli who are branded as illegal Bangladeshi in the news report are genuine Indian citizens and were displaced by river erosion before they settled in these villages."

 

On 3rd July, the Hindustan Times carried a story titled “Schools, toilets: How Assam govt ‘legitimises’ land-grab by ‘illegal migrants[i] suggesting that welfare benefits were being awarded to ‘alleged’ Bangladeshis whereas indigenous people were being denied. The reality is very different. The villagers of Dolpur and Phuhuratoli who are branded  illegal Bangladeshi in the news report are genuine Indian citizens and were displaced by river erosion before they settled in these villages. Every single household has the necessary citizenship documents and has also filled up the NRC updating form. As far as welfare schemes are concerned, out of the 95 surveyed households, 80 do not have a toilet[ii]

Till 2015 there was no government scheme to rehabilitate the erosion-induced IDPs. The previous government did bring out a special scheme but not a single family benefitted from it[xi]. When people who had applied for assistance under the scheme demanded a progress report through Right to Information petitions[xii], the government took a baffling decision. It re-worded the scheme so that almost all applications were declared invalid.[xiii]

What the media tacitly endorses - i.e. the use of the term ‘Bangladeshi’ for Bengal-origin Muslims residing in the state for generations - is symptomatic of a malaise that has been engraved into the Assamese popular imagination. Over time this term and its street counterpart ‘Miyah’ have contributed to the dehumanization of the Bengal-origin Muslim community and established them as the repulsive ‘other’ of the ‘Son-of-the-soil Assamese.

They have, in effect, been pushed beyond the boundary of ‘moral community’ (in Thomas Dixon’s terms) and thus beyond the range of ‘responsibility and care’ (Dixon, 2012). The terms ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘Miyah’ nullify the historical conditions which necessitated the displacement of these people from one province of British India to another under the direct patronage of the colonial rulers. It also discredits their abandoning their mother tongue and accepting and actively fighting for the promotion of the Assamese language.    

Collective empathy towards the community has been missing in mainstream Assamese society, especially since the six-year-long Assam Agitation (1979-1985). On 18th February, 1983, more than 3,000 innocent people, mostly children, women and the elderly, were killed in broad daylight in Nellie, just 60 kilometres from the capital city (Diganta Sarma, Anju Azad, 2009).

Society in general remained imndifferent to the massacre: there was no outrage and no demand for justice as opposed to the unabashed, overbearing, and  jingoistic rhetoric against a particular community. Over the last 30 years the allegation of being Bangladeshi has been enough to deny them compensation, rehabilitation and justice. On the other hand, the perpetrators of violence were declared heroes.[xiv]

Public intellectual Homen Borgohain wrote that during the Agitation years, the Assamese press used to carry inflammatory articles and distorted news items on the imminent risk of illegal immigrants and the vulnerability of the ethnic Assamese people losing their linguistic and cultural identity.

Borgohain was ostracized by local newspapers who refused to publish him. He was compelled to take up the job of Guwahati correspondent for Aajkal (Dutta, 2012). Professor Monirul Hussain writes: “Papers were flooded with news of the arrival of Bangladeshi Rajakars in Assam through helicopters and rivers to attack the indigenous people and their villages (Hussain, 1993).”

Journalists who tried to disseminate the truth and present an alternative narrative were given stern warnings and were identified as ‘anti-Assamese’ or ‘anti-nationals’. For example, BBC journalist Sabita Goswami was summoned to the central office of the agitators and warned against the publication of her story on the harassment of women by the agitators.

The warning was simple and direct: “If an Assamese writes in this manner, it is equivalent to going against Assam’s interest (Goswami, 2013)”. Acclaimed author and journalist Nirupama Borgohain was forced to leave Saptahik Nilachal because she dared to express her resentment against the treatment meted out to the Bengal-origin Muslim community (Hussain, 1993). 

The Assam Tribune, the largest circulating English daily, took an editorial decision not to publish any photograph of the Nellie Massacre[xv]. Two days prior to Nellie, more than 109 people were killed in a relief camp at Nagabanda High school just 30 kilometres away from Nellie[xvi]. There was a complete blackout in the Assamese media. Chaolkhuwa Chapori, a riverine village, was witness to another massacre on the 12th and 13th February, 1983. Almost 1,000 people were killed but for a week the news went unreported until the BBC broke the horrific story (Goswami, 2013).

In the last three decades, every time the Bengal-origin Muslim community was attacked in the Bodo Movement, the Assamese media brushed aside the issues of their relief, rehabilitation and justice under the convenient label of ‘illegal immigration’. In 2012, Assam witnessed independent India’s largest human displacement when over half a million marginalized people from both the Bodo and Muslim community were internally displaced.

Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now television channel and son of a BJP politician from Assam, raved that it was not a riot between Bodos and Muslims but rather a fight between the indigenous Bodo tribe and Bangladeshi infiltrators! The Assamese media soon joined the chorus and, in a tragic example of journalists turning agitators, the violence escalated and more innocent lives were lost.   

The media conveniently skips the horrifying accounts of deprivation, marginalization and subjugation of Bengal-origin Muslims only to keep the ‘environment of dehumanization’ intact.  

 

Abdul Kalam Azad works with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences as Research Fellow on a UNICEF-funded project ‘Mapping of children affected by violence in Assam’.

 

References

Diganta Sarma, Anju Azad. (2009, Feb 18). Nellie 1983. Retrieved 9 21, 2016, from Twocircles.Net: http://twocircles.net/special_reports/nellie_1983.html#.V-Gt9q3lw3w

Dixon, T. H. (2012, 4 26). Catastrophic dehumanization: the psychological dynamics of severe conflict . Oxford Martin School. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAs3cm_PSg4 Last accessed 21/09/2016

Dutta, N. (2012). Questions of Identity in Assam: Location, Migration, Hybridity. New Delhi: Sage.

Goswami, S. (2013). Along the Red River. New Delhi: Zubaan.

Hussain, M. (1993). The Assam Movement: Class, Ideology and Identity. New Delhi: Manak Publications Pvt Ltd.

Hussian, M. (2006). Internally Displaced Persons in India's North-East. Economic & Political Weekly , 41 (5).

Kaziranga National Park vs Union of India and others, PIL(suo motu) 66/2012, 67/2012, and WP(C) 648/2013 and 4860/2013 (Gauhati High Court 10 9, 2015).

 

 

End Notes

i  Poaching humans in Kaziranga Dated 22/09/2016 http://raiot.in/poaching-humans-in-kaziranga/ Last accessed on 23/09/2016

ii Two Killed in Police Firing Near Kaziranga, Eyewitnesses Say. Dated 19/09/2016 http://thewire.in/67104/kaziranga-firing-two-killed/ Last accessed on 23/09/2016

iii #KazirangaEvictionDrive: Illegal settlements razed down in three villages; two killed in clashes with police NewsLive dated 19/09/2016 http://www.newslivetv.org/news.php?s=top-stories&id=3050&t=-kazirangaevictiondrive-illegal-settlements-razed-down-in-three-villages-two-killed-in-clashes-with-police&sld=1 Last accessed on 21/09/2016

iv Deputy Commissioner of Morigaon sent a letter to Deputy Commissioner Darrang vide No. MRS. 33/2013/111 dated 31/10/2015.

v Incursion of suspected foreigners on in the state, DY365 (Television Channel) dated 30/10/2015 http://www.dy365.in/news_details.php?aID=1687&subC=2&top=N#.V-GIoq3lw3w Last accessed on 21/09/2016

vi With erosion as excuse, land grab rampant in Mayong, The Sentinel http://www.sentinelassam.com/mainnews/story.php?sec=1&subsec=0&id=280776&dtP=2016-09-10&ppr=1#.V-GLTq3lw3w Last access on 21/09/2016

vii Settlers sent home – Move to clear Morigaon land encroached 18 years ago. The Telegraph dated 19/08/2016 http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160819/jsp/northeast/story_103224.jsp Last accessed on 21/09/2016.

viii Drive to free land occupied by migrants The Telegraph Dated 4/12/2015 http://www.telegraphindia.com/1151204/jsp/northeast/story_56536.jsp#.V-GnXq3lw3w Last accessed on 21/09/2016

ix Schools, toilets: How Assam govt ‘legitimises’ land-grab by ‘illegal migrants Hindustan Times dated 3/7/2016 http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/schools-toilets-how-assam-govt-legitimises-land-grab-by-illegal-migrants/story-3CryZEbS5GIPu5vRFiJtGL.html Last accessed on 21/09/2016

x In the first week of February this year a 10 member inter-community youth group (Alumni and current students of prestigious institutes like IIT, TISS, Gauhati University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University) conducted a week-long study in the said villages (Dolpur and Phuhuratoli). This author was also part of the group. They undertook a household survey in 95 houses to study their socio-economic conditions and examined their citizenship documents.

xi “Chief Minister’s Special Scheme for Rehabilitation of Erosion Affected Families of Assam” vide circular No. RGR.785/2014/6 dated 12th March, 2015, Revenue and Disaster Management Authority.

xii Nodal Agency ‘Assam State Disaster Management Authority’ replied to this author saying that no application has been received under the scheme. However, other government documents and interview revealed that a large number of applications were received by ASDMA.

xiii New circular made the rehabilitation provision only for those who had lost their land in last one year, only victims who have land patta in his/her name are entitled to apply, having land in ancestor’s name wouldn’t made him/her eligible. 

xiv Agitators who got killed were in Nellie were provided ex-gratia of Rs. 25000 and victims got Rs. 5000. The current government has announced Rs. 500000 additional ex-gratia to the next of kin of the agitators who got killed. http://www.sentinelassam.com/mainnews/story.php?sec=1&subsec=0&id=275581&dtP=2016-08-03&ppr=1#.V-H7PhJ4gu0

xv Senior journalist Samudhra Gupta Kashyap shared the story in a conversation called “Can today’s society change the media” at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati organized by Thumb Print Magazine. Mr. Kashyap worked with Assam Tribune during Assam Movement. This author has previously quoted him in 2013 http://twocircles.net/2014feb16/nagabanda_massacre_and_other_side_assamese_intelligentsia.html#.V-G1Ua3lw3w

xvi Ibid

 

 

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