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'Assam is today a laboratory for both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist forces'

By UTKARSH MISHRA
Last updated on: December 24, 2019 22:54 IST

'Just see how the religious thing has been kept out of the Bill with clever maneuvering.'

IMAGE: Assamese actors and actresses take part in a hunger strike organised by the All Assam Students Union in Guwahati. Photograph: PTI Photo

"How will the Government of India ensure that these (refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan seeking Indian citizenship) are actually Hindus?" Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, author of Assam: The Accord, The Discord, asks Rediff.com's Utkarsh Mishra in the second segment of a three part eloquent interview:

As far as I've studied the CAA, it doesn't define who is a Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, or Christian. The Constitution doesn't do it either. If I've a Muslim name, but refuse to identify as a Muslim, will I be entitled for citizenship?

There are so many complexities. It's interesting that you brought up this whole thing about on what ground these categories of people be given citizenship.

They (the government) are saying that people from six religious groups will be given citizenship because of religious persecution they face in these three countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan).

But the government knew that this may come in clash with the Constitution. So what they did was not to mention religious persecution in the draft bills, both the 2016 one and the 2019 one.

These conditions are mentioned only in the executive notification issued by the Modi government in September 2015 which the Bill refers to.

So you just see how the religious thing has been kept out of the Bill with clever maneuvering.

And then the other point is, how can you ensure (the identity)?

Suppose, I'm a Muslim and I know that If I take a Hindu name I will be getting this facility. I speak the same language, I wear the same clothes, I have the same looks, I have come from certain places, which are looked as the Hindu areas.

How will the Government of India ensure that these are actually Hindus? RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency) also expressed this concern to the joint parliamentary committee set up to look into the earlier Bill.

Then the argument given was that the government would take into note media reports mentioning religious persecution in certain areas or certain persons. We know stories can be planted in a section of media.

So, how credible will those reports be? Will not people with vested interest not be able to misuse this?

As you explain in your book, opposition to the Congress was a major factor in the Assam Movement. That's the reason why it got support of Congress opponents like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and RSS leaders. Now the BJP has replaced the Congress as the big power wagon.
But even that doesn't seem to satisfy the demands of the local people. Will they ever get a political alternative that resonates with their demands?

It's a very interesting question in the sense that people revolted against the Congress. They said that (the Congress was) actually protecting illegal Bangladeshis as a captive vote bank.

Then came the Asom Gana Parishad, a new political party that was born of the Assam Accord.

The BJP also contested those elections in 1985, but it was not at all a factor.

The AGP was looked at as the alternative to the Congress. But the AGP also fell flat on its face because of misrule and corruption and because of its inability and inexperience in administration.

It also allowed the state to plunge into militancy and thereafter army operations.

People were so exhausted because they were caught in the crossfire. Initially, there was a huge support for the insurgency.

But later they realised that this is not going to bring us peace. And this is not going to bring us a solution. So people went against insurgency.

And that's when the voters felt that now's the time to bring back the Congress, some order, some security of common people.

So the Congress became the preferred option for 15 years and you have to give credit to leaders like (then chief minister) Tarun Gogoi for having made what Guwahati is today in those 15 years.

That contributed a lot to the change in the public mindset. They looked at development as a solution to the people and some amount of participation in the state's economy.

Gradually, people realised that this (migrant) issue needed to be solved first and so we saw the BJP coming in. It is a raw sentiment which has to be addressed.

The BJP milked that sentiment from the 2014 parliamentary elections onwards. But it will also have to deliver.

If it doesn't, then the Congress is waiting in the wings. And if you look at the vote share (of the Congress), it has not gone down.

So people are engaging with the BJP, but its ideology has not been accepted. That's the difference.

It is often said that the prime reason for the Nellie massacre was forcing elections on an unwilling population on the basis of the same electoral rolls that gave rise to the whole conflict.
You have explained that there were several clashes between the two groups -- pro-election and anti-election -- before the Nellie massacre. And pro-election group also included Hindu Bengalis.
Yet, the victims of Nellie were mostly Muslims.
One, what does it say about the 'non-communal' character of the movement, and two, what roles did various leaders play in triggering the massacre?

I mentioned in the book what the communal leaders like Ghani Khan Choudhury of the Congress and Vajpayee of the BJP said to polarise the voters in terms of Hindus and Muslims during the 1983 elections in Assam.

There is a rumour, I insinuate somewhere because there's no way of confirming it, that certain hidden forces missed the local sentiments and played a role in Nellie.

But I refrain from calling Nellie a purely Hindu-Muslim riot. This is because if you are into consideration of all other killings, even in and around that area, before and after Nellie happened, it doesn't fit into it.

The Bodos and the Assamese were at each other's throats, the Assamese Muslims and the Bengali Muslims were at each other's throats, the Bengali speaking Muslims and Hindus were coming together against the Assamese speaking caste Hindus and the plains tribes and vice versa.

Taking at look at all of those riots and violence, what is the common thread that you find?

It is that there were people who were opposed to elections and people who were supporting the elections, called by the Indira Gandhi government then.

I also mentioned an incident quoted in the Mehta Commission report, which said a person whose family was very badly affected during Nellie gave his testimonial stating that Indira Gandhi said in their area during a poll rally that if you people (Muslims) don't vote in the elections then you will be thrown out of Assam.

So they had to vote, which attracted the ire of the agitation supporters.

You have to see the complicated situation the Bengali-origin Muslims were in at that stage; even the Bengali Hindus were in (the same situation) as the Assam agitation was a very, very polarising movement, everybody was getting segregated in terms of communities.

Many Bengali Hindus were attacked.

You have to also see the point why the minority communities thought of supporting (the elections), along with acknowledging the other side why they did not.

It was a tragic situation, but politics was played over it.

The mainstream media played a role too in making Nellie only a Hindu-Muslim riot.

Though other killings were taking place and the method of attack was same and equally brutal, it highlighted only Nellie because, of course, the number of killings was the highest, which could be one of the reasons but also because one set of people were Muslim, one set of people Hindus.

In this country, post Partition, a riot is a riot only when it happens between Hindus and Muslims.

But Nellie was something else too. For me, this was an anti-migration, anti-election riot.

In Khoirabari, about 500 Bengali Hindus were killed equally brutally, but it was not reported for a long period in the national media. There was a report in the national media 15-20 days later. It was between two sets of Hindus.

The Bodo and the Assamese killing each other also didn't get much national media attention. Even though, before visiting the camp where Nellie victims were staying, Indira Gandhi first went to Gohpur, visited the Bodo camp and the Assamese camp.

Importantly, I feel that because Nellie was projected only as a Hindu-Muslim conflict, it also allowed the communal forces -- both Hindu and Muslim -- to set up shop in Assam.

Assam is today a laboratory for both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist forces. And they are all segregating the people further, that's the bigger worry.

Part 3 of the interview: Assam: BJP/RSS and 'illegal immigrants'


Utkarsh Mishra covers national affairs for Rediff.com. He can be contacted at utkarshm@rediff.co.in.

UTKARSH MISHRA / Rediff.com
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