Abdul Khaleque, the Congress Member of Parliament from Barpeta, is under attack from the Bharatiya Janata Party for the sacrilegious act of urging the police to file a first information report against Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for making allegedly communal statements about Muslims.
The BJP issued a statement alleging that Khaleque was conspiring to turn Assam and India into the Islamic country that Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had dreamt about. Khaleque was also painted as a man creating obstacles for Sarma, whose mission is purportedly to put Assam on the path of development by freeing it from the hands of “illegal migrants”.
Sarma is being portrayed by the BJP and the local media as the new champion of Assamese nationalism. The old defenders of regional nationalism have already dropped all their pretences and unabashedly interpret Assamese nationalism in a Hindu language.
For his part, Sarma does not lose any opportunity to mock and even criminalise Muslims. For example, if a criminal is apprehended by the police and he happens to be Muslim, Sarma makes it a point to put out a tweet with his name. He did the same during the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 by profiling the people from Assam who attended the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in New Delhi that officials irresponsibly projected as an illegal gathering singularly responsible for the spread of the disease in India.
In his defence, Sarma’s supporters claim that he is only naming criminals and not talking about Muslims. But Sarma’s statements and tweets about criminals who happen to be Hindu do not carry their names.
However, the speech by Sarma that Khaleque sought action against was shocking even by his standards. In a speech on December 10, Sarma said the 1983 massacre of 1,800 people in Nellie and surrounding villates had been avenged by the Assamese youth in September 2021 when the police shot two Muslim men dead during a drive against what officials described as “illegal encroachments”.
“...The lands in Gorukhuti once belonged to the Assamese, that there was a 4,000-year-old Shiv mandir in the same place, and the priest of that temple was killed by repeatedly stabbing his body, and the wife of the priest was forcefully religiously converted,” said Sarma.
He claimed that khilonjiya or indigenous women had been raped by “those against whom we waged a movement”, a reference to the 1980s Assam movement protesting against undocumented migrants from Bangladesh.
“Assamese youths in Gorukhuti were brutally murdered in 1983,” he said. “Today, I feel proud, that in 2021 the Assamese have managed to take revenge for the brutal murder of unarmed Assamese youths who were heinously killed in 1983.”
But, Sarma claimed, “this is not enough”.
It doesn’t require much effort for an Assamese person to decode what Sarma was saying.
The memory of the killing of Moinul Haque on September 23 by security forces and the brutalising of his dying body by a photographer of the Assam police is still fresh.
The chief minister justified Haque’s murder when he angrily sought to know how anyone could have the temerity to resist security forces on a mission evict “illegal settlers” and pave the way for the development of Gorkhuti.
In the weeks that followed, fact-finding teams and reporters, most from outside Assam, found that only Muslims were being evicted from Gorkhuti – as is the case in eviction drives across the state. Former senior police officers said that the firing at protesters was disproportionate and unacceptable.
Sarma, by failing to condemn the brutalising of Haque’s dying body, a visual which left the world horror-struck, signalled that such barbarism was acceptable.
Sarma has taken anti-Muslim propaganda to a new level. He constantly defines Assamese nationalism not only in Hindu terms, but very clearly pitching it against Muslims. The Assamese media gleefully amplifies his hate campaign.
Abdul Khaleque’s attempt to have Sarma prosecuted is the first time someone has tried to call his bluff. That it had to be done by a Muslim lawmaker tells us something about the state of our society. Aggressive Assamese nationalism has put all political parties on the defensive. Even those who defend it in the name of ethnic rights and insecurities now find it difficult to criticise the communal and anti-Muslim propaganda done in its name.
Everything that has a Muslim element is being projected as incongruous to the Assamese identity. Be it poetry of the Miyas, as Assamese Muslims of Bengali origin are known, or a Miya museum, the BJP under Sarma and the media paints it as an assault and a conspiracy to defile Assamese identity.
It is not as if hate towards people dismissed as Bangladeshis was absent in Assam earlier. In the eyes of Assamese nationalists, their roots and loyalties lie with a different country, culture and religion.
But with the BJP in power again in Assam and given the motivations of the current chief minister, the hate towards Muslims has become more public, more frequent and untouchable by law. Anything a Muslim does in Assam is subject to a microscopic examination of whether they will harm Assam and the Assamese people. Given this narrowing of the secular, tolerant public space in Assam, Khaleque’s courage is a rare occurrence.
In October 2020, when Sherman Ali, a member of the legislative assembly from Assam’s Baghbar constituency, raised the question of a museum for the Miya community, he was subjected to trolling and intimidation.
Even his own party, the Congress, abandoned him. Ripun Bora, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president, told Ali to desist from pursuing the idea and making any further remarks about it, warning that the BJP could use it to their advantage.
Ali had proposed a museum at the Sandardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in riverine areas known as char-chaporis in Assam. Sarma rejected the idea, claiming that it would be a distortion of Assamese culture. Ironically, the proposal for the Miya museum had been cleared by a 16-member panel that included six BJP legislators.
Elements that are supposedly integral to the iconography of the Miyas are being circulated on social media in a mocking way – a torn lungi, barbed wire, muri, ittar.
Former chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal claimed in an October 2020 rally in Bodoland that the “Mughal” assault on Assam continues and soon, the state’s mother tongue will become Arabic. These comments came in the backdrop of the Assam government’s move to discontinue government funding for madrasas.
With the BJP, hate and antipathy towards Muslims is on the rise, but this should not take away from the fact that antipathy towards minorities has long been a part of Assam’s discourse. This hate came out of the bosom of Assamese nationalism. It has now taken an even more vicious turn, for which both the Congress and BJP are equally guilty.
If Gorukhuti is the savior of Assamese society, it has decay, violence, and hate written all over it.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.
Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral scholar at the National University of Singapore.