“Athu karh [kneel down],” shout men in a video uploaded on Facebook on December 25. They are gathered at a petrol pump in Guwahati, haranguing two of its employees – Tuntun Kumar and Govindagiri, both from Bihar.

“Oi Bihari, piton lage [Hey Bihari, you want a beating]?” shouts someone else as the two employees are shoved and heckled.

A few policemen have made their way through the crowd, trying to keep the hecklers away from Kumar and Govindagiri. Their efforts prove futile. The two petrol pump employees are finally forced to kneel down, holding their ears. Cries of “jai aai Axom [glory to mother Assam]’’ break out from the crowd.

The video was uploaded on Facebook later the same day by members of the group that had led the harangue – the Veer Lachit Sena, a socio-political organisation that claims to represent the Assamese people.

Rantu Paniphukan, the organisation’s chief secretary, said it “intervenes whenever any indigenous Assamese person is targeted and threatened and any injustice is done by outsiders”.

In each incident, people who are not ethnic Assamese are targeted for offences, real or perceived, against those defined as indigenous to Assam. Many of these incidents are filmed and circulated on social media afterwards.

The group was founded in 2010, but it has grown active in recent years – its members claimed that they have scaled up their “interventions” from eight to 10 per month in 2020 to over 50 per month in 2021.

Old resentments against “outsiders”, those not considered indigenous to Assam, have swelled over the last few years. They grew as Assam updated its National Register of Citizens, an exercise that was meant to create a list of “genuine” Indian citizens and detect so-called foreigners living in the border state.

Most hostilities in recent years have been aimed at Bengali-origin communities in Assam, accused of being “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh. But the Veer Lachit Sena has also directed its attention towards other ethnic or linguistic minorities in Assam – very often, Bihari or Marwari workers, traders and businessmen. Historically, these communities have also been the target of hostilities in Assam. They are not accused of being foreigners, merely “outsiders” who are a threat to the “indigenous Assamese”, specifically, an economic threat.

“The outsiders, with their money and political power, have started a conspiracy to exploit indigenous people in the trade sectors,” said Paniphukan. “We do not have any problems with outsiders doing business here but they can’t harass or torture the Assamese people.”

Police try to keep the Veer Lachit Sena at bay in the petrol pump, but their efforts prove futile. Picture credit: Video screengrab.

‘Not a single Bihari should be seen’

But the Bihari employees at the petrol pump in Guwahati were not wealthy businessmen. Most get by on a salary of Rs 8,000-10,000 a month.

According to police officials at Guwahati’s Dispur police station in Guwahati, it had all started on December 24, when a war of words had broken out between the petrol pump staff and two customers on a scooty – Manjyoti Baruah and Bidyut Saikia – who complained about a delay in service.

Verbal abuses escalated to a physical fight. According to Manjyoti Baruah, his companion dislocated his shoulder in the fight – the police claim Saikia injured himself as he tried to throw a helmet. Calm was restored after the police arrived.

But the matter did not stop there. Manjyoti Baruah said he complained to the Veer Lachit Sena, who descended on the petrol pump the next day.

“We went to check the CCTV footage to find out what really happened and why the two Assamese men were attacked,” said Bikash Baruah, who heads the Sena’s Guwahati unit. “Only two staff members were present there.” Having failed to find the CCTV footage, they turned their anger on the staff members they found at the petrol pump. “We made them kneel down and do sit ups so that they don’t touch Assamese people the next time,” he said.

Bikash Baruah seems to have been unaware that Shashi Singh, the petrol pump cashier, was also there, watching events unfold. “About 50-60 people entered the petrol pump on bikes and caught the two workers at the depot,” he said. “They were not involved in the fight on December 24 but still they were humiliated in public.”

Singh claimed the Lachit Sena also hit 31-year-old Govindagiri, who left Assam soon afterwards.

“They have told us ‘ek bhi Bihari dekhai nahi dena chahiye’ [not a single Bihari should be seen],” recounted Singh. “But Assamese people also live in Bihar – it is the same country. We haven’t committed a crime by coming here. We are here to work.”

He added that the attack had left the seven Bihari workers at the petrol pump feeling “insecure” and “terrified”. “This happened to us today, it will happen to others in future. The government and police should look into this,” Singh said.

According to a senior police official at Dispur police station, Manjyoti Baruah and Bidyut Saikia had refused to file a first information report on December 24, when the initial scuffle broke out. “They had only filed the FIR after the Lachit Sena created ruckus at the petrol pump the next day,” he said.

After the petrol pump owner also filed an FIR, the police arrested 14 members of the Lachit Sena, booked for voluntarily causing hurt, among other offences. They also arrested the two petrol pump staff members involved in the scuffle on December 24 – another official at Dispur police station confirmed Kumar and Govindagiri had not been involved.

“All were released on the same day after being given notice under section 41(A) of the CrPC,” the senior police said. Under the provision, the police issue notices to the accused, registering the fact that they have been booked for cognisable offences without keeping them under arrest.

Veer Lachit Sena leader Shrinkhal Chaliha. Picture credit: Facebook.

‘Like Lachit Barphukan’

The Veer Lachit Sena is spread out across Assam, run with the help of district-level secretaries. Bikash Baruah said they had become more active since December 2019, after Assam saw widespread agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. A steady stream of “interventions” through 2020 had given the group publicity, Bikash Baruah said, so by 2021, they were receiving several calls a day.

The CAA aims to facilitate citizenship for non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Assam, this triggered protests from those defined as indigenous to the state – they feared the law would naturalise thousands of Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. Assamese ethnic nationalism has long been shaped by the fear of “bahiragat”, or “outsiders”, overrunning “indigenous” lands and wiping out native cultures. These anxieties created the Assam Movement, the anti-foreigners agitation that lasted from 1979 to 1985.

The Veer Lachit Sena taps into these fears in its attacks on non-Assamese groups. Members of the group claim to model themselves on Lachit Barphukan, the Ahom military commander who defeated Mughal forces in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671, a part of history that is invoked by Assamese nationalists today.

“We work to keep Greater Assam united like Lachit Barphukan did, to protect jati, mati, bheti [community, land, hearth] from the aggression of the outsider is our prime goal,” said Bikash Barua, who has been with the group since 2019. Greater Assam, or undivided Assam, is the state as it was post-Independence, before Nagaland, Meghalaya Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of it.

In one “intervention” in Upper Assam’s Sivasagar district, for instance, Veer Lachit Sena leader Shrinkhal Chaliha threatened to strike a Bengali-origin businessman with a “hengdang”, a kind of sword used by the Ahom kings.

The businessman, Narayan Paul, was born and raised in Assam and has run a garment store in Sivasagar since 1996. On August 28, Chaliha had threatened to shut down the shop because Paul had allegedly not paid rent to the Assamese landlady. Paul claimed the matter was in court.

Chaliha seems undaunted by the police action his threats could invite. “Jail is my second home, we are not afraid,” he said.

A police official in Sivasagar said a case had been registered against the shop closure and those accused were summoned. “We took all action as per law,” he said. He did not elaborate what action had been taken, and Chaliha said he had not been summoned in any case.

“The government has completely failed to protect the rights of the natives,” said Chaliha. “That’s why people come to Veer Lachit Sena. We are receiving four-five distress calls every day.”

Chaliha has often urged the government to move against so-called illegal migrants in the state. Soon after violent eviction drives killed two in Assam last year, he asked the government to conduct more evictions against “encroachers” – a word that has become code for “illegal migrant” in the state – in Mayang, a place associated with black magic and mythology.

The Sena is often locked in competitive politics with Bengali groups based in southern Assam’s Barak Valley. After Paul was threatened, for instance, the Barak Democratic Youth Front filed an FIR in Southern Assam’s Silchar police station, hundreds of kilometres from Sivasagar, demanding Chaliha’s arrest.

In October, after the Barak Democratic Youth Front reportedly smeared Assamese signboards in Silchar with black ink, the Sena allegedly retaliated by giving Bengali signboards in Guwahati the same treatment.

‘You are in Assam, speak in Assamese’

In several “interventions”, the Sena heckles their victims to speak in Assamese.

On October 4, they shut down Sudhir Saloon and a paan stall in Guwahati’s Manipuri Basti for 20 days. Both are owned by one Ram Thakur, whose family had moved to Assam from Bihar in the 1960s. He went to school in Assam’s Bokakhat town.

Thakur had a long-running dispute with the landlord of the paan stall premises. The landlord had asked him to vacate the room in 2013, but Thakur claimed he had already paid for it in advance and was within his rights to stay on. “He also sent a legal notice to vacate it,” said Thakur. “I challenged it in the local court and started paying rent in the court.”

Not long ago, Thakur said, he had told the landlord he was ready to vacate the stall if the advance payment was returned.

Then suddenly on October 4, the Veer Lachit Sena shut down both the stall and the saloon. They alleged Thakur had not paid Rs 72,000 in rent for the paan shop and was occupying it illegally.

A widely circulated video shows Sena members threatening workers at the saloon.

“Axomot aso, Axomiyat kotha paat [You are in Assam, speak in Assamese],” they can be heard saying to the employees, who are not ethnic Assamese. “If you don’t know Assamese, why did you come here?”

Thakur said the 20-day shutdown entailed a loss of Rs 40,000 and he had a hard time paying rent, Rs 6,000 each for the stall and the saloon. The establishments were finally reopened after the police intervened.

Ram Thakur's saloon and paan stall were shut down for 20 days. Picture credit: Rokibuz Zaman.

Dipanta Phukan, officer in-charge at the Paltan Bazar police station, under which Manipuri Basti falls, said four Sena members had been chargesheeted for closing the shops.

But a few weeks later, the Sena struck again, shutting down Mittal Autozone in Guwahati’s Lalmati area. A woman in the video of the incident claims the car dealer, Vinit Mittal, had used abusive language against her, forcing her to leave her job. She had then approached the Sena for redress.

Members of the Sena, who gathered outside the dealer’s on November 29, can be seen confronting Mahendra Mittal, Vinit Mittal’s father. They threaten to shut down the place unless Vinit Mittal apologises in person. They also ask him to speak in Assamese.

A police official at Basistha police station said no case had been registered as the aggrieved parties had “negotiated among themselves”.

“We will take action against the Veer Lachit Sena if they do it again. Such incidents are illegal and they are doing it everywhere recently, “ he said.

Filling a ‘vacuum’

Bikash Baruah compares the group to the Marathi subnationalist Shiv Sena, which has often militated against migrants in Maharashtra. But the genealogy of the present group might be traced back to another Lachit Sena, which social scientist Hiren Gohain calls one of the early instances of chauvinism in an “organised form” in Assam. The group led a brief anti-Marwari riot in 1968 before quietly fading away.

During the Assam Movement and the decades of militancy that followed, Marwari and Bihari traders and businessmen were targeted and even killed by armed groups, but such violence had largely died out over the last two decades.

What explains its resurgence now?

Political observers in Assam feel the rise in the Veer Lachit Sena’s activities have been enabled by the current state government, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, which has positioned itself as a champion of local interests against “outsiders”.

“The Veer Lachit Sena is a rabid ultra-nationalistic group thriving on the climate of hate spread in Assam and other parts of India,” said a former director general of police in the state. “This jingoistic nationalism has no popular support, but administrative action by government agencies against them is lax. Common people do not confront them. Rather, they avoid them.”

However, according to social scientist Uddipan Dutta, the Veer Lachit Sena was trying to carve a niche for itself by projecting an aggressive Assamese nationalism that was distinct from the BJP’s brand of pan-Indian nationalism.

“They think that if they occupy that particular space they can have political gains,” he said.

This seems to be borne out in conversations with leaders of the Sena. While the group does not fight elections, they claim they are trying to fill a void in the regional discourse that has opened up recently. “There is a vacuum in Assamese nationalism and many ethno-nationalist student leaders have shifted to the BJP’s and other parties’ ideology overnight,” said Paniphukan. “So we, the Veer Lachit Sena, are trying to protect the interest of the Assamese people.”

Dutta felt the group was using old and widespread resentments against non-native trading communities in Assam. “As the non-native traders, merchants and industrialists are very powerful, the Lachit Sena has used the popular mindset against outsiders and vented on the petty managers, workers who are hired to run their business,” he added.

New economic anxieties are added to the mix. Manoranjan Pegu, a researcher from Assam, said the Sena’s activities are manifestations of unemployment problems, aggressive nationalism and a larger economic malaise in the state.

“They [non-Assamese traders and workers] are seen as outsiders who are coming and taking away indigenous jobs,” said Pegu. “But it is also known that various organisations actually function with the donations from these business persons. Organisations like Sena, through these attempts, portray themselves as protectors of indigenous interests and Assamese nationalism.”