On March 5, a court in Guwahati directed the Assam police to register a first information report against Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for alleged “hate mongering” and making “inflammatory speeches”.

The complaint was filed against him on December 29 by Congress member of Parliament Abdul Khaleque, who was reacting to Sarma’s comments in the wake of evictions in Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district last September. The violent evictions, which were directed at areas mostly inhabited by Bengal-origin Muslims, left two dead, including a 12-year-old boy. They were an “act of revenge” for the killing of Assamese youth in 1983, Sarma had said in a speech made on December 10.

In February, when an FIR had still not been filed, Khaleque approached the sub-divisional judicial magistrate’s court, which observed that the police had “failed in the discharge of its duty” and ordered it to register an FIR.

Since the Gauhati High Court stayed the lower court order on March 11, Sarma is unlikely to face prosecution for his comments. However, it remains a rare instance where the court has taken cognisance of alleged hate speech by an incumbent chief minister and ordered police action.

“The duty of the chief minister is to maintain the peace, law and order but he is trying to break it by provoking people to attack Bengal-origin Muslims, which is a violation under Sections 153, 153A of the IPC,” Khaleque said, referring to sections of the Indian Penal Code used against provocation to rioting and discriminatory attacks. “The CM’s statement was made deliberately to create enmity between different groups, when the social fabric of the state was already fragile. The fact that a court has ordered an FIR proves the commission of a cognisable offence by none other than the chief minister of Assam,”

In Assam, other Muslim legislators have challenged Sarma at their own peril. But Khaleque has come out unscathed from his complaint against the chief minister. Scroll.in spoke to Khaleque about his complaint and his complicated political relationship with Sarma.

Friends turned rivals

Sherman Ali, the Congress MLA from Baghbar, paid the price for taking on Sarma after the Sipajhar evictions. Ali, who strongly criticised the evictions, said the Assamese youth who died in 1983 were not “martyrs” but “killers”. Assamese youth like them were responsible for the Nellie massacre of 1983, which killed thousands, mostly Bengali-origin Muslims, Ali alleged.

Ali spent two months in prison for his comments and was suspended from his party, the Congress. Khaleque pressed charges against Sarma even after Ali faced such consequences.

It was a marked reversal of his support for Sarma in his Congress days. Before Sarma became the Bharatiya Janata Party’s main political strategist in the North East, he was a prominent member of the Assam Congress and second-in-command of the late Tarun Gogoi, who was chief minister of Assam for 15 years.

Before the 2016 assembly elections, when it was believed the ageing Gogoi would vacate the post, Sarma’s name was floated as the chief ministerial face of the Congress. Khaleque who backed his candidature. However, Gogoi did not cede ground and Sarma joined the BJP.

Despite their public differences after Sarma joined the BJP, the two politicians shared a cordial relationship, at least until recently. Khaleque still refers to him by his first name. But as a Congress member of Parliament since 2019, Khaleque has repeatedly criticised the BJP government.

He is also scathing in his criticism of Sarma. “He was always extreme, even when he was in the Congress,” said Khaleque. “He can do anything to stay in power.”

Khaleque pointed out that back in 2014, when Sarma was still part of the Congress and campaigning against the BJP in the general elections, he used graphic language to describe the plight of Muslims who had been victims of communal violence in Gujarat. “Himanta said the blood of Muslims flows through water pipes in Gujarat. Muslims did not say that, he did,” Khaleque pointed out.

These days, Khaleque alleged, Sarma made “communal” statements to compete with his Uttar Pradesh counterpart, BJP Chief Minister Adityanath, and claim the Hindutva space.

“Himanta has emerged as the most communal chief minister of Assam,” said Khaleque. “In my entire political career, I have not seen such a divisive politician. He has no ideology.”

Himanta Biswa Sarma. Picture credit: Facebook

‘Revenge for political mileage’

Since Sarma came to power, his government has carried out frequent evictions in Assam, usually in areas inhabited by Bengal-origin Muslims. According to the government, they are “illegal encroachers” occupying government land.

The evictions in Dhalpur in the Sipajhar area of Darrang district, which Sarma had spoken about in his allegedly communal statements, turned violent after residents protested. It had made the headlines partly because of a viral video. It shows Moinul Hoque, one of the residents facing eviction, rushing towards the police with a stick in his hand. He is shot down and as he lies on the ground, Bijay Baniya, a photographer accompanying the police, stomps on his body.

The government claimed the land was to be cleared to make way for an organic farming project for “indigenous” communities.

“The eviction drive in Darrang’s Dhalpur area had brought attention of the entire world for brutal violence against Moinul Hoque, whose numb body was stomped on, he was not allowed to die with dignity,” Khaleque said. “Hundreds of families were left homeless, their homes razed to the ground, their livelihood snatched. Then the land was given to the people of another community to cultivate. How can such action become revenge?”

Darrang district is known as the cradle of the Assam Movement, the six-year-long anti-foreigners’ agitation that started in 1979 in the name of “jati, mati, bheti” – community, land and hearth. It was also where seven agitators were killed in 1983. The movement had pitted the ethnic Assamese, defined as indigenous to the state, against the Bengal-origin population, branded as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.

Sarma was referring to this troubled past when he described the evictions as “some degree of revenge” for the deaths of Assamese youth. “But that is not enough as alarm bells are ringing all around,” Sarma had said in his speech on December 10. “Dark clouds have appeared in the skies of Assam and whoever wants to work for the jati [community] has been a target of conspiracy.”

Khalque said the evictions were never about “encroachment” but about Sarma’s need to stage “revenge for political mileage”. He also accused Sarma of trying to create social disturbances.

Khaleque, who represents Lower Assam’s Barpeta constituency, told Scroll.in that the chief minister had violated his oath of office by saying the people of Assam had taken revenge through the evictions in Dhalpur in Sipajhar.

“The victims of the Dhalpur evictions are Bengal-origin Muslims,” said Khaleque. “Himanta Biswa Sarma is the Chief Minister of over 3.30 crore people. He took oath in the name of the Indian Constitution, where he said he will not discriminate. Now my question is did the Assam government or the people of Assam take revenge through the eviction drive?”

Allies in the Congress. Khaleque and Sarma in 2015. Picture credit: Special arrangement.

‘An embarrassment’

While Khaleque was critical of what he calls the BJP’s polarisation politics, he also spoke of Bengal-origin leaders who only helped to “sharpen it polarisation”. “I don’t want to name anyone but some of us are helping the BJP knowingly or unknowingly,” he said.

It may have been an oblique reference to Ali, who has positioned himself as a “Miya” leader in Assam. Once used as a pejorative for Muslims of Bengal origin in Assam, the word “Miya” has been reclaimed by the community as a marker of identity. Ali has emerged as a spokesperson for Miya interests, from language to culture to land rights.

While Sarma may not face an FIR, the lower court’s order ticked off the police and was an “embarrassment” for the state government, especially since the chief minister also heads the home department, which controls the police.

A lawyer in Gauhati High Court, who did not want to be named, pointed out the Assam Police, which now refuses to file an FIR against Sarma, was also implicated in the Sipajhar violence in September. “The court’s order is not only an embarrassment for them but also proves how biassed the administration is,” he said.