It was perhaps with legitimate fury that daily wage labourer Moinul Haque was gunned down seconds after he proceeded with a stick against an advancing police party to protest an eviction drive in Sipajhar area of Assam’s Darrang district on September 23 last year.

The day after Haque was brutally murdered, I spoke to my friend Nazimuddin, who was still in shock. He told me that the previous night, he’d had a dream about the police force retreating from the eviction site. Nazimuddin’s unconscious mind was churning with the trauma and fear of being Muslim in Assam.

His dream could be read as a warning about the potential violence that Muslims may face in everyday life. It could also be read in relation to the violence that has already humiliated, mutilated and marked their bodies. The necrophilia that accompanied the Nellie massacre of Muslims in 1983 during the Assam agitation was not very different from the desecration of Haque’s body by a cameraman after he was shot.

Bonfire of the horns

The day before Haque was killed, on the eve of World Rhino Day, a bonfire was organised on September 22 last year in Assam’s Bokakhat district, home to the Kaziranga National Park and the habitat of the state animal – the one-horned rhino.

A week before the event, the state cabinet decided that rhino horns recovered from poachers and from animals that had died natural deaths would be burned. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma argued that the myth that rhino horn has medicinal value needed to be busted. To do so, the state deployed science, religion and the police band.

Before the fire was lit by a high-tech drone, this effort to explode the myth was preceded by a ceremony conducted by a priest. The Assam Police provided a funeral and the gayatri mantra was chanted. Sarma issued a reminder: his was a tough government and poaching would not be tolerated.

To me, the event and its powerful symbolism was disconcerting. Here stood a chief minister who thought nothing of burning the state symbol publicly but also turned the cremation into a quasi-religious ritual.

It brought to mind political psychologist Ashis Nandy’s writing about Nathuram Godse’s defence in court that in order to save Mother India, he had to kill the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

Reading about the event had given me goosebumps, a condition that artist Salvador Dali had compared to a “field of rhino horns”. The rhino was to Dali what the sunflower was to Van Gogh – leitmotif and cosmos. For Dali, the rhino horn was the most perfect form one can find in nature, a bearer of cosmic knowledge.

He described it as the possessor of “a perfect logarithmic spiral” – it represented the basis of “all chaste and violent aesthetics”.

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari suggest that Dali’s comparison of goosebumps to a field of rhino horns exhibited the sensibilities of “madness”. To me, the ritualistic cremation of the rhino horns in Assam last year seemed to usher viewers into a similar “presence of madness”.

Rituals of politics

The relationship between ritual and politics is very old and has been a frequent line of inquiry in anthropology and sociology. Does the ritual of burning rhino horns give us a lens through which we can view our political present, and more particularly the predicament of minorities?

A ritual is not a primitive act but a marker of political action and power play. In “new India”, this is doubly true as Hindu iconography and rituals are deployed in public life with increased frequency and passion.

Newly created ceremonies, like the cremation of rhino horns, are exhibitions of power. As American anthropologist David I Kertzer noted, it is “through symbols we recognise who are the powerful and who are the weak, and through the manipulation of symbols the powerful reinforce their authority”.

Like a Dali painting, the surreal photograph of Moinul Haque being shot down and photographer Bijoy Bania jumping on him will become a part of history. In its frame, we see what we have become and the enemy we have been made to fear – “the encroaching Bangladeshi”.

The rights of Assam’s Muslims are eroding fast, much like the char-chaporis or sand bars on which many of them dwell. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in Assam in May last year, police killings have risen exponentially.

The Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 2021, and the Assam Repealing Act 2021 – under which government-funded madrassas were converted into regular schools – are administrative as well as political tools to attack and dispossess the state’s minorities. Natural disasters are also excuses for communalism such as the claim during the Silchar floods in June that blamed Muslims for waging a “flood jihad” by damaging an embankment.

The death of Moinul Haque is a testimony to our collective descent into darkness. To borrow from Irish author Samuel Beckett, “fury is past” and what remains is fear, “nothing but fear”.

Suraj Gogoi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at RV University, Bengaluru. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect or represent his institution. His Twitter handle is @char_chapori.

Also read:

Four months after violent Assam evictions, displaced families say they got no relief from government

‘Broken our hearts’: Assam madrasa demolitions have left Bengali-origin Muslims feeling besieged