1980s was a troubled time in Assam. Those who lived through those years still recall the atmosphere of fear and insecurity. Rifts in the society ran deep along lines of language, religion and ethnicity. Time heals many wounds. Common people, through their daily struggle to eke out a living, move ahead and leave the disturbing experiences behind. But the past is catching up with the present in Assam once more.
The NRC exercise has been resurrecting many fissures. People are once again getting regimented along community lines. Mass violence has made a comeback –although in a different avatar – for, don’t we know that you cannot bathe in the same river twice? In place of bloody-thirsty mobs hacking helpless people, people are internalizing the violence wrought by the State, and are killing themselves in utter helplessness. The number of suicides related to the NRC process crossed 17 in the Hindu Bengali community alone.
Even this blood-letting has not been enough. On the night of 1st November, about five to six gunmen killed five unarmed men in Tinsukia district of eastern Assam (the ULFA (I) has denied their involvement). The gunmen picked up the young men and took them to a secluded spot by the river, told them to sit on the ground and then opened fire upon them. The killed were working class men most likely belonging to a Dalit sub-caste (Namashudra).The fault of the massacred was probably their Hindu Bengali identity. But why target Hindu Bengalis? We need to understand the politics that is being played out in recent years to answer this question.
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Shiladitya Deb, BJP MLA from Hojai assembly constituency, is a prominent character in this farce which was tragedy earlier. Unconfirmed media reports suggest that the NRC rejections figures in Hojai district are quite high. Being the MLA from a place with a large Bengali-speaking population is not an easy job at this time. Especially when the President of your own party, Amit Shah, has called your loyal voters left out of the NRC draft list Bangladeshi ghuspetiye (infiltrators). Shah went on to compare the infiltrators to termites, out to destroy Hindusthan. One can almost empathize with Deb.
But then Deb is no innocent to the game of communal attrition. He is known to make communally-coloured incendiary remarks. His Hindutva-fevered brain takes two leaps of faith. First, miyas, i.e., Bengali-speaking Muslims, living in Assam are Bangladeshis. On this count he finds co-travellers in the Assamese ugra jatiyatabadi (extreme nationalist) fold.
The latter also view Muslims of East Bengali origin with derision. But the contempt has to find an acceptable, legitimate way to articulate itself. Labeling Bengali-speaking Muslims as Bangladeshi is a convenient resolution. By marking miyas as Bangladeshis, therefore non-citizens, one de-recognizes their right to exist in this country. The matter of ethnic or religious prejudice gets a legitimate, nationalistic tone and sanction. But raising the Bangladeshi bogey could be a dangerous gambit for Deb. He is after all a Bengali-speaker, like Bangladeshis. To the Assamese ugra jatiyatabadi Bengali-speaking Hindus are also suspect. To blunt this, he deploys a second and more deadly weapon.
His second leap of faith is, miyas are jihadists and their aim is to turn India into an Islamic state. Invocation of religion, jihadi, ISIS separates Deb from his fellow-Bengalis who happen to be Muslims. It brings him closer to the Assamese jatiyatabadis. For good measure, he keeps insisting that satra (Assamese vaishnavite monastery) lands have been encroached by miyas. One can suspect him to be a Bangladeshi but who can deny that Deb is a Hindu? Deb’s compassionate Hindu heart bleeds for the hapless Assamese satras which symbolize a sect of his own faith. The same could not be said of miyas.
To be sure, these Hindutva motifs are not new to anyone familiar with the politics of the RSS. This explains why Deb is not censured. What makes his shenanigans ominous is not that the tropes that he uses are unfamiliar, which they are not, but that these are being deployed in a charged atmosphere, in a region which has had a troubled past of ethnic conflicts. This atmosphere, of late, has been created by the NRC process. All of a sudden we have been dragged back to that ‘80s show.
To the common residents of the state, the ULFA did not make its presence felt in the early years of 1980s. It was in the latter half of the decade, under the AGP government, that the organization started to gain attention. Let us not deny that the urban middle class found many things valuable in the politics of ULFA in those early years. This is not the occasion to elaborate on the politics of the ULFA. However, it must be admitted that the long-standing neglect and exploitation of human and natural resources of the region lent credence to the politics that the ULFA espoused.
The degeneration of ULFA’s practice has been evident for some time now. The popularity, gained on a plank of linguistic nationalism, has been frittered away. But this loss has been hard to accept. The leaders are taking a short-cut to regain popularity: a visceral, violent form of nationalism tuned to the majoritarian mood. Recently, opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced by the BJP, has been a battle cry of Assamese nationalists. The Bill (CAB) grants amnesty, and later on citizenship, to Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants. This raised the hackle of Assamese nationalists. Their fear is, Hindu Bangladeshis would swamp Assam.
For Deb and the BJP, who stand to the face the wrath of Hindu Bengalis of the state excluded from the NRC, the CAB is a clever ploy to filter out Hindu NRC-rejects from Muslim NRC-rejects. The CAB therefore pits Deb against the jatiyatabadis. Mrinal Hazarika, a pro-talk ULFA leader, threatened Deb for planning to organize a pro-Bill rally in Guwahati. Hazarika also explained how he thinks the CAB could be scuttled.
To force the RSS, to stop the government from raising it in the parliament, terrorize the Bengalis, he advised (by “Bengalis” Hazarika probably meant Hindu Bengalis). Bring back the days of 1982-1983, enter into their houses and threaten them, Hazarika suggested. Put up posters, and send a message that they would be driven out of Assam if they dare to support the CAB. If necessary do massacres, Hazarika breezily elaborated his plan. All this was going on in a meeting in Guwahati organized by the Khilonziya Mancha (the Indigenous Forum) on 24th October.
Hazarika was subsequently questioned by the police for his provocative comments and later arrested. But, probably, his line of tactic is finding takers. The ghastly killing of five Bengali working class men on the night of 1st November in Tinsukia underlines its popularity. The ULFA (I) actually had deployed terror tactic to protest the CAB earlier than the tactic was articulated by Hazarika.
On 13th October, immediately before the Durga Puja, a bomb went off in the heart of Guwahati city injuring five. The ULFA (I) claimed responsibility. It would also not be surprising if fingerprints of the State are found in Tinsukia. Neither can the involvement of the pro-talk ULFA faction be ruled out. Whichever way, actions by gunmen who target unarmed poor of a designated community in the middle of a distressing NRC process, with the parliamentary and panchayat elections looming in the horizon, spell more political uncertainty. One fears that clever communal manoeuvres by the Sangh can trigger an ethnic conflagration which it would be singularly incapable of controlling.
When history repeats itself tragedy turns into farce. Farce it may be. For, BJP MLA Deb has decided to utilize life-long communist Hemango Biswas’s birthday to further his political purpose. In 1960 when the Brahmaputra valley was engulfed in fratricidal smoke of language movement Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika took out a peace caravan of cultural performance throughout the state. Common working mass of either community have nothing to gain from ethnic fights, they appealed to the people.
During such moments of courage, when organic intellectuals defy the murderous mood of the mob, real works of art are forged. On the caravan route, while in Nagaon town, Bhupen Hazarika wrote the iconic “Manuhe manuhor babe/ Jodihe okonu nebhabe” – a song whose healing touch transcends centuries and communities.
Hemango and Bhupen co-wrote and sang, “Haradhan rangman katha”, a song infusing Bihu and Bhatiyali rhythm and tune, as well as Assamese and Bengali ordinary folks’ language. If we sincerely want to put an end to the internecine ethnic battles, like the one unfolding in front of our eyes triggered by the NRC and CAB, there is no other way but to forge a new politics in the spirit “Haradhan Rangmankatha”. This is the spirit of working men’s unity.
Note: A different version of the article has appeared on The Wire
Debarshi Das is a faculty member in the department of Humanities and Social Science, IIT, Guwahati. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org