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Assam in the centre

Because many of the vital national debates are played out here

Written by Seema Chishti |
August 17, 2012 3:52:56 am

Assam,thanks to its geographical significance,is a crucial gauge of how India is treating the Northeast (“the Seven Sisters” is a slightly patronising term). But it is more than that. Besides indicating the mood of the Northeast,besides the electoral heft it commands in the Lok Sabha,Assam has given India plenty to think about over the years.

If you need any proof that Assam is not peripheral,you only have to look at the events in Kokrajhar triggering off violence in Mumbai and setting off a scare in Karnataka,with several families from Assam fleeing the place,fearing possible attacks on them.

The 1980s began with one of the most brutal massacres India has seen in recent times — in Nellie,Assam,in 1983. The elections that followed brought student leaders to power — they were among the youngest ever to rule an Indian state. That decade turned out to be tumultuous for the country as a whole,and the politics of the 1980s was indeed formed in the crucible of identity-based violence. Nellie almost alerted India to that phase; it is a warning that one sees more clearly in the light of hindsight.

The argument that “infiltrators” or refugees (more specifically,Muslim refugees from Bangladesh) were claiming what was rightfully the local people’s — be it land or jobs — proved extremely useful to parties that were looking for ethnic and identity issues to fan the notion that the (Muslim) outsiders were destroying the idea of a stable India,tampering with its“local” identity. This has served the cause of the Shiv Sena and the BJP admirably. However,now groups like the so-called Raza Academy use these fractious moments to take a leap from being senders of spam to “organisations”. If they have been able to play on the anger and injury on the “other side”,it is a testament to the durability of hate. It also shows how the right wing,in all communities,is battle-ready to exploit fissures.

There has been considerable finger-wagging about illegal immigration from Bangladesh,but there has also been consternation about the fact that Assam has the second highest percentage of Muslims,after Jammu and Kashmir. In districts like Dhubri,three-quarters of the population are Muslims. What is conveniently forgotten in the heat of the moment are crucial historical aspects. Over a century ago,during British rule,Bengalis,including Muslims,settled down in Assam — and this may have contributed to the ethnic composition of the state. It is also a part of fading memory that on the eve of Independence,when many Muslim-majority areas were enthralled by the Muslim League,southern Assam remained an exception. The extraordinary leadership shown by people like Abdul Matlib Mazumdar and Basanta Kumar Das ensured that significant parts of southern Assam,including Karimganj district that was part of Sylhet,defied the Partition template in those difficult times. However,the influx of refugees,especially after 1971,added to the perception that Bangladeshis were indistinguishable from local,Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims,and became a tool for political mobilisation.

Recently,Assam has been quick to take to the view that the old caste formula in politics — Dalits rooting for Dalits,or Yadavs voting for a Yadav leadership — is best explored for Muslims as well. In Uttar Pradesh,one saw the idea,which carries in it dangers of further fragmentation,leading to the rise of the Peace Party. Now in Assam,despite protestations that it fights for the oppressed,the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal openly promotes “Muslims for the rights of Muslims”. The success of that campaign and the AIUDF’s subsequent emergence as the main opposition party in the state have deepened the communal divide,pushing the Congress into an alliance with the Bodo People’s Front and drawing the contours of a complex and loaded situation.

Assam has also seen a Congress chief minister return to power,placing Tarun Gogoi in almost the same league as the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy,Sheila Dikshit and Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Assam will now be a crucial case study of how the Congress handles a volatile situation and squares up to allegations that its politics has led to communal violence.

There are different views on what caused the riots. Veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani signalled one of them as he talked about simmering tensions prompted by the “root cause”. However,according to another theory that is floating around,the population of Muslims has not increased “by leaps and bounds”. It goes on to suggest that the figures are a figment of the imagination and used to drive the Muslims out of what are considered Bodo areas,so that these remain principally Bodo-dominant places. The real reasons behind the riots are not known yet — and may never be known. The fate of the Tribhuvan Prasad Tewary report on the Nellie massacre,which was submitted in 1984 but is yet to be made public,could be repeated all over again.

How this issue is tackled by all political parties,and how soon it gets resolved,is vitally important. For,not only are its aftershocks being felt far away from Guwahati,but it also has the potential to provide a more worrying template nationally,for a politics of hate,which India seemed to have laid to rest.

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