Updated: October 7, 2021 7:53:54 am
On September 23, a video trended on social media. In the video, a lungi-clad man holding a stick— later identified as Moinul Haque — is seen to approach some 20 armed police personnel. Over the next few seconds, he is shot at close range. As he falls to the ground, a dozen policemen or so are seen beating and kicking the dying man. The video also showed a civilian, later identified as a government photographer, stomping on the man lying on the ground. This display of medieval barbarism was witnessed during an eviction drive in Darrang district in central Assam.
Miyas are Muslims of East Bengal origin or Asomiya Muslims of Bengali origin. The history of migration of this social group into Assam dates back to the mid-19th century. Migration continued till the first half of the 20th century. The migrants assimilated with Asomiya culture and adopted Asomiya as their identity and language. Their doing so directly contributed to keeping Asomiya as the language spoken by the majority of people in multilingual and heterogeneous Assam.
Yet, the post-colonial society of Assam has witnessed large-scale othering and persecution of the Miya community. There can be no better illustration of the result of this process of othering than the killing of Moinul Haque and the desecration of his corpse.
Persecution of Miyas has a long history in Assam. They are regularly vilified as Gedas, “illegal immigrants”, “Bangladeshis”, “doubtful Bangladeshis”, “illegal encroachers”, etc. Many academics from the region label them as illegal immigrants. Using racial slurs against this social group has been widespread. Apart from quotidian dehumanisation inflicted by many in Assam, there have also been multiple killings with attendant impunity of the perpetrators. None of the perpetrators has hitherto been brought to justice for these mass crimes.
The targeting of the community continued in the name of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and through the creation of the infamous detention camps. A special category of people was created in Assam called “doubtful-voters”; citizenship of thousands of Miyas came under a cloud, based on prejudice and stereotypes. Many were forcibly sent to detention camps. The attack on the very citizenship of thousands of Miya people, including the elderly, women and children, has heaped unprecedented fear, melancholy and hardship on the community. In this series of persecution, “eviction” is the government’s new weapon to imprison this community in an unending cycle of poverty and hardship.
Assam has, of late, been witnessing several eviction drives. Most of these evictions are targeting Muslims. The eviction in Darrang has been executed without proper implementation of a rehabilitation plan. People were served notices to vacate their land at midnight, and evictions commenced the very next morning. Many of them did not receive any notice. The mainstream media has not asked appropriate questions to the government. The civil society lacks the moral courage to protest these evictions, though aware that this is a tool being used to leave thousands of people homeless, landless, and jobless. In the locations earmarked as eviction sites, human beings are reduced, in the now-famous characterisation of India’s home minister, to “termites”. The constitutional guarantee of equality for all citizens has been ground to dust. The backdrop of this collective failure of society is the prevailing Hindu-Muslim divide.
Assam has thousands of landless people. Most of them are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The IDPs are a creation of past instances of violence and natural calamities that include rivers running amok seasonally and riverbank erosion. But successive governments have not gotten round to resolving the issue of landlessness. Many of the landless are labelled as “illegal Bangladeshis”. Many people in eastern Assam think that lower Assam is full of Miyas. The political class leaves no stone unturned to fan prejudice and creates a fertile ground for hatred.
Civil society must, therefore, initiate a dialogue to bridge the inter-community gap and reclaim the truth. The people of upper Assam must be educated that Miyas are not Bangladeshi. This may be done by the civil society perhaps through a bridging project. Under such a project some people from villages of eastern Assam could be invited to spend time in Miya villages of western Assam, thereby building social bridges.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 6, 2021 under the title ‘A bridge to Assam’s other’. The writer is an Assam-based researcher
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