Updated: September 25, 2021 12:57:21 pm
An eviction drive that ends in the death of two people — one a 12-year-old — injuries to policemen, and macabre footage of a photographer embedded with the state police stamping on a dying man is not just a breakdown of order; it warns of a dangerous slide into sectarianism. How the Assam government’s action in Darrang district against alleged encroachers, largely drawn from the Bengali Muslim community, escalated into a situation in which the police opened fire, allegedly in “self-defence”, is now the subject of an inquiry by a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court. But this much is undeniable: Nowhere was the moderating hand of the state government, whose responsibility is to engage with people and assuage their disgruntlement, visible in Darrang. Despite the dissatisfaction of the several hundred families served eviction notices with rehabilitation options, the district administration did not stop to accommodate their concerns. Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma cast it as a way to free up land for the “indigenous” by ousting “illegal settlers”.
While the government is within its rights to remove encroachers, the fact remains that the BJP’s consistent anti-immigrant and anti-minority narrative has resulted in a gulf of suspicion between the state and the Bengali Muslim community. This echoes a history of insider-outsider antagonism in the state. Land is at the centre of this mistrust. Beginning in the late 19th century, British colonial interests had settled peasants from adjoining East Bengal in the fertile fields of Assam, creating an anxiety about the Bengali immigrant that persists to this day. In recent times, the BJP’s bruising CAA-NRC politics has deepened those fault lines and overlaid it with a distinct Hindutva agenda. Sarma fought and won the BJP’s second stint in power in Assam by framing it as a contest between “65 per cent (Hindus) and 35 per cent (Muslims)” and stoking the antagonism towards the “Miya Muslim”. A rhetoric that dehumanises people as “illegals” or “termites” or “Bangladeshi immigrants” also sets them up as targets for violence; legitimises social prejudice and hate.
Governance does not call for polarising rhetoric, but the will to take along the whole electorate, whatever their identity. Those responsible for Darrang’s shameful descent into violence must be held to account. Instead of coming down with a heavy hand on a destitute population that has been turned homeless, the state must reach out to them in a language of humane accommodation. Assam’s people have paid the cost of uncompromising identity politics with bloodshed before. It must walk away from that path of confrontation.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 25, 2021 under the title ‘The dangerous slide’
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