A xenophobic Assam glosses over its own history

Assam was once a part of Bengal Presidency that included present Bangladesh and West Bengal. But the NRC has injected so much hatred it's almost impossible to repair the chasm between the citizens

A person killed in police firing during an eviction drive in Darrang, Assam last month
A person killed in police firing during an eviction drive in Darrang, Assam last month
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Patricia Mukhim

Events unfolding ever since Himanta Biswa Sarma took over as Assam Chief Minister are ominous. Extra-judicial killings have spiked on the plea that those killed were drug peddlers or criminals that deserved no mercy or because they allegedly tried to escape from prison. However, what is seen as most inhumane are the killings that occurred on September 23 during an eviction drive in Assam’s Darrang District.

Here a man armed only with a bamboo stick was shot at and killed by police. The allegations are bizarre. The man who was killed apparently chased away the policemen who had come to evict illegal settlers. This man then ran into another group of armed policemen who shot him in his chest, killing him instantly. Another shot was fired on his leg (to provide an alibi?)

But what followed the killing was even more bizarre. An official photographer hired by the district administration of Darrang to capture the eviction drive went berserk and stomped on the dead man’s body. The video capturing this gruesome incident went viral. The photographer Bijoy Shankar Baniya carried an outdated press card issued by a news agency from Kolkata.

It is also no coincidence that the police team was led by Sushanta Biswa Sarma, SP of the district and the younger brother of the Chief Minister. But all this seems to have the sanction of the larger ‘Assamese’ community.

Discussions on social media demonstrate the deep schism in Assam’s society today. A large section of the intellectual class seems to endorse what’s happening and argue that the reason why the BJP was voted to power was because the saffron party promised to deal with illegal migrants with a strong hand. They argue that illegal settlers had been given a free hand in the past by elected governments and politicians, who turned these “Bangladeshis” into their vote banks.

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The issue of illegal migration gained momentum when former Governor of Assam, General SK Sinha (Rtd) who was a former Vice Chief of the Indian Army, in November 1998 penned a report titled ‘Report on Illegal Migration in Assam.’ Sinha sent this 22-page report to the then President KR Narayanan.

The report laid the blame for all Assam’s ills including insurgencies led by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to insurgents’ alleged free access to and from Bangladesh. This report was never contested by scholars but it fed into the persecution complex already embedded in the mind of the Assamese intelligentsia that Bangladeshi immigrants were the bane of their lives and the usurpers of their space – a Lebensraum of sorts that they occupied because of the failure of the political class to check this.

The Sinha Report has become a sort of Magna Carta for the BJP, which came to power in Assam in 2016 with the express purpose of sorting out illegal migration once and for all. Those who have looked at the Report claim to have found glaring factual inconsistencies in it. The report conveniently overlooked Assam’s forgotten history of being once part of the Bengal Presidency; which resulted in a large section of Bengali speaking population settling in Assam long before India’s independence.

A xenophobic Assam glosses over its own history
Hindustan Times

But fears that the Sinha Report ignited have become rich fodder for minds already obsessed with the lament that “Bangladeshi migrants and Muslims will soon decide our political future.”

The report triggered the revision of National Register of Citizens in Assam, which was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2014. The final NRC report was riddled with contradictions with several lakh people finding themselves condemned to live in camps since they lacked citizenship documents.

The revised NRC has found many of these non-citizens eligible for citizenship but the NRC has injected so much hatred and xenophobia that it has become almost impossible to repair the schism between citizens (Assamese) and non-citizens (Bengali-speaking Muslims). Any attempt by anyone to share a different perspective on this issue results in a slanging match on social media.

The horror expressed by non-Assamese Indians at the bizarre eviction drives are being brushed aside and these critics advised to accommodate the Bangladeshis in their own state.

While there is undoubtedly a case for ensuring strict controls at the borders to prevent illegal migration, in Assam’s case it has become a case of closing the stable after the horses have bolted. How does a state get rid of a population that settled in it much before the idea of Assam took shape? How can someone who claims his family settled in Assam long before 1947 be called an illegal migrant merely because of his/her religion and for speaking a language that is not Assamese?

With the state hell-bent on carrying out eviction drives in areas dominated by the so-called Bangladeshi immigrants, Assam appears destined to witness more such attacks on the “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant”. Ironically, BJP must do this to appease its own perceived vote bank.

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