Curse of the Brahmaputra: Assam Drowns Every Year and Rest of India Turns a Blind Eye

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The death of Haishor Ali’s seven month old toddler is the second drowning case within a week in a village called Mazidbhita in Barpeta district of Assam. Ali’s house got inundated in the current devastating flood. The flood water of river Beki, a tributary of mighty Brahmaputra, has submerged the earthen floor of his house. The entire family has been living on two elevated beds.

On that fateful day of July 11, Ali’s wife Eliza Khatun got up before dawn and went to the nearby jute field on their country boat to attend to nature’s call. There is hardly any toilet in the village that can be used and open defecation is the order of the day. Women and adolescent girls have to do it before sunrise. By the time Eliza came back and started preparing breakfast on one corner of the other bed, where her mother-in-law was sleeping, Ali got up and couldn’t find his son Injamul on the bed. Injamul was neither on his mother’s lap or his grandmother’s.

Injamul drowned in the flood water. His dead-body was found under the bed. Just the thought of it brings back sharp memories of the Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who lay dead on the shore, face down. But there was nobody to photograph Injamul, or even mourn his death.

Majuli floodsAn aerial view of the flooded river island in the Brahmaputra river in Majuli, in Assam on September 24, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

This year alone, there have been more than 50 deaths and thousands have been displaced. The numbers are still not enough to hit the collective conscience of the nation. The news of flood in Assam has become monotonous and boring over the years. With abysmally low attention from policy makers and policy advocates, a large percentage of population is turning into climate refugees in Assam. This is happening silently but has dangerous repercussions on socio-economic and political spheres of the state.

Injamul drowned in the flood water. His dead-body was found under the bed.

The intensity of flood and erosion has terribly increased in the last few decades. The weather has become more unpredictable, impact of flood and erosion has been more destructive. Over half a century ago, the magnitude of flood was much lesser and people used to welcome the flood. Writings of travellers and soldiers of the medieval time reveal the story of amazing rivers and awe-inspiring seasonal rains in Assam. Assamese people used these factors to their advantage in their battles against other armies.

Assam flood

But the situation has drastically changed. Experts believe that along with adverse impact of climate change, deforestation, destruction of natural water bodies like beels and haors, short-sighted interventions have created more problems than they could solve.

Sanjay Barbora, the dean of humanities and social sciences at TISS, Guwahati says, “The propensity to build embankments and dykes with a very short-term economic logic in mind created several unintended consequences that continue to have an adverse impact on the social geography of the Brahmaputra valley.”

Over half a century ago, the magnitude of flood was much lesser and people used to welcome the flood.

He further argues that the construction of embankment has radically altered the social structure of the place and construction of such embankment in one village creates water-logging in the paddy fields of another. Moreover, the breach of embankment causes more loss since the community doesn’t remain prepared for the unforeseen disastrous event.

The major casualty caused by flood in recent years in Assam has close links with some of the mindless development projects in the region. Devastation happened in 2004 in Barpeta and adjoining districts due to the release of access water from Kurishu dam in the upstream of river Beki in Bhutan. Those on the side of the downstream didn’t have a clue about the imminent disaster and thus couldn’t prepare at all.

Rivers of Assam

The floods in 2004 had far reaching impact on human and wildlife in areas including the Manas National Park. The debris carried by flood water blocked and killed a river called Hakura at Mathanguri in Indo-Bhutan border. The water of river Hakura got diverted to Beki which caused over-flowing and widening of river Beki, resulting in heavy erosion and displacement of tens of thousands people.

This year the sudden release of water from NEEPCO’s dam over Ranganadi has created havoc in Lakhimpur district. The flood victims allege that the dam authority didn’t warn the people about the release of water and the risk of subsequent flooding. An early warning could have saved many lives and properties in the district.

Assam floods 2017 - Inundated areasAssam floods 2017 (Image: Bhuvan/ISRO)

The government sponsored flood control and response measures deployed in Assam are one of the most frustrating things to observe. Every year, in the pre-flood scenario, the government agency concerned build or repair the embankments just before the monsoon which makes these structures extremely vulnerable and often get breached on the first web of flood.

In post flood situation, the agencies wash their hands with distribution of meagre amount of essential commodities like rice, pulse and salt in the relief camps and in some cases fodder and tarpaulin. A government official informed that they have distributed 20 bags (35 Kgs per bag) of fodder among 4,000 farmers as the only flood relief measure!

The news of flood in Assam has become monotonous and boring over the years.

Though India is a signatory in the Sendai Framework, a voluntary and target oriented disaster risk reduction agreement and Assam claims to be the first state to implement it, there is hardly any initiative taken by the responsible agencies to reduce the risk and vulnerability in the flood prone areas of Assam.

Sendai Framework has identified four priority areas for action i.e. i) understanding the disaster risk, ii) strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, iii) investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience and iv) enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Unfortunately, we could hardly find any of these in the priority list of the government for action.

Stranded Baby Rhino in Assam A baby rhino seen standing near a human settlement following floods at the Kaziranga National Park on July 27, 2016 in Assam. (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Former chief minister of Assam late Sarat Chandra Sinha realised the hollowness of government sponsored flood control and response mechanism and asked the people to learn to co-exist with the flood.

Four decades later, the “Build Back Better” concept of Sendai Framework talks about promoting decentralised and participatory approach to reconstruction and best use of local and traditional knowledge and skills. Thus, making the community more resilient towards flood.

Similarly, Early Warning System (EWS) involving key components like risk knowledge, monitoring and warning, dissemination and community response can reduce the vulnerability to a great extent. The Central Water Commission (CWC) has sufficient numbers of gauge water level in the state and monitors the water level on hourly basis during the flood prone monsoon season. But the readings never reach the vulnerable communities who need the information most.

Rickshaw puller in flooded Guwahati A rickshaw puller wades through the water logged area of Anil Nagar road after a heavy downpour on July 7, 2016 in Guwahati (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In our neighbouring country Nepal, the development agencies are tapping traditional and local knowledge to build successful community-based early flood warning system.

In Bangladesh, an initiative called ‘Char Livelihood Programme’ has been one of the best interventions to eradicate extreme poverty in the flood and erosion affected char or river island areas of Bangladesh using traditional knowledge and taping local resources.

Buffaloes in flooded Kaziranga Wild buffaloes swim through flood waters at Kaziranga National Park on July 26, 2016 in Assam. (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Considering the impact of climate change, deforestation and destruction of natural water reservoirs, there is little doubt that the intensity of flood and erosion will continue to strike in Assam for coming years too. Our response to flood and erosion need a paradigm shift in terms of control and response.

Though we are blessed with inspiring people like Jadav Payeng, who promotes afforestation as a flood and erosion control mechanism but our government seems to be not interested in investing on communities to build their capacity to reduce the disaster risks using traditional knowledge and skills.

They’d rather be busy in building non-sustainable embankments, porcupines and distribution of flood relief in quantities that many would term inhumane.

The Struggle of ‘Doubtful Voters’ Has Intensified in BJP’s Assam

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The Sonowal government has employed measures that appear designed to pressurise local authorities to work at its behest, all the while creating fear and giving rise to renewed anger among the Muslim community.

 

On June 30, 22-year-old Yaqub Ali was killed by police fire in the Goalpara district in western Assam. Ali was part of a protest march demanding an end to the harassment of Muslims for allegedly being ‘D voters’. ‘D voter’ is a category of voters in Assam where ‘D’ stands for ‘doubtful’. The citizenship rights, entitlements and privileges of a D voter are withheld until they prove their citizenship.

In 1997, the Election Commission (EC) identified several hundred thousand people as D voters, most of them Muslims, but also including Bengali Hindus, Koch Rajbangshis, Nepalis and others. The process of identifying D voters came into being after a huge political mobilisation led by All Assam Students Union (AASU) and other ultra-nationalist organisations, with the government being asked to carry out an intensive revision of the voters list across Assam.

EC officials were supposed to conduct door-to-door surveys and revise the list after verifying people’s citizenship documents. However, it is alleged that the people were randomly marked as doubtful citizens. There are numerous cases where one or two members of a family were marked as doubtful while others were marked as Indian citizens. There are peculiar cases where government officials, including election officers, and Assam police personnel belonging to the Muslim community are enlisted as doubtful voters. Family members of distinguished Assamese Muslim personalities like film actor Adil Hussain, literary legend Syed Abdul Malik and Padma Shri Eli Ahmed were also branded as D voters and questioned about their nationality.

‘Reference case’

Listing someone as a D voter is not the only way to strip them of citizenship in Assam. The Assam police has a one-of-its-kind organisation to deal with the so-called illegal migration from Bangladesh. In 1962, the Assam police established a special branch organisation under the Prevention of Infiltration of Pakistan (PIP) scheme. Initially, the organisation was headed by the special branch’s deputy inspector general of police.

This unit was entrusted with detecting and deporting illegal foreigners from Bangladesh, known as East Pakistan at that time. Under the PIP scheme, nearly two lakh Muslims were forcibly deported to Bangladesh without any legal process. When Meghalaya was bifurcated from Assam, it also had border police units, but despite sharing a border with Bangladesh, the state has dismantled its border police units and turned them into normal police outposts.

Currently, the Assam police border organisation is an independent organisation manned by over 4,000 personnel and headed by an additional director general of police of the state police. In 2009, the organisation was further empowered with greater discretionary power to question anyone and to take their fingerprints and photographs. The police have fingerprinted thousands of so-called doubtful people, who are mostly internally displaced people in search of a livelihood. Now they are forced to go through a rigorous and expensive legal process to prove their nationality.

In rural areas, the border police units are entrusted with conducting surveys in villages and sending the names of suspected illegal foreigners to the foreigner’s tribunal. It has even been alleged that border police constables were given set targets to report certain numbers of cases every month. This practice led to thousands of genuine Indian Muslims being listed as doubtful citizen and reference cases were registered against them.

The numbers

Till October 2016, 6,21,688 people, mostly Muslim, were either branded as doubtful voters or reference cases were registered under The Foreigners Act 1946, resulting in them losing access to government-sponsored welfare schemes, the right to vote, and other civil and political rights granted to an Indian citizen. In February 2017, Assam’s parliamentary affairs minister, Chandra Mohan Patowary, said that the cases of 4,44,189 people were referred to tribunals. Altogether 2,01,928 cases are still pending with the tribunals.

Data shows that of the cases resolved, 92% were able to defend their Indian nationalities. The majority of the remaining cases where the person was declared as foreigner were ex-parte judgements. As per the white paper on foreigners published by government of Assam, 88192 cases were disposed off between 1998 and 2012. Out of 88192 cases, only 6590 cases were declared as foreigners.

Unfortunately, the cases of declared foreigners poses a serious question on the nature of the judgements. Last year, the government of Assam published a list of around 38,000 untraced declared foreigners in the local newspapers. The Assam police also put out a list of nearly 7,000 ‘declared untraced foreigners’. The list has ‘declared untraced foreigners’ from 13 districts of Assam. Out of 13 districts, three districts provide the information regarding ‘manner of judgement’. The data of Mangaldoi district reveals that out of 208 cases of untraced declared foreigners only one person contested his case. In Karimganj district, the ratio of ex-parte and contested case is 938:9, while in Hailakandi district, the ratio is 127:2.  This shows that the cases where people were declared as foreigners by the tribunal were mostly unchallenged or that the court didn’t examine their nationality at all.

Why people are protesting now

Protests against the arbitrary filing of reference cases and listing as D voters is not new in Assam. There has been a constant demand and mobilisation from the Muslim community to stop harassing them for being illegal Bangladeshis. However, there have been visible changes in the approach of the government in dealing with the issue. The BJP-led state government in Assam came to power by mobilising the majority communities on the issue of alleged illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Since coming to power, the government’s actions have created more fear among the Muslims, while also feeding their anger and frustration. Certain measures have eroded the credibility of the foreigner’s tribunal and has created an environment of utter helplessness among the Muslims.

Soon after coming to power, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal met the members of the foreigners tribunal and told them they have now got the opportunity to work for a national cause, a chance they should not miss. Is it okay for the head of a state government to lecture members of a judicial body? Is this not an interference into the judiciary’s independence?

There is a noticeable fear psychosis among the Muslims because of government’s fascist and anti-Muslim initiatives. Besides already increasing the number of foreigners tribunals from 36 to 100 and detention centres from three to six, and setting up a detention centre in Goalpara, the government is also strengthening IT infrastructure to crack down on the alleged illegal foreigners more efficiently. The Assam police is creating an exclusive database of so-called suspected and declared foreign nationals. Once the central database is developed, photographs and fingerprints of a;; alleged foreigners could be shared with various law enforcement agencies with a click of the mouse.

But the government has not stopped here. It has formed review committees at the district and state level to scrutiny the judgements given by the foreigners tribunal, thus questioning its integrity. The government has also initiated performance appraisal for the tribunal members “so that no illegal Bangladeshi national is spared”. But it is clear this entire process is to pressurise tribunal members to work at the government’s behest.

Organisers of the Goalpara protest on June 30 allege that by challenging tribunal’s orders in high court, the government is trying to harass another 40,000 people whose nationalities were upheld by the tribunal. The government has already approved the filing of writ petitions in 50 such cases.

Scores of Muslims have been lodged in detention centres across the state with little or no sign of ever being set free. This fear and frustration was evident at the Goalpara protest. So desperate and helpless are the victims, that their faith now only lies in the belief that ‘Allah will render all arms and ammunition ineffective during the protest’ over the judicial and democratic institutions of world’s largest democracy.

 

The article was published on The Wire https://thewire.in/156268/assam-doubtful-voters-sonowal/

Has Fear Lynched My Conscience?

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These days, I often ask myself ‘am I scared?’

I keep checking my ‘conscience’ – is it dead or about to die an unnatural death because of the ‘fear’ which is engulfing me slowly but steadily every passing day. To be honest, growing up in one of the most prejudiced societies; fear has been a companion since my adolescence.

I grew up in Assam – the land of Srimanta Sankardev who spread neo-vaisnavite movement in this part of the country. His movement outlined the foundation of greater Assamese society, which was inclusive of all castes, creeds and communities. Yes, gurujona’s Assamese society included Muslims too! Chandasai, a Muslim was one of his most devoted disciples.

However, I was born in post-Nellie Assam. Nellie a place just 60 kilometers from Guwahati witnessed one of the largest massacres in the world in 1983. More than 3000 innocent Muslims were butchered in broad daylight.

Perhaps, Nellie is the last nail in the coffin of inclusive greater Assamese society. The greater share this credit should go to civil society for maintaining complete radio silence on the question of justice to the victims.

A dangerously polarized society identified my community as alien to this place even before my birth. Various adjectives, precisely which are derogatory and dehumanizing in nature were added before or after my identity. I grew up swallowing abuse and rejection on every other occasion.

I was growing up in a hostile world around me; which kept me scared. I was scared of being bullied, denied of my wage and perpetuating physical and mental torture by anyone only because of my identity. One day, a group of stray youths physically assaulted my rickshaw puller uncle who gently refused to push a vehicle due to his health ailment. In front of my eyes, they kicked his stomach, my middle-aged uncle pleaded for mercy with his folded hands.

As a seventh standard young kid, I was scared; I moved fast and disappeared in lane behind the rolling mill and reached the slum-like rented house in Lalganesh area of Guwahati city. I couldn’t sleep that night; whenever I closed my eyes, the same scene repeated like a motion picture.

It was not just the unruly bullies; I was scared of my governments too, including the so-called Muslim appeaser Indian National Congress led governments. My uncle who was physically abused by the bullies lost his land to erosion and moved to another village; police framed him as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh despite the fact that his father was agovernment teacher and whose service was initiated by the colonial government way before the words ‘Bangladesh’ and ‘Pakistan’ came into being! He faced the abuse, and fought his case courageously and defended his Indian citizenship.

But his elder brother couldn’t bear the burn. One day while coming back from the foreigner’s tribunal he collapsed midway and succumbed to the stroke.

In Assam millions have been uprooted by river erosion, climate change has accelerated this displacement in the last few years. Once they get displaced from one place, the risk of being labelled as illegal immigrant increases manifold. There are few hundred thousand people framed as ‘doubtful voters’ , or reference cases have been slapped on them just because of their identity. Most of them are victims of flood and erosion who need to shift their house often. Many of them are languishing in the Nazi Concentration Camps styled detention centre across the state.

Data suggests that more than 90 per cent of the detainees didn’t the get the opportunity to present their side of the story before the court as their case were settles ex-partite. The new government in Assam has increased the number of the detention centres and foreigners tribunal and proposed one gigantic detention centre in Goalpara in western Assam. These are deadly and fearful events unfolding before us and obviously make us all scared.

However, I navigated through my fear, anguish and hope for a better future. I dreamed for reconciliation, peaceful co-existence and a dignified life for everyone guaranteed by Indian Constitution, including the Muslims. Unfortunately, the 2014 general election shuttered my dream completely. The fear of another Nellie like genocide occupied my mind when the then NDA Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi kick- started a campaign by alleging that the much adored one horned rhinos in Assam were killed to clear the land to settled Bangladeshis! Days after his speech nearly fifty Muslims mostly women and children were massacred by militants in league with forest guards.

The rhetoric initiated by PM Narendra Modi eventually revived the four decade old issue of illegal immigration once again in Assam. Without providing justice to the victims of massacres like Nellie, Chaolkhuwa, Mukalmua etc or proving the deceased to be illegal immigrants – another round of campaign has started against the Bengal origin Assamese Muslim community. In the 2016 assembly election, the rhetoric worked and for the first BJP led government came into power in Assam.

The new government in Assam started evicting the climate induced internally displaced persons living across various government lands across the state. As per the government data, by the end of 2016 more than 3500 families (more than 20000 people) were forcefully evicted. Many of the families were evicted from their patta land without any compensation and rehabilitation. Two persons were killed in police firing during forceful eviction and two children died in post eviction IDP camp.

Nobody questioned the government’s inhumane attitude against its own people – this was bone shivering dreadful. The local media played the role of cheerleaders for the government and sometimes as extended arms of the government. Hardly anyone raised a voice against the injustice meted out to one of the most persecuted communities. Even, I too just wrote a ceremonial article and didn’t ask the government why it didn’t rehabilitate the IDPs. Maybe I am too scared.

I sincerely have started believing that I am not the only scared person in the country. I could see a kafila of terrified young men and women who normally used to be the vanguard in any resistance movement against injustice. While seeing the social media videos of lynchings, every day, I am getting convinced that it’s not only mine; but our collective conscience is dying an unnatural death. Otherwise, how could I skip the news and videos of lynching and thrashing of innocent people? It is fear that is stopping us from raising a voice and asking the government to put an end to this brutality!

 

The article first published in The Citizen http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/NewsDetail/index/1/11101/Has-Fear-Lynched–My-Conscience

School girl raped in Assam, Panchayat offered money to keep quiet: Victim committed suicide

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When the entire country was celebrating 68th Republic Day, a tenth standard student of Sidhuni High School in Barpeta district of Assam was raped by her neighbour Jahidul Islam (22). The Gaon Panchayat president Mr. Abdul Karim barred her father from accessing legal remedy and the panchayat offered eighty thousand rupees as compensation. Traumatized girl committed suicide soon after the kangaroo court pronounced the verdict.

I often get telephone calls regarding violation of child rights i.e. trafficking, child marriage, sexual abuses etc. Interestingly, most of the calls I get are from two difference areas (a) conflict affected areas of Bodoland Territorial Area Districts and (b) flood and erosion affected char and chapori areas of lower Assam. I try to bring the matter to the notice of various government and non-government bodies which are working for the protection of child rights. In most the cases, the agencies, both government and non-government quickly take up the cases and surprising results are delivered.

For example, September last year, a thirteen year old girl child from Barpeta was abducted by a suspected gang of human traffickers. The girl was taken to Nalbari district and her father was pleading before the police officer for her rescue. Police wasn’t willing to register the case until her father would pay them bribe. When I brought the matter to the notice of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) and Universal Team for Social Action and Help (UTSAH), the girl child was rescued within 24 hours. In another case in Baksa district, a tenth standard girl student was trafficked and sold in Rajasthan. The Investing Officer (IO) took money from her widow mother to fuel the police jeep. Police didn’t arrest the perpetrators even after being handed over by the community people. When the matter was brought to the notice these agencies, Assam Police team went to Rajasthan and rescued the girl and arrested the members of trafficking racket.

But it is challenging to bring the matter to the notice of these child protection agencies. When the grass-root institutions – the family, the school, the Panchayat, the police station do not realize their roles and responsibilities in child protection or not even realize why the children need care and protection; it becomes really challenging to bring the matter to light. Often heinous crime against children is not even considered as a crime; it is doused and put under the carpet by the powerful people in the society. My experience of working in these areas makes me believe that our grass-root social as well as democratic institutions are not child friendly and there is something seriously wrong. Often these institutions don’t allow the information of child rights violation to reach the modern child protection agencies. Sometimes, it reaches too late to protect the children.

In one of such tragic incident which occurred in Sidhuni village in Barpeta district of Assam. When the entire country was celebrating 68th Republic Day, a tenth standard student of Sidhuni High School in Barpeta district of Assam was raped by her neighbour Jahidul Islam (22). The Gaon Panchayat president Mr. Abdul Karim barred her father from accessing legal remedy and the panchayat offered eighty thousand rupees as compensation. Traumatized girl committed suicide soon after the kangaroo court pronounced the verdict.

On the fateful evening of 26th January 2017, S*****n Nessa was raped at her residence. After the heinous crime, perpetrator Jahidul Islam asked the victim to keep quiet and promised her to marry. Her father Taizuddin, an illiterate poor farmer approached the Dewanis (Community Leaders) for help to give justice to his minor daughter. President of 78 No Sitoli Gaon Panchayat, Mr. Abdul Karim (elected PRI member) stopped him from going to police station and suggested to settled the case in the panchayat itself.

Next day i.e. 27th January 2017, the president called panchayat at his residence and invited the Dewanis (community leaders, similar to the leaders of khap panchayats) including the president of nearby Chachra Gaon Panchayat, who happens to be the brother-in-law of the perpetrator. The victim was interrogated by the president and other Dewanis in front of hundreds of villagers in the panchayat (they call it bichar). An educated youth from the same village who was present in the panchayat informed me over phone:

“Dewanis repeatedly asked the girl every detail of how she was raped. She was terribly frightened and traumatized. But they were asking questions after questions. The questions were so terrifying that one of the Dewanis asked her where and how she was touched during the course of sexual assault.”

After listening to the interrogation, the president Mr. Abdul Karim held the victim responsible and remarked “If the female goat is set free; the billy goat will try to have some fun”. Mr. Nayan Ali, one of Dewanis and a trusted ally of president explained why the victim shouldn’t go to court. He tried to inculcate the gathering by drawing his knowledge (?) and experience that if she goes to court, her medical check-up will be done by police and doctors from other caste (read religion) which is against their religious believe and practice! Finally, the panchayat offered eighty thousand rupees to be paid by the perpetrator in installments and asked victim to keep quiet and move on. Soon after the pronouncement the victim committed suicide by hanging herself. Listen to the verdict of the kangaroo court here

From this particular area of Barpeta district, I have been getting reports of violation of child rights on regular basis. The incidences of child marriage, child trafficking, child labour and child sexual abuses are really alarming. In one hand, people living in this area are devastated by annual flood and erosion. Poverty and illiteracy have been helping to feudal minded Dewani and other powerful social groups to keep their grip over the marginal groups intact and thus undermines the rights and entitlement of the children. On the other hand, the democratic institutions like Gaon Panchayats and police stations are highly corrupt and has miserably failed to live up to their mandates as far as protection of child rights is concerned.

It has been almost two days; police hasn’t even tried to arrest either the rapist or the Dewanis who conducted the panchayat and abetted the child to commit suicide. Moreover, I am being informed that the Dewanis are now trying to compromise the case by paying three lakhs rupees to the father of the victim and settle the case. How shameful is the fact that our society has different slab of amount fixed for different types of crime that too in case of crime against children!

I don’t know who is to be blamed or what is to be done but as far as child protection is concerned we should at least acknowledge the fact that there is serious problem with our grass-root social and democratic institutions. Various stakeholders, who are concerned and mandated for ensuring care and protection of children, should rethink about their strategies and approaches.

Dehumanising Muslims in Assam

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Cast as the ‘other’, dubbed ‘Bangladeshi’ and incessantly victimized, the Bengal-origin Muslim is fair game, with the media actively whipping up hatred.
ABDUL KALAM AZAD expresses his dismay

The nightmare which has been haunting Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam for quite some time became a reality on September 19 when civil officials accompanied by nearly 3000 security forces arrived at Bandardubi and Deosursang villages in the Kaziranga National Park area to evict nearly 300 families.

The families had been pleading with the administration for compensation for the last one week before they were evicted and nothing had materialized. As a last resort, they protested against their eviction. Fifteen minutes into the protest, the security forces fired their guns, killed two persons on the spot, including a girl child, and wounded six others. By evening, almost 300 houses had been bulldozed and set ablaze.

Meanwhile, NewsLive, a television channel owned by the wife of Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, started justifying the carnage and arson by saying the victims were of “suspected origins” (read illegal Bangladeshi)[i]. There is nothing new in this. In fact, the media have been campaigning to create a public perception that people living in the vicinity of Kaziranga are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The houses in Banderdubi and Deosursang were evicted as per an order passed by Gauhati High Court in response to a PIL filed by current Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Mrinal Saikia in 2012 (Kaziranga National Park vs Union of India and others, 2015. pp. 36-37).

However, during the trial of the case, Advocate-General of Assam acknowledged and supported the contention of the applicants that as per the revenue records. Banderdubi and Deosursang were declared as revenue villages by the government in 1961 and therefore are not part of the Kaziranga National Park, which makes eviction of any villager from the said areas illegal (Kaziranga National Park vs Union of India and others, 2015. pp. 21). These villages came into existence even before the official recognition of Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary as a National Park. As per the records these two villages were set up in 1951 and land patta was awarded in 1961. The names of the villagers were inserted into the voters’ list in 1965 for the assembly election, and a government school was established there in 1966. On the other hand, Kaziranga was declared as a National Park by the central government on 11 February 1974[ii].

“The media have been campaigning to create a public perception that people living in the vicinity of Kaziranga are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”

Even though, the villagers were ready to move out of their villages, they were only asking for fair compensation and time for relocation. The villagers complained that state finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma played a communal card and assured seven Hindu families that they would be paid four times their loss, while Bengal origin Muslim villagers were left feeling like illegal Bangaldeshis [iii].
In the last few decades, the media has tutored the Assamese people on the art of demonizing and dehumanizing Bengal-origin Assamese. Soon after the eviction drive, a BJP activist who calls himself Khati Axomiya (‘The True Assamese’, also imprinted on his T-shirt) wrote on his Facebook wall “Happiness is knowing that I will get to see greenery and spot a rhino or two in Kaziranga and not the usual huts and lungiwala Bangladeshis”!

This is not an isolated incident–something equally sinister is happening in the state on a large scale. The background is this: Since the great earthquake of 1950, the river Brahmaputra has flattened and the intensity of floods and erosion in the valley has increased. The subsequent construction of dams, embankments and deforestation has accentuated the problem.

An estimated seven per cent of Assam’s land has been eroded by the river Brahmaputra between 1950-2000, displacing lakhs of people, most of whom are Bengal-origin Muslims, because they constitute the bulk of the population settled in the Char and riverine areas (Hussian, 2006). Many of the erosion-induced IDPs ( internally displaced families) take shelter on embankments and government land i.e. khas land, grazing land, and forest land and a large number of them migrate to urban areas in search of livelihood.

In addition to Banderdubi, in Hatimuria (Morigaon district) more than 260 erosion-induced IDPs who originally belonged to the neighboring Darrang district had acquired periodic patta land from the local Assamese Hindu community on lease[iv]. After the 2014 general elections, the district administration passed an order to relocate them to the nearby Hiloikhunda Char and subsequently the families moved out.

The next day, almost all the newspapers published from Guwahati carried photographs of relocated huts on the Hiloikhunda Char with headlines screaming that hundreds of Bangladeshis had occupied land belonging to the indigenous community.[v]
The media campaign continued. There was a clash between the two communities in which more than half a dozen people were injured[vi]. And the displaced families were evicted once again[vii]. Consequently, the government sent notices to all district officials to evict IDPs settling on government land without any kind of rehabilitation.

Similarly, two villages – Dolpur and Phuhuratoli in Sipajhar Development Block (Darrang district) – became media targets when Upamanyu Hazarika, convener of a forum called Prabajan Virodhi Manch and apparently a junior associate of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, submitted a report to the Supreme Court mentioning that the two villages had been illegally occupied and were being used as grazing grounds by suspected Bangladeshis. The media went into a frenzy over his claim and published hundreds of stories with distorted facts and imaginary threats[viii].

“The villagers of Dolpur and Phuhuratoli who are branded as illegal Bangladeshi in the news report are genuine Indian citizens and were displaced by river erosion before they settled in these villages.”

On 3rd July, the Hindustan Times carried a story titled “Schools, toilets: How Assam govt ‘legitimises’ land-grab by ‘illegal migrants[i]” suggesting that welfare benefits were being awarded to ‘alleged’ Bangladeshis whereas indigenous people were being denied. The reality is very different. The villagers of Dolpur and Phuhuratoli who are branded illegal Bangladeshi in the news report are genuine Indian citizens and were displaced by river erosion before they settled in these villages. Every single household has the necessary citizenship documents and has also filled up the NRC updating form. As far as welfare schemes are concerned, out of the 95 surveyed households, 80 do not have a toilet[ii]

Till 2015 there was no government scheme to rehabilitate the erosion-induced IDPs. The previous government did bring out a special scheme but not a single family benefitted from it[xi]. When people who had applied for assistance under the scheme demanded a progress report through Right to Information petitions[xii], the government took a baffling decision. It re-worded the scheme so that almost all applications were declared invalid.[xiii]

What the media tacitly endorses – i.e. the use of the term ‘Bangladeshi’ for Bengal-origin Muslims residing in the state for generations – is symptomatic of a malaise that has been engraved into the Assamese popular imagination. Over time this term and its street counterpart ‘Miyah’ have contributed to the dehumanization of the Bengal-origin Muslim community and established them as the repulsive ‘other’ of the ‘Son-of-the-soil Assamese.

They have, in effect, been pushed beyond the boundary of ‘moral community’ (in Thomas Dixon’s terms) and thus beyond the range of ‘responsibility and care’ (Dixon, 2012). The terms ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘Miyah’ nullify the historical conditions which necessitated the displacement of these people from one province of British India to another under the direct patronage of the colonial rulers. It also discredits their abandoning their mother tongue and accepting and actively fighting for the promotion of the Assamese language.

Collective empathy towards the community has been missing in mainstream Assamese society, especially since the six-year-long Assam Agitation (1979-1985). On 18th February, 1983, more than 3,000 innocent people, mostly children, women and the elderly, were killed in broad daylight in Nellie, just 60 kilometres from the capital city (Diganta Sarma, Anju Azad, 2009).

Society in general remained imndifferent to the massacre: there was no outrage and no demand for justice as opposed to the unabashed, overbearing, and jingoistic rhetoric against a particular community. Over the last 30 years the allegation of being Bangladeshi has been enough to deny them compensation, rehabilitation and justice. On the other hand, the perpetrators of violence were declared heroes.[xiv]
Public intellectual Homen Borgohain wrote that during the Agitation years, the Assamese press used to carry inflammatory articles and distorted news items on the imminent risk of illegal immigrants and the vulnerability of the ethnic Assamese people losing their linguistic and cultural identity.

Borgohain was ostracized by local newspapers who refused to publish him. He was compelled to take up the job of Guwahati correspondent for Aajkal (Dutta, 2012). Professor Monirul Hussain writes: “Papers were flooded with news of the arrival of Bangladeshi Rajakars in Assam through helicopters and rivers to attack the indigenous people and their villages (Hussain, 1993).”

Journalists who tried to disseminate the truth and present an alternative narrative were given stern warnings and were identified as ‘anti-Assamese’ or ‘anti-nationals’. For example, BBC journalist Sabita Goswami was summoned to the central office of the agitators and warned against the publication of her story on the harassment of women by the agitators.

The warning was simple and direct: “If an Assamese writes in this manner, it is equivalent to going against Assam’s interest (Goswami, 2013)”. Acclaimed author and journalist Nirupama Borgohain was forced to leave Saptahik Nilachal because she dared to express her resentment against the treatment meted out to the Bengal-origin Muslim community (Hussain, 1993).

The Assam Tribune, the largest circulating English daily, took an editorial decision not to publish any photograph of the Nellie Massacre[xv]. Two days prior to Nellie, more than 109 people were killed in a relief camp at Nagabanda High school just 30 kilometres away from Nellie[xvi]. There was a complete blackout in the Assamese media. Chaolkhuwa Chapori, a riverine village, was witness to another massacre on the 12th and 13th February, 1983. Almost 1,000 people were killed but for a week the news went unreported until the BBC broke the horrific story (Goswami, 2013).

In the last three decades, every time the Bengal-origin Muslim community was attacked in the Bodo Movement, the Assamese media brushed aside the issues of their relief, rehabilitation and justice under the convenient label of ‘illegal immigration’. In 2012, Assam witnessed independent India’s largest human displacement when over half a million marginalized people from both the Bodo and Muslim community were internally displaced.

Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now television channel and son of a BJP politician from Assam, raved that it was not a riot between Bodos and Muslims but rather a fight between the indigenous Bodo tribe and Bangladeshi infiltrators! The Assamese media soon joined the chorus and, in a tragic example of journalists turning agitators, the violence escalated and more innocent lives were lost.
The media conveniently skips the horrifying accounts of deprivation, marginalization and subjugation of Bengal-origin Muslims only to keep the ‘environment of dehumanization’ intact.

References
Diganta Sarma, Anju Azad. (2009, Feb 18). Nellie 1983. Retrieved 9 21, 2016, from Twocircles.Net: http://twocircles.net/special_reports/nellie_1983.html#.V-Gt9q3lw3w
Dixon, T. H. (2012, 4 26). Catastrophic dehumanization: the psychological dynamics of severe conflict . Oxford Martin School. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAs3cm_PSg4 Last accessed 21/09/2016
Dutta, N. (2012). Questions of Identity in Assam: Location, Migration, Hybridity. New Delhi: Sage.
Goswami, S. (2013). Along the Red River. New Delhi: Zubaan.
Hussain, M. (1993). The Assam Movement: Class, Ideology and Identity. New Delhi: Manak Publications Pvt Ltd.
Hussian, M. (2006). Internally Displaced Persons in India’s North-East. Economic & Political Weekly , 41 (5).
Kaziranga National Park vs Union of India and others, PIL(suo motu) 66/2012, 67/2012, and WP(C) 648/2013 and 4860/2013 (Gauhati High Court 10 9, 2015).

End Notes
i Poaching humans in Kaziranga Dated 22/09/2016 http://raiot.in/poaching-humans-in-kaziranga/ Last accessed on 23/09/2016
ii Two Killed in Police Firing Near Kaziranga, Eyewitnesses Say. Dated 19/09/2016 http://thewire.in/67104/kaziranga-firing-two-killed/ Last accessed on 23/09/2016
iii #KazirangaEvictionDrive: Illegal settlements razed down in three villages; two killed in clashes with police NewsLive dated 19/09/2016 http://www.newslivetv.org/news.php?s=top-stories&id=3050&t=-kazirangaevictiondrive-illegal-settlements-razed-down-in-three-villages-two-killed-in-clashes-with-police&sld=1 Last accessed on 21/09/2016
iv Deputy Commissioner of Morigaon sent a letter to Deputy Commissioner Darrang vide No. MRS. 33/2013/111 dated 31/10/2015.
v Incursion of suspected foreigners on in the state, DY365 (Television Channel) dated 30/10/2015 http://www.dy365.in/news_details.php?aID=1687&subC=2&top=N#.V-GIoq3lw3w Last accessed on 21/09/2016
vi With erosion as excuse, land grab rampant in Mayong, The Sentinel http://www.sentinelassam.com/mainnews/story.php?sec=1&subsec=0&id=280776&dtP=2016-09-10&ppr=1#.V-GLTq3lw3w Last access on 21/09/2016
vii Settlers sent home – Move to clear Morigaon land encroached 18 years ago. The Telegraph dated 19/08/2016 http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160819/jsp/northeast/story_103224.jsp Last accessed on 21/09/2016.
viii Drive to free land occupied by migrants The Telegraph Dated 4/12/2015 http://www.telegraphindia.com/1151204/jsp/northeast/story_56536.jsp#.V-GnXq3lw3w Last accessed on 21/09/2016
ix Schools, toilets: How Assam govt ‘legitimises’ land-grab by ‘illegal migrants Hindustan Times dated 3/7/2016 http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/schools-toilets-how-assam-govt-legitimises-land-grab-by-illegal-migrants/story-3CryZEbS5GIPu5vRFiJtGL.html Last accessed on 21/09/2016
x In the first week of February this year a 10 member inter-community youth group (Alumni and current students of prestigious institutes like IIT, TISS, Gauhati University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University) conducted a week-long study in the said villages (Dolpur and Phuhuratoli). This author was also part of the group. They undertook a household survey in 95 houses to study their socio-economic conditions and examined their citizenship documents.
xi “Chief Minister’s Special Scheme for Rehabilitation of Erosion Affected Families of Assam” vide circular No. RGR.785/2014/6 dated 12th March, 2015, Revenue and Disaster Management Authority.
xii Nodal Agency ‘Assam State Disaster Management Authority’ replied to this author saying that no application has been received under the scheme. However, other government documents and interview revealed that a large number of applications were received by ASDMA.
xiii New circular made the rehabilitation provision only for those who had lost their land in last one year, only victims who have land patta in his/her name are entitled to apply, having land in ancestor’s name wouldn’t made him/her eligible.
xiv Agitators who got killed were in Nellie were provided ex-gratia of Rs. 25000 and victims got Rs. 5000. The current government has announced Rs. 500000 additional ex-gratia to the next of kin of the agitators who got killed. http://www.sentinelassam.com/mainnews/story.php?sec=1&subsec=0&id=275581&dtP=2016-08-03&ppr=1#.V-H7PhJ4gu0
xv Senior journalist Samudhra Gupta Kashyap shared the story in a conversation called “Can today’s society change the media” at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati organized by Thumb Print Magazine. Mr. Kashyap worked with Assam Tribune during Assam Movement. This author has previously quoted him in 2013 http://twocircles.net/2014feb16/nagabanda_massacre_and_other_side_assamese_intelligentsia.html#.V-G1Ua3lw3w
xvi Ibid

Published on The Hoot http://www.thehoot.org/media-watch/media-practice/dehumanising-muslims-in-assam-9661

Two Years of Narasingbari Killings: Heart-wrenching story of little Rashida

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Today is the second anniversary of Narasingbari Killings. On 1st May, 2014, at around 8:00pm three people were killed and several injured. Narasingbari was the beginning – within less than 24 fours 49 people were killed in Khagrabari (Baksa) and Balapara (Kokrajhar) in BTAD area of Assam. Most of the victims were children and women. Here is the story of Rashida Khatun (13), who survived the attack. More stories will follow…..

Rashida Khatun in her house in Narasingbari
Rashida Khatun in her house in Narasingbari (2016)

Rashida Khatun (13) tells me her daily routine in a gloomy and deadly silent house. Every day she wakes up at 5:30 in the morning in a remote village called Narasingbari in Baksa district of Assam. She cleans the courtyard, clears the cow dung, her grandma takes the cows for grassing; she washes the dish and helps grandma preparing food, takes bath and gets ready for school. She does all of these by 8:30 am.

She was telling me her stories of misery and bravery sitting on the only wooden bed just the beneath of a smokestack made of a torn vest. The election campaign posters of All India United Democratic Front, the political party headed by perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal were pasted on the tin wall of her house. The posters were glittering inside the dimed room as like as Ajmal’s dream to be the kingmaker in the recently concluded assembly election.

This is my second visit to her – first time I met her on a hospital bed in Barpeta Medical College on 6th of May 2014. From the hospital bed she narrated a harrowing incident.  On 1st May, 2014 her parents were killed by the members of outlawed terrorist organization National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The terrorist organization also rampaged in Khagrabari in Baksa and Balapara in Kokrajhar district of BTAD and killed 49 people within 24 hours, mostly children and women.

Rashida Khatun in hospital bed at Barpeta Medical College
Rashida Khatun on her Hospital Bed in Barpeta Medical College (2014)

One that fateful day, her family members were gossiping post dinner with an elderly woman on their courtyard. At around 8:00 pm a heavily armed group of terrorists entered their house and indiscriminately fired their automotive weapons. They killed her parents and the old woman on the spot and severely injured Rashida and a little girl Taslima Sultana (3). Three bullets were pumped into Taslima’s little body – one blown away her left thump, another went across shoulder, might be just above her tiny heart and last one went by touching her cheek. Their bullet was not kind enough to leave Rashida unhurt; it passed across her thigh. Hopefully, both Taslima and Rashida survived the bullet injuries.

Two years on, Rashida’s pain and agony is intact. After getting cured the bullet injury, Rashida was shifted to SOS village in Hojai in central Assam along with two siblings, elder sister Shumala (16) and younger brother Ramzan (9). SOS village gave her much needed shelter and protection hunger as well as basic facilities to continue her study. But her mental trauma remained unhealed; memories of the brutality and the loneliness of her grandma continued to haunt her. The SOS village authority says “She was not been able to adjust with the environment and tried to escape multiple times”. One day, the cook of SOS village rebuked Ramzan for being ill-disciplined. It pained Rashida, reminded her parents and grandma, moreover, her elder sister Shumala held her responsible for younger brother’s mischievous act. Rashida could not control her emotions; finally she ran away and traveled nearly 300 kms to reach her grandma in her native village.

However, her people and the village had dramatically changed in the last one year. Her grandma and neighbors had already abandoned their houses due to security reason. Terrorists again entered the village and shot one villager in front of the school near their house. Now, half of the school is being occupied by police. Her grandma shifted to uncle’s place inside the village; who migrated to Arunachal Pradesh and working there as rag picker and has abandoned her helpless mother!

She started a precarious life with her grandma. No earning member, no source of income; the ex-gratia amount which was granted by government against her deceased parents, has been ‘fixed deposited’ in the name of three minors. As per the government’s social welfare policy Rashida’s grandma is eligible for both widow pension and old-age pension. However, the representative of VCDC (Village Council Development Committee in lieu of Panchayati Raj Institution) says that from 2005 to 2015 not a single widow pension has been disbursed and on 4 oldage pension was awarded in the entire village.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Beti Basao; Beti Padao’ campaign was mounting high, Rashida took a hard decision. She became an agricultural labourer at the age of 12. As a child labour she gets Rs. 120/- whereas her counterpart gets Rs. 200/- a day. Neither the high decibel campaign nor the anti-child labour act could reach her. She continues to toil in the field to feed herself and her ageing grandmother, also to save to revive her dream to go to school once again.  She purchased books, uniforms and took admission into the newly established private school in the village. The principal of the school, who himself was a victim of violence and left the village in childhood waived off her admission and tuition fees. All 404 Muslim household left the village in 1994; more than fifty percent are still not being able to return to the village, even after two decades, Principal of Navajyoti Jatiya Vidyalaya Abdur Rahman said.

Though Rashida lost two precious academic years of her life but she is committed to chase her dream. She wants to be a nurse. The nurses who cared her in Barpeta Medical College have motivated her to be a nurse. Since the beginning of this academic year, she has been working on Sundays and other holidays. Without talking to her, it impossible to imagine how hard she is fighting to balance her schooling and the wage earning. No scholarship or rehabilitation programme has reached her so far!

Rashida is not the only victim of violence in Assam or all the children affected violence is not as brave and determined as her. There are thousands of children who are being severely affected by the brutality and madness of violence in Assam since early 80 of last century.

Assam is one of the most IDP concentrated states in the India. In 2012, nearly five lakhs people were displaced through the act of violence in western Assam, the biggest ever human displacement in independent India after the partition. There are hundreds of camps, settlements and colonies in western Assam where conflict induced internally displaced persons are languishing since early 90s and the numbers are increasing every year. Thousands of children spent their childhood in those camps without basic services like education, health, nutrition etc. There are instances where the children from IDP camps were denied admission into government school. The governments both in centre and state do not have any well-defined policy to rehabilitate the violence induced IDPs, at least the children.

Recurrent violence and subsequent large scale displacement has made Assam hotspot for child trafficking. The Telegraph reported on 10th April, 2016 “The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranks Assam as one out of eight Indian states where child trafficking is rampant. According to the report, 5,023 girls and 2,765 boys went missing from Assam, mostly from the BTAD, between 2009 and 2014”.

While the world is talking about India’s demographic dividend, here is western Assam, lakhs of are growing in camps, settlements and violence torn villages in illiteracy, malnutrition and hopelessness to puncture the bubble of so called ‘demographic dividend’.

I wonder if the election campaign poster can reach Rashida’s house targeting her grandmother’s only vote; why her constitutional rights can’t be guaranteed.

[This article can be reprinted without permission. I will be happy if the publisher shares the details of the publication/link]

 

BJP campaign may buttress Ajmal’s arena created by Cong

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Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s political journey started much before the formation of the AIUDF in October 2005, when he was the Assam unit president of the politically assertive socio-religious organisation Jamiyat Ulema-E-Hind since 2002.

At a state convention of the organisation in Guwahati, the then All India president of the Jamiyat, Syed Asad Madani, sitting next to Tarun Gogoi on dais, reminded him of his poll promises to minorities. Madani set a 6-month deadline for Gogoi to solve the ong-standing problems of the minorities failing which he threatened to oust him from power! Exactly after 6 months, Ajmal formed the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

Within the next 6 months, the party bagged 10 seats in the 126-member Assam Assembly. The tally increased to 18 in 2011 when the AIUDF emerged the principal opposition party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the party shocked the political pundits by winning 3 seats, equal to the Congress tally in Assam.

In Assam, there are more than 2,200 “char villages” or river islands. Socio-economic surveys conducted by the state government revealed a downward spiral of crucial development indicators like poverty, literacy etc. Average literacy rate was recorded as low as 19%. Moreover, 68% of char dwellers lived below the poverty line.

The percentage of BPL families skyrocketed from 49% to 68% and literacy rate went down compared to the previous survey in 4 districts. It has been over a decade since the last socio-economic survey was conducted, in 2002-03. The government couldn’t gather courage to conduct the third round of survey, fearing more uncomfortable findings.

As per the 2011 census data, Uttar Godhani, a char village in Barpeta district, has the lowest literacy rate in the state with only 2.15% female and 5.13% male literates. People who live the subhuman life in the char areas, without basic services like health, education, water, housing and proper means of livelihood, became the strongest political capital of perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, whose political arena is widening with every passing election.

He is emerging as the undisputed leader of over 34% Muslims in Assam. Majority of them are branded as illegal migrants from Bangladesh despite the facts that migration of Muslim peasants from undivided Bengal (and later on East Bengal) happened under the patronage of British colonial administrators and the community officially adopted Assamese as their mother tongue in 1951.

Ajmal’s political trajectory has been largely dependent on fear psychosis and growing demand for civil, political and human rights by the Muslims. In 2006, Ajmal offered the most-needed political platform to the Muslims who were scared after the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act, which protected them from being persecuted and harassed on char-ges that they were Bangladeshi migrants.

Tarun Gogoi’s famous question, “Who is Badruddin Ajmal?” made him a celebrated politician among mainstream Assamese after the epic failure of student leader-turned-politician Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. Ajmal, meanwhile, slowly started eroding the traditional Muslim vote bank of the Congress in Assam. The AIUDF won 10 Assembly seats in the very first election it fought. However, Gogoi continued to ignore Ajmal and remained a pro-Assamese nationalist.

Turning point

During his second term, Gogoi initiated the process to update the National Register of Citizens to identify illegal foreigners. The All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) and other minority organisations, along with the AIUDF, opposed the pilot project in Barpeta and Chaygaon and demanded changes in the application form, which they called as “insulting” to Muslims of Bengali origin.

On July 21, 2010, a large number of Bengali-origin Muslims, under the banner of AAMSU, protested against the project in Barpeta. The protest turned violent and 4 people were killed in police firing. Though Tarun Gogoi was forced to suspend the project due to unprecedented public outrage, the momentum gave an extraordinary political mileage to both the Congress and AIUDF in 2011 Assembly election.

The Congress achieved an absolute majority in the Assembly whereas the AIUDF won 5 segments in Barpeta district, where it hadn’t won a single seat in 2006. The AIUDF’s tally in 2011 reached 18. The party’s surprising performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was again linked to large-scale violence and displacement of Muslims in lower Assam.

The 2016 Assam Assembly election has a different dynamics but Ajmal will continue to benefit from fear psychosis and religious polarisation. The Congress is trying to get closer to Muslim voters of lower Assam, but the BJP’s poll campaign, which has focused on “illegal migrants,” will create ground for the AIUDF.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, once a powerful minister in Tarun Gogoi’s cabinet who joined the BJP recently, is threatening to disenfranchise Muslims who fail to provide papers proving their residence in India since before 1951.

Ajmal, on the other hand is waving the flag of equality, civil rights and inclusive development, besides giving a clarion call to all Muslims to unite against the BJP. He has given the much-needed ‘Jamaat and Jhanda’ to one of the most marginalised and persecuted communities in Assam.

The Muslims of Bengali-origin, who are perceived as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and blamed for every misfortune of Assam, are now gaining confidence to assert their identity, demand their rights and entitlements.

The community’s backing may as well make Ajmal the kingmaker of Assam. However, the ‘Jamaat and Jhanda’ approach has miserably failed to address the core issues of poverty, illiteracy, lack of health services, etc.

Most importantly, the AIUDF is yet to attract a large chunk of educated and liberal Muslims of Assam. In the meanwhile, charges of corruption and nepotism are engulfing the party.

The article first appeared on http://www.deccanherald.com/content/539501/bjp-campaign-may-buttress-ajmals.html