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OVER the last few months, the controversy on and around Miya poetry has received an overwhelming response from readers, poets, critics, public intellectuals and online trolls. The controversy about this new genre of poetry led to the filing of four police complaints in different parts of Assam, which was followed by an outpouring in favour of the poets, poetry and the causes they spoke about. Most important is the support and curiosity from the mainstream Assamese community, whom the bullies wanted to incite against Miya poets. People from the mainstream Assamese communities organised Miya poetry reading and discussion sessions, invited Miya poets to recite and speak while they were hiding from police. However, those in the opposition responded with more virtuosity, sometimes with death and rape threats to the poets.
That night on the terrace of Shalim’s apartment in New Delhi’s Zakir Nagar, we translated Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the wind to the Miya dialect, reflecting the suffering and agony of our community. Soon after, Shalim translated Gil Scott Heron’s The revolution will not be televised and recited it. He also helped translate a Bengali song on water, sanitation and hygiene to Miya and we started using it in our campaign for development in char (river island) areas.
We call ourselves the first generation of progressive and professional social workers, civil rights activists, and writers who have pledged to use the Indian Constitution to defend our rights. We use a number of secular and democratic campaign tools to amplify our voice; poetry, especially performance poetry, is one of them.
In the meantime, the preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was underway. People from our community hoped the NRC would be a panacea to all our problems. Hundreds and thousands of educated youths volunteered to make the NRC project acceptable among the community and help the poorly lettered collect documents and file their application forms. The NRC authority had already made the legacy data (digitised government records of 1951 NRC and subsequent electoral rolls till 1971) available for the general people. A large number of people of our community, who have been constantly displaced because of annual floods and erosion, ethnic conflicts and forceful eviction by government over the last several decades, had hardly any access to these invaluable documents.
In the last week of April 2016, Dr Hafiz Ahmed, president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad and a strong propagator of Assamese language and literature among our community, wrote a poem in English and posted it on Facebook: “Write/ Write Down/ I am a Miya/ My serial number in the NRC is 200543/ I have two children/ Another is coming/ Next summer/ Will you hate him/ As you hate me?…”
This poem went viral and other young poets started responding to him through poems. The young poets also started reclaiming “Miya”, a slur used against us, as our identity with pride. This chain of Facebook posts continued for days, reiterating the violence, suffering and humiliation expressed by our community.
As time passed, more poets wrote in various languages and dialects, including many Miya dialects. The nomenclature ‘Miya Poetry’ got generated organically but the poets and their associates have been inspired by the Negritude and Black Arts movements, and queer, feminist and Dalit literary movements, where the oppressed have reclaimed the identity which was used to dehumanise them.
The trend transcended our community. Poets from the mainstream Assamese community also wrote several poems in solidarity with the Miya poets while some regretted not being poets. Gradually, this became a full-fledged poetry movement and got recognised by other poets, critics and commentators. The quality and soul of these poems are so universal that they started finding prominence on reputed platforms.
For the first time in the history of our community, we had started telling our own stories and reclaiming the Miya identity to fight against our harassers who were dehumanising us with the same word. They accused us of portraying the whole Assamese society as xenophobic. The fact is we have just analysed our conditions. Forget generalising the Assamese society as ‘xenophobic’, no Miya poet has ever used the term ‘xenophobic’ nor any of its variants. The guilt complex of our accusers is so profound that they don’t have the patience to examine why we wrote the poems.
Another accusation against us is of weakening the Assamese language when most of our poems are written in Assamese language and a few in Miya dialects. We fail to understand how writing Miya poetry in Assamese could weaken Assamese?
Anyway, the controversy is now dying down gradually, Miya poetry is getting much wider readership and the Miya poets and their associates (like me) have learnt new skills: how to remain calm while facing threats of all sorts, coordinated online bullying, and the anxiety of their loved ones, and to continue to write, promote poetry.
Originally published at https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/assam-miya-poetry-culture-nrc-5895176/
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In a three year-long project, more than 55,000 officials performed the herculean task of examining the citizenship status of more than 31 million people living in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam. On July 30, 2018, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published the final draft excluding more than four million people out of the list, keeping them on the verge of losing their citizenship and effectively making them stateless. However, the NRC authorities have assured that they would be provided with sufficient opportunity to prove their citizenship during the claim and objection process.
There is a huge uproar among a section of Assamese intellectuals that the national and international media have ignored the historical perspective of NRC updating process. But they are being equally ignorant of the other side of the same history – the history of violence and persecution with absolute impunity. The legacy of anti-immigrant sentiment in public sphere for more than a century needs due consideration along with the colonial policies and schemes which enabled such a huge human population to move from one place to another.
Politics of anti-immigration sentiments
In mid-19th century, a British military officer Maj. John Butler visited and described Assam as “it seemed totally devoid of man, beasts, or birds; a death-like stillness everywhere prevailed”. The sparsely populated, rich in natural resources and abandon fertile land soon motivated the colonial administrators to bring large number of people from other parts of British India, including the Bengalis from the over populated Bengal to resettle in Assam under projects like called ‘Grow More Food’ with an intention to increase the revenue. The colonial administration recruited a ‘colonisation officer’ for hassle-free immigration of Muslim peasants from greater Bengal to Assam.
The immigrant Muslims settled in Brahmaputra valley accepted Assamese language and culture and denounced their Bengali identity to assimilate with the host community. As early as the 1930s, the immigrant Muslim community appealed to the colonial administration to enrol them as Assamese speaking Muslims in the census of 1941. Subsequently, they set up Assamese medium schools and started assimilating with the Assamese community, participating in various socio-cultural platforms and events, such as Bihu.
However, a wide section of the local community still felt threatened due to the large scale immigration. This fear of losing land, identity and culture to the immigrants soon transformed into conflict in the 1920s. The colonial administration was forced to demarcate the area for settlement, known as line system, which barred the Muslims from settling down in certain localities. In the meantime, the colonial administration under whose patronage Muslims were brought to Assam, wanted further division between the Assamese community and the immigrant Muslim community. While presenting the 1931 census data, British civil servant C.S. Mullen wrote that if the migration continues unabated, Sibasagar would remain the only district where Assamese race would find home of its own. Historian Amalendu Guha wrote, “The Census Report aggravated the fear complex”.
On the other hand, immigrant peasants under the leadership of Maulana Bhashani intensified their movement to abolish the line system and to get land rights which they propagated as ‘gift of God’ which is to be shared by everyone. Maulana Bhashani criticised the line system as Apartheid but the Gopinath Bordoloi-led state Congress was in favour of strict implementation of the line system. In present day discourse, the ‘cut off date’ for determining citizenship often pops up in debates and discussions. However, the commentators tend to forget that if the line system wasn’t the first attempt to keep the immigrant Muslims from enjoying equal opportunity, the 1940’s ‘Development Scheme’ also barred those Muslims who migrated after January 1, 1938 from enjoying land rights.
Local people hardly paid any attention either to the ‘line system’ or the ‘development scheme’. Meanwhile, the immigrant Muslims continued to buy land from Assamese people. Syed Sadulla of Muslim League (ML) was seen as someone tweaking the line system and settling more Muslims in those restricted areas for his party’s electoral benefit. The tug-of-war for power between Sadullah and Bordoloi continued and hatred against immigrant Muslims escalated further in the late 1940s when Bordoloi became the premier of Assam after ousting Sadulla and evicted thousands of Muslim peasants in 1946, alleging them to be illegal immigrants from East Bengal settled by the earlier ML regime.
In such environment of communal polarisation and conflict, the country became divided and attained Independence. Guha observed that after Independence, the migration of Muslim peasants almost stopped. Prof. Monirul Hussain of Gauhati University argues, “The 1951 census recorded for the first time the decreased rate of growth of Muslims in Assam, that is, 17.6% against a total of 20.2%.” But the anti-Muslim sentiment created in the Assamese society in the run up to Partition remained only to be extended to newer heights by interested political forces.
Post Independence, the Muslim community in Assam faced large-scale violence and was forcibly displacement in 1950. Infamously known as ‘rioter bosor’ (the year of riot) among the community, thousands of Muslims fled the country to take shelter in the then East Pakistan through the open border. Famous Assamese parliamentarian and author Hem Barua wrote that as many as 53,000 such families, who left the country in 1950, came back to Assam under the Nehru-Liaquat Pact.
In 1951, the first National Register of Citizens was prepared to weed out the illegal immigrants from East Pakistan. Since then, the anti-immigrant politics has been feeding the Assamese community with the fear of losing their land, identity and culture. On the other hand, the Muslims have been regularly experiencing state-sponsored persecution and mass violence.
‘Quit India Notice’
In late 1960s, several thousand Muslims were forcefully deported to East Pakistan under a draconian scheme called ‘Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP)’, without following any legal mechanism of detection and deportation. The border unit of Assam police used to deport hundreds of Muslims without any hue and cry. Hiranya Bhattacharjee, the former DIG of border police in 1979, stated in an interview with The Wire, “At that time, the process of deportation was on, in spite of the fact that there was no formal agreement with East Pakistan or Bangladesh on deportation. Those days, when we deported thousands, there was no hue and cry. What was happening was considered natural.”
This author traced back many such families in present-day Bangladesh who were arbitrarily identified as illegal immigrants and served notice to leave the country. They remember it as ‘Quit India Notice’. The families were separated, few members remained in Assam while a few were deported to East Pakistan. In present-day Bangladesh, they still live with trauma and social segregation. Many of their settlements and villages are known as ‘Assam Para’, ‘Refugee Colony’ etc.
Former home minister and chief minister of Assam Hiteswar Saikia admitted that 1,92,079 persons (unofficial figure is much higher) were deported under the PIP scheme between 1961-69. Prof. Monirul Hussain wrote, “Police committed excesses on the Muslims due to certain extra-legal commitments”. A border police officer, who was in charge of deporting Muslims under PIP, narrated the horrific stories of forceful deportation to this author. He said that he resigned from his job due to mental distress caused by the experience of injustice and inhuman atrocities committed upon those Muslims, apparently who were his fellow countrymen. (The individual called this author after reading the stories of deported Muslims living in a refugee colony in present-day Bangladesh).
After deporting huge numbers of Muslims to East Pakistan, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, the then chief minister of Assam, announced on the floor of the Legislative Assembly in 1969 that ‘no more infiltrators were to be found in Assam’ and hence, the PIP scheme was to be abandoned. But the series of violence and persecution against Muslims continued unabated. Since the early 1980s, an unprecedented violent agitation against the Muslims engulfed the entire state. The agitating group alleged that large number of illegal Bangladeshis infiltrated to Assam during Bangladesh’s Liberation War. But the data says that only three per cent of total Bangladeshi refugees (85% of whom were Hindu) took shelter in Assam. Even smaller states like Meghalaya sheltered more than double of Assam’s figure. But the agitation continued full-swing based on false propaganda and constructed xenophobia. The six year long students agitation took several thousand lives, including the victims of the infamous Nellie Massacre where an estimated three thousand Muslims were killed within few hours of day time.
In 1985, the agitating groups, the state and central governments signed the ‘Assam Accord’ and agreed to detect and deport any immigrant who entered the state after March 25, 1971. This document is seen as the genesis of the ongoing NRC updating process.
After several years of debates, discussions, and also several rounds of violent events, almost all the stakeholders, including the Muslims who are often branded as illegal Bangladeshis, came to the consensus of updating the NRC. The Muslim community perceived an updated NRC as panacea to all sorts of persecution, harassment and discrimination which are running high for nearly a century.
But gradually, the NRC was made another tool of persecuting the Muslim and Bengali Hindus through its range of exclusionary and discriminatory provisions. Though the entire population of Assam had to file the application for inclusion in the NRC, as many as 12 million “indigenous people” were given the benefit of ‘original inhabitant’ or ‘OI’, a category which may not even hold any constitutional validity and was never part of the initial modalities but it empowered the lowest level registering authority to include any names even if s/he fails to provide any documentary evidence. On the other hand, the Muslims, Bengali Hindus and few other marginalised groups are subjected to stringent verification process, including a ‘family tree’ matching.
Apart from this discriminatory and racial provisions, the NRC authority deployed a number of exclusionary diktats, mostly beyond the initial modalities to exclude as many Muslims and Bengali Hindus as possible. Already, there are more than 1.3 lakh people who are arbitrarily marked as doubtful or D voters and their cases are pending in the 100 Foreigners Tribunal set up by the Supreme Court across the state. The NRC authority excluded those people from the draft NRC, to which the SC agreed. It also excluded the declared foreigners, their descendants and siblings as well, to which the Gauhati high court agreed. Even several thousand people who have been declared as ‘Indian citizen’ by the tribunal were also not included in the final draft.
Initially, the NRC authority accepted a number of documents, but at the last moment, the district level officials were instructed either to reject certain documents or were instructed to strictly scrutinise the contents of those documents. It can easily be inferred that these discriminatory and exclusionary provisions were fielded to inflate the number towards the fag end of the process at the cost of genuine Indian citizen’s suffering only to fulfil the collective conscience of a politically motivated hostile regime and some chauvinist groups.
This will have far reaching repercussions on the lives of several million people, mostly poor and impoverish and already messed up in the recurrent conflicts and environmental disasters. Thousands of families across the state are going through tremendous mental pressure and trauma. In most cases, some of the members of a family have been included and the remaining are excluded. Most of the excluded are from the vulnerable groups, like women and children. This has not only affected the excluded but also the family members who are included in the list. In the last few months, more than a dozen of people have committed suicide, said to be in the fear of losing their citizenship.
In the current scenario, if someone fails to prove his/her citizenship before the NRC authority during the claim and objection process, then s/he will have to go through the foreigners tribunal which is widely seen by the community as biased and prejudiced towards them. If the person fails to prove citizenship in the Foreigners’ Tribunal, the person will be stripped off the citizenship rights. He/she can thereafter go to the higher courts, which will take time and money. Nobody knows what will happen to those who fail to prove their citizenship.
As per the current mechanism, the government has the only option to dump them in the detention centres. Presently there are six overcrowded detention centres holding about 1,000 such people and the government is working on to build another giant detention camp in the Goalpara district of western Assam. Even in best case scenario, if they are not detained they would lose their civil and political rights, including the right to property. They wouldn’t be able to flee to other Indian states; as the government is planning to collect their biometric information so that they can’t forge their identity and flee to other states. Thus, an environment of deadly silence and trauma has taken control over the lives of several million people across the state.
It is in this context that a section of “Assamese intellectuals” look at history from the other side and realise the sufferings of their own people.
Originally publish at https://thewire.in/rights/assam-nrc-a-history-of-violence-and-persecution
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The divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the main culprit behind the Karbi Anglong violence that led to the killing of two young men on June 8
I am walking on a narrow track on the Karbi Hills, about 150 km from the spot where two men — Abhijit Nath and Nilotpal Das — were killed by a mob a little over a month ago. I am escorted by Ananda Teron, a 55-year-old Karbi community leader, who recalls the fear that spread well beyond the Karbi Anglong region after the two were lynched by a crowd that thought they were child-lifters.
His 30-year-old son, who works in the forest department in Guwahati, panicked. The fear of retaliatory attacks on Karbi people from those belonging to other communities in Assam forced him to flee his government quarters and rush to his village. He stayed there until the situation improved.
On June 8, the two men — who were travelling in an SUV — were beaten and axed to death by the villagers, who had been hearing and reading about men picking up children from the region. For the villagers, the men were the archetypal “other” — they were in a car, one had dreadlocks, and they did not belong to the neighbourhood.
In video recordings of the incident, the victims are heard pleading for their lives, stressing that they were not abductors or outsiders. “Moi Axomiya (I am an Assamese),” one said. But for the crowd, even the identity of an Assamese was alien. “Pleading for his life as an ‘Axomiya’ did not touch the perpetrators; rather it might have made the victims more vulnerable,” says Prafulla Nath, who teaches at Assam University’s Diphu campus.
There is a great divide between the people of Karbi Anglong and those elsewhere, and there is little sign of the gap being bridged. Daniel Langthasa, a cultural activist from Haflong, says he was sickened by the video. “At the same time I am forced to review my idea of a greater Assamese society,” he says.
Members of the marginalised tribal group in Assam have long felt a sense of alienation, he says. When he came to Guwahati for higher studies, he heard the tribal people being referred to as ‘jungli’ (barbaric) and bloodthirsty. Langthasa says he experienced a “cultural shock” but overcame it by learning the Assamese language and adapting to its culture. “But is ‘adaption’ the sole responsibility of marginalised groups? Doesn’t the mainstream community have a responsibility to at least respect tribal groups such as the Karbis or Dimasa or Bodos,” he asks.
A horrific crime such as mob lynching is mostly propelled by fear and hatred. The ordinary person in the crowd has to overcome his or her basic human instinct of empathising with fellow human being. Experts hold that such brutalities are legitimised by people who create and propagate a sense of “otherness” and demonise a victim as a child-lifter who is outside the group the crowd belongs to.
Assam has a history of seeing other communities as a threat. As far as Karbi as a social group and Karbi Anglong as a geographical area are concerned, the gap between large sections of the people and the Karbi community project has been widening.
The Karbis are one of the most marginalised indigenous tribal communities in the State and have for long been demanding autonomy. However, they have also had a fairly amicable relationship with the mainstream Assamese community.
“We had the opportunity to move with Meghalaya in 1970, when it got separated from Assam, and enjoy the full benefit of the sixth schedule tribal State, but we remained with Assam because of our good terms with the Assamese people,” says Bikram Hanse, general secretary of Karbi Students’ Federation.
But times have changed. Nath believes the “inclusiveness and progressive outlook” of the Karbi leadership took a downward turn soon after they won a share of political and economic power through elections to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council in the late ’70s.
Langthasa holds that the problem doesn’t lie with the “institution of the autonomous council” but with the attitude of politicians who want to control the council from the state capital and underscore their cultural and linguistic hegemony. “That creates a sense of alienation and manufactures a ‘fear of the other’, which can turn lethal if it is orchestrated into something like a mob lynching,” he says.
Hanse stresses the role the State can play in embracing people on the margins. He recalls that the place where the two young men were killed is by a picturesque waterfall.
“Just imagine what would have happened if the Assam government had read our aspiration and developed the place as a tourist destination? There would have been roadside eateries, and the Karbi youth who were a part of the lynch mob could have been the tourist guide leading the two Assamese men to them,” he says. Instead, they were led to death.
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The first assault on the NRC’s credibility was by bringing in the provision of original inhabitants, or ‘OIs’, without even a proper definition or clarity on its constitutional validity. While large numbers of people, including tea-garden workers brought from British India’s Central Province, were included in the NRC without documentary evidence if the registering authority was satisfied, it was not allowed for Muslims who came from the East Bengal province of British India. The OI provision was not part of the modalities and wasn’t even discussed in the cabinet sub-committee. This made the verification process stringent for Muslims. The results were evident in the NRC’s first draft published on December 31 last year. It led to allegations that 90 per cent of the people were left out in districts dominated by the religious and linguistic minority, while 70 per cent were included in the ‘OI’-dominated upper Assam districts.
The second assault was the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which promises citizenship rights to six persecuted religious minorities, including Bangladeshi Hindus. Then, on May 1 and 2 this year, NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela sent out circulars to district magistrates, asking them not to accept certain documents that were earlier accepted as per the modalities, and to keep on hold applications of family members of declared foreigners until their names are cleared by the Foreigners Tribunal. The D-voters were already a category of exclusion.
Meanwhile, hundreds of fresh notices of reference cases are being served even as the NRC updating process is in its final phase. Muslims read these as an attempt to exclude as many of them as possible, and eventually dump them in the already overcrowded detention centres. Thus the very community that expected the NRC to solve their problem once and for all finds itself in the crosshairs of another evil exercise like the ‘D-voter’ one of 1997 and at risk of being arbitrarily stripped of citizenship rights. News of more and more paramilitary deployment in Assam to tackle the post -NRC law and order situation, with footage of shooting people in mock drills made viral through both mainstream and social media, only instilled more and more fear. Similar is the effect of reports that a giant detention centre is coming up in Goalpara district. The fear is genuine and unaddressed so far. And it may thwart the intended goals of the NRC.
Originally published at https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/error-free-nrc-is-a-broken-dream/300434
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Sukracharjya Rabha dreams of a people’s theatre in char!
Till this time, I was lucky enough not to write an obituary; perhaps, I have not been inspired and influenced by any living person to such an extent that his or her departure would put an end to this luxury. But Sukrachariya Rabha is different, he is unique and here I am writing my tribute!
I had a very short but an extraordinary meeting with Sukra da in March this year. After several rounds of telephonic discussions, Rahul bhindeo (Rahul Dev Nath, a noted filmamer from Goalapra, I address him as bhideo – husband of elder sister) confirmed that he would be visiting our “Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ in Barpeta district of Assam along with two distinguished personalities one of them is Sukracharjya Rabha. It was almost unbelievable for me, I asked him twice and his confirmation gave me goose bum!
I heard and read a lot about his theatre involving the rural community. I became a fan of his initiative to bring back the theatre from sophisticated urban sphere to the nature. We are living in a time, when the political class conveniently ignores the destruction of nature and silently approves further destruction in the name of development. One the other hand, the artists’ community run towards urban area, chasing their dream to make them reality through the recognition and fame provided by the urban elites. But as I have mentioned in the very beginning that Sukra da was different, he was unique. While living in the age of market driven creativity, he rejected the conventional way of art and life. In an interview with Ratna Bharali Talukdar, he said “theatre became not a part of my life, but my entire life. I was stubborn in insisting that we must take theatre out of the sophisticated auditorium or stage, and take it to our own people. Forests are always an integral part of the life of the tribes in Assam, and the idea of celebrating drama in the midst of a forest environment took roots in my mind.”
When I met him for the first and unfortunately for the last time on 11th March, it didn’t take much time to read his simple but eclectic outlook towards marginalized and hard-working rural communities. He was traveling from Guwahati via Nalbari (to pick up Pankaj Govind Medhi, well known columnist and author from Nalbari). I told Rahul bhindeo that I would be waiting either at Barpeta town or at Howly so that they don’t have to face any trouble to reach, around 40 kilometres in southern side from national highway at Sorbhog. But they advised me to go to Mazidbhita char directly and they would reach by their own. I waited for them near the Janata Baazar, close to char.
They came by a white car, Sukra da was seating in the front seat. It didn’t take a moment to recognize him. During winter to spring, the stream of river Beki which flows through the northern part of the char gets dried up. They decided to drive the car through the sandy river bed. I was riding my scooter while the car followed me. The river bed was so sandy that sometimes, because of blown-up dust, I couldn’t see the car on rear view mirror of my scooter. After travelling about one and half kilometre we reached the campus of Jhai Foundation where the ‘Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ is situated.
After getting off the car, Sukra da panned his eyes across the char. I could see in eyes, he was impressed by the greenery of the char surrounded by river Beki, a tributary of mighty Brahmaputra. But his focus was not on the greenery only also on those people who toiled under the sun to turn the flood-ravaged char into greenery once again. The first reaction he gave ‘how beautiful place and such hardworking people!’
Within a very short time, we spoke on various issues including flood, erosion, language, nationalism and of course about theatre. He told me “Abdul, theatre doesn’t need anything extraordinary, it’s not something different. The entire universe it part of it. You saw those people working in the paddy field? They are the best actors. Theatre is way of life”. I could hardly grasp his philosophical teaching but his lively and compassionate chain of words brought a beautiful motion picture into my imagination.
In his unique annual theatre festival “Under the Sal Tree” (Theatre in Nature), he conceptualized theatre in such a way that the life of an ordinary man or woman can be reflected amidst of nature and the wider sections of audience can relate with. ‘Under the Sal Tree’ as a festival, celebrating nature through theatre without using artificial lights and sounds not only got acceptance among the local tribal people but also attracted huge attention across the globe.
I sought his suggestions and guidance to form a theatre group in the char. I thought he would be busy and for him it might not be much productive to come to char once again to teach us basic things about theatre. So, I requested him to send some actors from his group to train us. Surprisingly, Sukra da told me “Don’t worry, Abdul, I will come back and we will work together. Next time when I come, I will come for few days, preferably during flood”. We exchanged telephone numbers for future communications. But who knew that the ‘future’ would turn into ‘history’ so quickly!
Sukra da wanted to have a walk around the char. He along with Rahul bhindeo, Pankaj da and my colleagues Kazi and Zahedul visited the farmers in their field, talked to them about crops, experience of flood, erosion, displacement, and politics among others. They went to individual households of char dwellers to understand their lives more closely. While coming back, Sukra da saw few plastic packets nearby our campus. The person who was so nice to me didn’t hesitate to warn to me to be respectful towards the nature and asked me clean the plastic packets as soon as possible. His honesty and conviction to the cause he believes, earned respect from core of my heart.
While having lunch in an open space, another round of discussion took place. This time Pankaj da took lead and started finding out how we could bridge the growing gaps between the communities. Sukra da showed the ways and means how we could work together among the marginalized groups including char dwellers to minimize this gap. I remember, along with the proposal of starting a theatre group, one of their suggestions to me was to develop a handbook on char-chapori dweller and invite members from other communities and train them on culture, tradition, food habit as well as dialects to make them familiar with the people living in char-chapori areas of Assam.
Sukra da has been one of the few individuals who have given me such radical and original ideas to bring the conflict-torn-estranged-communities of Assam together. In his short visit, Sukra da has given me so much of tasks and made me feel how much challenges has he headed on. But didn’t allow me to think for moment that he would leave me alone to complete all those challenging tasks and he would leave for heavenly abode.
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Four years on, the trauma of one of the deadliest massacres in Assam by alleged Bodo rebels that claimed 42 lives, including 24 children, still haunts the survivors.
Unlike hundreds of students of Adarsha Vidyalaya in Barpeta district in the north-eastern state of Assam, Ramena Khatun, a ninth standard student, doesn’t want to go home during holidays and summer breaks. Ramena lost her three siblings and mother in a gory incident on May 2, 2014 near her village in Khagrabari. In one of the deadliest mass killings in the recent past in this part of the country, 42 villagers were gunned down by armed militants belonging to National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
As the incident completes the fourth year, the victims are still crying for justice.
“We seem to be the most unfortunate citizens in the country. My wife and children were killed for no reason. My neighbours were killed, but there’s no justice,” Ramzan Ali, Ramena’s father, told this writer on the fourth anniversary of the incident.
Sitting inside his newly constructed tin-roofed kutcha house in 10th Mile area in Baksa district, Ali said Ramena, 14 years-old now, couldn’t get over the ghastly incident that she witnessed. “I feel like crying but then I have no option. She (Ramena) doesn’t want to be at home. School is the best place for her as she can forget the past, at least temporarily. Once she is home, she starts behaving a little abnormally. During the last Bihu (a harvest festival) holidays, I had to send her to her aunt’s place.”
On May 2, 2014, the tiny non-cadastral village called Khagrabari in the foothills of the Himalayas in Baksa district was attacked by armed militants belonging to National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), allegedly in league with government forest guards. Only 57 families were living then in the picturesque village, surrounded on three sides by the greenery of UNESCO world heritage site Manas National Park and the river Beki, one of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra.
However, Khagrabari turned into a killing field without any warning or provocation. “At around 3-3:30 p.m, militants started firing bullets at us from the western end of the village. We ran towards the forest guards’ camp in the eastern part of the village for protection. But instead of protecting us, they too started shooting at us. We jumped into the waters of Beki to survive,” recalls Ajiran Nessa (38) who survived the massacre but her five-year old daughter Majoni was among the 24 children who were killed.
The children who survived the massacre still carry the trauma and psychosocial effects of the brutality that they witnessed. Ramena Khatun is one of those, and her nightmare continues to haunt her every day. Sharing graphic details of her ordeal, she said, “I jumped into the river along with my mother and four siblings. I saw bullets being aimed at us. I dived under-water and saw a bullet hit the water ahead of me. Another bullet hit my younger brother. I saw two of my younger brothers gasping for breath and drowning, when suddenly another bullet killed my mother who had to let go of them from her arm. I couldn’t save any one of them”. She lost her mother and three siblings in the massacre.
The trauma Ramena has experienced has had a life-long impact on her. “I have more than 25 bighas (over four hectares) land in Khagrabari. But because of my daughter’s trauma, I shifted to this place and have abandoned my land,” said Ramzan Ali.
Even in the new place, around 25 kilometres from Khagrabari , Ramena doesn’t feel at home. She gets scared when she sees someone in khaki uniform or someone from the Bodo community. “Now she is asking me sell this house and get one near her school, which I can’t afford,” said her father.
No Justice So Far
On the fourth anniversary of one of the most horrifying massacres in Assam, the victims and survivors are still awaiting justice while the perpetrators are roaming free on bail. Initially, the case was registered and investigated by the Assam police, but later it was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which specialises in terror and organised violence-related crimes.
When asked, Jasveer Singh, the investigating officer and Deputy Superintendent of Police with NIA said over phone, “We submitted the charge-sheet long back and now it is up to the court to decide the case”.
Aman Wadud, 32, a Guwahati-based lawyer and activist, who provides pro-bono legal services, applauded the courage and determination shown by the survivors and witnesses. However, he is concerned about the delay in the process. “As they say – justice delayed is justice denied. I sincerely hope that the trial gets over soon and the perpetrators get punished” he said.
Long History of Impunity
Activists alleged that the Khagrabari massacre was one of the many mass killings that have been orchestrated with “absolute impunity” against marginalised communities like the Muslims and Adivasis in the present day Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) region over the last three decades.
An international research project called Minority at Risk by the Centre for International Development and Conflict Management at University of Maryland, documented the series of violence meted out to Muslims and Adivasis in present day BTAD. Thousands of people from marginalised communities have been killed in the BTAD region since early 1990s.
BTAD is a privileged administrative arrangement made through a tripartite accord called Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), signed in 2003 by rebel group, Bodo Liberation Tiger, the provincial government of Assam and the government of India under Sixth Schedule of Indian Constitution. One of the major objectives of the accord was to bring peace into the region. Though BTAD consists of only about 27% Bodos and the rest of the population includes Muslims, Adivasis, Asomiya Hindus, Koch-Rajbanshis, Bengali Hindus, Nepalis, etc, but 75% of the elected seats in the councils are reserved for Schedule Tribes, and approximately 90% of them are Bodo.
However, the BTC Accord couldn’t stop the recurrent violence. Instead, violence continued in the region with more intensity.
Shajahan Ali Ahmed, a student leader of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), who helped the victims to organise a memorial meeting on the fourth anniversary of the Khagrabari Massacre, alleged that on many occasions, people from the marginalised communities had been subjected to mass violence.
Ramena Khatun’s father is one of the survivors of the 1994 Bashbari Massacre where internally displaced persons were killed and injured when suspected Bodo rebels attacked a government manned relief camp on banks of river Beki, around two kilometres from his house.
“Our villages were burnt to ashes and we were forced to take shelter in a temporary relief camp set up in the Bashbari High School. In the middle of the night, they (alleged members of the Bodo rebel group) set ablaze the school compound and stood near the doors with machetes, guns and other weapons. Those who were running out from the burning school were slaughtered. Fortunately, I along with my friend Haidor, were outside the camp and had a narrow escape”. At least 71 people were killed and over 100 were injured, but not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice, Ali said.
There have been a series of violence in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2008, 2012 and 2014, claiming thousands, but the investigation and process of providing legal justice has been a sorry state of affairs.
Justice P.C Phukan, a retired judge of Gauhati High Court, who was appointed by the government to chair a commission of inquiry into the ethnic violence of 2008 in Udalguri district of BTAD, said “even murder cases have been kept pending without any investigations for months without much breakthrough. I wonder whether the investigating officers made any inquiry at all in some of those cases.”
In 2012, more than 100 people were killed and over half a million people were displaced, most of them Muslims. Thousands of FIRs were filed but not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted for killing and driving out Muslims. A similar incident unfolded in 2014 where Ramena lost her mother and siblings.
Despite the Khagrabari case being investigated by a premier investigating agency like NIA with full participation of survivors and witnesses, justice has not been delivered. Can one then blame Ramena’s father for almost giving up hope?
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Why at this particular moment in history do members of one group consider members of another group as less than human?
In Jammu and Kashmir, an eight-years-old nomad girl was allegedly raped and murdered by a special police officer to ‘inflict fear’ among the victim’s community. While in Arunachal Pradesh, a five-year-old girl was allegedly abducted, raped and murdered by an Adivasi migrant worker from Assam.
Both the incidences are brutal and sickening. However, the fallout of these incidents gives us two very different pictures of people’s perception of crime.
In the first case, when 28-year-old special police officer Deepak Khajuria was arrested by the special investigation team (SIT), the right-wing Hindu Ekta Manch openly came out in support of the rape and murder accused. The members of the group and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders carried a protest march, waving the Indian national flag, and demanded the release of the accused.
Whereas, in the second case, the police arrested 30-year-old Sanjay Sobor, accused of rape and murder, along with his accomplice Jagdish Lohar (25). Both the accused belong to the tea-tribe community of Assam and work as migrant labours in Arunachal Pradesh. When the news of their arrest spread, an irate mob barged into the police station, dragged both of them to the main road and lynched them. Thereafter, the mob disappeared. The two dead bodies remained in the busy town square of Tezu for hours while life around continued routinely – a video that surfaced on social media showed that traffic and commuters passed by indifferently.
How do two groups of people hold two different perspectives on similar crimes? Why did the protesters in Jammu and Kashmir want the accused to be released while the mob in Arunachal Pradesh want the accused to be lynched? A statement by Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu offers a hint.
Khandu termed the lynching as ‘unfortunate’ while the rape and murder of the five-year-old as ‘barbaric and inhuman’. Why is the lynching of two Adivasi migrant workers from Assam not barbaric and inhuman? Does the act of attacking a police station, stripping the accused and lynching them fall within the chief minister’s definition of ‘civility and humanity’ or does his definition cease to recognise an ‘Adivasi’ or a ‘migrant worker’ from a neighbouring state as a citizen or even a human being?
Highlighting the barbarities of mob lynching and questioning the authorities is in no way an attempt to undermine the severity of the crime they allegedly committed or at absolving them of this crime. But we do need to understand the relationship between the identity of the victim and the power dynamics of the ruling political class.
The identity of the victim and as well as the perpetrators along with the political discourse adopted by the ruling political class play a vital role in lynching and mob violence. Last week’s lynching has refreshed the memory of another one in the neighbouring state of Nagaland.
In 2015, a Muslim migrant from Assam, Sharif Uddin Khan (36), who was accused of raping a tribal woman, was taken out of the high-security Dimapur central jail after which a crowd of thousands participated in his lynching and his dead body was hung from the city’s clock tower. More than the alleged crime, the ethnicity and religious identity of the accused was used to whip up anger among the mob. He was branded as an ‘illegal immigrant’ from Bangladesh before being lynched to death.
Ever since Sharif Uddin’s lynching in Dimapur, the spate of lynchings has continued unabated throughout the country. In most of the cases, the victims of lynching and hate crime belong to marginalised groups like Muslim, Adivasi, Dalit, Christian and others. Allegations of cow smuggling, beef eating, love jihad as well as of heinous crimes like rape and sexual violence make it more convenient to orchestrate lynching and mob violence. The available data shows that in recent years, there has been an unprecedented surge in the number of lynching and hate crimes in cow-related cases and most of the victims are from the Muslim and Dalit communities.
What makes it easy to orchestrate a lynching?
For a human being, killing a fellow human is not easy. Experts say that if someone is not a sociopath, psychologically disturbed or doesn’t have empathy and moral feeling, there are strong inhibitions against killing others. It requires a special environment to overcome the inhibitions to carry out horrific crimes like a public lynching. However, professor Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo, who developed a model to understand dehumanisation and conflict, explains: “It’s unfortunately true that not all of us but most of us have the capacity to behave in such horrific ways if circumstances are appropriately organised”.
By ‘appropriately organised’ circumstances, professor Homer-Dixon indicates the process of ‘dehumanising’ the victim which he thinks is a necessary condition for a severe conflict. Dehumanising happens when someone de-individuates and caricatures members of the out-group and does not regard them as participants of his/her moral community.
While describing the lynching and hate crimes in India, I asked the professor whether his model fits into the on-going scenario in India. His reply was affirmative. The perpetrators ceased to recognise the victims as the member of their moral group or as a fellow human being, which legitimises their cruelty against the victims.
In cases where violence is religiously motivated, often something similar to dehumanisation happens. In June last year, when 15-year-old Junaid Khan was traveling home with his siblings to celebrate Eid, he was stabbed to death by his co-passengers in a moving train after an argument over seats turned ugly. According to reports: “The men (perpetrators) allegedly mocked the boys, tugged at their beards and accused them of being beef eaters.”
To understand the psychological state of perpetrators who participate in religiously-motivated lynching and hate crimes, I sought help from professor David Livingstone Smith of New England University and author of the seminal book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. Professor Smith told me that people who commit religiously-motivated acts of violence often see themselves as greater than ordinary human beings, and this creates a kind of distance between them that allows violence to take place.
Professor Smith further said to me “when we dehumanise others, we think of them as less than human. That is, we think of them as having a lower status than ourselves, which gives us permission to treat them as lesser beings.”
The attackers in most of the lynching cases saw themselves as “higher” beings and the victims outside their group as “lower” beings who may be abused or killed.
Lynching videos a ‘trophy’ for attackers
Lynchings and hate crimes in modern India are followed by a disturbing new trend which resembles the lynching of black Americans in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century US. During 1880-1930, thousands of black Americans were lynched by white Americans on fictitious accusations of raping white women or stealing cattle. The victims were killed in most horrific ways to inflict maximum pain and suffering. The dispersed body parts of the victims were collected by the attackers as trophies.
In 21st century India, the perpetrators don’t collect the body parts of the lynched victims but they film the horror on their smartphones and upload it onto social media. There are several videos of such attacks being circulated in the social media by the attackers themselves. While sharing the horrific videos, the attackers neither have remorse for committing such an inhuman act of violence nor do they fear the law of the land. Rather, they feel proud of their horrendous act and want to keep the memory of the event alive.
Professor Smith terms the lynching videos as a ‘trophy’. He said, “videos made by the attackers are trophies – similar to the body parts taken at lynchings…”
Has lynching been internalised?
Lynching and mob violence are no longer just a law and order problem. These are not happening in a political vacuum. It is important to examine why at this particular historical moment, members of one group consider the members of another group as less than human? There is little doubt that lynchings and hate crimes are happening with state approval. The ruling political class has been using it as one of their political instruments – sometimes used as a direct tool to influence their constituency to garner political benefits and sometimes conveniently ignored to protect their support base for keeping political power intact.
State machinery like police and investigation departments have been biased in providing justice to the victims of lynching and hate crimes. Last month, a group of 67 retired officers from India’s elite civil service cadres wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for “firm action against perpetrators of hate crimes” in the country. The letter alleges that in every case, the accused have either not been arrested or let off easily.
This pattern has infested all states across the country. In June last year, three Muslim youths were lynched over an alleged cow theft case in Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal. Police arrested the three accused and booked them under section 304 instead of 302 of Indian Penal Code, which made the crime culpable homicide not amounting to murder and the accused got bail in just two weeks. In many cases, the survivors and family members do not file police complaints against the perpetrators fearing counter cases and police harassment.
Chief minister Khandu and other constitutional authorities who are entrusted to protect the rights of the people must realise that their political opportunism and compromises are not just ‘unfortunate’ but are pushing the country toward ‘barbarism’, and are ‘inhuman’ too.
Published in The Wire https://thewire.in/227663/what-explains-mob-lynchings-becoming-the-new-normal-in-india/
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Guwahati, India – On the night of January 9, a police team headed by officer Ranjit Hazarika raided the home of one Hasen Ali of No 2 Atakata village in Mangaldoi district of the State of Assam in India’s northeast.
Suspecting him of possessing illegal arms, the police barged into his home at midnight and searched for the weapons but couldn’t find any.
Hasen, who had been a migrant worker in the southern state of Karnataka, had recently come back home with his wife and three children, including an infant. The 40-year-old was the sole breadwinner for the family.
Hasen’s wife Jamiran Nessa told Al Jazeera that her husband was dragged out of the home and at least four policemen pinned him down in the courtyard and kicked him indiscriminately.
“Police covered his face with a cloth and poured cold water on his face. He vomited and fainted after a while,” Nessa, 35, said.
Police brought him to Mangaldoi Civil Hospital around 12km from his home, where a doctor declared him “brought dead”.
Next morning when news of Hasen’s death spread, a large number of villagers gathered to protest against police atrocities and demand justice. At least one person died when police opened fire on the agitated crowd of about 5,000 people.
Ainuddin Ahmed, a student activist from Darrang district, claims that waterboarding is a widely practised torture technique used by the Assam police as part of their notorious “third degree”, or torture practices, in police custody to extract information from detainees.
Police covered his face with a cloth and poured cold water on his face. He vomited and fainted within a while
Ainuddin’s organisation, the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), works for the victims of police atrocities and persecution of minorities.
“Tens of thousands of genuine Indian Muslims of Assam have been harassed on the pretext of being illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, and more than 2,000 of them are put up in detention camps across the state,” Ainuddin, general secretary of AAMSU, said.
Aman Wadud, a lawyer based in the state capital Guwahati who provides pro-bono legal aid to the victims of state persecution and targeted violence, says police actions against Muslims are often harsh.
“Police have always been uncharitable towards Muslims of Assam; it has a different and very harsh parameter to deal with Muslims. Whenever Muslims protest for their rights, the police forces hardly hesitate to open firing,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Guilty will be punished’
Assam police chief announced that those guilty of Hasen’s death would be punished.
“He has died in police custody, already a case has been registered, the person (police officer) has been arrested and sent to judicial custody, and the investigation is on,” Mukesh Sahay, the director general of police in Assam, told Al Jazeera.
“The investigation will find out what the cause of death was. If his guilt is established he will be punished as per law.”
Sahay admitted there was a need for “training and sensitisation” of the police force and strict “enforcement” of law.
“If anybody violates the law he will be punished under the same law, simple. Our principle is zero tolerance, [if] anybody violates, take action,” he said.
But security forces in the state have not always followed the rule book.
Two days after the custodial death of Hasen, a journalist from a local satellite television channel, Swarupjyoti Chetia, was picked up by security forces in a midnight raid at his residence in the Dibrugarh district of Assam.
Chetia was accused of passing crucial information about an air force station and other government installations in the area to the banned rebel outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
The news channel alleged that Chetia was subjected to torture during detention, including pouring cold water on his body in the middle of the winter night.
Security forces, however, released him next day owing to huge protest and road blockade by the villagers against the “arbitrary detention and torture”.
‘My life has been destroyed’
Police officer Hazarika has been accused of using waterboarding before to get confession from detainees.
Last September Hazarika picked up Ambas Ali of Borbari Sonowa village from a tea-stall under the Dhula police station in Darrang district.
If anybody violates the law, he will be punished under the same law, simple. Our principle is zero tolerance, [if] anybody violates, take action
Mukesh Sahay, Assam police chief
Ambas, who lost his land to river erosion, now supports his family by purchasing goats and cattle from nearby villages and selling them in the local market.
He says the police first took him to the police station and then to another location where they planted a pistol under his belt before he was photographed.
Ambas says he was then brought back to the police station where he was blindfolded, pinned down and held tightly by several policemen, some of them sat on his chest and belly. They then placed a cloth on his face and poured water over it.
“Hardly half a minute to one minute, I could survive but then lost my senses. When I regained my senses, they did the same thing again and asked me to confess that the pistol was mine,” Ambas told Al Jazeera.
“I can’t explain what I suffered. …I thought, I wouldn’t survive…. My life has been destroyed…..”
Huge public outcry
waterboarding, or simulated drowning, only became widely known after it was revealed that the CIA had been subjecting suspects to it in the wake of 9/11.
However, the torture technique to extract information from detainees dates back hundreds of years.
In modern times, there was a huge public outcry in the US after it came to light that US soldiers were using water for a form of torture infamously known as the “water cure”, used against Filipinos in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
And in the late 1950s, French military used waterboarding against the Algerians suspected to be members of FLN (National Liberation Front).
Most recently, the CIA employed waterboarding as one of their “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” in Guantanamo Bay prison camp to extract information from detainees.
According to a recent study published by the National Law University, Delhi, 82.6 percent prisoners were tortured in police custody
However, a US Senate Intelligence Committee report highlighted the ineffectiveness of torture as a tool of interrogation.
According to a recent study published by the National Law University, Delhi, 82.6 percent of prisoners were tortured in police custody.
The National Human Rights Commission’s annual report 2013-14 says that it had received indications of 1,719 cases of custodial death during the review period.
Assam police chief Sahay claims that in recent times the higher number of custodial deaths is due to some other technical causes like “mob violence” and “lynching”, not police torture.
However, studies tell a different story; a report released by Human Rights Watch said that more than 590 detainees died in police custody between 2010 and 2015 in India. And no police officers were convicted during that period.
The report documented individual cases of custodial torture, death and impunity, including the practice of waterboarding.
UN Convention against Torture
According to Kirity Roy of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), an organisation working against torture and extra-judicial killing, India has signed but not yet ratified the 1997 UN Convention against Torture.
The South Asian nation is one of only nine countries worldwide that have yet to ratify the treaty and enact a law against torture.
Roy has faced arrest for working against torture and atrocities meted out by the armed forces in Assam.
He said that waterboarding is just one of several torture techniques used by police in the northeastern state.
The draft Torture Bill has many strong features – the presumption of torture when there is injury while in custody, recognising both physical and psychological torture, and deterrent punishment
Harsh Mandar, human rights activist
In 2010, the then government introduced the Prevention of Torture Bill, which grossly overlooked torture techniques such as waterboarding.
Article 1 of the UN Convention defines torture as an act of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” but the Indian bill defined torture as “grievous hurt” or “danger to life, limb or health”.
It declined to recognise some of the brutal and inhuman torture techniques, which do not leave physical marks and therefore were considered to not be a punishable crime.
Torture techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, are known as “clean torture”, as they don’t leave physical marks but are brutal and inhumane.
Last year, the Supreme Court described torture as an instrument of “human degradation” used by the state.
In October, the Law Commission of India, the highest recommendatory body on law prepared the draft “Prevention of Torture Bill, 2017”, widening the definition of torture to cover clean torture, including waterboarding, and making provisions for stringent punishment including life in prison, compensation, and burden of proof on the accused in cases of custodial death.
Activists and academics welcomed the draft bill as progressive.
“The draft Torture Bill has many strong features – the presumption of torture when there is injury while in custody, recognising both physical and psychological torture, and deterrent punishment,” Harsh Mander, author and special monitor to the National Human Rights Commission, said.
“We would still need to build systems to be able to protect a victim as he seeks justice against an all-powerful official system.”
Sanjay Barbora, who heads the school of Social Sciences and Humanity at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati, also welcomed the new Prevention of Torture Bill but shared his concerns about laws such as Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), which grant immunity to security forces.
“In the last six decades, the ‘culture of impunity’ enjoyed by the armed forces has ‘infected’ the state police forces as well, who normally don’t have protection under AFSPA”, said Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Common Wealth Human Rights Initiative.
Published on Al Jazeera Link http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/assam-forces-accused-waterboarding-detainees-180123063800303.html
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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.
An 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.
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.
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.”
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 (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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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/