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OnJune 18, a mob belonging to a right-wing organisation, Ram Sena, assaulted a group of Muslim men and forced them to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Assam’s Barpeta district
OnJune 18, a mob belonging to a right-wing organisation, Ram Sena, assaulted a group of Muslim men and forced them to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Assam’s Barpeta district|File image
OPINION

Joi Aai Axom to Jai Shri Ram: Assamese waging a war against Assam?

Politicians have only one identity, one religion and one culture -- politics. But Indians and Assamese are human first. Can we afford to lose that identity to bigotry and violence?

Sunaina Upadhyaya

What started with cries of “Joi Aai Axom” (glory to mother Assam) for the ‘Axomiya’ to protect their “jati, mati, bheti” (community, land and cultural identity) has today merged with dog whistles of “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Rama). On June 18, a mob belonging to a right-wing organisation, Ram Sena, assaulted a group of Muslim men and forced them to say “Jai Shri Ram” in Assam’s Barpeta district. According to the police, as reported by The Indian Express, the incident came to light after a video of the purported attack went viral on social media.

The police claimed to have arrested a Guwahati resident, Debojit Deka, for his alleged involvement with the group. Police are also probing if Deka, who describes himself as the founder of Ram Sena, Assam, on his Facebook page, was present in the mob that attacked the Muslim men.

Deka, according to the same news report, had posted a video on social media on June 18, commenting that “Ram Sainiks of Barpeta district have taught a lesson to some people saying Pakistan Zindabad”.

However, the victims said they were forced to say “Pakistan Zindabad”. “We took an auto from Jonia to go to the railway station in Barpeta Road,” Ashraful Islam, one of the victims, told The Indian Express. “We were on our way to Nepal to get jobs as welders. On the way, we were stopped by a group of 15-20 men, who asked us our names. They realised all eight of us were Muslim, and started shouting that we have to say “Jai Shri Ram”. When you watch the video, you will realise that one of us said we cannot say “Jai Shri Ram”, and they threatened us. They forced us to say it. What was edited out of the video is that they asked us to say ‘Pakistan Zindabad’, which we refused.”

It hardly matters who is saying what. What matters is why did the assailants want the Muslim men to say “Jai Shri Ram”? What is the significance of the slogan in Assam? Or is it even an identifier of Assamese culture and identity?

As we brace for another five years of barbarity, it is this silence that’s emboldening the likes of Deka and others who call themselves Assamese but are actually waging a war against Assam to turn the state into a Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.

While the All Assam Minority Students’ Union and North-East Minorities Students’ Union and Congress MP Abdul Khaleque registered police complaints after the video went viral, the government and its otherwise-active-on-Twitter soldiers like Himanta Biswa Sarma are maintaining their usual silence. This is true for every leader everywhere else in the country, which has seen a violent rise in crimes against minorities in the past five years.

As we brace for another five years of barbarity, it is this silence that's emboldening the likes of Deka and others who call themselves Assamese but are actually waging a war against Assam to turn the state into a Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.

Just two months ago, before the general elections, another Muslim man, Shaukat Ali, 68, was beaten on the road for allegedly selling beef and forced to eat pork as punishment by locals in Biswanath Chariali town. People in different corners of the state as well as the country got to see the horrifying video on social media as the eatery-owner was beaten and forced-fed pork. Although some media reports said it was not beef but buffalo meat, Ali was punished for something which is not even illegal in the state.

Before general elections,  Shaukat Ali, 68, was beaten on the road for allegedly selling beef and forced to eat pork as punishment by locals in Biswanath Chariali town
Before general elections, Shaukat Ali, 68, was beaten on the road for allegedly selling beef and forced to eat pork as punishment by locals in Biswanath Chariali town
File image

The consumption and sale of beef is not banned in Assam. Cattle slaughter in the state comes under the purview of the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950 and according to the law, only cattle above 15 years of age can be slaughtered after obtaining a "fit-for-slaughter" certificate. However, the law doesn't differentiate between buffaloes, cows and bulls. Nor does it prohibit selling or consuming beef. Ali, as some accounts that appeared in the media suggest, had been running the eatery business for nearly four decades and selling beef/buffalo all along. So what was it that Ali was being hauled over the coals for?

In a video of the incident, Ali was seen on his knees covered in mud. The mob surrounding him, shouting down at him, asking, “Why did you sell gorur mangkho (beef) here?”, “Do you have a licence?”, “Are you Bangladeshi?”, “Do you have your name in the NRC (National Register of Citizens)?” He was then forced to eat pork. All this is enough to point out Ali's actual 'crime' -- his religion. What if the man selling the meat was a Hindu? Would he have faced the same barbarity?

If we are still not able to see the magnitude of the uncontrolled communal hatred playing out in Assam, then perhaps it’s true that the Assamese have lost their identity -- not because of the influx of foreigners but to foreign ideas like Hindu supremacy, which was never a part of Assamese culture or identity.

Citizenship bill and Hindu-Muslim war cry

It’s chilling how even after such blatant bigotry playing out, the delusional Axomiya still prefer to tell themselves that they are serious about protecting their identity and culture.

Demanding  scrapping of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016,  school students in large numbers took out protest rallies in different parts of Mizoram
Demanding scrapping of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, school students in large numbers took out protest rallies in different parts of Mizoram
EastMojo image

If the ongoing update of the NRC was not enough to divide an already fragmented people of the state, the BJP government's Citizenship (Amendment) Bill made sure that the dagger was stabbed deeper into the wound, twisted till it hit the bone.

On May 23, as the counting of votes started and the scorecard started showing early leads for the BJP and its allies in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma -- the man behind BJP's turnaround in the region – told a TV channel how the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill “greatly helped” his party. The bill proposes to grant Indian citizenship to only non-Muslims who fled religious persecution from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and entered India before December 31, 2014.

By proposing to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis and terming the Bengali-speaking Muslims as foreigners, the BJP not just consolidated the Hindu vote but also divided the Assamese identity war right down the middle, making it another Hindu-Muslim battle like elsewhere in the country.

Sarma was right. The opposition over the proposed bill – which initially triggered large-scale protests across the Northeast just months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections – suddenly fizzled once the polls drew closer. In fact, BJP’s alliance partner Asom Gana Parishad, which had walked out of the coalition over the bill, returned to the NDA fold and jointly fought the Parliamentary elections.

As the results showed, the overwhelming sentiments against the citizenship bill didn't affect the BJP's prospects. But the saffron party’s gains in Assam this time was not because of promises of development. The results rather go on to show that with the citizenship bill, the BJP has succeeded in giving a new colour to the decades-long anti-immigrant movement in the state.

By proposing to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis and terming the Bengali-speaking Muslims as foreigners, the BJP not just consolidated the Hindu vote but also divided the Assamese identity war right down the middle, making it another Hindu-Muslim battle like elsewhere in the country.

But is this what the Assamese had been fighting for so many decades? With how things are panning out across the state, it certainly seems so.

It’s time the hypocrisy stands exposed

Last week, India rejected a US religious freedom report, saying it sees no locus standi for a foreign government to pronounce on the state of its citizens' constitutionally protected rights.

In its annual International Religious Freedom Report 2018, released on June 21, the US state department said that mob attacks led by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, particularly Muslims, continued in India in 2018, amid rumours that victims had traded or killed cows for beef.

In the government's defence, ministry of external affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said: "India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion."

But with incidents like the ones in Assam, can we really refute such reports.

Funnily enough, while rejecting the report, Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi called it "prejudiced". "Religious freedom is in India's DNA and we don't need a certificate from anyone. This report is far from ground realities and prejudiced," Naqvi told ANI.

"People from every religion, faith and culture live here with religious fervour," he insisted.

Perhaps Mr Naqvi is used to living in denial but the Assamese can’t afford to do so. Politicians have only one identity, one religion and one culture -- politics. But Indians and Assamese are human first. Can we afford to lose that identity to bigotry and violence?

(Sunaina Upadhyaya is a senior journalist from Assam based in New Delhi. Views expressed are her own)