Communal Poll Rhetoric Takes Deadly Toll in Assam

Venomous communal election rhetoric, adding fuel to long-simmering ethnic and communal fires, took a terrible toll in Assam. Over 30 people, most of them Muslim women and children, were massacred in Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD).

The BTAD region has witnessed a communal massacre in 2012, and is well known to be at high risk for such violence. Why, then, did the State Government headed by the Congress’ Tarun Gogoi fail to monitor the activities of militant groups and provide proper protection for the vulnerable minorities?

The latest massacre took place in the wake of a series of communal statements during the election. In one such statement, an MLA of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), Pramila Rani Brahma said that the BPF candidate for the Kokrajhar constituency would lose as Muslims did not vote for him. She indicated that the BPF, which is now an alliance partner of the Congress in Assam, might join hands with the BJP.

In its manifesto for Assam, the BJP’s Assam unit promised to identify and evict all ‘illegal immigrants’ from Assam; making it clear that it would treat only Muslims as “illegal immigrants” while welcoming “Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and members of the Scheduled Castes” as “refugees” from Bangladesh.

Speaking at election rallies in Assam, Modi had stoked hate against Muslims, suggesting that rhinos were being killed in Kaziranga to clear the ground for “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” He spewed more venom in Srirampur, West Bengal, on April 27th, saying that “illegal Bangladeshis” must keep their bags packed, since he would evict them on May 16th once he became PM. Undoubtedly, this hate-speech, branding Muslims in Assam and W Bengal as “illegal immigrants”, contributed to the horrendous election-time massacre in Kokrajhar.

Those wishing to convince themselves or us that Modi has turned a new leaf since 2002 should pay attention to Modi’s conduct after the Assam massacre. At a rally in Asansol a day after the massacre, the PM-in-waiting did not utter a word of grief for the women and children killed in cold blood. He did not mention the killing at all – much as he did not mention the Gulbarg Society massacre in his address to the press on 28 February 2002, five hours after 69 Muslims including Ehsan Jafri had been massacred on his watch. Instead, Modi rubbed salt into the wounds of those killed in Assam, suggesting that after all, they were Muslims, and therefore not Indians. He said in his Asansol speech, “Those (from Bangladesh) who observe Durgashtami, they are a part of our Hindustan and they will stay here. But we will deport those who are infiltrators.” In a tweet on 4 May, Modi said, “Those who were children of Bharat Mata, those who observe Durgashtami they are my brothers. We must treat them like children of India.”

Modi’s Asansol speech and his 4 May tweet were dangerous instances of hate-speech, above all because of the way he defined ‘Hindustan’ and ‘children of mother India’ in terms of Hindu religious customs. His speech clearly stated that in his view, the acid test for whether someone is to be treated as an Indian or an illegal infiltrator, is whether they ‘observe Durgashtami’ or not. His words are thoroughly unconstitutional because they imply that those of non-Hindu faith are not “part of our Hindustan”, not “children of Bharat Mata.” Modi is making it clear that he intends to act as though India (Hindustan) is the ‘Hindusthan’ or ‘Hindu Rashtra’ of the Sangh’s fanatic dreams.

The politics of branding Muslim citizens in W Bengal and Assam as ‘illegal immigrants’ must be challenged and defeated, and at the same time, a humane and secular policy towards refugees from neighbouring countries fleeing persecution, as well as economic migrants must be evolved urgently.

After Jammu and Kashmir, Assam has the second largest proportion of Muslims, roughly a third of the state’s population, and a significant part of this population is concentrated in the districts bordering Bangladesh. However, what is important to note that much of this mass migration of Muslims who settled in these districts, happened during the period of India-Pakistan partition and again during the emergence of Bangladesh. The Assam accord fixed 1971 as the cut-off year to decide the legality of immigration. Thousands who settled after this cut-off date have already been deported. Calling the bluff of the bogey of incessant influx of ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltration’, census figures show that since 1971, the decadal growth rate of population in Assam has been lower than the all-India growth rate. To brand Muslim citizens and voters as “illegal immigrants” is therefore a deliberate communal falsehood. The worst part is that in every pogrom in Kokrajhar, the internally displaced Muslims living in relief camps, having lost their papers in the arson, are threatened with loss of citizenship and eviction.

Modi’s ‘refugee vs infiltrator’ distinction also needs a strong rebuff. Instead of a false distinction between (Hindu) refugee and (Muslim) infiltrator, we need to stress that there are refugees and economic migrants in India across religious divides.

BJP’s Manifesto claims “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” This is a deliberately misleading formulation. India is the natural destination of many refugees fleeing religious persecution in neighbouring countries. These include Pakistani and Bangladeshi Hindus, Hindu and Muslim Tamils from Sri Lanka, and also, Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. India, unfortunately, is yet to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, according to which signatory nations are obligated not to deport refugees back to countries where they face persecution. If India were to sign this Convention, refugees would be assured of humane and dignified treatment within India.

Moreover, the use of the word ‘infiltrator’ (with overtones of ‘terrorist’) for economic migrants who happen to be Muslim, is deliberately communal. India is a natural labour destination for a large number of workers from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh. The economic migrants from Bangladesh include both Hindus and Muslims, and like those from Nepal, deserve recognition of their right to work, and other rights in the country where their cheap labour is exploited.

In countries across the world, labour flow of economic migrants from across borders is a reality. In the US, the Obama administration has recently had to issue work permits and extend amnesty to so-called ‘illegal aliens’ from Mexico, and the huge contingent of Latina workers in the US have been demanding recognition and comprehensive rights. In India, too, a humane policy is urgently called for, to protect the rights and safety of economic migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh.

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