Being the Forever ‘Bengali Muslim’ in Assam

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A Muslim woman villager affected by riots weeps inside a relief camp near Bijni town in Assam in this file photo. Trucks loaded with women, children, mattresses and bags of rice rolled into a refugee camp in Assam. Reuters photo
FAMILIAR GRIEF…A Muslim woman affected by riots weeps inside a relief camp near Bijni town in Assam. Reuters file photo

As Assam burns today, I still have my faith  in the system intact but my identity as a human, as an Indian, as an Assamese and as a Bengali stands at a crossroads with varying degrees of complexity. With the latest bout of indiscriminate killings and government apathy, a certain disillusionment has crept into the minds of even those who once stood up for secular values and pluralism 

TAHMINA LASKAR

Special to Caravan

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]iving in so-called mainstream India and with a North-Eastern descent one has to sometimes face certain awkward questions. One of such questions is “Are there Muslims in Assam?” Being born and brought up in the state of Assam such questions don’t bother me much and I go on to explain that yes, there are and Assam by all means is a state with a sizable Muslim population, as much as 35 percent.

Sometimes, I need to offer a counter-argument when some bubble heads suggest that while Article 370 of the Constitution of India offering special status to Jammu and Kashmir is much talked about and is opposed since it is a Muslim majority state, the special provisions in the North-East are no one’s bother because it is not a Muslim area.

It takes a lot of explanation and loss of verbal energy before some are convinced that although some special constitutional provisions do govern North-East India, the refusal to see the heavy Muslim population of Assam or making sweeping, general statement creates confusion.

Finally, when you think you can rest in peace that you have made your point, another bubble head comes out with what really has been bugging him: “But aren’t the Muslims in Assam all Bangladeshis?”

I feel like heaving a huge sigh of exasperation and then, half-heartedly, I start all over again to explain, starting from zero, to him that “your observation is a notion, not a fact.”

But then, things as they stand, some so-called popular political candidates go with banners written in Assamese to Bengali-speaking areas unabashedly least bothered about the fact that Bengali too is an official language in Assam.

And the last time I heard my district’s name i.e. Hailakandi in national news it was in 1992 (during the riots again) and since then I have been waiting one right reason and context so it features in national news.

My first feeling of being a Muslim in Assam came across way back in 1992 because before that no one specifically made me realize that “I am one”.

On the one hand, my friends from other faiths said, “Mom, asked me not to talk to you because you are a Muslim and might harm me since riots are on”. On the other hand, some of my elders said “See, this happens when you don’t follow true Islam”.

I was a little confused and a little disgusted; I was only a 10-year- old then who could hardly understand what was going on. Thankfully, within the four walls of my house no one was spitting that kind of venom. There were outsiders too who in spite of difference of faith held hands in time of need. I realized that being human was the first priority and all else will fall in place.

But as I grew older I started understanding the scenarios better and history was put in perspective and hence forth for me it became a part of life to explain the cultural differences and other complexities that existed in Assam to others without getting outraged by someone’s lack of historical and geographical knowledge.

While seeking an answer to my innocent query, I came to know about All Assam Students Union or AASU; best known for leading the six-year Assam Movement against alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

FOREVER ON THE MOVE...Villagers with their belongings move to relief camps as they leave their villages after violence at Chirang district in Assam July 24, 2012. Reuters
FOREVER ON THE MOVE…Villagers with their belongings move to relief camps as they leave villages after recent bout of violence in Assam. The solution lies remedial measures and healing wounds, and partly in accepting refugee status, if at migrants still exist..  Reuters photo.

The AASU leadership, after the historic Assam Accord of 1985, formed a political party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). AGP formed government in Assam twice from 1985 to 1989 and from 1996 to 2001.

While I don’t remember the period from 1985 to 1989 but 1996 to 2001 remain powerfully etched in memory, I expected a lot of improvement in Assam with the AGP coming to power. We all were tired of Congress already.

This hope for change emerged from the lack of knowledge of what AGP stood for during 1985 to 1989, had I known that “The Assam Agitation” that rocked the State on the issue of detection, deletion and deportation of the immigrants from Bangladesh concluded with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985.

Hailed as a revolution of no small nature, the Agitation underlined the Assamese yearning for ‘self-identity’, and produced a new set of leaders and a new political party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which was formed on October 14, 1985.

AGP leaders were drawn from two influential students’ bodies, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), as also other organisations like Assam Jatiyatabadi Dal (AJD) and Purbanchaliya Lok Parishad (PLP). United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was the seed sown by AGP.

United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the most prominent insurgent outfit in Assam, as well. The organization that raised a ‘revolutionary banner’ against the illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and the utter neglect of the people of Assam by the Central government, and sought a solution in creating a Swadhin Asom (Independent Assam), there was no reason to have been overwhelmed and overjoyed by this change of government.

However, AGP again failed to deliver like it did years back and since then Assam had been under Congress rule. Interestingly and ironically enough ULFA after being banned now finds shelter in Bangladesh and other foreign locations and issues proclamations lauding the role of the Bangla migrants in the development and culture of Assam.

As for efforts to the realization of the dream of Swadhin Asom, these remain confined to select terrorist strikes and rampant extortion.

With the current indiscriminate killings (in Kokrajhar) and government apathy, a certain disillusionment has crept into the minds of even those who once stood up for secular values and pluralistic democracy.

The solution lies partly in accepting and providing refugee status (if at all migrants exist) for humanitarian reasons and partly in remedial measures (proper documentation of population/sealing borders for the time being) which of course cannot be the killing of hapless victims of circumstances.

The government has a long way to go. While Swadhin Asom was AGPs demon Bodolandis Congress’. Bodoland Liberation Tigers’ Force surrendered arms to sign an agreement with the Assamese and Indian governments in 2003.

The agreement resulted in the creation of a semi-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council that administers four districts in western Assam. These four districts – Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang – are together known as the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts.

The Bodos want “pure” homeland of the Bodos and that ambition is at the heart of the recurring conflict in these districts and reason of ethnic violence in Assam today. The issues are really complex and are beyond communal and regional politics as of today.

Having faith still intact in the system right now, my identity as a human, as an Indian, as an Assamese and as a Bengali stands at a crossroads with varying degrees of complexity.

Balancing the cries of “jihad”, “anti-reservation slogans for tribals” and that of human reason and empathy sometimes leaves me totally drained. Mistrust and illogical retorts are the biggest causalities of humanity, the roots go to deep and I with all the above mentioned identity try to uproot those. Like Frost said “The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep”

 

All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Tahmina,

    You’ve done a great job by putting in clear words on an issue on which there are hardly anybody to straighten things on the media. But these efforts have to continue because there are people who are continuously spreading misinformation on both electronic and print media. Wish you good luck on this!

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