Assam’s Great Minority Hype

Published : 19 Jan 2016, 11:53 AM
Updated : 19 Jan 2016, 11:53 AM

Indira Gandhi was a brave leader, much more so than the men who have become India's prime ministers after her. She could not only hold her nerve even in the most tension-filled days in 1971, but also expose herself to physical dangers as few can.

Contrast that to the 1999 Kandahar Crisis and the abject surrender of Vajpayee and his team, and you know what I am talking about. And I am not willing to discuss Modi after the huge bluff of his so-called planned rescue of 15,000 Gujaratis from flood-ravaged Uttarkhand in June 2013.

Kindly read my good friend and veteran journalist Abheek Barman's edit-page article, and you will know what I am talking about. How a man planning to be India's PM can selectively rescue Gujaratis is another question that begs an answer.

When her father Jawaharlal Nehru was 'leaving Assam to its fate' in the wake of the Chinese army's rapid advance, Indira travelled to Tezpur twice on November 19-20, 1962 to deliver Red Cross supplies to local people, barely thirty kilometres away from the Chinese troops. I am not raising the episode to talk about courage, but to bring up something else.

After returning from Tezpur at the peak of the Himayalan crisis, Indira Gandhi shared a rumour with US Ambassador and famous Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith (a great friend of Nehru), that was flying thick and fast across Assam. Galbraith says in his autobiography, "A Life in our Times", that Indira told him of this, and he did not believe it "a wee bit".

She told Galbraith a rumour was rife that China would drive out Indian forces from Assam after conquering Arunachal Pradesh, and hand the territory over to East Pakistan. But the most interesting part was that, not only Galbraith, but also corroborated by Nehru's Intelligence Chief B N Mullick (who talks about it in his book 'My Years with Nehru'), that China's decision had already been conveyed to Pakistan, who in turn had conveyed the plans to local Muslims in Assam. Galbraith says he told Mullick that it was 'highly unlikely that Pakistan would communicate a secret deal to illiterate Muslims villagers".

This rumour that was evidently believed by many in Assam, goes to show the extent of demonisation of the Muslims of East Bengali origin in Assam in the popular psyche of the state. Such rumours have become the basis of many equally baseless media reports — a national channel ran a screaming story during the 2008 Darrang riots that local Muslims had raised the flag of Pakistan in the area before attacking other communities.

That might be the usual green banner that Muslims use during Muharram and other festivals — but it is unbelievable that East Bengali-origin Muslims, whose brethren sacrificed 2.5 million people to liberate the nation from Pakistan in 1971, would raise Pakistani flags.

Some Muslims in India do raise Pakistani flags even in Calcutta — I could see some of them on the day of massive street violence in the city that was triggered by some hardliners who wanted to force the erstwhile Left Government to push out exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen and force her to leave Calcutta.

This violence was centered round Park Circus, Tiljala, Topsia, Metiabruz, and Kidderpore around the port — but these areas are populated by Urdu-speaking Muslims who always felt Pakistan was their homeland and Bangladesh a bastard child of India.

On that day, when 114 vehicles were burnt in Calcutta, it made me feel like this was not my city but a Karachi of sorts. It was these Urdu-speaking Muslims who were behind the mayhem that forced CM Buddhadev Bhattacharyya to call out the army.

I asked one such troublemaker in my chaste Urdu (I used to broadcast on BBC Urdu service, as well as in Bangla, Hindi, and naturally English) whether he had read Nasreen who writes in Bangla.

To which the 20-plus taishadgard (troublemaker) said, "Hum kyon inhe paren — Maulana sahib ne kaha yeh Islam ke khilaf likti hain."

Why should I read her stuff, our Maulana has said she always writes against Islam.

So I would be the last person to believe Bengali Muslims raised Pakistani flags except for the odd diehard Jamaatis, even if the wild story that provoked the Darrang riots ran on a channel whose top anchor was self-ordained on behalf of the 'people of India' to badger liberals and boost hardliners, war-mongers, and right-wing bullies.

As another election in Assam draws near, the fear of a repeat of 2008 or 2012 riots is not unfounded. Veteran Assamese journalist and author Sanjoy Hazarika's recent edit-page piece was a timely wake-up call to the Assam administration to guard itself against violence targetting minorities.

Hazarika called upon all concerned not to "disabuse the highly emotive Bangladesh card" and said, "As far as numbers are concerned, the truth is that decades after the 'Bangladeshi' campaign began in the late 1970s, few have been detected and deported despite many promises.

"Not even the Centre has a clear idea of how many illegal migrants are in India, not just Assam. For years there has been a sense of fatigue on the issue in Assam."

Hazarika reminded all that Bangladesh's economy was doing very well, reducing the push factor for emigration.

There may be a sense of fatigue over the issue in Assam, but right-wing Hindutva forces may find it useful to work up a 2008 Darrang, if not a 1983 Nellie, to polarise voters on religious lines, which they have so far failed to do in Assam.

The AASU/AGP reaction to Modi's decision to legitimise stay of Hindus from Bangladesh is proof of that. But BJP's poll success in Assam (and for which it is desperate), will depend on consolidation of Assamese, Bengali, and tribal (tea-tribes and other tribes) Hindus into one vote bank that is capable of stopping both the Congress and Ajmal's AIAUDF.

That is why fears of a repeat of Muzzafarnagar (UP) is not entirely unfounded. Assam needs to vigorously guard against unfounded rumours that form the basic ingredient in the technology of riot-making. Hazarika points to 'the combination of selective facts, selective memory and rhetoric' that combine to make such rumours so believable by reinforcing existing stereotypes. Rumours like those floating in 1962 about China planning to hand over Assam to East Pakistan being communicated to "illiterate Muslim villagers".

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher