It was an afternoon with colours of hope, pride and prejudices coming to a halt.
Debates have started again after when the ULFA chief in his latest notes from underground vowed to register his protest – “that too not in words” – if theatres in Assam decide to take down an Assamese film called Shakira Ahibo Bakultolor Bihuloi / Shakira will be coming to Bakultol’s Bihu in favour of films like Raees and Kaabil.
The government’s intention of amending the Citizenship Act via the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 has been met with anger, anxiety, and unrest across Assam. Faced with a strident opposition to the proposed amendments from across Assam in the last few weeks, the BJP—with the support of a number of Bengali organisations as well—has reoriented its strategy by calling on the Bengali-speaking community to identify themselves as Assamese-speakers. Key leaders such as Himanta Biswa Sarma have advocated the assimilation of the Bengali-speakers of Barak into Assamese linguistic and cultural identity. Others have suggested that they “become Assamese” while maintaining their linguistic identity, and yet others have called on them to return Assamese as their mother-tongue in the Census.
Armoured with a notebook, a lousy phone camera and a few overnight clothes, I nervously left Shillong alone and drove down to Topatoli in the Nagaon District of Assam, in order to re-enter Meghalaya from Raid Nongkhap,which spreads from Ri Bhoi District into Assam. I left with a thirst for narratives, of people, of nature, of existence in this space whose identity as a periphery was intensified and galvanized in the 1970s, post the formation of the Meghalaya statehood. This was when the river Umsiang was identified as a natural boundary between Assam and Meghalaya and when cultures in the region were starting to fracture, at least on paper.
Tonight, 13th of December 2016, would be the 73nd night that Akhil Gogoi, the maverick 40 years old leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) would spend in prison. For the uninitiated – KMMS has been the largest social movement in Assam after the turn of the century – that too a left-leaning social movement. This is not the first time that Gogoi has been in prison since KMSS was launched in 2005, but what sets apart the last 72 nights compared to previous incarcerations is the blatant misuse of the criminal justice system and police by the BJP Government in Assam.
On 2nd October, Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader and founder Secretary of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) – a left wing peasant organisation based in Assam was picked up from Gandhibasti, Guwahati and was later handed over to Jakhalabandha police in connection with a case of inciting protestors during an eviction drive against illegal settlers in and around the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). A team of Chandmari police escorted him to Nagaon and later he was sent to Lakhimpur Jail. Akhil Gogoi was remanded to 14 days judicial custody by a court at Golaghat on 2nd November. He was re-arrested in connection with a case of 2006. And He is still in Golaghat Central Jail. Akhil Gogoi wrote an open letter to in Assamese from jail. This is a translation published in The Assam News.
After the BJP came to power in Assam in May 2016, the state government has unleashed a reign of terror to execute its fascistic agendas. Within 2 months into power, the government opened fire and killed a 25 year old man Mintu Deuri, during a protest organized in Raha against the transfer of the site for a proposed AIIMS in the state on 15th July 2016. Now on 19 September 2016, just 34 days after the Raha incident, the police has again opened fire and killed two people – Anjuma Khatun and Fakhruddin, at a demonstration led by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) at Banderdubi revenue village near the Kaziranga National Park. The protestors were demanding resettlement and adequate compensation against an eviction drive carried out by the mandate of the Gauhati High Court order dated 9 October 2015 which was supposed to happen two days later, i.e. on 21 September 2016 but had been preponed to avoid protests. The villagers, belonging mainly to the Muslim community of erstwhile East Bengal origin, have been residing in the village for more than half a century.
On the train coming back to Guwahati I realised that the only certain fact was that 15 dead bodies, including that of the gunman, had been found in the marketplace that day. And yet, my writer’s mind couldn’t stop coming up with further scenarios. Had Islary still been undecided about carrying out an attack when he got down in the market? What if the AK he was carrying under his raincoat had been meant for protection only? Had he counted on the absence of a police outpost at Balajan Tiniali to keep him safe? Was he there to maybe collect money from someone? Or might he have wanted to give himself up? Had he been surprised by the security forces, or had there already been someone at the market waiting for him? One of the things I had kept hearing was the presence of two or three men dressed in black. Might have there been a crossfire? Or was there just a single gunman involved, as claimed by the police, looking to lessen the pressure on his group by a terror strike? And could that claim have then influenced the testimony of the eyewitnesses I had met?
It was probably the longest Budget Speech ever in Assam. But this simply reminds us of the proverb “an empty vessel makes a lot of sound”.
While village after village was being lost to the mighty Brahmaputra, officials in Delhi were more concerned with the man made flood in Gurugram – a result of just bad unplanned urbanization. Dirty sewage water reaching the affluent and the expatriates are definitely Prime Time news worthy unlike the flood in Assam which is seen as a part of life of the people languishing in tents and relief camps.
The support that propelled BJP to power in Assam merits an analysis because the distribution of political allegiance ahead of the election defied the conventional logic of communal polarisation.
“As kids we would go in a big group every night and watch jatra,” quips my maternal uncle. Then he launches into telling me about how jatras or Bengali folk theatre used to be the main attraction in Raas melas.
This election verdict shows a paradigmatic shift in how Assamese society views the ‘Other’ and it is bound to have long term ramifications. AGP which claims to represent the interest of all indigenous communities of Assam went quiet on the differential treatment of Hindu Bangladeshis. Indigeneity came to be defined by ethnic as well as religious identity. BJP’s permutation and combination led to such a situation where Muslims of East Bengal origin found themselves pitted against all other. In times to come it is to be seen how such narrow formulation of identity overdetermined by religion plays out in a state which has seen many fits of violence on this very issue. And how regional parties grapple with such formulations will go a long way deciding the future politics of the state.
It is great news indeed that Axomiya nationalism is dead. It is dead for a good reason.
Assamese exceptionalism and the ambivalence of the Assamese Muslim to the Sangh Parivar’s designs against all Muslims regardless of ethnicity or descent could prove to be at the root of BJP’s rise in the Assam polls.
Last few days have seen several #AssamWithJNU #JusticeForRohith protests and rallies demanding justice for Rohith Vemula and against the assault on JNU, police crackdown and arrest…
Parvin Sultana examines the politics behind giving citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus and asks what it means for Assam