By now everybody might know about the non-fatwa allegedly issued against Assam’s latest singing sensation Nahid Afreen. On 12th and 13th March a pamphlet supposedly signed by 46 Muslim men appeared in the Hojoi – Lanka – Joynagar region of the adjoining districts of Hojai and Nagaon districts in central Assam. The pamphlet was a plea to Muslims of the region to ‘protect themselves and protect others’ from ‘anti-Shariat activities like a musical night’. The said musical night is scheduled to happen on 25th March at the playground of a local college in a hamlet called Udali in the Hojai – Lanka region. It is already spring and Bohag Bihu is not far away, for next 3 months every nook and corner of Assam will witness musical nights. And Nahid, who commands a fee up to 4 lakh Rupees for a show within Assam, will perform in dozens of such musical nights across Assam. In this particular musical night as well, apart from other lesser known artists, Nahid is to be the star attraction of the evening.
On 14th March, a local Assamese news channel – News Live, owned and managed by the wife of the most powerful Assam BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, connected few dots with ‘creative journalism’ and went on a frenzy that a fatwa has been issued by 46 Muslim clerics against Nahid Afreen. Soon other local news channels jumped into the war of TRP. Soon came the two midnight tweets of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal adding fuel to the fire.
By the morning of 15th March the ‘Delhi’ national news channels who cannot always correctly name all the capital cities of the northeastern states went on an over-drive about a ‘fatwa’ issued in a small hamlet in central Assam. Credit must go to Arunabh Saikia, the Assam correspondent of scroll.in, who was the first journalist to call out the ‘fatwa’ bluff outside of Assam. But by the evening only one national new channel – NDTV India – put out an apology on their prime time show that they too got carried away by sacrificing journalistic ethics at the altar of TRP.
In this age of information (often half baked) highways and post-truth it would have been naive to expect the matter to have stopped there. Debate continues to rage on social media especially among circles of activists (of different hues) outside of Assam. Two broad lines of arguments can be discerned from the debates on social media. Firstly, ‘what if it was not a fatwa, the pamphlet is condemnable as it a repressive intimidation of Nahid Afreen and of her freedom of artistic expression’. Secondly, ‘not just TV channels but activists who fell for the “fake fatwa” news and expressed their solidarity with Nahid should apologise; because in the first place there was no fatwa against Nahid, and that this fake news and consequent outrage on social media further maligned the already cornered and an oppressed religious minority community’.
Proponents of both these strands of argument are on flimsy grounds at least in factual terms. But before I briefly go into that, lets us first read an English translation of the pamphlet in question.
One should always take news about the Northeast on national news channels with a pinch of salt, especially if it is about Muslim communities of Assam. If some people failed to do so and believed in the news, it definitely doesn’t call for an apology. Apology from news channels – yes, but I personally have given up hope on that front a long time ago.
Nahid Afreen is not the first female star singer from amongst the Muslim communities in Assam; we have had legendary singers like Parvin Sunltana and Neelima Khatoon and never were a fatwa issued against them by any cleric or non-cleric. But that doesn’t take away the plausibility of a fatwa or a pamphlet by clerics or non-clerics against Nahid.
In mid 2015, when Nahid was a finalist in the musical TV show Indian Idol it was widely reported in local newspapers that a group of Muslim clerics in her hometown were campaigning that people from a Muslim community should not vote for her on Indian Idol. They claimed that singing on TV is a gunah, and she was called a Kaffir.
It might be worth mentioning here that Nahid lives in a small town called Biswanath Chariali in Sonitpur, a Northeastern district in Assam close to Arunachal Pradesh which is approximately 200 kilometres away from where this particular musical night in question is supposed to happen.
In the video interview posted below, Nahid recalls about the campaign by clerics against her in 2015 (see from 3 – 3.42 minutes):
I am feeling really bad. Before this also I have had to hear a lot … [mumbles and cries] … Sorry. Some people in Biswanath Chariali, when I was in (India) Idol, even then these people asked others not to vote for me by saying that “Don’t vote for Nahid. She is indulging in a sin; singing, dancing or acting is not allowed under our shariat.” They said it is a big sin and people who indulge in these sins is kaffir. So even then I was really hurt
However, back then Nahid was not just on the receiving end from Muslim clerics. Rightwing Axomiya Jatiyotabadi (Assamese nationalists) and Sanghis ran a vitriolic social media campaign asking people not to vote for Nahid “as she is an illegal Bangladeshi, and if people vote for her other illegal Bangladeshis in Assam will feel embolden”. Why the Bangladeshi tag – because Nahid’s father is an Assamese of East Bengali immigrant descent, though her mother is an Assamese of Bihari descent.
So much so that, to mitigate the situation, the then Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi had to set an example by voting for Nahid on Indian Idol, and he requested everyone in Assam to do the same.
Even during this ongoing ‘fatwa/pamphlet’ controversy, rightwing trolls on social media called Nahid a “Bangladeshi whore”. Here I am putting out a screenshot of a facebook update made on 15th March in a rightwing facebook page (after several objections by netizens, the post was deleted on 16th March). A rough English translation of the text would read somewhat like these:
She is an illegal Bangladeshi whore. Even the mullahs have issued a fatwa against her. We have been saying that these Bangladeshis should not be given opportunity in anything. No one should listen to this whore’s songs. She should be driven out to Bangladesh. Giving these Muslims any opportunity means it is our loss. Like Sharukh Khan and Amir Khan even this whore will say that intolerance has increased in India. So, friends, be careful before the teeth of the poisonous snake grows, and refrain from listening to this illegal Bangladeshi whore’s song. And people who give her the chance to sing must also be taught a lesson.
Coming back to the pamphlet in question – Is it regressive and condemnable? For me it is a big YES. Was the pamphlet an attempt to intimidate Nahid and take away her right to sing? My answer is NO.
If one reads the pamphlet carefully it becomes clear that the pamphlet not only doesn’t mention Nahid’s name but also it doesn’t point towards Nahid in anyway. As far as I can understand it is a coincidence that Nahid is one of the star attractions of the planned musical evening to be held on 25th March at Udali Sonai Bibi College in which many other lesser known artists would also perform. The pamphlet is clearly addressed to ‘fellow elder Muslims’ to stop the younger generation of Udali from organising the musical night. Clearly the younger generations of Udali have angered few of their community elders by transgressing the regressive ideas and notions that these elders like to propagate and hold on to.
Nahid’s right to sing and perform is non-negotiable, and whenever that is under attack from bigots of any hue we must take a strong stand in her support. But in Udali if anyone’s right is being attacked through the pamphlet, it the rights of the young people of Udali to organise and enjoy a musical night when around the same time whole of Assam will do so.
In this instance also one should stand in support, and I stand with the young people of Udali.
While the national media went on frenzy about the ‘fatwa’, later they again forgot another 101 of journalism. They forgot to make enquiries who are those 46 signatories to the pamphlet. Now there are reasonable doubts even if the 46 signatories actually exist in person. The local Muslims residents of the concerned region in the adjoining districts of Hojai and Nagaon have not been able to either trace or identify the signatories, the Mosque committees in the region have also failed to identify or trace any of the signatories.
If these doubts turn out to be true, would not it be wise to pause for a while and listen to many voices from Assam which are saying that this “Nahid Afreen issue” has been deliberately manufactured as a tactful diversion from the Silapathar violence and subsequent protests that have kept Assam on the boil for more than two weeks now, with curfews still be put in places on and off.
In any case two weeks of turmoil in the most populace state beyond the Chicken-neck is not news worthy, not even for everybody’s beloved Ravish Kumar of NDTV – India.
On 6th March a large public meeting was held under the banner of a “Hindu Bengali” group – Nikhil Bharat Bangali Udbastu Samannay Samiti (NBBUSS) – at Silapathar town of Dhemaji district in Assam. NBBUSS has been campaigning in support of the proposed amendments (along communal lines) to the Citizenship Act of 1955. After the public meeting, a rally of 15 -20 thousand NBBUSS activists and supporters was taken out without any permission from district authorities, and the rally was led by alleged RSS henchman and Nagpur based president of NBBUSS – Dr. Subodh Biswas. The rally transformed into a mob, inflammatory slogans like “We refuse Assam Accord”, “Assamese go back” etc. were raised, several vehicles were gutted, a large portrait of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was kicked and booted on the street; and a local All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) office was vandalised. As a result of the protest that broke out across the state, Assam Police issued a “most-wanted” notice for Dr. Subodh Biswas and a reward of 1 lakh Rupees was announced for anyone who can provide information about the whereabouts of Dr. Biswas.
Both the BJP government and RSS were on the back foot, and were on a fire-fighting mode. Then, suddenly, appears this pamphlet, and Nahid’s name is dragged into all these.
Why aren’t people from ‘mainland India’ ready to listen to this set of concerns and spend a little time in learning the complicated history of contemporary Assam?
Well, I would like to end this post-script by asking CM Sarbananda Sonowal – Where is Dr. Subodh Biwas? If I can trace his left-over social media trail, why can’t your police force detain him?