Why the violence in Assam is not communal

Jahar (C), a 105-year-old villager affected by ethnic riots, is carried by his son to a relief camp near Bijni town in the northeastern Indian state of Assam July 26, 2012
Image caption Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled their homes in Assam following violence

The tragedy unfolding in the Indian state of Assam over the past month - the killing of nearly 100 people, mostly Bangladeshi Muslim settlers in lower Assam, and the displacement of others in hundreds of thousands - is not without precedent.

In February 1983, more than 2,000 men, women and children - all Bengali-speaking Muslims and allegedly illegal immigrants from Bangladesh - were killed in a single morning of violence in Nellie, a small town in the Nagaon district of Assam.

One paradox about the violence both then and now is this: those who kill allege they are targeting illegal immigrants and yet a long-running complaint of the Assamese people is that the state's successive governments have failed to create proper systems of identification. How is an illegal immigrant to be distinguished from a Bengali Muslim resident of Assam?

A second paradox is evident in how some Muslims in the rest of the country have viewed the recent violence as an attack on fellow Muslims rather than on unwelcome guests from a neighbouring country.

While the Bodo community in Assam's Kokrajhar district - where most of the recent violence has taken place - does battle with the Bangladeshis over issues of land and livelihood, the crowds in faraway Mumbai who staged a protest on 11 August against the killings in Assam and then ran amok, killing two people and injuring several more, claimed to be acting on behalf of their suffering Muslim brethren.

Given that the conflict has largely come to be seen in terms of "Muslims versus north-easterners" (rather than, for instance, Assamese versus Bangladeshis), where does it leave Assam's approximately 9 million Muslims? And how does it feel to be both north-eastern and Muslim?

I put the question to Tabris Ahmed who lives in the city of Shillong, one of the region's multi-ethnic hubs and the capital of the state of Meghalaya.

Mr Ahmed is a successful 40-year-old lawyer who belongs to a small community of Manipuri Muslims called Pangan.

'Incredible diversity'

The Pangans live in the largely Hindu state of Manipur, as well as in Assam and Tripura states and in Bangladesh. There are also a handful of Pangan families in Shillong.

Image caption Muslims in India have viewed the recent Assam violence as an attack on fellow Muslims

As I sit with Mr Ahmed in his small living room, made even smaller by its lining of forbiddingly thick law books, I realise that, given the incredible diversity of background and experience in the region, the general question about being a north-eastern Muslim can only be answered in very specific terms.

Mr Ahmed's parents are from Banskandi, a village near the Assam border with Manipur. His father belongs to a family of imams and arrived in Shillong in 1961 after a religious education at the famous Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband. He became the maulvi [Muslim priest] of one of Shillong's mosques and remained so till his death in 2003.

He sent his sons to one of Shillong's many English-medium Christian missionary schools and none of them took up a religious career. But the family continues to live close to the mosque as they did in the Maulvi Sahib's time, and Mr Ahmed, who is vice-president of the mosque committee, talks with a sense of responsibility about "taking care of the namazis [Muslim faithful]".

When the talk turns to the situation in Assam, Mr Ahmed makes a very clear distinction between those Bengali Muslim migrants who have the historical right to live in the state (their ancestors having arrived there before the 1971 creation of the nation of Bangladesh, or even before 1947 when the state of East Bengal was a part of India), and those who have stolen across the border in search of a livelihood.

And the border is porous, he says, and the guards easy to bribe.

Mr Ahmed is convinced that there is large-scale migration of Bangladeshis into Assam and that this must be stemmed.

Underlying these views is his faith in himself as a "liberal Muslim" and a patriotic Indian - someone who will, for example, always support the Indian team and not the Pakistani during a cricket match.

Mr Ahmed regularly travels across the country to visit relatives and friends and his patriotism is not dented by his repeated discovery of his countrymen's shocking ignorance about the basic geography of the north-east or the names of its main cities.

"They don't know about us," he says, "while we in school learn about the whole country."

Multiple identities

When I ask Mr Ahmed about his roots, he does not talk of Manipur or Assam but describes himself as a "Shillongite".

Image caption Thousands of north-easterners fled Bangalore after rumours spread they would be attacked

He is fluent in a number of Shillong's many languages - Khasi, Hindi, English, Bengali, Assamese as well as his native Meiteilon. He describes the city as a welcoming place and one where he has always felt at home.

He has made a choice - just as his father did in leaving that village and settling in Shillong. In choosing for himself, Mr Ahmed is cosmopolitan.

At the same time, he has a very sure sense of himself as belonging to a Muslim community that has a right to live in Assam.

Unlike the protesters in Mumbai who rioted over the killing of their fellow Muslims, Mr Ahmed does not subscribe to the idea of an international Muslim brotherhood.

He says that certified Indian Muslims like him are in a position to help the government of Assam identify and deport illegal immigrants. "It is easy for us to tell who is a long-term resident and who isn't," he says.

Mr Ahmed is many things at once - Manipuri, Assamese, Shillongite, Muslim, north-eastern, Indian.

In negotiating these multiple identities with ease, he gives lie to the dichotomous way in which the Assam conflict has been portrayed.

But as a middle-class professional who could live and work anywhere in the country, he is far removed from the victims of the violence in Nellie then and Kokrajhar now - largely the poor who either live off the land or work at manual jobs.

Similarly, along with the students who recently fled back home to the north-east, there were also many who work as contract labour in the service industry - security guards, waiters, hairdressers - those whose sense of insecurity in mainland India is compounded by their precarious economic situation.

To view the fight over Assam as a communal one, therefore, is to wilfully ignore the poverty of those both waging this battle and dying in it.

As so often happens in conflicts of this nature, the fundamental issues are obscured by the spectacle of violence driven by the logic of "an eye for an eye".

In this case, the culpability of a government that first allows impoverished immigrants to illegally enter a state already wracked with issues of underdevelopment, and then turns a blind eye to their murder, is what the nation's attention should be wholly focused on.

Anjum Hasan is a novelist and books editor at The Caravan magazine

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