Assam will be a key issue for BJP in 2019. But it could end up as a toxic cocktail that targets Hindus as well.
Don’t ask me to tell you a story about Rwanda. Wikipedia would tell you more than me. You might not even need me to tell you stories about the great massacre of Nellie, 35 years ago. It’s part of our political folklore now. Let me tell you, instead, about less familiar places: Khoirabari, Gohpur, and Sipajhar. These places on the north bank of the Brahmaputra must be remembered when a deeply polarising debate over the National Register of Citizens in Assam is raging.
In the killings of 1983 in the Brahmaputra Valley, about 7,000 people died. A little over 3,000 of these were Muslims slaughtered in Nellie in a few hours early on 18 February morning. The rest were scattered all over, and mostly Muslim. In the three places we mentioned, those killed were almost all Hindu. And by fellow Hindus.
So why were Hindus massacring Hindus if the anger was against “foreign nationals” (read Muslims)?
Like most things in the northeast, it’s a complex story. Let’s lift the layers. The attacking Hindus were Assamese-speaking, those massacred were Bengalis. The linguistic and ethnic hatred was as vicious as the communal bloodlust. Where the two impulses got rolled into one, as in Bengali Muslim enclaves like Nellie, the story was simpler as Assamese Hindus killed Bengali Muslims. Everybody was at everybody else’s throat. The BJP, and a well-meaning Supreme Court, have stirred the same deadly cocktail.
Four million people have failed to make the cut in the final NRC draft. They’ve been described differently, depending on whether the BJP is speaking as the government or a party. Home minister Rajnath Singh says it’s only an interim first draft. Amit Shah calls them “ghuspethiyas” (infiltrators) in Parliament. How will you read this if you were on this list? You will feel targeted.
Next, the finance minister (and the real chief minister, never mind the title) of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, told us that about a third of these 40 lakh are Hindus. The BJP’s solution: The new citizenship bill whereby Hindus and Sikhs from neighbouring countries would be given Indian citizenship as a norm. Even if this law passes, let’s see how the “indigenous” Assamese react to this. This, sharing space with Bengalis, Muslim or Hindu, isn’t what they wanted. Remember, they were killing them both in 1983. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, a former chief minister, Asom Gana Parishad chief and a junior BJP ally now, has already expressed disagreement with this.
From all estimates, chances are that no more than half-a-million of these 4 million will ultimately be left out in the final tally. There’s an anomaly in the process that can’t sustain. The Gauhati High Court, in its wisdom, sanctified the “indigenous” demand that certificates granted by village panchayats be not treated as proof of citizenship. Now, what other evidence would these poorest of people bring from a pre-Aadhaar past? The state government didn’t appeal against this. It would have ended all the fun, you see. Someone else knocked at the SC’s door. It didn’t approve the high court order, but passed the buck back, asking the high court to draw up the norms for which panchayat certificates will be legitimate. It was in this confusion that the Supreme Court rail-roaded the preparation of the NRC. If any reasonable view is taken of these certificates, hardly any proven “aliens” will remain. This isn’t what the BJP would want.
The court had gone by the spirit of the 1985 Rajiv-AASU/AAGSP peace accord. It promised an NRC with 25 March 1971 as the cut-off year for determining citizenship. What this meant was, anybody who had come to India before that date would be a legitimate citizen. This was based on the Indira-Mujib Agreement, whereby Bangladesh had agreed to take back all its crore or so refugees from India. Almost 80 per cent of these were Hindu. Indira Gandhi wanted them all, Muslims and Hindu, to return.
It was in 1985, 33 years ago, when Rajiv signed the accord with Assam agitators, promising the NRC on this basis. For all the various reasons, the NRC wasn’t made until now. Two more generations have grown since. Can you deport or disenfranchise them now? Even the BJP knows it won’t happen.
If anybody from the BJP says there is no politics to it, ask them if they didn’t hear Amit Shah’s speech. He is to be given full marks for transparency as he laid out his pitch for the 2019 campaign. Since claims of “vikas” are always less tempting than their promise, “nationalist” polarisation will be the BJP’s vehicle for a second term. The issue in Assam will keep festering until then. The BJP will keep calling millions ghuspethiyas and, by implication, extend the insinuation to all Bengali-speaking Muslims in the country.
The expectation is that the “secular” opposition, pushed along by its Left-intellectual support base, would ultimately be baited into defending these, and by implication, the infiltrators. The subtext will be: They are pro-Muslim and anti-national. Congress sees the trap, but doesn’t have an answer. If 2019 is set up as a vote for or against Muslims, the BJP has it in the bag.
Assam for Amit Shah, therefore, is just a giant dog whistle to rouse the “nationalist” faithful all over the country. Amit Shah and the BJP know their electoral politics better than anybody else. But do they know Assam?
I will take you back 35 years, to my little room in Guwahati’s Nandan Hotel. My four visitors had an aura of power with humility. They were also bewildered. The leader was K.S. Sudarshan, then “Bouddhik Pramukh” (intellectual chief) of the RSS. He rose to Sarsanghachalak later.
A couple of the rest, northeast “specialists” in the RSS, now occupy key positions between the Sangh and the BJP government. The reason they had sought me out was to figure out how come so many Bengali Hindus had been killed in the Assam riots early that month. How can these Assamese not make the simple distinction between “Muslim infiltrators and Hindu refugees?” How could they kill so many Hindus in Khoirabari, Sudarshan asked. I explained the ethnic and linguistic complexities in Assam which made the massacres, in a brutal way, secular. “Kintu Hindu toh arakshit hai,” (but the Hindu is unprotected), Sudarshan said.
That conversation is recorded in my 1984 Assam: A Valley Divided, (page 121-22). The RSS then launched a patient campaign to re-educate Assamese agitators. The last assembly election, as I wrote in my ‘Writings On The Wall’, was the trophy of its success. The BJP in Assam now consists almost entirely of former AASU and later AGP converts, including the chief minister and his more powerful colleague.
But like they did in their youth in 1983, they will again struggle to deliver on the NRC on RSS/BJP terms: Target Bengali Muslims, embrace the Hindus. The BJP has decided to use Assam as its key to 2019. As demonetisation showed us, the Shah-Modi duo can take big risks. Risking economic damage for political benefit, however, is one thing, stoking old fires in complicated Assam is another. It’s possible that things will remain calm, but if they don’t, it will again be Hindu against Muslim, Assamese against Bengali (Hindu or Muslim), Hindu against Hindu and Muslim against Muslim.