Assam: Fight against foreigners singes native Muslims
Assam’s fight against alleged Bangladeshi migrants risks becoming a fight against Muslims in general. Caste Hindu leaders who have led the anti-immigrant campaign in the past deny such a bias but attitudes are fast changing. There seems to have taken place a structural break in Hindu-Muslims relations, about which the Assamese are either in denial or trying to hide.
“Na-na, position kharab. Musalman-Bodor gondogol (no way…things are bad. Muslims and Bodos have fallen out),” Abhijit Ghosh, the proprietor of a run-down hotel in the western Assam town of Bilasipara tells me, warning that the place won’t be open for dinner.
Did Assam witness a communal riot — a simplistic term for Hindu-Muslim clashes — as perfume baron and influential Assam MP Badruddin Ajmal has portrayed? Or is it an ethnic clash, rooted in tribal identity, as arch-rival and chief minister Tarun Gogoi has maintained? The hotelier’s choice of words is a clue.
The language commonly used to describe a viscous old war — between natives and settlers — has indeed changed. Over 80 have been killed so far and 400,000 displaced.
Migrants were almost always pejoratively referred to as “miyas” or “Mymensingiyas” by locals to distinguish them from native Muslims, who are well accepted. The migrants mostly came from Mymensingh in East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh in 1971.
Back then, it would always be “Bodos vs the miyas” or “Assamese vs the miyas”. Now, many say that has quietly got converted into “Bodos vs Muslims”.
From bystanders to SIM-card retailers, during an 8-hour journey from Guwahati to Dhubri, people are widely recalling this as a “Bodo-Muslim” conflict. “Muslim” and “miya” are now being used interchangeably.
Assamese anti-immigrant leaders, such as Samujjal Bhattacharya, blame MP Ajmal’s “polarising politics” for this tragic mix-up.
Such a confusion has only delayed peace and sharpened prejudices. “Now, even I’m called a miya…so disgusting,” Saidur Rahman, a clerk at Chapor primary health centre here and a native Muslim, says.
What does Khudeja Khatoon — a migrant Muslim who fled an unsparing Bodo assault — think? “They think we are Bangladeshis who want to convert Bodoland into a Muslim land,” Khatoon says about those who shot her husband and brother-in-law.
Sociologists say the seeds of discord remain ethnic but some blurring of lines have surely happened. “This mix-up is part of a general shift to put all Muslims in one box from where it is difficult to come out,” Sanjay Barbora, associate professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus. And this muddle is only complicating matters.