It is surprising that when the Bajrang Dal, RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad gave a call for an Assam bandh on August 27 protesting against the state and the Union government’s failure to prevent influx of “Muslim” migrants and the consequent clashes in the BTAD area, secular elements in the state had not protested. There should have been an active resistance to that bandh call as well as an endeavour to alert the general public of Assam about the nefarious motivation behind it. The silence on the part of secular institutions as well as the genuine concern of the people about mass influx of foreign nationals ensured that the bandh, called by entities which till a few years back had hardly any presence in this region, was a resounding “success”.
There is little use closing the stable door after the horses had bolted. Perhaps alarmed at the spontaneous response to the bandh call, the AGP, which should have been proactive in opposing it, gave a lame explanation after it was over. No less a person than the phoenix who had risen out of his own ashes, the inimitable Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, attributed the success of the saffron brigade’s bandh call to the sentiments attached to the issue of illegal migration and not because the people supported the organisations. The Communist Party of India, too, was a step behind the proponents of the bandh in warning the people the morning after against “divisive forces” trying to incite trouble, even as it acknowledged the success of their gameplan.
The political entity which should have been most active in combating the saffron brigade’s call was the Congress, the party ruling the roost at Dispur for over a decade and the most empowered among the lot. Yet, not a peep out of its spokesman — perhaps the functionaries, inept even in the most normal of circumstances, are at the moment completely out of their depths at the traumatic nature of the happenings in the BTAD. Beset as it is with internal dissensions, the Congress has so to speak its two legs in two boats, which explains the inertia that has gripped it at a critical moment for the state.
The blatant attempt by the saffron brigade to hijack the foreign influx issue and use it to grind their ideological axes should have been resisted by the non-political secular organisations in the state, most notably the All Assam Students’ Union. Unfortunately, this student organisation, which has been fighting for the cause of the people of Assam through thick and thin, chose to speak out against “the attempts made by a section to ignite communal sentiments in the state by taking advantage of the BTAD violence” only after such attempts appeared to have become successful. Institutions like the Asam Sahitya Sabha, which is afflicted with its perennial, internal quarrels, have been resoundingly silent on the issue, as also other secular institutions.
Such inertia is a prescription for disaster for, on no account, must the BTAD conflict be allowed to be perceived as between the Hindus and the Muslims. One also needs to appreciate the historical reality that the Assam Movement in the 1980s against unabated influx from Bangladesh, despite occasional incidents mirroring aberrations, had been essentially a secular movement although vested interests had attempted to portray it as a communal one. Among other aspects such a perception is reinforced by the fact that the Assamese Muslims, who have thoroughly imbibed the local ethos, had jumped spontaneously into the Assam Movement and suffered incarceration along with their Hindu brethren.
It is salutary to recall the antecedents of the anti-immigrant movement while emphasising its secular character. The leader of this movement has always been the AASU, with other institutions of Assamese nationalism playing a supportive role. The student organisation had first made its demand for detection, detention and deportation of foreign nationals, irrespective of religion or creed, in 1974. But, with the Emergency intruding, it was not until 1977 that the demand was reiterated. The actual Assam Movement was kick-started in 1979, when the updating of the voter list during the byelection to the Mangaldoi constituency witnessed objections being raised against 70,000 voters out of 6,00,000 names, with a nominated tribunal finding 45,000 objections to be valid.
The fear of being outnumbered and losing political power gripped the indigenous people of the entire state, enabling AASU to launch one of the most momentous agitations in free India in which every Indian in Assam, no matter from which tribe or religion, participated. Over 700 people sacrificed their lives to the cause while hundreds more were killed in clashes and thousands injured. The six-year-long mass movement also witnessed the birth of Ulfa and the death of an unacceptably large number of brilliant Assamese youths who, at that time, were inspired by idealism.
The Assam Accord — signed at the behest of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — between the Centre and the leadership of the movement on August 15 1985, while bringing about an end to the agitation, did not quite bring about a conclusion to the core issue.
However, what must be noted is that all through the movement and afterwards the protesters had maintained an absolutely secular stance and, despite the machinations of a segment of national press and some national organisation, retained its secular profile. There had been no endeavour whatsoever by those at the helm of the movement to direct their ire against the Muslim community per se. The focus of their attention throughout had been on the fact that the transgressors were from a foreign country.
What is of concern to the enlightened segment of Assamese society now is that certain forces who are not true representatives of the long-cherished secular ethos of the Assamese people are attempting to hijack the leadership of the anti-foreigner movement. They have been helped in this by the fact that the wily Congress has succeeded in warding off implementing the Assam Accord, with the nationalist forces being unable to do anything about it. Twice the people of Assam thrust regional power into the hands of the AGP and were betrayed twice by a bunch of incompetent politicians.
It is sheer disillusionment of the people with regional entities which has made a segment look towards national alternatives other than the Congress, thereby playing into the hands of the saffron brigade. The BJP appears to this segment to be the only logical choice. Perhaps it is no use reminding this segment that this party in its NDA incarnation had been at the helm of the nation’s affairs and did precious little to rectify the foreign-influx imbroglio. It was then engaged in wooing the “minorities” in order to rid itself of its pro-Hindu image, so the infiltration from Bangladesh failed to catch its eyes! This is why when BJP leaders accuse the Centre of failing to implement the provisions of the Assam Accord people in the know tend to take their diatribe with a pinch of proverbial salt.
At the same time, individuals like Lok Sabha MP Badruddin Ajmal and his AIUDF have been stirring the communal pot through inflammatory speeches and attempting to project the BTAD clashes as attack on “Muslims” at an All-India level. The Mumbai mayhem and the threats against people from the Northeast resulting in a grotesque exodus are direct offshoots of incendiary speeches made by so called saviours of the community. That, even within the state, the impact of their words and actions are impacting outside the Bodo-inhabited belt, had been tellingly illustrated by the widespread violence during the retaliatory bandh called by AAMSU.
The tragic happenings in the BTAD area are threatening to have wider ramifications. With fundamentalist forces from both camps fishing in troubled waters, no one can rule out possibilities of a larger conflagration. The need of the hour is not armchair homilies by middle-class intellectuals, but positive assertions by our secular organisations. The most important role is obviously that of the Centre and the state government — firm and non-partisan action on their part is the exigent requirement of the moment if things are not to spin out of control.