by Rishiraj Sen 16, 2022
The Chief Minister of Assam, Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, while addressing a debate during the budget session of Assam assembly referred to ‘The Kashmir Files’ a film directed by Vivek Agnihotri on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. He said “I am asked if the Assamese people will face the same fate as Kashmiri Pandits in 10 years, whether Assam will be like what has been shown in The Kashmir Files. It is the duty of the Muslims to behave like a majority and assure us that there will be no repeat of Kashmir here”.
The choice of the majority is quite interesting. According to the 2011 census, the population of people who identified as Hindus is 61.47% which is almost double to that of the Muslims, which happens to be 34.22%. In this case, it can be clearly seen that Hindus enjoy the status of being a ‘majority’ quite comfortably. But, for Sarma the equation is a bit different. He says that the Brahmin population is around 2-3%, Kalitas are around 10% and similarly the other groups individually constitute far less percentage compared to the Muslims. After providing this statistic, he further claimed that Hindus were actually minorities with fears: The Assamese people are under fear. There is fear that culture and civilization will be protected. Harmony is two-way traffic. Let Muslims talk about the protection of Sankari culture, Sattriya culture. There will be harmony. Ten years back, we were not minorities but now we are.
The Subtle Art of Turning Majority into Minority
Census clearly states that Hindus are an overwhelming majority in Assam. Mr Sarma is trying to manufacture a fallacy by confusing the masses between religion, caste and ethnicity. He is trying to homogenous three different forms of identities. Hinduism has different branches who worship different gods and goddesses, through its internalization into different cultural practices. So, taking Mr Sarma’s data, the caste Brahmin can be a minority but not the religion Hinduism. Same goes for the others.
Let’s take a simpler example for the same: In the parliament, if only 7% of the 60% Hindu MLAs are women, will we say that Hindus are a minority or will we say women are a minority? Another important factor that we tend to miss is that some groups have control over others through their production of knowledge or controlling the cultural capital space. Ahoms have ruled Assam over centuries and still have greater influence on the intelligentsia and politics of Assam than many other groups. Brahmins are at the top of caste hierarchy, a system that has outlived all of us.
Mr Sarma makes an interesting point in his speech. He says “There is no need to encroach on the lands of tribals residing in the sixth schedule area. If Bora and Kalita (Assamese surnames) have not settled on those land, Islam and Rahman (Muslim surnames) must also refrain from settling in those lands”. Therefore, clearly distinguishing between the good Hindus and demonic Muslims. But, it is not as simple as Mr Sarma wants us to believe.
The tribal/ adivasi population of Assam has been marginalized for years now by the state. In June, 2020, Gauhati University discontinued two 6-month-long certificate/diploma courses on Mising and Rabha languages, two minority languages of Assam. The politics around the tea-tribe and their degrading conditions also points questions towards the intention of the inclusive development and harmony that the state wants us to believe. And there is no clear indication that the ‘demonic Muslims’ are bureaucratically marginalizing the minority tribes.
The Division Between the Assamese People and the Muslims
In his statement, Chief Minister Sarma clearly separates Assamese people from the Muslims. It is the fear of the Muslims (or growing population of Muslims) that Assamese people have. He then separates Assamese Muslims from the Bengali ones when he says “Indigenous Muslims are also in fear of losing their identity. Around 4% out of the total Muslim population in Assam are indigenous Assamese Muslims and a large part are mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims.”
He through these inclusions and exclusions react to an overacrhing sentiment against the Bengali-Muslim Population in Assam. First, by separating Assamese People from Muslims, he appeases his Hindu vote-bank that might vote for the Hindutva Nationalist identity. Second, by separating the Assamese Muslims from the Bengali ones, he appeases the Assamese sub-nationalist sentiments that believe Assamese Muslims to be an integral part of Assam but defines the ‘bengali-origin Muslims’ as outsiders.
When he says that people are afraid of a recreation of Kashmir Files in Assam, he forgets that historically in Assam, Nellie Massacre has happened that saw how destructive the mixture of Hindutva Nationalist and Assamese Sub-nationalist sentiments can be. More recently, Dhalpur eviction was supported by local Assam Movement leaders where a state delegated photographer Bijay Bania stomped on a dead Moinul Haque, the video of which shook us all. Simanta Shekhar, a popular singer of Assam, recently wrote on his social media how Assamese people are Hindus and called out the ‘urban naxal’.
His speech falls directly into the undocumented, illegal bengali-Muslim narrative that snatches lands, commit crimes and cause havocs. It further marginalizes a socially marginalized group and points at the victim as the victimizer.