On September 23, a video made the buzz on social networks. In the video, a man dressed in lungi holding a stick – later identified as Moinul Haque – is seen approaching around 20 armed police. Over the next few seconds, he was shot at point blank range. As he falls to the ground, a dozen police officers are seen beating and kicking the dying man. The video also showed a civilian, later identified as a government photographer, stomping on the man lying on the ground. This display of medieval barbarism was seen during an eviction campaign in the Darrang district of central Assam.
Miyas are Muslims of East Bengal origin or Asomiya Muslims of Bengali origin. The history of the migration of this social group to Assam dates back to the middle of the 19th century. Migration continued until the first half of the 20th century. The migrants assimilated into Asomiya culture and adopted Asomiya as their identity and language. Their action has directly contributed to maintaining Asomiya as the language spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of multilingual and heterogeneous Assam.
Yet, post-colonial Assam society has witnessed widespread otherness and persecution of the Miya community. There can be no better illustration of the result of this process of otherness than the murder of Moinul Haque and the desecration of his corpse.
The persecution of Miyas has a long history in Assam. They are regularly slandered like Gedas, “illegal immigrants”, “Bangladeshis”, “doubtful Bangladeshis”, “illegal invaders”, etc. Many academics in the region label them as illegal immigrants. The use of racial slurs against this social group is widespread. Besides the daily dehumanization inflicted by many people in Assam, there have also been multiple killings with impunity of the perpetrators. None of the perpetrators has so far been brought to justice for these mass crimes.
Community targeting continued on behalf of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and through the establishment of the infamous detention camps. A special category of people has been created in Assam called “doubtful voters”; the citizenship of thousands of Miyas has fallen under a cloud, based on prejudices and stereotypes. Many were forcibly sent to detention camps. The attack on the very citizenship of thousands of Miyas, including the elderly, women and children, has sowed unprecedented fear, melancholy and hardship in the community. In this series of persecutions, “eviction” is the government’s new weapon to imprison this community in a never-ending cycle of poverty and misery.
Assam has recently witnessed several eviction campaigns. Most of these expulsions target Muslims. The eviction in Darrang was carried out without the proper implementation of a rehabilitation plan. People were told to leave their land at midnight, and evictions began the next morning. Many of them did not receive any notice. The mainstream media did not ask the government appropriate questions. Civil society lacks the moral courage to protest against these evictions, despite being aware that it is a tool used to leave thousands of people homeless, landless and jobless. In places designated as expulsion sites, human beings are reduced, according to the now famous qualification of the Indian Minister of the Interior, to “termites”. The constitutional guarantee of equality for all citizens has been reduced to dust. The backdrop to this collective failure of society is the prevailing Hindu-Muslim divide.
Assam has thousands of landless people. Most of them are internally displaced persons (IDPs). The internally displaced are a creation of past examples of violence and natural calamities which include seasonally flowing rivers and erosion of riverbanks. But successive governments have not solved the landless problem. Many of the landless are labeled as “illegal Bangladeshis”. Many people in eastern Assam think lower Assam is full of Miyas. The political class spares no effort against fan prejudices and creates fertile ground for hatred.
Civil society must therefore engage in a dialogue to bridge the inter-community divide and claim the truth. The people of Upper Assam need to be educated that the Miyas are not Bangladeshis. This can be done by civil society, perhaps through a transition project. As part of such a project, some people from villages in eastern Assam could be invited to spend time in Miya villages in western Assam, thereby creating social bridges.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 6, 2021 under the title “A Bridge to the Other in Assam”. The writer is an Assam-based researcher