Nearly two million people in the Indian state risk becoming stateless. We investigate their fight to prove they belong.
Assam, India – India’s northeastern state of Assam goes to polls starting Saturday. For more than four decades, issues of immigration and citizenship have gripped the polity of the ethnically-diverse state bordering Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
But those core issues are missing from the election campaign this year, replaced by a two-pronged approach taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): promises of development, employment and welfare schemes, and simultaneously creating fears of Muslim migrants taking over the state.
Prominent Assamese intellectual Hiren Gohain said he believes the BJP, which is fighting to hold on to Assam in this election, was uncertain about its hold over the masses in 2016 and therefore had chosen to stress the Assamese identity in that election.
“This time, there is a stress on the Hindu identity,” Gohain told Al Jazeera.
In other words, BJP’s Hindu supremacist politics, which thrive on hate campaigns against Muslims, seem to have overtaken ethnic Assamese nationalism, prevalent for decades in Assam.
NRC, CAA missing from the discourse
This is the first election in Assam since a controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) – a citizenship verification process that attracted international criticism – was published in 2019.
The NRC initially was an exercise exclusive to Assam, where a push against any undocumented migrants, irrespective of religion, has been on for decades. A final list, published in August 2019, excluded nearly 1.9 million residents.
Those excluded in the NRC were asked to prove their citizenship in quasi-legal tribunals or risk being declared foreigners and stripped of their rights, including the right to vote.
The publication of the NRC in Assam was closely followed by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which paved the way for Hindu, Christian and other minorities from India’s Muslim-majority neighbouring countries to get Indian citizenship.
In Assam, the CAA effectively allowed migrant Hindus excluded by the NRC to receive Indian citizenship. The controversial law triggered large-scale protests in Assam while the fate of the Muslims, who constitute more than one-third of Assam’s population, remained unclear.
In 2016, the right-wing BJP came to power in Assam, asserting the Assamese identity and assuring people it would “weed out illegal foreigners”.
Leading the right-wing party’s campaign in the state this year is 52-year-old Himanta Biswa Sarma, a politician who spent decades with the opposition Congress party, projecting himself as a secular leader, before jumping ship to join the BJP in 2015.
Sarma’s political rhetoric, now tailored to fit the BJP’s anti-Muslim image, has largely centred around one rival: Muslim politician Badruddin Ajmal, chief of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and member of India’s Parliament.
For the past several months, Ajmal, 71, has been the focus of Sarma’s taunts and snide remarks.
In February, Sarma declared Ajmal an “enemy of Assam” who represented “the most dangerous phase of Assam’s politics”. Other BJP leaders campaigning in the state have called Ajmal and his party “communal” and “anti-Hindu”.
Dressed in loosely fitted kurta-pajama (traditional Indian clothing), a skull cap and sporting a full beard, Ajmal fits the stereotype of a “maulana” (an Islamic scholar). He is also the state president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (a council of Muslim theologians).
They want to polarise the votes.
Dubbed a “perfume baron” because of the multinational family business he controls, Ajmal launched his AIUDF party in 2005 and enjoys immense support among Bengali-origin Muslim voters, concentrated mostly in lower parts of Assam.
This year, the AIUDF is fighting the election in alliance with the Congress party, possibly posing a serious challenge to the incumbent BJP, which has resorted to invoking fear of “more illegal migration from Bangladesh” to counter.
“They want to polarise the votes by making a villain out of Badruddin. This is their old tactic,” Ajmal told Al Jazeera over the phone, claiming that the BJP “wants to scare the 65 percent by showing the 35 percent (an estimate of state’s Muslim population) as a threat”.
“They want to turn this country into a Hindu nation, to turn a secular country into a Hindu majoritarian country, but that will never happen.”
Sanjib Baruah, professor of political studies at Bard College, New York, said the “majoritarian political climate” created by the BJP makes Ajmal “an easy target”.
“As he himself puts it, his attire, skull cap [and] beard make it possible to sell the fear of Ajmal as a representative or an advocate of migrant Muslims even though that’s not what he or the alliance stand for,” he told Al Jazeera.
The alliance has also meant the BJP will train its guns on Congress too.
In January, Sarma said “90 percent of legislators in Congress were descendants of Bangladeshi migrants”, forcing the centrist party to demand proof of their allegations from the BJP. Last month, Sarma remarked that Congress “can win 100 seats in Bangladesh”.
In response, Bhupesh Baghel, chief minister of Chhattisgarh state and Congress observer for Assam polls, said the BJP’s “hate [politics] will not survive and those spreading hate will be defeated”.
“BJP works on the same theory as the British Raj, to divide and rule. But this hate poison is not going to survive for long,” Baghel told Al Jazeera.
In his campaign speeches, Modi’s closest aide and federal Home Minister Amit Shah also stressed that the Ajmal-Congress alliance was a “threat to state security and culture”.
“Each vote that Ajmal gets will fill Assam with infiltrators,” Shah said on March 14. He had earlier called Bangladeshi migrants “termites”, evoking a sharp response from Dhaka.
In the BJP’s campaign speeches and media statements, there are frequent references to “lungi” (a traditional garment worn around the waist) and “topi” (skull cap) – traits associated with Bengali-origin Muslims, also one of the poorest communities in Assam.
BJP works on the same theory as the British Raj, to divide and rule.
This week, the BJP’s election manifesto assured a delimitation exercise “to protect the political rights of the people of Assam” if it retains power.
Delimitation, in Assam’s context, would mean redrawing boundaries of the state assembly’s constituencies to represent changes in population.
The BJP’s promise has further sparked fears that the party seeks to limit the influence of migrant-origin voters and ensure that the “khilonjias” (Indigenous) rule the state.
‘Symbol of greater evil’
On March 16, in the town of Tezpur, Sarma gave a speech where he claimed he had seen a video in which Ajmal had allegedly suggested “Muslim women to produce as many children as they want” and asked whether Muslim girls are “child-bearing machines”.
Sarma’s statement played on the Hindu right-wing’s anxieties over the Muslim population in India – currently about 14 percent – and belief in a “conspiracy” among the Muslim community to increase their numbers by producing more children.
Sarma also provoked the crowd by describing what would happen if Ajmal’s alliance were to form the Assam government, claiming girls “will go to colleges in burqas”, weekly holidays “will change from Sunday to Friday” and “madrasas (Islamic schools) will reopen” in the state.
In December last year, the BJP government in Assam banned the teaching of the Quran in state-run madrasas in order to “secularise education”. The move forced more than 700 madrasas in the state to remove Quranic studies, Islamic studies and jurisprudence from their curriculum.
In an interview with The Indian Express published on March 17, Sarma said Ajmal “symbolises the identity threat” faced by Assam. “We use him as a symbol of greater evil,” he said.
Asked by the newspaper why the BJP’s attack is focused on Ajmal, Sarma said it was to “avoid the scrutiny of the Election Commission” which bars politicians from targeting a community for electoral gains.
“If tomorrow there is no Ajmal, then we might have to name the community,” said Sarma.
Last year, Sarma was also criticised for publicly identifying Muslim men from Assam who attended a Tablighi Jamaat (a Sunni Islamic missionary group) convention in New Delhi, which was linked to a number of coronavirus infections when the disease erupted in India early last year.
The discovery of COVID-19 cases among members of the Jamaat resulted in a massive vilification campaign launched by the BJP and its sympathisers in the Indian media, who accused Muslims of launching a “corona jihad” to “deliberately infect non-Muslims”.
If the battle for identity goes to an extreme, it means unrest, violence, mutual massacre and the Muslims have had too much of it.
Sarma, however, claims he is not anti-Muslim and that “they are fine” with Khilonjia (or Indigenous) Muslims in Assam.
This distinction, justified by many Assamese, suggests that the BJP’s hate narrative is directed against a specific minority community: the Bengali-origin or “Miya” Muslims.
Assertion by ‘Miya’ Muslims
Miya is a pejorative term used to describe Muslims and their descendants who migrated from erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to parts of Assam.
One of the most persecuted communities in the state, Miya Muslims inhabit the riverine areas and islands along the Brahmaputra river.
In the eyes of the BJP and Assam’s other ethnonationalists, these Muslims are “infiltrators” and a “threat” to Assamese culture and identity.
“We don’t want to comment on their [hate] narrative. They call Badruddin Ajmal the Miya Parishad [leader]. We have never talked about Miyas. We say we are Assamiya (Assamese), not Miya,” said Ajmal.
Miya Muslims have also borne the BJP’s onslaught, but their assertion has been met with backlash, threats and even cases filed against members of the community.
In July 2018, 10 Miya poets were charged for trying to create “communal disturbances in the state” and depicting Assamese people as “xenophobic in the eyes of the whole world”.
Miya poetry had first surfaced in 2016 when Hafiz Ahmed, a writer and school principal, shared a poem, titled Write Down I am a Miya, on Facebook. Many young poets and writers, Ahmed recalled, responded with similar poems about their lived experiences.
Ahmed said the poems came out of “anguish and anger” after his people witnessed evictions, harassment, trial hearings, deaths and detention in the name of the NRC process.
“They [Assamese] are angry because they [feel] how can they [Miyas] speak up. And that if you speak, you’ll speak in my language,” said Ahmed, who was also named in the case.
“Do you think we wouldn’t have been targeted if these poems were not written? They would have found some other way.”
Guwahati-based lawyer Aman Wadud – a “proud Miya Muslim” himself – says their “movement gave an opportunity to BJP “on a platter” to target the community and make it a poll issue.
“At a time when the citizenship of an entire community is being questioned, should I work to protect their citizenship or invest time in asserting a very exclusive identity?” asked Wadud.
In October, Congress legislator Sherman Ali stirred up a controversy when he demanded that a Miya Museum be set-up inside Srimanta Sankaradev Kalakshetra, an Assamese cultural institution in the main city of Guwahati.
Sarma called the proposal an insult to “revered Vaishnav [Hindu] gurus Sankardeva and Madhavdeva” and declared that Ali would be sent to jail if BJP wins the election.
“We are sons of the soil and no doubt they are the migrated people… They got the Indian citizenship but they never became Assamese,” BJP spokesperson Rupam Goswami told Al Jazeera over the telephone.
Despite such threats, political thinkers such as Gohain warn this may not be the right time to assert the Miya Muslim identity.
“If the battle for identity goes to an extreme, it means unrest, violence, mutual massacre and the Muslims have had too much of it,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Not now because at this very fraught moment they (Muslims) are still the target, not only of the Indigenous Assamese but of all tribal groups.”