Assam's Nellie Muslims say their vote was to stay back in India

Every Muslim family in Nellie lost a member in the 1983 massacre.

May 25, 2016 05:01 am | Updated September 12, 2016 08:35 pm IST - MORIGAON (Assam):

Nellie, a small hamlet ringed by low-lying hills, about 50 km from Guwahati, is infamous for the massacre in 1983 that claimed the lives of 1,800 Muslims.

But in the recently concluded Assam Assembly elections, a majority of its 2,000-member Muslim community voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In an election deeply polarised between Hindu and Muslim communities, the Muslims of Nellie justify their electoral choice by citing a wide range of problems — from the absence of drinking water pipelines to the impending fear of deportation.

Living on hope

“Our trust in the BJP is based on hope,” said Sulaiman Ahmed Qasmi, former chairman of Jamaat-e-Ulema Hind in Morigaon. “The AGP [Asom Gana Parishad] and the Congress ruled for so many years and they have done no good to us.”

Every Muslim family in Nellie lost a member in the 1983 massacre. Back then, the Indira Gandhi government at the Centre said xenophobia against Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam, who were, and still are, suspected to be “illegal” immigrants from Bangladesh, was the main cause of violence, accusing a local tribe named Lulang of carrying it out.

But Muslims in Nellie believe that the violence came upon them because they defied the election boycott call of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and voted in the February 1983 elections. The poll boycott call was aimed at fuelling the demand for deporting all illegal migrants in Assam and having their names removed from the voters’ list.

The village is full of macabre tales of bloodshed and yet they decided to make the unusual choice of voting for the BJP, the party which projected Sarbananda Sonowal, a former AASU leader, as its chief ministerial candidate and deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout its poll campaign.

“We are fine with not eating mutton or beef. That’s a small adjustment they [BJP leaders] are asking for,” said Abdul Hamid, a 66-year-old resident of Nellie.

Mr. Hamid’s mother and sister were stabbed in the massacre. Two days after the attack, Mr. Hamid said, they died in the relief camp. “Their wounds got infected and there was no doctor in the camp,” he said.

Asked why he voted for the BJP, he said “to escape harassment by the Foreigners Tribunal”. In 2012, the local police declared him a “doubtful voter”, and asked him to prove his Indian nationality at the tribunal. He submitted his voter ID, property deeds dating back to 1947 and other documents of identification at the tribunal. Eight months later, it approved his documents and confirmed him as an Indian national.

But in January 2016, he received another notice from the tribunal, asking him to again prove his nationality.

“I have become very poor. I paid my lawyer Rs. 60,000 last time. I have no money to pay him this time,” Mr. Hamid said.

The tribunal has asked 200 people from Nellie to prove their nationality. It has sent four villagers — three men and one woman — to detention facilities meant for undocumented immigrants.

New slogan worked

Aware of the situation, the BJP unit in Morigoan altered its rhetoric to win over Muslims. “We know a lot of Muslims, real Indian Muslims, are facing trials at the tribunal,” said Taneswar Deka, the BJP secretary in Morigaon district. “So we made a small change to our campaign slogan. It was development and Muslims and Hindus living together.”

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