Eyes wide shut: on the unrest in Upper Assam

The killings in Upper Assam point to the polarisation in the State

November 05, 2018 12:02 am | Updated December 03, 2021 10:21 am IST

It would be facile to see the gunning down of five Bengali men in Bisonimukh-Kherbari, near Tinsukia in Upper Assam, on November 1 as an isolated act of violence or even another of the periodic eruptions against non-Assamese people in the State. The context is crucial here. The killings both symptomise and deepen the fault lines between the Assamese and Bengali communities because of the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens as well as the Centre’s plan to secure parliamentary passage for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. At the heart of the schism is the fate of those eventually left out by the updated NRC. Four million didn’t make it to the final draft published in July, and while the final numbers will be known only when the elaborate process of claims, objections and verification draws to a close, there are certain known knowns at this point already. The ‘illegal’ Muslim immigrant unfortunately has few speaking on her behalf. But her Hindu counterpart is the battleground, with ethnic Assamese nativist groups advocating an even-handed approach while the ruling BJP governments in Delhi and Dispur are keen to cast the protective cover of the Citizenship Bill on grounds of persecution in her country of origin. Groups claiming to represent Assamese and Bengali interests have observed shutdowns and counter-shutdowns. And while a party with a core ethnic Assamese kernel such as the Asom Gana Parishad could unequivocally oppose absorbing ‘illegal’ Bengali Hindu immigrants, those with a broader vote base have had to hedge through innovative strategies. These include speaking in different voices (the Congress in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra and Bengali-dominated Barak valleys) or arguing that the burden of absorption is not only Assam’s to bear (the BJP). The politics ensuing over this has left the State polarised.


The shrill rhetoric has spilled over to civil society, with calls for a separate State emanating from the Barak valley, and stray instances of Bengali speakers being harassed in Lower Assam towns, including Guwahati. Thursday’s tragedy should serve as a grim warning to the powers that be of potentially darker times ahead if the surcharged rhetoric is left unchecked. While the ULFA (Independent) denies responsibility, investigations thus far suggest it was the group’s handiwork. It had earlier claimed responsibility for a low-intensity bomb blast in Guwahati on October 13, saying it was a warning to those who support the Citizenship Bill. Meanwhile, on Thursday too, the Supreme Court Bench that is monitoring the NRC exercise signalled an accommodative stance by agreeing to allow the use of five more documents by those left out of the NRC final draft. That spirit of accommodation, towards long-time residents, of whatever religion or ethnicity, needs to permeate the political leadership and civil society in Assam now.


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