Harsh Mander’s new book focuses on the fault lines in Indian society. An extract on Narendra Modi’s ‘exclusionary’ speeches, and a massacre in Assam
This article was first published by Livemint on 14th May, 2015
Jay Mazoomdar recounts a telling conversation he had with three young men in Varanasi after the elections. ‘“More than Muslims here, now Pakistan and China will be scared,” one of them said disarmingly. Why, was Modi going to fight a war? “No, no, he need not. But they (neighbours) will know they cannot take us for granted anymore,” he explained quickly. His friend nodded in agreement before adding: “And there will be riots no more. They (minorities) won’t just dare”. Weren’t they looking for jobs, development? “Of course, there will be good work all around, also employment, and prices will go down. We will see better days,” assured the third friend. “But how can one serve the country unless one serves one’s own religion uncompromisingly?”’
Many more openly communal statements were made, not just by common people but also by Modi’s aides. Modi himself said nothing of the sort but also, at the same time, never publicly reprimanded his aides or distanced himself from their comments. He was happy to reap the political benefits of majoritarian consolidation spurred by these remarks, but freed himself from taking responsibility for them. Amit Shah said, openly, that the vote should be used for revenge in riot-ravaged Muzaffarnagar. Sangeet Som, notorious for uploading a fake video, purportedly showing Muslims killing two Jat brothers in Muzaffarnagar, which fuelled the ensuing riots, was feted on the same political stage where Modi later addressed a rally. Praveen Togadia exhorted his followers to violently prevent Muslims from buying houses in Hindu-majority neighbourhoods in Gujarat. Bajrang Dal activists were protesting against a Muslim family which had bought a house in a Hindu-dominated residence in Bhavnagar in Gujarat. Togadia joined them, suggesting that the protesters should give the occupants forty-eight hours to vacate the house, and if they did not do so, they should storm it with ‘stones, tyres and tomatoes’, spit on the house-owner when he walked out of the house, and put up a Bajrang Dal board in front of the residence.
Modi himself allowed this thin mask of moderation to slip whenever he felt the need to personally stoke majoritarian sentiment. In his own unique fashion, he spoke, in the heartland of Bihar, of the ‘pink revolution’, alluding to the UPA government’s alleged support for beef export by subsidizing slaughter houses. In Vadodara, he charged that secular opinion was in fact, divisive, and he declared that he would rather lose the election than fall to these strategies, trying to turn on its head the moral case for secularism. But even more damagingly, he stormed Assam with exhortations against Bengali Muslims, describing them as illegal immigrant Bangladeshis, ignoring the fact that more than nine out of ten Bengali Muslims in the state are legitimate Indian citizens. He advised them to pack their bags after 16 May (2014)! On 1 May Assam witnessed one of the most brutal massacres since Nellie, targeting mostly Muslim women and children. Yet, a day after this massacre in the Baksa district, Modi thought nothing of reiterating his threats against Bengali Muslims in Bengal, declaring that those who did not worship the goddess Durga were not welcome in the state. Like every other statement in the campaign, this too received wide media notice, including The Hindu and India Today.
Bullets rained from all sides. Men armed with automatic weapons chased after a crowd of terrified, fleeing women and children. Romila Khatoon ran behind her mother and leaped with her into the currents of the Beki River which ran along the village. As she dived into the water, her mother carried her four-month-old baby in one arm and her three-year-old son in the other. She tried desperately to swim with them to safety, but a bullet hit her and she drowned. Her baby was swept away by the current. Romila’s three-year-old brother tried to swim, but was soon also pierced by a bullet. Romila swam underwater as far as she could. That was how she survived.
We met Romila with her bereaved father a few days later in a camp across the river from her village, haunted by her memories. I was part of a fact-finding team assembled by Seema Mustafa of the Centre for Policy Analysis, along with journalists Anand Sahay and Satish Jacob and academic Anuradha Chenoy. We crossed the river in a leaking boat, trekked through long stretches of low waters, and finally arrived at Narayanguri, the last village in the Baksa district of Assam bordering Bhutan. This settlement of Bengali Muslims borders a thick forest which stretches into Bhutan. The village had been razed to the ground, all seventy-two hutments charred, and emptied fully of its residents.
Women and children we met at the camp described to us the events of 1 May 2014. Most men of their village had crossed the river to shop at the village market, as was their practice. At around 3 in the afternoon, a group of armed men entered the village and began to shoot indiscriminately. Ten-year-old Mohammed Islam said that they shot dead his mother and seven-year-old sister in their home. As he ran, bullets flew from both sides. He still managed to flee to the forests and hid behind trees. From there he watched as his loved ones and neighbours fell one by one; many shot as they tried to swim away.
After all the residents of the village were either dead or had gone into hiding, the attackers set their homes on fire. They then disappeared into the forests as suddenly as they had appeared. Hours later, when darkness fell and security forces came in by boats, they announced on the loudspeaker in the mosque that all was safe, and any survivors should emerge from where they were hiding.
The children mentioned the names of forest guards of their village among their attackers. The Bodo Territorial Council had appointed surrendered Bodo militants as forest guards, and armed them with rifles. The surrendered militants had never been seriously disarmed by the state government. Many were known to hide in the forests between the village and Bhutan, and they joined the guards with automatic weapons. Yet people complained that they were being pressurized to erase the names of the forest personnel they recognized among their attackers. In the many cycles of violence which have racked Assam since the late 1970s, virtually no one has been punished, which is why the attacks recur with impunity. It is remarkable that this same village had witnessed a slaughter of the same scale almost exactly twenty years ago, in 1994. Armed Bodo militants had at that time attacked Bengali Muslims, and the survivors had taken refuge in a village school. The school was set on fire and close to fifty people—many of them again women and children—were charred to death. Then, as now, people recognized many of their attackers. But no one has been punished for these crimes against humanity.
The autonomous Bodo Territorial Council has forty-six members, of which thirty are reserved for Bodos, and only five for non-Bodos. But Bodos are less than a third of the population of the area, matched in numbers by Bengali Muslims and the ‘tea-tribes’ who were brought in as tea-garden labour from central India 200 years ago. These histories cannot be erased. Areas cannot be ‘cleansed’ of non-Bodo populations by brutal massacres of the kind that Narayanguri witnessed. These ethnically diverse peoples cannot be barred from participation in governance, and reduced to second-class citizenship.
When the dead were counted in Narayanguri in 2014, they numbered forty-five, and another ten people were missing. Their only crimes were that they were Muslim and spoke Bengali. Just a month earlier, the BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addressing an election rally in Dhemaji, Assam, had been quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying, ‘Aren’t rhinos the pride of Assam? These days there is a conspiracy to kill them. I am making the allegation very seriously. People sitting in the government…are doing this conspiracy to kill rhinos so that the area becomes empty and Bangladeshis can be settled there.’ He also deplored what he called ‘intrusions’ from people in Bangladesh who he alleged were taking up jobs in India. He said it was time that these ‘intrusions’ stopped.
It is debatable if Modi’s exclusionary election speech directly spurred the violence in Baksa. But in my many visits to Assam, I observed how Modi’s rhetoric found many answering echoes in the deeply divided Assamese society. There is no doubt that indigenous groups like the Bodos have legitimate anxieties about the preservation of their land, forests and way of life, all of which must be addressed. But Bengalis have been lawfully migrating into the area from the nineteenth century, and scholars have established that not more than 10 per cent of Bengali Muslim residents in Assam could be illegal immigrants. And to the extent that India does indeed have an influx of economic refugees escaping hopeless poverty in their own countries, the country needs to debate if they should be purged and demonised, or whether it should keep its doors open for the needy of the world, as it has for centuries.