I am haunted by the lament of two young researchers from Assam, Suraj Gogoi and Nazimuddin Siddique. “We are shaken and frozen”, they say. “Is this the last sky?” The majority of the Indian people have become so inured to brutal public displays of hate violence that when we consume video images of lynching, gangrape and killing of Dalit women, and the flaunting of bigotry by our leaders, we just turn our faces away. What was it then about the recent images from Darrang in Assam — of a man with a lathi shot in his chest trying to defend his home against hundreds of armed security men, and of a young civilian jumping on and kicking the man’s body even as his last breaths cease — that has stirred public outrage?
A local activist likened the scene of the Assam village to one “from a war”. There were at least 1,500 armed police and paramilitary soldiers, he said. Eight hundred homes were rapidly razed. A 28-year-old man in a lungi with a stick in his hand ran towards the soldiers in anguish about being rendered landless and homeless. He could easily have been overpowered without firing even a shot. And even if compelled to shoot, the forces are trained to shoot below the waist, so as to temporarily disable but not kill the protester. Instead, they choose to shoot him in the chest.
The village, Dholpur, is one amongst hundreds of riverine islands and riverbanks, vulnerable to erosion every year. On one side is the mighty Brahmaputra and on the other its tributary Nonoi. Landless peasants, mostly of Bengali Muslim origin, have settled here for decades. These are families displaced both by riverine erosion and periodic targeted violence — the most violent incidents took place during the Assam agitation.
Sabita Goswami in Along the Red River describes how in 1983, along with the forgotten massacre of Nellie — the largest post-Independence communal massacre for which not a single person has even been tried, let alone punished — an uncounted number of people were slaughtered in Chaolkhowa Chapori, close to Dholpur.
In the intensely flood-vulnerable riverine islands and banks, large numbers of landless peasants cultivate, under conditions of immense hardship and insecurity, tracts of land for which they have not been issued papers by the state administration. These lands get washed away by floods every few years, and the peasants shift to a new island or river bank each time. In Dholpur, they cultivated three crops every year — corn, jute and peanut — and vegetables like cabbage, brinjal and cauliflower. To call them encroachers is dangerous official fiction.
Almost immediately after assuming office, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the resolve of his government to remove these “encroachments”. He has not explained why only the settlements populated largely by Muslims of Bengali origin were chosen for demolition. At the Dholpur site, Sarma announced that the land reclaimed from these encroachers would be used to settle “indigenous” Assamese for collective farming. It may seem mystifying why the state chose to replace one set of landless peasants with another. But when it’s about replacing “Bangladeshis” (read Assamese Muslims of Bengali origin) with “indigenous” people (read Assamese Hindus), the unashamedly communal political character of the project becomes evident.
Sarma has announced, after criticism, that the landless people displaced would be resettled elsewhere. The humane administrative response would then have been to resettle the displaced people before displacing them. Instead, local people told me that they got notices one night, and early the next morning, the forces began demolishing their homes. They asked for time to at least collect their housing materials and belongings, but instead, these were wrecked and often set on fire by the police forces.
Finally stands the question of this man who vented his hate with such malevolence on the man shot by police bullets. We know now that he was a photographer often engaged by the district administration, charged with filming the police action against the “encroachers”. To understand the photographer’s actions, we need first to see the dark hole into which we — the people in Assam and rest of India — have fallen. The perversity of hate of the photographer, indeed of lynch mobs in many parts of the country, cannot be dismissed as individual social anomalies. These public displays of violent hate targeting India’s Muslims and sometimes Dalits have increasingly become normalised, and public resistance to it is increasingly rare.
I speak from the experience of 30 journeys of solidarity and atonement of the Karwan e Mohabbat to families of those felled by hate violence. Families would tell us, “We wish they had just shot him or stabbed him to death. Why did they torture him so much?”
Do we need to ask ourselves where this hate comes from? There is no doubt today that we are being tutored into hate from above, from those in positions of power. It is they who have valorised hate against the “termites”, the “infiltrators”, the “cow-killers”, the “temple-breakers”, the “love jihadis”.
To people from dominant communities, I ask: Is it that you don’t care because you think this hate will only damage the hated “other”? Look at the photographer in Darrang, look at the faces of young men in innumerable videos of lynch mobs or gang-rapists. Don’t imagine that hate would leave you untouched. Do you want your children also to grow so savagely damaged by hate?