Hindutva's quiet entry in Assam
Communal tension fuelled by beef politics has cropped up in a region where land and ethnicity were, historically, the cause of most clashes.
27 March, 2016
It wasn’t a stray incident, but the third attempt in two years to vandalise a neighbourhood temple. “These days, it’s scary. Though we know these incidents are the handiwork of vested interests, it is enough to put the neighbourhood on fire. By the time sense prevails, the damage is done,” said Chandan Pal, a shop owner in Nagaon district’s Sonaribari.
Pal’s fears are not unfounded. Religious strains between Hindus and Muslims have increased in Assam in four years, with tensions spiking in the run-up to April’s assembly elections. Last year, 70 incidents of low-key religious conflict were reported, up from 17 in 2011 when the state last held assembly elections. Muslims account for 34.2% of the state's population, but right-wing Hindu organisations point to their growing numbers to provoke thoughts that they might become a dominant group.
As Assam gears up for a high-stakes contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, the incidents of communal tension suggest that Hindutva politics is making a quiet entry in the state. It’s a new trend in a region where land and ethnicity, not religion, have historically been the reason for most conflicts. But there are similarities with what unfolded before polls in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and Bihar in 2015. Bihar went to the polls against the backdrop of the controversy over the killing of a Muslim blacksmith in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri village on suspicion of storing beef.
Hindustan Times’ analysis of police data from Assam’s 27 districts over the past five years found that beef politics lies at the heart of the growing tension. A police officer in Assam, who did not want to be named, told HT that using meat to vandalise temples is a new trend. Local residents agree. “These are mischievous incidents, maybe because the elections are around. But we have to live together,” said Dibangkar Roy Karmakar of Badarpur town in Karimganj district.
Assam’s religious rift also reflects a wider trend in India. Between 2013 and 2015, communal incidents jumped in Bihar, with the politics of beef dominating the political discourse before the assembly elections last November. In both states, most cases were in Hindu-dominated areas, and Sangh Parivar organisations followed up with local mobilisation.
“Whoever is attempting to polarise Assamese society on the basis of such incidents is trying to introduce a virus,” said Sanjoy Hazarika, a journalist and academic who has covered the northeast and Assam for four decades.
"Whoever is attempting to polarize Assamese society on the basis of such incidents is trying to introduce a virus to the state."
Right-wing Hindu organisations protested the beef throwing in Assam between 2013 and 2015. But the issue was missing from the political discourse before the Assam election following the BJP’s defeat in Bihar, where the party went to the polls with a tough stand on cow slaughter. But beef politics gained little traction in Assam. The party is going to the polls with an aggressive stand against illegal Muslim immigration from Bangladesh as it looks to overthrow the 15-year-old Congress government.
The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate and union sports minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, blames the Congress and the AIUDF for the incidents. “The Congress has been stoking violence since the 1980s. They are masters of divide-and-rule policy. These incidents are desperate attempts by the Congress and the AIUDF to benefit from polarisation. The BJP has been sensitive in dealing with these incidents and we do make democratic interventions to expose vested interests. We stand for protecting the secular and plural character of Assamese society,” he says.
Language of conflict
Hindustan Times investigated 23 communal incidents in 10 districts across three regions – North Assam, Lower Assam and Barak valley – to understand the new language of religious conflict in Assam. In all cases, the target was Kali or Shiv temples along two key highways – NH 31 and NH 37 – that extend from Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts on the east, bordering West Bengal, to Tinsukia district on the northwestern tip. Extend the NH-31into Bihar and you find communal incidents along the highway.
Dhubri’s geography and demography make it more vulnerable to such conflicts. Because of its proximity to the porous Bangladesh border, Dhubri has a large number of Muslim immigrants, who live on the outskirts of Hindu-dominated towns. The district is the stronghold of perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, who made his political debut in 2006 as the protector of Muslims. His party, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), controls 18 assembly seats and three Lok Sabha seats. Dhubri has also emerged as a transit point for illegal cattle trade after India began fencing the border along West Bengal.
On August 26, a piece of beef was found next to the Sanyasi temple in Agomoni town that falls under Gauripur assembly constituency where Hindu votes can be decisive. The Agomoni incident came two weeks after five similar attempts to stoke religious violence in Golakganj, also a Hindu-dominated constituency. A police report said the temple committee could not pacify the crowd that consisted mostly of outsiders. A Muslim boy was beaten, and Muslim shops shut down. Rumours of deaths of both religious groups led to street fights.
Hindutva’s quiet entry
Police records reveal the first case of beef politics in Assam in recent times was reported on August 25, 2013, when a piece of beef was left at a Kali temple in Silchar district’s Rongpur town. The incident led to protests, arson and looting.
That beef politics made an early entry in Silchar is not surprising. It is part of the Barak Valley, which was carved out of Sylhet region during the Partition in 1947. The bifurcation led to an unusual situation in which the Hindu-dominated areas of Sylhet went to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and Muslim-dominated regions remained with India. The turmoil in East Pakistan led to a migration of Bengali Hindus before and after the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. Unlike other parts of Assam, Bengali Hindus became the settlers in this area. With the scars of the Partition fresh in their minds, clashes between Muslims and Hindus were common in the 1990s.
The communal divide runs deep in the Barak Valley. But ethnic rivalry also shapes politics in the region. The Bengali-speaking region has a running feud with mainstream Assamese politics of identity assertion that goes back to a Bengali language movement in 1961 protesting attempts to make Assamese the state’s official language.
"The issue of beef resurfaced after a long lull, particularly in Barak valley. This discourse has come from larger discourse of Hindutva concept of Mata --- Gau mata, Bharat mata."
The faultlines make the Barak Valley a soft target for bolder strands of the politics of polarisation. Even trivial incidents take a communal turn. Last year, 18 thefts in Karimganj district led to tension. Four days after the Rangpur incident in Silchar last August, an animal bone was found in the Shitala Maa Kali temple in Badarpur, Karimganj. The police FIR for the Silchar rioting named Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members and accused them of mobilising a rampage. In every incident, right-wing Hindu organisations stepped in to protect and intervene in matters concerning Hindu identity.
The multiple faultlines make the Barak Valley a soft target for bolder strands of the politics of polarisation. Even the most trivial incident takes a communal turn. Last year, 18 incidents of theft in Karimganj district led to communal tensions. Four days after the Rangpur incident in Silchar last August, a stray animal bone was found in the Shitala Maa Kali temple in Badarpur, Karimganj. The police FIR for the Silchar rioting named Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members and accused them of mobilising the crowd that went on a rampage. In every incident, right-wing Hindu organisations swooped in to protect and intervene in matters concerning Hindu identity.
Last August, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal organised a procession from a veterinary hospital in Hailakandi to the town’s main market, protesting the death of an injured monkey. Their contention: Lord Hanuman was killed. This incident came two months after a cow’s head was found in a Shiv temple in Hailakandi.
“This discourse has come from a larger discourse of the Hindutva concept of Mata, Gau mata, Bharat mata etc. This is a very right wing, north India-based ideology,” said Monirul Hussain, professor at Guwahati University and a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford. “The issue of beef resurfaced after a long lull, particularly in Barak Valley. Through this region, which has a communal past, they are trying to enter the Northeast.”
Reviving an old rift
On September 25, the day of Eid-Al-Adha, beef shanks were found in a Kali temple near Silchar’s Ghungor settlement camp, which was set up for Hindu migrants in 1950. In Gunghor’s barrack no. 22, 77-year-old Chamoli Chakraborty, who migrated with her family in 1964, tries to recall instances of communal disharmony in Barak valley. “This the first time that something of this nature had happened here,” she says.
Barak valley has seen two major riots in 1968 and 1990 in Karimganj and Hailakandi. The cow was a trigger for violence on both occasions, but not the main cause. In the 1968 Karimganj riots, a cow belonging to a Muslim wandered into a Hindu house. When a Hindu boy tried to chase the cow, a few Muslims beat him up. Clashes erupted between the two communities. The ensuing riot claimed 82 lives.
In October, 1990, a wounded cow was found near a common land, which led to clashes. Police records reveal that the Hindus of Hailakandi had demanded that parcel of land to construct a Kali temple. In fact, Sangh Parivar had earlier organised pujas to purify bricks for shilayas at Ayodhya on the common land. The appearance of an injured cow hurt their sentiments and led to a riot.
It appears that the politics of holy cow has begun to resurface in Assam after a two-decade interlude. Combine it with existing ethnic rivalries and festering issues of illegal immigration, and you find a state primed for communal violence.
Ethnicity and communalism
How does ethnicity weave into the narrative of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims? Traditionally, conflicts in the northeast, and in Assam in particular, stemmed from ethnic differences, and religion was rarely a flashpoint. But the pattern of violence over the past two years suggests an attempt to forge a religious identity that overshadows ethnic identity.
Many Kali and Shiv temples might have been targeted, but there was only one case of vandalism in the state’s 898 satras, or Vaishnavite monasteries that are central to Assamese culture. Satras were established by Ahom kings in the mid-17th century to propagate neo-Vaishnavism. The movement was considered an influential social reform in Hinduism and provided an alternative path to spirituality regardless of caste or gender. The sole incident in a satra was the handiwork of a local Hindu who wanted a cattle market run by his rival near a satra in Barpeta to shut down, according to the police charge-sheet.
Why are Kali temples and not satras used for polarisation?
"The satras are living centres, the embodiment of Assamese culture and spirituality. They are inclusive and secular, as they welcome everyone. A satra does not inflame Hindu religious sentiments," said Hazarika, also director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia University.
“The issue is raised about who is indigenous, who are 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. But it’s not that simple. If there is a dispute between an Assamese-speaking Hindu and an Assamese-speaking Muslim, the chances are it won't escalate into a communal confrontation because they share many commonalities, including a shared history. Yet, the same may not hold true if one of the disputing groups is of Bangla origin.”
One of the biggest ethnic conflicts in Assam was the June-July 2012 Kokrajhar riots between Bodo tribes and Muslims, mostly of Bangla origin. The violence led to a humanitarian crisis in which 77 people died and 400,000 were displaced, reviving fears of those considered outsiders in Assam. The definition of who was Assamese became central to the state’s politics. The question of who were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, who were settlers and who were citizens also became rallying issues for political factions.
Kokrajhar’s Dotma town, which bore the brunt of the 2012 violence, returned to normalcy in November as Muslims returned home. But religious tension surfaced again in July 2013 when a packet of pork was found in the only mosque in Dotma bazaar, soon after prayers resumed. The mosque shares a boundary wall with a Shiva temple.
"These are all the handiwork of vested political interests for cheap gains, because life is cheap."
Unlike Dotma, a shared ethnic identity prevented trouble in Sorbhog town in Barpeta district. Last July, on Eid, a packet on the steps of a Kali temple in the main market of predominantly Assamese-origin Sorbhog was identified as beef. Later, residents and police learned that a mentally unstable person had placed the packet. “There was jostling suddenly and people got out on the street calling for a roadblock. Both communities have lived here for so long, Muslims also joined us find the culprit. After the incident, many organisations wanted us to protest but we didn’t allow it,” said complainant Golak Das, a retired school teacher.
Analysts say creating a communal rift based on religious sentiments is difficult in much of Assam.
“A sizeable tribal population follows tribal religions and hence does not fall in the large fold of Hindus,” said professor Hussain. “In the Brahmaputra valley, it is difficult to convert the issue of beef into an effective tool for polarisation.”