Guwahati, Oct 3: In Assam, the issue of "identity politics" is back in the limelight, especially after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state for the first time last year.
Since the saffron party has come to power in Assam--which for decades has been fighting over the vexed issue of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh--the state is once again witnessing a resurgence of "identity politics", where target is not just the illegal Muslim Bangladeshis, but most often bonafide citizens of the country, unfortunately coming under the scanner of "nationalists and nationalist groups" for their religion.
The latest two cases--involving two Muslim men, both educated and have a proven track record of serving the nation (one who was an ex-Army personnel and another an award-winning disabled rights activist)--but were asked to prove their nationality and nationalism once again showcases the rise and rise of ugly head of Hindutva politics encouraged directly and indirectly by the ruling Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
First, came the news of Mohammad Azmal Haque, a retired army official who had served the country for three decades, but was asked to prove his Indian citizenship by the foreigners tribunal (Number 2) at Boko in Kamrup district of Assam, not only rattled the man for being questioned by authorities about his identity and his very existence, but once again brings to focus how one's religion (read Islam) often brings trouble to people in a secular and democratic country like India.
Then came the story of Arman Ali, an award winning Guwahati-based disabled rights activist, whose recent outing for a film in the city proved how India has started judging people about his/her love for the country (read nationalism) by acts like standing for the national anthem played during the beginning of a film in cinema halls.
When Ali, who himself is physically disabled and uses a wheelchair to move from one place to another, failed to standup during the playing of the national anthem at the cinema hall, a few men accused him of being a "Pakistani" without caring to look at his condition.
After Ali posted the humiliating episode on Facebook, the media has been covering the issue relentlessly. This is what Ali wrote on Facebook:
While Ali's ugly encounter with "nationalism" in a cinema theatre is mostly seen as a plight of disabled people across the country due to lack of availability of facilities and empathy in public places, but the activist himself did not reject the idea that he could have been in a precarious situation had his identity of being a Muslim was also known to his tormentors.
Ali, in the comment section of his Facebook post, stated his fear of being "lynched" inside the theatre for being a "Muslim". "Probably, I would have been lynched yesterday if they knew I was a Muslim guy," Ali wrote.
Ali's fear of being killed has naturally emerged from the fact that a large number of Indian Muslims in recent times have been lynched to death on suspicion of being a beef-eater, a cow smuggler or an anti-nationalist.
Likewise, Haque, who joined the Indian Army as a sepoy on September 13, 1986, and retired as a junior commissioned officer on September 13, 2016, was "hurt" for being questioned about his nationality.
"It hurts to receive such a notice after serving and defending one's motherland for three decades," the ex-serviceman was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.
The local tribunal office in its notice asked the former army personnel to appear before its members on October 13 with required documents to prove that he was not an illegal Bangladeshi migrant.
Similar kind of notice, like the one served to Haque, putting a person in the doubtful-voter ('D' voter) category, was served to 40 others from his native village.
"Considering the current situation in the state, I am forced to think that it had happened to me only because I belong to a particular community. Around 40 others from my village have been given such notices and I personally know that they are all Indian citizens," he added.
Even in the past he had received such a notice. Haque said he received a notice in 2012 saying he was a doubtful voter. "...but I submitted all documents in the tribunal court and it had declared me as an Indian citizen," he added.
"Why do I have to be humiliated so many times? I request the prime minister, the president and the home minister to end this harassment of a proper citizen," Haque was quoted as saying by PTI.
He said a notice was slapped on his wife also in 2012, but the "tribunal declared her an Indian citizen after she furnished proof".
As Assam is in the race of finishing the task of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify and detect illegal immigrants by December 2017, thus many Muslims, who are of Indian-origin, fear that they too might be labelled as 'D' voters because of their religion.
Along with Haque, who was a part of the revered Indian Army (the Indian Army employs only Indian citizens), many well-known Assamese Muslims families too have come under the scanner of government officials raising doubts about their nationality.
The family members of Assamese actor of international repute, Adil Hussain, and Padma Shri Eli Ahmed were also branded as 'D' voters. As per the government figures, Assam has identified 141,733 'D' voters.
However, after probe it has been found that more than 92 per cent of the resolved cases of 'D' voters have been declared as genuine Indian nationals, stated a white paper published by the Assam government in 2012.
One of the BJP's main poll promises was to resolve the issue of illegal immigrants which continue to shimmer in the state since the time Assam Agitation broke out in 1979 for a period of six years that demanded the deportation of "Bangladeshis" from the state.
However, successive governments, especially the 15 years rule of the Congress till 2016, never did anything to solve the problems and political parties continue to play vote bank politics over the issue.
The BJP says that Hindu Bangladeshis will be given Indian citizenships, but the saffron party shares no such concern for the Muslim illegal immigrants. The Congress, on its part, has been accused of playing minority politics by giving safe haven to millions of "illegal Muslim Bangladeshis" in the state.
The main regional party in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which came to power after the Assam Agitation got over after signing the Assam Accord that put 1971 as the cut-off year after which anyone who had crossed the Indo-Bangladesh border to take shelter in the state would be considered as "illegal", maintains that both Hindu and Muslim illegal immigrants should be deported, a sentiment shared by many people in the state. The AGP too never did anything to solve the issue forever during its rule.
However, as the BJP and the Congress play their politics over the issue of nationality, experts fear that the state might be heading towards a communal strife between the two communities that would initially start as a fight over land rights.
As politics of communalism and nationalism have reared their ugly heads in the state, it needs a clear understanding over issues like rights of the indigenous people, rights of refugees, how to deal humanely with illegal immigrants and most importantly why not to play politics over one's identity in Assam which is a ticking time bomb that could burst anytime soon.