GUWAHATI: The public lynching of Syed Sarif Uddin Khan, an Assamese Muslim charged with rape, in Dimapur, Nagaland on March 5, 2015 for once drew public attention to the simmering tensions in the North Eastern part of the country. Accused falsely of being an illegal Bangladesh immigrant, Khan was one of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims who had been living in Dimapur for decades.

What mainstream India failed, and fails, to understand are the many complex and layered tensions that are at work in the region that exploded in Sarif’s lynching.

In Nagaland, the trend is to label the Bengali-speaking Muslim as Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant (IBI) and pressurise him to leave Nagaland to start with. If he does not comply, he faces all kinds of harassment as a result of which he is compelled to leave behind his assets and business and move on. These are then grabbed. The term IBI is used so often by the local newspapers and TV channels that it has assumed the status of official terminology today.

In the case of Khan, his late father Syed Hussain Khan was employed in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and retired from service while he was posted at the Air Force Station at Kumbhirgram near Silchar in Assam. Sarif’s mother, Zubeda Khatun, is an IAF family pensioner. Sarif’s three brothers work with the Indian Army. One of them, late Inam Uddin Khan, participated in the Kargil War of 1999 against Pakistan, was severely injured in the battle, and died of the injury at a later period. His two other brothers, Jamal Uddin Khan and Kamal Uddin Khan, are serving with the Indian Army in the Assam Regiment, and were posted in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh respectively at the time of Sarif’s lynching.

What hurt the Muslims in general and the vast majority of Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims of this region is that despite the impeccable credentials of the family, Sarif continued to be referred to as IBI not only by responsible Naga intelligentsia and media but also by many national news channels. If Sarif had been a Bangladeshi, his mortal remains would not have been flown from Nagaland by an IAF helicopter to his native place in Karimganj, Assam. The Bengali Muslim community in the region sees a sinister design in this to cripple and destabilise their existence.

A similar story got repeated in Assam on Sep 19 last when two people, including a woman, died in police firing during a drive to evict alleged illegal settlers near the 430 sq km Kaziranga National Park (KNP). The Gauhati High Court had in October last year ordered eviction in three villages – Bandardubi, Deosursang and Palkhowa – near KNP. The area, about 200 km east of Guwahati, falls in Nagaon District.

The eviction was scheduled for Sep 21, but the Nagaon District authorities advanced it reportedly to prevent the settlers’ resistance from building up. District officials said more than 1,000 security personnel were sent to Bandardubi and adjoining Deosursang and Palkhowa areas to help in the eviction drive. While some families had shifted ahead of the drive, others tried to prevent the eviction team from entering their area.

The evicted villagers, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims have documents to prove that they were descendants of paddy farmers the British had settled more than a century ago along Assam’s river banks and water bodies to “grow more rice”. Forest officials said encroachment on the fringes of Kaziranga has been a major hurdle to checking poaching of rhino and other animals in the park.

Declared a protected area in 1905 when there were barely a dozen one-horned rhinos alive, Kaziranga was upgraded to a national park in 1974. Conservation efforts led to the increase in the population of rhinos, tigers and wild buffalos that made the government expand Kaziranga’s buffer zone. Over the years, 429.49 sq km were added to Kaziranga across six parts. The first, fourth and sixth additions to the park are under heavy encroachment.

No one can question the steps taken by the court or the government for the protection of the national park. What is questionable is the way the demolition of villages took place. It violated all human rights. The villagers should have been provided with alternative plots of land elsewhere and given compensation for the loss of their dwellings.

What is worse, the public in general and the regional media in particular kept on referring to these unfortunate people as “Bangladeshis.” If they were Bangladeshis, it was not necessary for the government to deploy 1,000 police personnel equipped with bulldozers and elephants to inhumanly uproot them. There was an easy way out for the administration. Just send police summons, pick up the targeted villagers, and send them to the ‘Detention Camps’ where hundreds of “suspected Bangladeshis” are rotting already.

Muslims are over one-third of Assam’s population. For the first time in the history of independent India, there is not even one Muslim Minister in the government of Assam. Muslims are increasingly feeling left out and segregated. To add insult to injury, a vast majority of the ruling dispensation speak in a way that reflects as if all Muslims of Assam are Bangladeshis.

The slur of being Bangladeshi is crossing all limits. Recently, one MLA of the ruling party called another MLA, belonging to the opposition, as Bangladeshi. The Speaker of the Assembly looked the other way. There was no censure, no reprimand for the MLA who insulted another fellow MLA.

Immediately before and during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, there was a situation in which one could put the label of ‘Razakar’ on somebody and commit any atrocity on him, and no question would be asked. Many people settled old scores and took revenge by terming their opponents as Razakars, often annihilating them from the scene. In Assam, a scenario is emerging in which you can label an entire community as Bangladeshi, snatch away their human rights, and no questions will be asked.

The Nellie massacre took place in central Assam during a six-hour period on the morning of February 18, 1983. The massacre claimed the lives of over 3,000 people, the vast majority of whom were children, from 14 villages - Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi, Borjola, Butuni, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Muladhari, Mati Parbat no. 8, Silbheta, Borburi and Nellie - of Nagaon District.

The victims were East Bengal rooted Muslims whose ancestors had relocated in pre-partition British India. Three of Assam’s well known journalists were witnesses to the massacre. The victims were descendants of Muslims who came to Assam on the direct patronage of the then Assam Government of British India in the first decade of 20th century.

The Nellie massacre was the biggest pogrom of its nature in independent India but no one has been punished for the crime till today. The matter is more or less forgotten because the victims were suspected Bangladeshis.

In July 2012, violence in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) of Assam broke out with riots between indigenous Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims. Over 4,00,000 people were taking shelter in 270 relief camps, after being displaced from almost 400 villages. This is recorded as the largest inland migration of people in the history of independent India. A vast majority of the affected people are still living in camps and there is hardly any visible effort to rehabilitate them and restore their human rights, after all they are “suspected Bangladeshis.”

In English language, there is a proverb “Give a dog bad name and hang him.” In many parts of North East India today, the proverb is transformed to “Call a man Bangladeshi and get rid of him.” The country has a Foreigners Act in place to detect and deport a foreigner. In Assam, there is an additional tool in the form of National Register of Citizens (NRC), an operation that is in its final stages, to detect the foreigners.

We must all extend support in the detection and deportation of foreigners. But until then we must refrain from calling an entire community as “suspected Bangladeshis.” If we don’t restrain ourselves, we will be alienating a major chunk of the population from the mainstream which does not augur well for the country.

[The writer is the former Consulting Editor of The Sentinel & former Executive Editor of Eastern Chronicle, both English dailies published from Guwahati.]