5 NOVEMBER 2018
Eyes wide shut
The killings in Upper Assam point to the polarisation in the State
It would be facile to see the gunning down of five Bengali men in Bisonimukh-Kherbari, near Tinsukia in Upper Assam, on November 1 as an isolated act of violence or even another of the periodic eruptions against non-Assamese people in the State. The context is crucial here. The killings both symptomise and deepen the fault lines between the Assamese and Bengali communities because of the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens as well as the Centre’s plan to secure parliamentary passage for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. At the heart of the schism is the fate of those eventually left out by the updated NRC. Four million didn’t make it to the final draft published in July, and while the final numbers will be known only when the elaborate process of claims, objections and verification draws to a close, there are certain known knowns at this point already. The ‘illegal’ Muslim immigrant unfortunately has few speaking on her behalf. But her Hindu counterpart is the battleground, with ethnic Assamese nativist groups advocating an even-handed approach while the ruling BJP governments in Delhi and Dispur are keen to cast the protective cover of the Citizenship Bill on grounds of persecution in her country of origin. Groups claiming to represent Assamese and Bengali interests have observed shutdowns and counter-shutdowns. And while a party with a core ethnic Assamese kernel such as the Asom Gana Parishad could unequivocally oppose absorbing ‘illegal’ Bengali Hindu immigrants, those with a broader vote base have had to hedge through innovative strategies. These include speaking in different voices (the Congress in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra and Bengali-dominated Barak valleys) or arguing that the burden of absorption is not only Assam’s to bear (the BJP). The politics ensuing over this has left the State polarised.
The shrill rhetoric has spilled over to civil society, with calls for a separate State emanating from the Barak valley, and stray instances of Bengali speakers being harassed in Lower Assam towns, including Guwahati. Thursday’s tragedy should serve as a grim warning to the powers that be of potentially darker times ahead if the surcharged rhetoric is left unchecked. While the ULFA (Independent) denies responsibility, investigations thus far suggest it was the group’s handiwork. It had earlier claimed responsibility for a low-intensity bomb blast in Guwahati on October 13, saying it was a warning to those who support the Citizenship Bill. Meanwhile, on Thursday too, the Supreme Court Bench that is monitoring the NRC exercise signalled an accommodative stance by agreeing to allow the use of five more documents by those left out of the NRC final draft. That spirit of accommodation, towards long-time residents, of whatever religion or ethnicity, needs to permeate the political leadership and civil society in Assam now.
Pakistan has empowered extremists by capitulating over Asia Bibi’s acquittal
The Pakistan Supreme Court’s judgment acquitting Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy, was an opportunity for the government to start debating the need to reform the regressive blasphemy laws. Instead, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration has capitulated to pressure from extremists, who blocked roads in Islamabad for three days, demanding a reversal of Wednesday’s verdict. On Friday, protesters led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a firebrand cleric and chairman of the Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, decided to end the sit-ins after striking a deal with the government. According to the agreement, the government will not oppose the filing of a review petition in the Supreme Court against Ms. Bibi’s acquittal. It has also promised the protesters that Ms. Bibi would be prevented from leaving Pakistan. All protesters arrested since Wednesday are being released. This is the second time the Pakistani government is surrendering before the pressure protests by Mr. Rizvi and his co-Islamists. Last year, he led a weeks-long sit-in in the outskirts of Islamabad against a change in the electoral laws. Protesters claimed that the change in the wording of the oath taken by candidates amounted to blasphemy. After three weeks of protests, the previous government and the military struck a deal with the Islamists to end the crisis. The earlier version of the oath was restored and the Law Minister fired.
The question is, how long can the Pakistani government allow extremist mobs to dictate policies, and erode the state’s authority? In the case of Ms. Bibi, Pakistan has already seen much bloodshed. She was arrested in 2009 on charges that she insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohammed in an argument with her Muslim co-workers. In 2010, she was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. The country has faced widespread international condemnation ever since about the blasphemy laws, which are perceived as being used to persecute religious minorities. Salman Taseer, the outspoken and secular Governor of Punjab who had campaigned for Ms. Bibi’s release, was shot dead in 2011 by his own bodyguard. Shahbaz Bhatti, then Minister for Minorities, was assassinated in the same year after he called for amendments to the law. By acquitting Ms. Bibi, the Supreme Court actually offered fresh energy to those who campaign against the controversial legislation. The government initially tried to rein in the protests. But by capitulating to the extremists as it did subsequently, the government has not only done her a disservice, but further emboldened extremist sections in Pakistan.