Former US President Barack Obama recently spoke about “the future of democracy, at home and abroad” in an interview with CNN during his visit to Greece. Among other things, he stressed that the rights of ethnic minorities are crucial for any democracy, including India. He said:
“…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart. And we’ve seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts.”
In light of that interview, Journalist Rohini Singh had tweeted, saying:
In response to this, Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted, saying:
The Status of Minorities under BJP's Rule
We all know, that under Narendra Modi’s leadership, India’s record as a democracy has been abysmal. Sarma’s comment, in fact, reflects the social condition faced by minorities in India today. When we put together Rohini Singh’s sarcastic comment and Sarma’s reply, a certain prevailing discourse emerges.
The first theme that emerges from the exchange is how Muslims in India are subject to majoritarian targets. They are the enemy figure. Food. Family. Property. Religion. Marriage. Everything in their life is scrutinised. Nothing is left to be violated.
When such intolerance and prejudice against them become so robust and common, the ground of Islamophobia is not just limited to the state or a party. Such hate and minority-bashing have become part of today’s culture. Such a culture is not a foreign import but has come out of Indian culture.
This Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been 'taking care’ of minorities in India. 'Hussain Obamas' have been constantly churned out of Muslim society to make them examples of fear and danger to the Indian state and society. If you look into the history of Assam and Assamese nationalism, you will gather a different context of how Islamophobia has been slowly injected into society.
Civil society bodies like Assam Sahitya Sabha and the All Assam Students Union have constantly demonised the migrants in Assam.
Sarma's Previous Attacks
One of Sarma’s political preoccupations is attacking and undermining any kind of minoritarian political representation, culture, and leaders. Apart from spelling things like “I don’t need your votes” directed at Muslims in Assam, he has also openly said that leaders such as Badruddin Ajmal, along with Muslim culture, are a danger to Assamese society, and that makes them an enemy of Assam, Assamese, and India. He said:
“Badruddin Ajmal is the most dangerous face of Assam politics. He is bringing money from the fundamentalist organisation. In the name of social service, he is creating a network which is not conducive to Assam's culture. I think, not an individual, but a symbol of certain people, they are the enemy of us.”
He has also vilified the whole Miya community as 'communal and fundamental’. Following are his remarks:
“They have started identifying themselves as Miyas. These so-called Miya people are very very communal and fundamental and they are involved in many activities to distort Assamese culture and Assamese language. So I don’t want to be an MLA with their vote. I will not be able to sit in the Assembly if they voted for me.”
“Ajmal is like a mosquito in a mosquito net. Law is the net and mosquito is the person”.
He is certainly not the first from Assam to call the Muslims enemies or being Islamophobic. Ambikagiri Raichoudhury in his speech as the president of Assam Sahitya Sabha in 1950 declared that the Communists, Pakistani, and Bengali are the primary enemy of the Assamese. Sanjib Baruah wrote in a footnote in his book Durable Disorder that also presents an entire populace of migrants in a particular light:
“An interesting contradiction, however, has developed in Northeast India. Since a significant part of the immigration is from Bangladesh, one of the political consequences in recent years has been the rise of some level of Islamic militancy that makes Indian security officials quite nervous.”
Sarma is first a product of Assamese nationalism and has grown up within an anti-Muslim culture in Assam of which both Raichoudhury and Baruah are a part. He is merely representing the social base and a culture of hate that is already there.
Hindutva has provided a new refuge and impetus to the existing anti-minority sensibilities.
The Misuse of Law and Violence in Assam
Another theme that can be followed from the tweets is that of the domain of law and violence. To be treated without bias, irrespective of one’s differences, is one of the primary conditions of citizenship in a country whose constitution promises secular and democratic conditions and processes.
Sarma has been weaponizing the law to target its minorities. The misuse of police in Assam has come to much attention. Since May 2021, a Scroll report concludes that 51 people have been killed in fake encounters by Assam Police, all under Sarma’s rule.
The liberal use/misuse of FIRs against elected representatives such as Jignesh Mevani, Pawan Khera, or Ajmal are examples of his legal overreach.
The Barpeta session court – while granting bail to Mevani – spelt out the condition of law and order in Assam and misuse of police power. The judge noted:
“In view of the above and to prevent registration of false FIR like the present one and to give credibility to the police version of occurrences like the arrest of accused persons and the accused persons attempting to escape from police custody in the midnight, while the accused was allegedly leading the police personnel to discover something and the police personnel firing and killing or injuring such accused, which has become a routine phenomenon in the state.”
Sarma is not unaccustomed to making comments that signify violence against Muslims. When Moinul Haque was brutally killed during an eviction drive, he said that he felt proud and that Haque’s murder was an act of revenge for victims of Nellie Massacre.
So, for Sarma to spell Hussain Obama is only consistent with his past, present, and the culture of which he is a part. While he stereotyped Obama, despite him not being a practitioner of Islam, his statement also defends the persecution of minorities in India (and as an extension Citizenship Amendment Act 2019) and undermines India’s multi-religious traditions.
His prejudices are bad in ethics, but right in the diction of the Hindutva ideology that he is now wedded to.
(Suraj Gogoi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at RV University, Bengaluru. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect or represent his institution. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the author's views.)