Assam is probably not an area of the world at the forefront of many people’s minds. This state in northeast India near the border with Bangladesh (this is important as we shall see) is known for its tea more than anything. It is also, alas, a land that has witnessed a fair bit of violence and is actually in the news today for reasons linked to violent extremism.
On this day in 2004 at least 35 people were killed and 123 injured by a series of bombs directed at a busy market and a railway. The group behind the attack is believed to be the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), formed in 1986 with the intention of forcing India to liberate “Bodoland” – an area north of the Brahmaputra River in Assam – from ‘Indian expansionism and occupation’ and free the Bodo nation from ‘colonialist exploitation, oppression and domination’. The group is still active and Indian forces as late as yesterday announced arrests and weapons seizures in a raid on a NDFB ‘hideout‘.
As if all this terrorist activity was not enough – note that I characterise the NDFB as a terrorist group because it carries out acts of serious violence for political reasons – Assam is in the news as well for actions that the Modi government in India is taking, actions that could lead to more terrorism. Except that this terrorism would probably not be at the hands of the NDFB but rather Hindu extremists.
While I discuss this issue at greater length in my forthcoming book When Religion Kills, here is a synopsis. There have been calls to remove “latecomers”(i.e., anyone who arrived in Assam after 1971) and to have the state inhabited only by pukka (“genuine”) residents (i.e. Hindus). In late July 2018 a draft national register suggested that 4 million out of Assam’s 33 million people—mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims—cannot prove that they are original inhabitants and are hence subject to statelessness and possible expulsion – to Bangladesh which is of course predominantly Muslim. A ruling BJP party member in southern India declared that those who do not leave should be shot: “If these Rohingyas and Bangladeshi illegal immigrants do not leave India respectfully, then they should be shot and eliminated. Only then will our country be safe.” The president of the BJP told a political rally in Delhi that Bangladeshis in Assam “are like termites and they are eating the food that should go to our poor and they are taking our jobs.”
The use of a word such as termite to describe Bangladeshi Muslims is too reminiscent of earlier defamatory language like cockroaches and rats to refer to unwanted populations. That the president of India’s ruling political party made these comments should be of great concern. Party members and Hindu extremists could see this language as sanctioning violence against Muslims in Assam. For the record the Bodos too seem to be getting in on the act. In 2014 suspected Bodo terrorists killed eleven Muslims in Assam, including two women.
This hate and intolerance should remind us that violent extremism is not the sole purview of any one group or faith. We tend these days to associate terrorism with Muslims and Islam and ignore the fact that many other movements have embraced violence to right wrongs. Of course there is a large number of Islamist extremist groups that kill in the name of Allah. But they are not the only ones for whom human life is cheap to further their own ideological goals. It would be a good idea to keep an eye on Hindu terrorism.