India’s hunt for Muslims accelerates By Sophie Landrin

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In Assam, in the north of the country, Hindu nationalists have launched a violent campaign to expel landless farmers, suspected of being illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

The content is graphic: a man jumps on a body lying inert on the ground. He tramples it, brutalizes it. The dying or already dead victim is a 33-year-old Muslim who has just been shot in the chest and beaten by the police. The incident took place on 23 September in Sipajhar in Darrang district of Assam, a state in north-eastern India bordering Bangladesh, during an operation against “illegal land occupations” that went wrong. A 12-year-old child was also killed. The day before, the villagers had received an eviction order and the man on the ground had tried to defend his house, armed only with a stick. Two days earlier, police had already razed hundreds of homes, leaving families homeless, without belongings and without any alternative. One thousand families, nearly 5,000 people, were targeted.
The man who lashed out at the victim was a photographer hired by the administration to film the police action against these “encroachments,” state-owned land that the regional government wants back to allow indigenous people to develop agricultural projects. The evacuations began several months ago and continued in the second wave of Covid-19, despite a court ruling. They target Muslims from Bangladesh, peasants who have settled there, often for decades.
This despicable scene is a concentration of the violence that regularly shakes India and that targets mainly Muslims but also dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” the men and women at the bottom of the social ladder. It also illustrates the anti-Muslim policy underway in the state. The same evening, the head of the Assam government, Himanta Biswa Sarma, assured that the eviction campaign would continue. “The police have done their duty. According to my information, people attacked the police with machetes, spears and other things,” he said, without further evidence. The villagers accuse the police of shooting at them.

“Treated worse than prisoners of war”
The Assam government led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP) since 2016, is conducting, in the name of defending the “natives,” a veritable hunt for “illegals.” It is in this state of 33 million inhabitants – 61% Hindus and 34% Muslims – that the national citizens’ register was set up in 2019 to “eliminate” immigrants who fled Bangladesh after its independence in 1971. All residents had to prove that they were born in Assam before 1971, a difficult task as the region is subject to annual floods that wash away everything. Two million people are in danger of losing their citizenship and becoming stateless, with no rights.
At the national level, the BJP leadership has helped to escalate the situation. During the campaign for the 2019 general elections, the future home minister, Amit Shah, very close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, promised to chase out of the country the illegal “infiltrators” who live, he said, “like termites in the soil” of India, and to “throw them one after another into the Bay of Bengal.”
According to the opposition, the Darrang families who were evicted from their homes had not been stripped of their nationality, most of them had been able to prove their Indian nationality. “There are about 1,000 poor peasant families who have been farming for fifty years. They have all the documents to prove that they are Indian citizens and landowners. Yet they live in unbelievable conditions, treated worse than prisoners of war,” accused Brinda Karat, a leader of the Communist Party of India, before concluding “the only reason they are denied their legal rights is because they belong to the Muslim community.

The head of the regional government, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was previously the BJP’s convenor for all of northeast India, is a promoter of Hindutva, the Hindu supremacist ideology. Immediately after taking office in May, he announced his government’s determination to remove these ‘encroachments’. Almost all the discriminatory measures he has adopted are aimed at Muslims. He believes, and repeats, that the land occupations are part of a plan by “illegal settlers” to “change the demographics in the state by 2050 and seize power.” The demographic threat is a classic register of Hindu nationalists. In July, Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the creation of a “population army” of 1,000 youths to distribute contraceptives and raise awareness about population control in predominantly Muslim areas.

For Suraj Gogoi, a sociologist at the University of Singapore, “the Muslim minority in Assam has been visited by violence so often that it has become part of their everyday life.” “Assamese society has never opened its doors to them,” he wrote in an op-ed published in The Hindu.

On 29 September, the Assam Human Rights Commission gave the regional government one month to submit a report investigating the police action and violence

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Disclaimer: India's hunt for Muslims accelerates By Sophie Landrin - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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