‘Religious’ violence in Assam?

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A lot of attention has been given to the #bringbackourgirls campaign that began after the horrific kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by the extremist group Boko Haram. But recently, I saw this message posted to Facebook.

Putting things into perspective:

Truly, we all want to #BringBackOurGirls, and we all condemn the crazy actions of Boko Haram. And I’ve commented a few times on this insane act.

But let us also remember that there are many serious tragedies that are going on in the world, and the media, and politicians, choose which ones to highlight for their own agenda. As we speak, three major calamities come to mind (and I do not wish to ignore others – but these three are happening simultaneously with the kidnappings)

1) Scores of Muslims brutally massacred in villages in Assam (India) by Hindu gangs, merely for supporting the ‘wrong’ political candidate. Women were literally hacked to death in front of their children. The government has done nothing substantive to bring the killers to justice.

2) Thousands of Muslims forced to flee on foot in the Central African Republic, while hundreds have been killed in the last few weeks, by mobs of scimitar-wielding blood-thirsty Christian fanatics. Hardly any Muslims are left in the capital, and the plight of the Muslim refugees is heart-wrenching.

3) Thousands of Burmese Rohinga are still in limbo: living in barbed-wire camps, surrounding by Buddhist terrorists waiting to burn them alive, protected (after Allah) by a handful of UN peacekeepers. The pictures of their malnourished bodies barely makes it into any mainstream media outlet, and the world has done practically nothing to provide a solution for them. This, after hundreds of them have been killed, and the rest forced into limbo.

 

Now let’s ignore the fact that the news about the Rohingya Muslims has been probably the most prominent story to come out South-East Asia in the last couple of years (with the exception of the protests in Thailand). Also let’s ignore the fact that both the African Union and France have sent peacekeepers to contain the violence in Central Africa, as well as ignore that much of the violence is in reprisal for the violence committed by Muslim Séléka groups. And let’s also ignore that much of the problems that require solutions would involve violating the sovereignty of nations with military action, something that itself is troublesome. Also it might be that these problems don’t have simple solutions (nor are their origins simple) and like the Boko Haram issue, simply posting about it on Facebook will not help. Finally let’s ignore the fact that the reason that the story gained prominence was this act is a very unusual act carried out by a terrorist organization, on such a mass scale, and the government’s initial response generated much anger among the Nigerian population. While we’re on the topic violence towards religious minorities, let’s not forget what happens in Sri Lanka, the general Middle East, Pakistan, Malaysia, etc.

But, there is another problem with this post. It assumes that these are all instances of religious violence. Although I cannot go into detail about the Rohingya and anti-balaka case, let us examine the Assam case for a second.

The author gets some points right, most of the victims were Muslims, and part of the motivation for the violence was that the victims voted for the wrong political candidate. But let’s start with the first part of the post that he got wrong, it wasn’t the Hindu identity of the attackers that drove them to commit the violence. To look at the motivation of these extremists going around killing, we need to examine a brief history of the region.

Police claim that the violence was carried out by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a groups that is designated a terrorist organization in India. So the fact that these massacres are carried out by terrorist organizations already makes it difficult for the Indian government to bring these men in for justice (they don’t exactly make themselves easy to find). There’s also the fact that much of the violence was committed in in very remote villages in the North East of India, making a rapid government response difficult. Some of the villages were also very close to the Bhutan-India border, making escape into a foreign country a possibility to avoid Indian forces. As of now, violence seems to have subsided.

So why did these terrorists target Muslims? Was it on the basis of their religious identity? Again, closer analysis suggests otherwise. In the past, many ‘outsiders’ were attacked, even Hindi speaking Hindus. There has been a push by these organizations to protect their ‘traditional’ culture from outside influence. This already suggests that religious identity was not the driving factor for these attackers. So what is it with the Muslims?

The Muslims are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. Unfortunately, politicians in their bid to get reelected have chosen to emphasize the “threat” that these undocumented migrants possess to the culture of the region. Seeing that these same extremists who were willing to target Hindi speaking workers of the same nationality, how are they going to react to immigrants from another country?

As we can see, the violence here is more ethnic in nature rather than religious? Yet, why is it important that we recognize it as ethnic violence rather than religious violence/

Using the rhetoric of religion is dangerous. Similar violence in the region occurred in 2012 where the same rhetoric of Hindu-Muslim violence was used. The result, extremist Muslims in other parts of India sent threats to Indians from Northeastern India, causing a large exodus of Northeastern workers from the other parts of India. The rhetoric of Hindus attacking Muslims also encouraged Hindu extremist groups to encourage violence against Muslims in other parts of India in revenge for the exodus of Northeastern Indians. By making this a religious conflict, it expands the scope and scale of the conflict. Religious conflict is an unfortunate reality in India, with the unfortunate examples of 1984, 2002, and the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 as reminders of this.

Looking at his last point:

These stories, and more, don’t make national coverage, and are for all practical purposes completely ignored. By selectively highlighting atrocities committed by only one religion/ethnicity, over the course of a few years an average person receiving this slanted perspective becomes so brainwashed into associating evil/terror with only one group (i.e., Muslims) that it is almost impossible to ‘de-program’ him to think otherwise.

And while we’re at it, let’s not selectively highlight atrocities where only the members of one religion or ethnicity is painted to be the victims of the world without any regards to the complicated history/politics/narratives present in each conflict. In terms of religious groups, every religion is both victims and perpetrators of violence to such an extent that it would be disingenuous and dishonest to call your religious group the victims while other the perpetrators. The problem is that while pretending to care about the injustices happening the world, only to actually care about when your own religious group or ethnicities are the victims. Nor is this limited to Muslims, it wasn’t uncommon for me growing up to hear stories of the persecution of Hindus from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and even in India. The problem is that we portray ourselves so much as victims that we forget about the other victims in the world, and spread harsh perceptions of other groups.

 

P.S. Also spreading on Facebook was this message supposedly from Assamese Muslims. Again, it is not religion that is emphasized, but rather the “illegal” immigrants. This rhetoric towards the undocumented immigrants in those regions is troublesome, but again suggest that the riots and violence are ethnic/nationalistic in nature rather than religious.

 

Sources and Reading

http://www.mha.nic.in/BO

http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/05/07/india-election-violence-assam-idINKBN0DN09320140507

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/in-assam-a-familiar-pattern-of-violence/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://allafrica.com/stories/201405021859.html

http://iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/vol1-issue5/H0154245.pdf

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6683767.stm

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/17/officials-offer-assurances-in-effort-to-stem-exodus-to-the-northeast/

http://borjournals.com/Research_papers/Oct_2012/1023%20M.pdf

 

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