A growing number of political figures and intellectuals are challenging the long-standing myth that Muslims in the northeast are "Bangladeshis" who do not belong in the country.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech marking Independence Day took place against a turbulent backdrop. In the northeastern state of Assam, ethnic rioting between Bodo tribals and Bengali-speaking Muslims has claimed at least 80 lives and forced more than 400,000 people to move to refugee camps.
The tension has spilled over into other parts of India as well. In Karnataka and other parts of the south, threatening text messages and rumours of reprisal attacks have sown panic among Muslim settlers from Assam, causing them to return to their home state. On August 11th, two people died in Mumbai when a show of solidarity for Assam's riot victims turned unruly.
In his August 15th Independence Day address, Singh said that restoring peace is the government's highest priority. He also indicated that his administration is considering a probe into the "root cause".
"I promise that our government will make every effort to understand the reasons behind the violence and work hard with the state governments to ensure that such incidents are not repeated in any part of the country," he said.
Challenging a long-held prejudice
Experts say that Singh's statement marks a noteworthy departure from widely prevalent attitudes in India. Until recently, few questioned the reigning myth that "illegal Bangladeshi migrants" are at the root of tension in Assam.
"His remark takes head-on the right-wing opposition's shrill demands for expulsion and disenfranchisement of the so-called Bangladeshis from Assam, who they accuse of carrying out 'demographic invasion' in the state," says Burhanuddin Owaisi, an analyst for Eastern Crescent magazine.
Since the late 1970s, Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state have been at the receiving end of constant political campaigns demanding their disenfranchisement and expulsion. Assamese political parties and the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claim they are Bangladeshis, not Indians.
In February 1983, more than 3,000 Bengali-speaking Muslim villagers were massacred by fanatic tribals in Nellie, close to the state capital, Guwahati. It is among the worst cases of ethnic violence ever recorded in a country which has seen its share of unrest.
Moinul Haq, who runs a human rights group in Assam, told Khabar South Asia: "We are humiliated daily; our children grow up facing taunts everyday as Bangladeshis. There is a deliberate political conspiracy to marginalise us."
But now a growing number of politicians and intellectuals are beginning to speak out.
"Empirical evidence reveals that Bengali-speaking Muslims settled in the Bodos' home turf before the partition of India (1947). That makes them as much Indians as the Hindus, the Assamese Muslims and the Bodo tribals," Kashif-ul-Huda, a writer on northeast issues, told Khabar.
Writing in The Hindu, sociologist Banajit Hussain said the issue is not one of a simple misunderstanding, but of a falsehood being perpetuated deliberately.
"It cannot be simply assumed that the Bodo leadership and the mainstream Assamese society are innocently mistaken in believing that all Muslims inhabiting this area are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Rather it is a conscious 'mistake' laced with communal undertones," he wrote.
"The rhetoric of 'illegal' migrants flooding the region that appears to be fuelling the attacks is backed largely by what seems to be paranoia about the perceived growing numbers of Muslims in the area, all of whom are assumed to be 'illegal' migrants," Hussain wrote.
Muslims hope for change in perceptions
For the worried Muslim community, Singh's remarks signal that the government is ready to take a closer look at the crisis.
The leader of Assam's lead opposition party, Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, told Khabar, "The Muslims of Assam have been victimised wrongly for more than 30 years. If the Manmohan Singh government is willing to acknowledge it, we would be happy to co-operate."
Speaking to Khabar, a leader of the ruling Congress party, said it is committed to bringing an end to the hatred and violence.
Congress leader Devendra Dwivedi told Khabar, "We are conscious that the Assam riots have upset the social balance in a major way. We will do our best to rehabilitate the victims and repair the situation permanently."
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