Assam Spring? The message is loud and clear
Months have passed since violence broke out in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) in July 2012. In this special series on Bodoland violence, we bring stories of violence, desperation, and also hope from this "tinderbox." This series has been made possible with financial support from Indian Muslim Relief Committee (IMRC).
By M. Reyaz, TwoCircles.net,
Its 10.00 pm at night, and I am at the residence of a senior Muslim civil servant in Guwahati. I was driven there by college lecturer. As we are talking about the problems of Bengali Muslims in Assam, we are gradually joined by physicians, social workers and bio-technologists. What is common to them all, besides their religion is that they all are in their late 20s or 30s.
Away from media gaze in Delhi – or very far from Tahrir Square - a silent youth movement is on rise among the educated Muslim youths of Assam. Young Muslim professionals from varied background assemble in such meetings quite regularly to discuss the problems and chart out some road map for possible solutions.
Rich educated Muslims, in a way, never wanted to identify with their poor cousins, often wearing lungis, pulling rickshaws or providing labour in building houses, etc. Once educated and upwardly mobile, they tended to ‘integrate’ more in a society where they are often seen with suspicion of being foreigners. For example Muslims from districts of Barak valley did not fail to mention their older heritage in the state, often took pride in that how different they are from Muslims from Muslims who hail from chars in west. In many ways they did not even realize the gravity of situation by completely ignoring a large chunk of population. Toiba Sultana, a Delhi University educated young woman from state who is now working in a Guwahati based NGO says, “The realization was never there that situation could be as bad.”
Muslims – particularly the Bengali speaking Muslims – in Assam have been at the centre of politics for all the wrong reasons. They have grown up being labeled ‘foreigner’ or Bangladeshi. Already tired of being labeled ‘foreigners,’ the July-August Bodo-Muslim clashes, however, appear to be the ‘maximum’ that the new generation of Muslims could take.
Sofiul Islam Khan, a lecturer of History at a degree college in Guwahati, s one of the founding members of MYFACTS and MCRPC.
However, all this now seems to change with the Bodo-Muslim ethnic clashes in July end. A new awakening has given educated, upwardly moving young Muslim professionals a reason to work for the betterment of the community. It’s like a silent ‘Assam spring’ going on.
One such platform of young Muslim professionals is MYFACTS or ‘Muslim Youths’ Forum Against Communalism, Terrorism and Sedition.’ Although the work they are doing is still in nascent stages, but the message is loud and clear. They oppose the three basic things Muslims in general, but those in Assam in particular, are often accused of. What initially started as Facebook group has today taken a real form, although it’s too early to have an organised structure.
It comprises of social science researchers, lawyers, social workers, academicians, doctors, government employees, scientists, etc. In fact people from varied background are united by their common cause.
Elaborating on the vision behind MYFACTS, Toiba Sultana, one of the members, says: “We would like to call ourselves a movement towards achieving equal status for the deprived section.” She adds, “Now is the time to do something. I don’t want to sit in my comfort zone and criticise the system.”
In fact that is the general feeling you get when you meet most of their members: they are frustrated with the Muslim leaderships, particularly the clerical class for their failure to resolve the problem in particular, but generally for their narrow-mindedness, their ‘ostrich mentality,’ and inability to bring any substantial change for the community.
Sofiul Islam Khan, a lecturer of History at a degree college in Guwahati, who is one of the founding members of MYFACTS and comes from the riot hit Kokrajhar district says, “The tendency of self-denial and failure to introspect within the community has been main reasons behind the failure to come to any logical solutions to the problems surrounding the Muslim community.”
MYFACTS team members have taken it upon themselves to break the stereotypical images of Muslims from the state, of being alien and backward. A group of intellectuals and academicians, they aim to fight those stereotypical images in the same coin and are hence working at documentation, financially supporting ground level developments, encouraging debates, etc.
The group came into existence at the aftermath of the July ethnic riot and in this short span of time they have had reasonable successes. Their members participate in debates on local TV channels and are organizing campaigns for education and health.
MYFACTS members Toiba Sultana, Rezwan Hussain and Mokhleshur Rahman posing for TCN. Rahman is also the Founding President of MCRPC.
Their short term goal is to bring peace and prosperity in BTAD, particularly among the Muslims in the locality; and the long term goal is the development of the Muslim community.
Besides documentation and research on Muslim society within the state, they are also planning to start a resource cum cultural centre. Elaborating on the long term plan, Rezwan Hussain, regional sales manager in a multinational biotechnology firm, says, “We are in advance stage of collaborating with several NGOs, women’s commission, etc. for brining peace and harmony in the region,” adding, “our dream project is going to be the Bagh Hazarika Centre for Cultural Studies.”
Ismail Siddique, popularly known as Bagh Hazarika as he unarmed killed the tiger and earned the title of Hazarika from Ahom king for his valour, was a highly skilled front ranking 17th century military officer. He fought and commanded operations against Mughal’s attack on Ahom kingdom.
They also plan to give communal harmony award in the name of 17th century Sufi saint Azan Peer. They thus work at policy level and are trying to break the perceived image of the community. Rezwan Hussain sums up, “We don’t want the Muslims to be away from the mainstream of nation building...We want people to accept us with the richness of our culture and our religion.”
Although they aim to reach the grass-root level, so far they have had limited success in organizing some counseling, health camps, or providing scholarships. However, the shortcomings of MYFACTS are the strengths of another youth group that too came into existence in the immediate aftermath of the July ethnic riots, and are working at the grassroot level: ‘Minority Citizen's Right Preservation Committee’ (MCRPC) is a non-governmental organization based in Gosaigaon sub-division in Kokrajhar district. In fact the two organisations complement each other and work in collaborative manner. MCRPC today is a registered society and its Founding President Advocate Mokhleshur Rahman and another member Soiful Islam are both part of the ‘core’ group of MYFACTS too.
What started as a group of young educated men in desperation to work for the ‘people of community’ in the immediate aftermath of the riot on July 27 has over the months become a full fledged grass-root level organisation. MCRPC declares itself to be: A group of “likeminded and enthusiastic educated youths of entire BTAD area with a special emphasis on justice in the society and reformation of any downtrodden community for a developed and peaceful country with equal justice for all.” Its members too include young advocates, academicians, doctors, etc.
MCRPC volunteers and office bearers, at their newly constructed office, working till late at night.
For weeks after the riot, they were active in at least 48 relief camps, with the help of over 300 volunteers, working in co-ordination trying to provide and maintain health, sanitation, relief materials, etc.
MCRPC volunteer Rafiqul Islam talking to a victim in a relief camp in Howriapet.
However, one of the most ambitious projects they have taken upon themselves is the “master family survey.” As part of this survey, they plan to make a database of all Muslims from the state with all documents required to prove citizenship – a partial census one can say. MCRPC is making a database of each family and checking copies of National Residence Certificate (NRC) in the name of head of family (father, grandfather, or in-law) issued by the Government of India in 1951, or name of father, grandfather, or in-laws in voters’ list of 1966 or 1970, or both (Assam Accord puts March 24, 1971 as the ‘cut off day’ and those who came earlier than that day or their successors are considered citizens of India.). They are also collecting other available documents like ration cards, patta (revenue document) of land, etc.
The aim behind this survey is that same frustration of being labeled ‘foreigner’ and seen with suspicion. Founding President of MCRPC Mokhleshur Rahman told TCN: “We undertook MCRPC has so far completed ‘survey’ of over 10 villages, and according to their data, not a single family was found to be “illegal.” MCRPC plans to make these data available online, with each family given a “secret access number,” so that they can “easily download documents from anywhere proving their citizenship.”
MCRPC’s Mokhleshur Rahman, Prof. Adbdul Mannan of Guwahati Univeristy and Mahbubul Hoque of Guwahati based ERD Foundation along with sponsored students. ERD Foundation, in collaboration with other organisations including NCMEI, has so far sponsored 400 students for their residence schooling. MCRPC works as facilitator of these programmes.
They are also working towards executing many programmes undertaken by MYFACTS, or in collaboration with other groups, like facilitating financial aids to poor students from the BTAD, organising health camps, etc. With the help of Guwahati based ERD Foundation, Centre for Education and Rehabilitation, Jamaat e Islami, Zakat Foundation and several such organisations, they have so far helped over 1800 students in getting scholarships or financial aids.
MCRPC is working on loss assessment and helping victims fight legal battles by filing FIRs. In fighting legal battles MCRPC is getting constant support from Ahmedabad based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which has experiences of working with 2002 Gujarat riot victims. USA based Indian Muslim Relief & Charities (IMRC) is providing financial support in this work through CSJ. They are in the process of filing over 4400 cases.
The CSJ is working in collaboration with local groups in both the Bodo and Bengali Muslim localities in providing legal service, rehabilitation and adequate compensation. Johanna Lokhande, Programme Officer at the CSJ told TCN that they are working working in close collaboration with local groups to enhance the compensation package and help in rehabilitation. She added, “If there is justice, the process of reconciliation becomes much more easier.”
Mokhleshur Rahman of MCRPC and Johanna Lokhande of CSJ at Gosaigaon Police Station, submitting complaints on behalf of victims.
Harsh Mander, former member of Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council (NAC), too approached these two groups for is peace and harmony initiatives, like so many other national and international individuals and organisations.
However, being still very young group MCRPC appear too ambitious. They appear to be doing too many things at one time. If only they can lead it to logical conclusion and succeed in their ambitious projects!
The fact that within months of their inception national and international groups are willing to collaborate with them tells a lot about the kind of work they are doing. This is equally true for MYFACTS. Toiba Sultana aptly remarks, “It is exhilarating to see that youth forum can definitely put pressure and move towards peace initiative.”
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