With the assembly polls in Assam on the horizon the state chapter and government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is clearly making a bid to gain mileage by ignoring its pet phrase – ‘development’ – and using the tried and tested formula of religious polarisation. One of its most recent moves is to convert all government-controlled Madarsas to schools, thereby whipping up communal sentiments of both Hindus and Muslims. Interestingly, Muslims are a significant minority population at 34.22% in Assam, next only to Kashmir (68.31%) and Lakshadweep (96.58%), where they are the majority.
Motormouths, Name Calling, Mughals, Communal Riots and Rallies
Calling this round of assembly polls ‘The Last Battle of Saraighat’, the BJP has given it a historical and communal connotation, glossing over details of the actual battle from 1671. The Battle of Saraighat, a naval battle fought between the Mughal Empire and the Ahom Kingdom, is famous for Assam's most-revered warrior hero, Lachit Borphukan, who led and defeated the Mughals at Saraighat near Guwahati.
This is not the first time the BJP has used this term. Before the state assembly polls in 2016, Prime Minister Modi tweeted on Lachit Divas for the first time – on November 24 – to commemorate the war hero. Following his post, the BJP made it an election battle-cry in 2016 too. Following the BJP's landslide victory in the 2016 Assam Assembly Elections, known BJP-sympathisers Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha wrote an insider’s account of the BJP's rise in North-East India in their book titled The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP's Rise in the North-east, published in 2017. This was just the beginning.
This time, Assam's most powerful minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, kicked off the pre-poll campaign again with the same war cry. He invoked the battle while calling All India Democratic United Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal and Muslims in Assam “descendants of Mughals”. Motormouths from within the Assam BJP fold kept cropping up one after the other since its victory in 2016.
Satya Ranjan Borah, a BJP leader, wrote a controversial book allegedly attacking Islam and the Quran. This was not the only incident where Borah, a former general secretary of the BJP Kishan Morcha, attacked Muslims. In October 2020, Bora reportedly said, “We have to stay united and divide our work as Hindu, and we have to punch Islam with our whole fist and not with our fingers (sic)”. Shiladitya Dev, BJP’s Hojai MLA, is another motormouth who attacks Muslims in the state. In September 2019, Dev reportedly ‘justified assault on pregnant women' in the case of 'Love Jihad'.
While likening Muslims to Mughals or attacking them verbally has become the norm for the Assam BJP, there have been dozens of incidents of communal skirmishes as well as riots in Assam since the BJP has come to power. While six people were injured in a communal flare-up in Tinsukia district in 2018, a riot in Hailakandi district in May 2019 resulted in one person killed during police firing while 14 more were injured. Many in Hailakandi say the riots could have been averted had the administration took prior steps. A week before the riots, miscreants had slit the seats of at least 40 motorbikes kept in front of mosque in a Hindu-dominated area in Hailakandi town during Ramzan prayers. In August 2020, curfew had to be clamped down in parts of Sonitpur district after a Bajrang Dal rally kicked off a communal clash. Recently, again in Hailakandi district’s Katlicherra area, a Hindu mob gutted a Muslim house as claimed by a website called Hinduvoice.com.
These are only a few such incidents from Assam during BJP rule since 2016. Why the recent surge in abusive or communal language however? NewsClick asked CPI-M leader Suprakash Talukdar, who said: “The BJP fought the elections in 2016 with a vision document. They promised many things. They promised that a pukka house will be given to each and every BPL family which never happened. They also promised that there will be five bridges over the Barak and five over the Brahmaputra; new bridges. But in almost five years, what we have seen is that the bridges over the Brahmaputra — being constructed by the erstwhile Congress government – were inaugurated by Mr. Narendra Modi. They also promised farmers that their rice will be bought by the government at MSP. They said they will purchase paddy from Assam’s peasants which will be stored at the FCI godowns. What happened? A large number of peasants in Barak valley have not been able to sell their paddy even now because they are not getting a suitable price. They hardly got Rs 800 to Rs 1,200 per quintal when the government’s price was Rs 1,800.”
He added that the government was nowhere close to “its pronouncements. The unemployment rate is the highest ever in Assam; no new project is coming up while two paper mills have already been closed by this government, as have a number of small industries. This government has one thing up their sleeve: rabid communalism. So they are trying to whip up communalism at the outset. The slogan of the BJP is that this election will be between 65% and 35%. Why? Assam has a Muslim population of about 35%; they are saying that this 35% percent is the enemy, and in the elections, the BJP will fight in favour of the 65%: Hindus. They do not have any other alternative because they have failed miserably failed,” added the veteran Communist leader from Assam.
The Madarsa Issue and Muslim Reaction
The Assam Government, by getting the contentious Assam Repealing Bill, 2020, passed in the assembly on December 31, 2020, have nearly abolished the state-controlled madarsas as they will be converted into schools now. Muslims are agitated, but given the past five years of experience of living under the BJP-run state government, they have not taken to the streets but seek legal recourse, as Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, a prominent Muslim lawyer at the Gauhati High Court and ex-chairperson of the bar councils of all North-East Indian states, confirmed it. “If one says that government money cannot be spent on the reading of the Quran or Bhagvad Gita, it is not correct. Constitutionally, with the freedom of religion, anybody has the right to conserve their language, religion etc. Article 29 says they can establish an institution of their own and the government cannot discriminate for that purpose. This is the law. So the very words they’ve used are against the norms and against the Constitution. So, it is totally unconstitutional,” he said.
Choudhury said he was thinking about challenging it in court. Incidentally, he was educated in a madarsa as was recently-deceased ex-Assam CM Tarun Gogoi.
Maulana Farid Uddin Choudhury, the chairperson of the All Assam Madrassa Coordination Committee, said: “Look, this is clearly an oppressive move. They did it to politicise and to create a division between the Hindus and Muslims so that they can reap political mileage. However, we'll fight until our last breath. We have already been to see the education minister time and again, submitted memorandums and gave advice on how to improve the course curriculum at the madarsas and said that we won’t interrupt the process to change the curriculum, but he did not pay heed to any of our pleas. We went to the CM as well and even to Delhi to submit a memorandum to the President, but to no avail. Now, we have been compelled to take the last resort of going to court.”
History of Government-Controlled Madarsas in Assam
“In India, the madarsa education system was first introduced by the Ghaznavids. Later, as Muslim rule spread, this traditional education system became more and more widespread. During the British period, the Provincial Government of Assam established the Provincial Madrassa Education Board in 1934, which was originally situated at Sylhet, one of the districts of Assam, with nine madrassas all over the province,” Dr. Fazlur Rahman, ex-director of the State Madrassa Education Board of Assam (SMEBA), had said in 2015 while inaugurating a UGC-sponsored national seminar in Hojai district.
“In the initial stages, the Board followed the Dars-i-Nizami course and curricula following the model of Calcutta Alia Madrassa. Subsequently, in 1967–68, the Board modified courses and curriculum and included secular subjects like English, MIL (Assamese/Bengali/Hindi), mathematics, social sciences, and general science,” Dr. Rahman added.
In 1945, a post of Assistant Inspector was created to look after education in madarsas. In 1965–66, then Assam Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha and Education Minister Debokanta Barura gave funds to nine 9 senior madarsas.
It is when madarsa education began blooming in the state, with government extending grants to 65 more madarsas, which were upgraded in 1968 to include general subjects in their curriculum. As a result, in 1977, the Gauhati and Dibrugarh universities recognised the ‘Fazil’ examination equivalent to matriculation. In 1993, 25 more madrassas came under the deficit scheme. In 1995, the grant in aid was changed and then CM Hiteshwar Saikia instead provincialised 74 madarsas from August 15, 1994.
As the 1995 Act gave madarsa teachers an opportunity to earn as much as high-school level teachers, a number of institutions cropped up. In a bid to appease Muslims, then Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma provincialised hundreds of madarsas. Now, as BJP CM, he turned them into schools.
Views of Madrassa Education Board
Mizazur Rahman Talukdar, the Head of the Department of Arabic Literature at the Gauhati University, differs with Sarma. “Repealing the madarsa education acts is not to the benefit of the Muslim community. These madarsas, as institutions, have done much to increase literacy in rural areas – and not just within the Muslim community. Seeing the written word in Arabic many mistake the books to be theological, but it is not so. We revised our syllabus which was approved by the government in February 2019. Accordingly, the Assam Higher Secondary Education Council (AHSEC) as well as the Secondary Education Board of Assam (SEBA) gave their approval and equivalence to the ‘Dakhil’ examination,” he said. The revised syllabus of Assam's government-run madarsas show that secular/general studies make 55.55% of the entire syllabus for every grade.
Asked if one could enter the 12th grade without hindrance having cleared Dakhil, Talukdar said the AHSEC and SEBA gave their approval to Dakhil and gave it equivalence to the matriculation examination “because the syllabus is hundred percent supportive.”
A Secular View
Eminent scholar and social scientist, Dr. Bani Prasanna Misra, said he saw the issue as “one party playing the communal card while others too are resisting it for political mileage. Without rejecting the idea of revising the syllabus of madarsas, the government could have introduced subjects such as comparative religion right from the primary level alongside theological studies. They could have introduced comparative language studies as well. In a secular country such as India the teaching and learning of comparative religion should be the minimum expectation. In a country where the national religion is secularism, studying different religions is necessary so that people can discuss and decide when they become adults.”
“This entire issue is part of a communal game, and every party, in favour or against, are playing their respective parts. This could have been a gateway for a dialogue between different religions, but that is not happening here at all. Although the government decision is against the secular fabric of the country, but, at the same time, the madarsa curriculum could have been improved. Yet, what we can see is that those who are clamouring for its retention are also, unfortunately, not ready to adapt themselves to the secular fabric of the country. They are ready only to include general subjects, not subjects such as comparative religion,” added Dr. Misra.
Whatever is the fate of madarsas or the religious minorities in Assam, the BJP seems to be playing its polarisation game in a bid to woo Hindu voters with others also playing their part. Who wins? Development or communalism? Time will tell.
The writer is an independent content management consultant in Assam.