At around six in the evening on September 23, I received a video on my mobile phone. I saw a man with a bamboo stick in his hands chasing a man with a camera. Then came the sound of bullets being fired. The man with the bamboo stick was shot by the Assam Police, and the one with the camera, rushed back to kick and stomp on his body.
“Is he breathing?” I wondered, zooming into the video.
The man was still breathing while the man with the camera was kicking him, I realized. I put down my phone, my stomach clenched and my heart beating faster.
The man with the camera was later identified as Bijoy Shankar Bania – a photographer working in the District Commissioner’s office of the Mangaldai subdivision. Bania was on duty with the police in Gorukhuti in the Sipajhar revenue circle of Darrang district in Assam. The man who died in the police firing was identified as Maynal Haque, a resident of Gorukhuti who was part of a violent protest against an eviction drive in his village initiated by the administration.
As Bijoy Bania became a trending topic across news and social media, I started wondering if I had ever crossed paths with him or if I knew anyone who was friends with him. After all, he works where I live — Mangaldai — and people from places like we come from walk past each other at least once in a lifetime.
I wondered what I would say to Bijoy Bania if I ran into him, or ask him if I ended up interviewing him in my capacity as a journalist. Was he so angry about the ‘encroachment’ that he wanted to stomp on the dying man? It made no sense. What drove him to stomp on Haque, and what did it mean for the future of my home state?
What drove him to stomp on Haque, and what did it mean for the future of my home state?
“Have you seen the video?” I asked my parents.
“I can’t watch it. It will haunt me,” my 59-year-old mother replied.
I wondered if years of witnessing violence in Assam has made people from my mother’s generation indifferent or just accepting of it.
Another family member watched the video in silence, shaking his head with fear and disgust. But we did not say anything to one other. We know where we stand and where our moral compass lies.
We have also reached the place where we know that we can put our arguments to someone outside the family with as much logic and conviction as possible, and the other person may still not be able to empathize, let alone accept a Muslim of Bengali origin as a fellow citizen.
For many in Assam, a Bengali-speaking Muslim is a social pariah, whose human life is comparatively less valued or sometimes not valued at all.
As Bijoy Bania’s name was making it to the national media as one more face of radicalization, there were people who started supporting him.
One wrote on Facebook, “The audacity of these Gedas.” (Geda is a racial slur, often used against the Muslims of Bengal origin in Assam).
People of my generation, who were born in the 1990s in Assam, have grown up hearing horrific slurs like “You look ugly, just like a Gedi.” I have let such racial slurs pass so many times that I cannot remember if it was a family friend, or someone that I shared a classroom with, or just a random stranger at the marketplace. Now that I think about it, this internalized hate and prejudice, this act of ‘letting it pass’ at its earliest stage, is what eventually created a Bijoy Bania.
I have let such racial slurs pass so many times…
Evictions and resettlement are not unusual in Assam. It is often followed by the loss of homes and life. The faces of the bereaved women which were put on the front page of almost every newspaper during the evictions at Amchang near Guwahati in 2017 stayed with many of us. We read about the death of a 24-year-old pregnant Kushmita Morang, who was one among the thousands of protestors urging the government to rehabilitate them from the villages of Laika-Dodhiya in the Tinsukia district.
Our moral compass was questioned and yet we were silent.
A large-scale eviction has been going on in the areas of Dholpur and Gorukhuti for the past few weeks. As many as 800 families have been accused of encroaching upon government land. The eviction was being carried on without any violence until 23 September. That day, not only did it take a violent turn, but enough blood was shed to keep everyone on edge for the rest of the days ahead. The Bharatiya Janata Party state government has accused around 10,000 people of coming out with batons and machetes to protest against eviction. The police, the government says, retaliated with gunshots on the mob as a means of self-defense. Several policemen were injured. Maynal Haque and Farid Shaikh, a 12-year-old boy, whose family have said that he was returning from the post office after collecting his Aadhar Card, were killed.
They were not ‘outsiders,’ but the fear of an ‘outsider’ taking over our space and identity runs so deep in our veins and across generations that many of us forget to unlearn the patterns of fear, prejudice, and hatred. While people fought for a collective Assamese identity for well over many decades, millions of Muslims of Bengal origin, despite proving their legitimacy as citizens, never fit into the idea of an inclusive Assamese identity for many.
Many of us forget to unlearn the patterns of fear, prejudice and hatred.
No government, regardless of whichever party has come to power, allows us to forget that. That’s why there is less uproar and more silence over a child being shot, or the fact that a man punched, kicked, and stomped on a dying man.
I put myself in a hypothetical situation where I had immense hatred for a group of people – for their religion, for their ethnicity, even for their political beliefs. Could I still wish death to them? The answer was a no. Could I kick them while they were taking their last breath? No.
I put myself in a hypothetical situation where I had immense hatred for a group of people…
People of my generation were fortunate enough to not witness many episodes of violence in Assam. It took many of us to reach adulthood, many literary sources, and many efforts to unlearn and understand and finally accept some aspects of Assam’s past.
After the Biojy Bania incident, I reached out to someone who had witnessed the violence of the Assam agitation first hand and asked, “Do you remember similar instances from the six years of agitation from 1979 to 1985?”
The reply was – “Far worse”.
When people of my generation try to speak to our elders about the horrors unfolding in our present, pat comes the reply — it has been “far worse” in the past.
Do I really need a measuring rod to compare a man kicking a dying person in his death to other violent phases in Assam? Or is it that hate around our identity politics has not changed and we are just seeing a continuation of events from the past.
Do I really need a measuring rod to compare a man kicking a dying person in his death to other violent phases in Assam?
What I heard after the Sipajhar eviction, and what I have heard before is this: “We do not want anyone to die, but they cannot encroach on government land.” But nobody likes the question — why did they have to die such a brutal death, even if they were ‘encroachers’? Or that ‘encroachment’ is thrown around so loosely for people who have been living and farming on those lands for decades now.
How will this end? What is the solution? Not just to the issue of encroachment or one proving one’s citizenship, but to the hate and prejudice that exists so deeply amongst us. Any government that is well and truly committed to fair and sensitive policies can resolve the issues of land encroachment with time. But for a place like Assam, where elections and everyday life thrive on identity politics, does anyone actually want the differences poisoning us to be erased and let everyone live peacefully?
Or are we bound to live like this every day? Will we forever hear debates on news channels and read social media posts, justifying why Bania should have stomped on Maynal, and go about our lives as if nothing happened.
How will this end? What is the solution?
While I, as an individual, cannot control how the state records our history, I will always remember how I felt a few days ago, when a dying man was kicked and punched in my home state.
Hrishita Rajbangshi is an independent researcher from Assam. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.