All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal, who is also the Member of Parliament (MP) from Dhubri in Assam, offered some shocking advice to Muslims in Assam on Monday. When asked about the new stringent cattle-protection laws, Ajmal suggested that Muslims should stop consuming beef.
Deccan Herald quoted him as saying, “I can only say that I will appeal to them (Muslims) to give up eating beef.” Ajmal was responding to a question about the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill that was passed by the state assembly on August 13. As SabrangIndia has reported previously, the new law has stricter measures in place for obtaining a “fit for slaughter” certificate from a veterinary officer, transportation of cattle, as well as purchase and sale of beef.
This last element is the most contentious as the new law prohibits the purchase and sale of beef in areas predominantly inhabited by Hindu, Jain, Sikh or other non-beef eating communities, as well as within a 5 km radius of a temple, satra or religious institutions belonging to the Hindu religion. Punishment for violation of provisions is also stricter. No person accused of an offense punishable under this Act, if in custody, can be released on bail or on his own bond, unless the Public Prosecutor has been given an opportunity of being heard on the application for such release. Those found guilty can be incarcerated for 3- 8 years, and also fined between Rs 3 lakhs to Rs 5 lakhs. Repeat offenders can expect to be faced with double the penalty.
According to the 2011 census, 34.22 percent of people in Assam identified as Muslim and 3.74 percent identified as Christian, two communities traditionally associated with the consumption of beef. At present Assam’s population is estimated to be around 3.3 crores. And while it is wrong to profile people and presume their dietary choices based on religion, one can conclude that new law can be misused to target at east 1.12 crore Muslims and 12 lakh Christians in the state. Amidst the entire anti-immigrant sentiment, this also paints a virtual bullseye on the backs of Bengali speaking Muslims, giving their tormenters another tool to harass and alienate them. Not to mention how the entire law by preventing consumption of beef in neighbourhoods predominantly inhabited by non-beef eating communities, also indirectly encourages ghettoisation.
Given how the AIUDF has always claimed to protect the interests of the minority Muslim community, what is causing Badruddin Ajmal to make such a drastic public statement?
The new political landscape
It is noteworthy, that recently the Congress broke ties with the AIUDF even though they had fought the Assembly elections together this year as part of a Mahajot or Grand Alliance. The result of the alliance was that Congress won a measly 26 seats in the 126-member state assembly, while AIUDF won 14.
The decision to form an alliance with a party that has traditionally been viewed as one with a relatively hardline stance on Islam, may have been the reason for the Congress’s failure to oust the BJP. In fact, it was pro-Taliban posts by AIUDF’s now suspended general secretary Fazlul Karim Qasimi, that gave the Congress the ammo to finally end the relationship recently.
Moreover, the failure to come to power in Assam stung the Congress harder because there was already an environment of strong discontent among the people of Assam with respect to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which the BJP had been pushing for. While the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was updated in Assam in 2019 in accordance with provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985, in a bid to weed out “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”, the CAA enables the grant of citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. This is not acceptable to the people of Assam.
Incidentally, the Citizenship denial processes through the NRC exclusions, the ‘Declared Foreigners’ process and the ‘D Voters process has impacted a staggering 2.2 million (22 lakhs) people. This includes not only the people excluded from the NRC but also their families. The Congress, that once ruled near uncontested for decades in the north-eastern state, has been found confused and wanting in its messaging of speaking out against political and bureaucratic processes that are causing untold misery and harassment across communities in the state. It is this diffident and confused outlook, leaving key issues unchallenged in the state, that has allowed the hardline BJP, clear in its motive, to hang on to power at any cost. In fact, it looks almost as if there is no cogent and clear opposition presence in Assam at all.
Meanwhile, Ajmal has accepted the Congress’s decision to snap ties. He told NDTV, “Congress is the big brother and it has decided to leave us without even asking us. But, we accept the decision.”
The Congress is now free to explore future alliances with newer regional parties like the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) or even Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal. With by polls coming up this could be a tactical move, given how even the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) appears inclined to go its own.
BJP moves quickly to repair relationships
On Monday, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma met with representatives of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) including AASU president Dipanka Kumar Nath and chief advisor Dr. Samujjal Bhattacharjya, to discuss the implementation of key clauses of the Assam Accord. This is noteworthy because AASU was not only at the forefront of the agitation that led to the signing of the Assam Accord, it has also been the most vociferous group among those demanding the ouster of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”, and had also taken a strong stand against the CAA. Given how it was the BJP-led government at the Centre that was at the forefront of pushing the legislation through the Parliament in 2019, the meeting between the Assam CM and AASU leaders is clearly an attempt by the BJP to mend fences in the state where citizenship is a very touchy subject.
অসম চুক্তি ৰূপায়ন সম্পৰ্কে মুখ্যমন্ত্ৰীৰ সৈতে সদৌ অসম ছাত্ৰ সন্থাৰ আলোচনা: pic.twitter.com/kJMnzufgtZ
— Dr. Samujjal Bhattacharjya (@SamujjalBhatta) September 7, 2021
It was decided at this meeting that a committee comprising five representatives from AASU and three ministers of the Assam government will work together to create a roadmap for implementation of clauses 6 to 10 of the Assam Accord.
In fact, it is Clause 6, that deals with Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, that has been in the spotlight the most, especially given delays in implementation of recommendations of the Clause 6 Committee.
As SabrangIndia has reported previously, in February 2020, the Clause 6 Committee constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had submitted a slew of recommendations pertaining to Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the interests and culture of Assamese people. The 14-member high-powered Committee had been constituted in July 2019 and had been given six months to submit its report, which it did just days before the deadline. This Report of the Committee on Implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord was however not made public at that time. Then, six months later, some members of the panel including Arunachal Pradesh Advocate General Nilay Dutta and three members of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) released the report independently.
As per the report, what is key to the Committee’s recommendations is a series of amendments to Article 371 B. The report says, “The Committee is of the opinion that to give full effect to its Recommendations, as stated hereinbelow, several Constitutional and legislative amendments will be necessitated. The existing Article 371-B in the Constitution of India will need to be amended.”
However, it is not known if this specific matter pertaining to a Constitutional amendment was discussed during the meeting held on September 6. What is known is what Bhattacharjya told media persons after the meeting, in broad terms. “Constitutional safeguards, economic safeguards, protection of tribal belts, blocks and government lands, NRC update, sealing India-Bangladesh border, permanent solution to floods and erosion, and rehabilitation of Assam agitation victims and martyrs’ families will be on the agenda of the committee,” he said.
It therefore remains to be seen how much the BJP is willing to relent in its bid to hold onto Assam and by extension the entire north east.