Violence against Muslims in India has taken a new turn: An interview with Dr. A. P. Abdul Hakeem Azhari and N. Ali Abdulla
By E. P. Swalih
E. P. Swalih: You were among the first few Muslim leaders from outside Assam who landed in the state after the riots against Muslims broke out in 2012. Can you explain what you saw there?
Dr. Azhari: We have been closely working with Muslim communities in Assam, particularly in the districts of upper Assam, since 2000 as part of our reach out to North Indian Muslim villages program. As part of this project, we had already established several hundreds of primary to secondary level educational institutes under the banner of Islamic Board of Education, India and mosques in various North Indian states including Assam and other North-Eastern regions. This is to say that we already had a very clear picture of the socio-cultural and political dynamics of this region in general and of Muslims in particular. So, our arrival in Assam in 2012 August was not something new for us, it was part of an ongoing association we made with the Muslim communities in Assam.
What we could see in various relief camps was just a tip of an iceberg. Tens of thousands of Muslims were evicted from their homelands, several of them were killed. Their properties were brutally looted. They were almost like in a no man’s land.
Swalih: What were your/your organization’s initial responses to it?
Azhari: What they wanted was an invention of the moment. So we contacted some local Muslim leaders and organizations and supplied basic necessities required for them such as food and cloth. With the support of Muslim Hands, a UK based non-governmental organization, we supplied food and other basic medical needs for babies and pregnant women, which government machineries couldn’t provide.
Swalih: Your organization is based in Malabar, South India. Then how do you coordinate these activities?
Dr. Azhari: As I said, we already had a base in Assam. We utilized that. But to follow up our post-violence relief and rehabilitation activities, we recruited about forty full time volunteers. We also appointed two professionally trained social workers in Assam. They along with our representatives in West Bengal are playing a key role in coordinating the relief activities in the state.
N. Ali Abdulla: We think that local collaboration is crucial in regions like Assam to make any form of developmental activities more fruitful and sustainable.
Swalih: Don’t you think that your activities, though they are important, address the issue of violence against Muslims at a very peripheral level?
Dr. Azhari: I don’t think so. Our objective is to address the issue of marginalisation of Muslim community on a long term basis. We strongly believe that, and that’s what we learned from our experience in Kashmir and Gujarat, socio-cultural and educational empowerment is central to achieve such long term objectives. This is not to say that we haven’t addressed the issue of violence otherwise. We have to address it as a political issue as well. But we think it’s more important to create a conducive atmosphere first to make their everyday life safe and better.
Ali Abdulla: As part of our mission, we had also met representatives of various political parties and government officials including the Chief Minister of the state. And our first demand to the Chief Minister was to recover illegal weapons from the BTC areas. I think we also have to fight these kinds of issues legally. In India, it has become like a norm as of now that the real perpetrators will never be punished. That kind of an approach will not only intensify violent activities of this kind but also will make poor people’s life more distressed. Once we could bring them to the limelight of criminal procedures and punish them, things will eventually start to change.
We also feel that our developmental activities for Muslims in the region itself are part of a larger project of addressing issues related to violence politically. We have very strong hope that these kinds of humble initiatives, in due course, will make local Muslims strong enough to address these issues politically. That would be the more appropriate and sustainable move and we are waiting for that to happen in the near future.
Swalih: How do you look at the civil society response to Assam violence?
Dr. Azhari: It’s so sad to say that India, even after 60 years of independence, hasn’t grown into a full-fledged civil society. The response of the so called civil society to social issues is becoming very pathetic. This is not particular to the Assam violence or just about Muslim issues. Indian civil society is very fragile. We have seen it in many instances in the past. I am not denying the support we received from many individuals and other organizations. But when we take it as a whole, our hope is very less.
Ali Abdulla: Look at the way media covered it. They covered it for one or two days. And all of a sudden someone came up with this outside conspiracy story as the root cause of Assam violence. Then the entire media in the country started to focus on that. Their concern has just become the question of national security thinking that Muslims in Assam do not belong to the nation. In doing so, many of the ground situations went unreported.
Dr. Azhari: A comparison of media coverage of violence against Muslims in Assam and the alleged Muslim ‘threat’ to the Assamese living in cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad will itself reveal Indian media’s attitude in reporting violence against Muslim minorities. You get a very poor coverage for what happened in reality, but get a high coverage for things which really didn’t happen!
The Government of India banned group SMSing and also started monitoring social networking sites in the wake of Assam riot alleging that Muslims are spreading rumours about Muslim sufferings in Assam. What does that mean? On the one hand, you get under reported in the mainstream media. Then you think that you can communicate with your fellow communities and people through mobile phones and social networking sites which tend to give a space which is not available otherwise. But the state interferes there as well. Is it to say that Muslims should not only suffer but also not talk about their sufferings?
Swalih: There has been a series of violent attacks against Muslim communities in the last few decades, particularly after the demolition of Babri Masjid. How do you look at this trajectory?
Dr. Azhari: The violence against Muslims in India in the last two decades shows that attacks against the Muslim community are becoming more and more institutionalized day by day. We have seen it in Mumbai in 1993 and in Gujarat in 2002. It’s institutional not just in technical terms. But it has become politically institutionalized as well. The perpetrators get support from government authorities at various stages of planning and execution of violence. They also get support from the concerned authorities during the judicial processes once the cases on violence go to the court. So the institutional turn that the violence has taken in the recent past is really alarming.
Ali Abdulla: This new turn ultimately helps the political parties, who compete with each other to divide people on communal lines, to meet their political agendas and priorities.
Swalih: What’s your future plan for Assam?
Dr. Azhari: As I said, we already have 130 Madrassas and 20 mosques in Barak Bali and Bramhaputra Bali, an orphanage and destitute home. We are in the process of expanding them in numbers and scope and also trying to include more institutes serving different purposes. Our megaproject for Assam is to build 10-15 villages with hundred houses each which will rehabilitate at least 1500-2000 families. These villages will have a central mosque, a madrassa and school, a primary health centre and drinking water project. We have already completed all the technical formalities for this work to start. Islamic Educational Board of India, Jamia Markaz, Relief and Charitable Foundation of India, North East Sunni Welfare Council, and Sunni Yuvajana Sangham will play a key role in materializing this project.
Swalih: How difficult is the situation for you to coordinate the rehabilitation activities in Assam?
Ali Abdulla: Here you should remember that around 3000 families who were uprooted from their homelands in the 1983 Nellie Massacre are still living in various refugee camps. So you can imagine how difficult it would be to bring people back to their homeland.
[Dr. A. P. Abdul Hakeem Azhari is the Director of Jamia Markaz, an Islamic University based in South India and Director General of Relief and Charitable Foundation of India. N. Ali Abdulla is Member, Waqf Board and the secretary in charge of national affairs of Sunni Yuvajana Sangham, a leading Sunni youth organization in South India. E. P Swalih is a student of Development Studies at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Email: email@example.com]