Amid a spurt in rape cases, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the northeast Indian state of Assam has taken to politicizing such incidents by playing on people’s fear of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants living in the state.
The issue rocked the State Assembly on March 26, when the opposition Congress party moved an adjournment motion to discuss the rape and murder of a minor. Leader of the opposition Debabrata Saikia said crimes against women had increased in the state after the BJP came to power. Verbal sparring ensued, and BJP lawmakers alleged that the main accused in the case Saikia was referring to was a Congress worker.
At that point, Congress staged a walkout, after which Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary announced the names of the accused in four rape cases and said they belonged to a minority religion. Responding to this, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) lawmaker Mamun Imdadul Haque Chawdhury said a criminal did not have any religion.
Another AIUDF member of the legislative assembly (MLA), Aminul Islam, said the names were being used to malign a particular community. Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that if a catalogue of those accused of rape during the last 10-12 years were compiled, “a pattern could be seen.”
The Deputy Speaker then rejected the adjournment motion and asked the state government to take urgent measures to prevent crimes against women.
Two MLAs with the ruling BJP, Mrinal Saikia and Shiladitya Dev, accused “illegal Bangladeshi” migrants of committing a majority of heinous crimes in the state.
“The numbers of rape cases registered are very high in districts that have higher numbers of these suspicious illegal Bangladeshi migrants. This shows these illegal Bangladeshis are the main cause behind the increasing crime against women in Assam,” said Saikia, an MLA from Khumtai.
It would be erroneous, however, to generalize that all crimes against women in Assam were being perpetrated by “illegal Bangladeshis.” In the four most recent incidences of rape, only two of the prime accused indeed belonged to a minority community.
Rashmi Rekha Bora, a well-known writer and women’s rights activist, while explaining the complex dynamics of rape and gender-based violence against women, has said that it would be wrong to suggest that a particular religion or a group of people are prone to committing crimes against women.
“It is obvious that the perpetrators don’t belong to the same race, caste, religion, or ethnic group,” she said. “A section of people, including the political leaders of Assam, are repeatedly targeting a particular group of people and branding them as criminals. This well-fabricated act of religious polarization is the outcome of hasty saffron politics which will increase communal differences in Assam.”
The “illegal Bangladeshi” issue has been used as a political weapon by many parties in Assam, including the Asom Gana Parishad. The BJP too is using this factor to its advantage by constantly pointing to a particular community as being perpetrators of crimes against women in the state. Many feel that the aim is to instill Islamophobia among the people, which will ultimately benefit the BJP in next year’s general elections.
The Indian National Congress too accused the BJP of politicizing the issue in the name of religion. Kishore Bhattacharya, senior Congress spokesman and general secretary of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, said in a phone conversation with this reporter: “Since the BJP government has failed to keep its development promises, this is its new election strategy, to instill a religious sentiment among the people and win over the vote bank in the upcoming panchayat [local] and Lok Sabha [lower house of the federal Parliament] elections.”
Rising incidences of crime
Crimes against women have indeed been on the rise in Assam since 2016. According to a report by the National Crime Bureau, Assam was second on the list of crimes against women in 2016. There were 20,869 cases of crimes against women that year. In February this year, Patowary told the assembly that 29,223 incidents of violence against women had been recorded in the state in the past two years.
In the past month, at least four such cases have been reported. On March 16, eight men waylaid a couple they had met on a local train on the pretext of helping them, and gang-raped the 35-year-old woman in a forest near Kampur, a town in Nagaon district. All eight were arrested the next day.
On March 23, a man and two boys gang-raped a Grade 5 pupil and burned her alive in the Lalunggaon area of the same district. The girl suffered burns to 95% of her body. Two of the accused were arrested the same day.
Also on March 23, a seven-year-old girl was lured to a tea garden with chocolates and raped by a man in Palashbari, Kamrup district.
On April 6, the body of a five-year-old who had been raped and murdered was found in a sack in Moran, Dibrugarh.
Mukesh Sahay, director general of Assam police, said: “The honorable chief minister has already taken these cases seriously. He’s also written to the honorable chief justice, who has directed the creation of a fast-track court to dispose of these cases. So investigations and trials are bound to improve.”
Rupam Goswami, spokesman and media convener of the Assam BJP unit, explained the spurt in crimes against women by saying that during the Congress party’s rule in the state, people hesitated to file cases with the police.
Praising the “good governance” of state Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, he said people were now coming out to fight against such atrocities, which could be seen in the rising number of such cases being recorded.
Pratyush Deep is a freelance writer based in Jorhat, Assam, and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.