Assam, despite having a large presence of Muslims in the state, did not witness a single protest against the allegedly 'insulting' remarks made by two former BJP members a few weeks ago, against Prophet Mohammed.
Muslims form over 40 per cent of Assam’s estimated population of 3.45 crore, but not a single demonstration or protest was held anywhere in the state. Muslims are in a majority in 14 of the state’s 35 districts and in many of them, Muslims form an overwhelming majority of the population.
Yet, unlike neighbouring Bengal where the percentage of Muslims is significantly lower than Assam, there was no trouble in the northeastern state. In Bengal, Islamist mobs blocked highways, attacked police stations and railway station, looted and burnt shops belonging to Hindus, and damaged government and private vehicles for four days last week.
But peace prevailed in Assam. That’s because, unlike the Bengal state administration helmed by Mamata Banerjee, the Assam government took a number of proactive measures.
As soon as reports started coming in about Muslims staging violent protests in Uttar Pradesh and some other parts of the country, the Assam government initiated preemptive measures.
On Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s instructions, the police and civil administration officials in every district reached out to Muslim clerics and asked them to ensure that provocative speeches were not made in any mosque.
“Trouble generally breaks out when Muslim clerics incite congregations during the namaz (prayers). That’s why most disturbances break out after the Friday namaz. We tackled the issue at its roots and told the maulanas to be careful,” a senior police officer of Muslim-majority Dhubri district in lower Assam told Swarajya.
Another senior officer of the state home department told Swarajya that the clerics were told in no uncertain terms that they would be held responsible for any violation of the law by any member of their congregation.
“It was made clear to all Muslim organsiations, including the Imams Association and even Muslim welfare bodies, that no demonstrations against the alleged remarks made by the BJP spokespersons a few weeks ago would be allowed anywhere in the state,” said the home department officer.
A few Muslim leaders requested the state administration to allow token protests.
“The stern message against demonstrations were conveyed to all Muslim politicians as well. A few of them then requested us to allow a small procession in Guwahati or a major city where the processionists would march peacefully without shouting any slogans and submit a memorandum to a senior officer. But the answer was a firm ‘no’. We made it very clear that no protests whatsoever would be allowed,” the officer added.
Chief Minister Sarma also asked his ministers and MLAs to reach out to Muslim politicians with the message that even a mild show of protest can turn unruly. “It (protests turning violent) had happened in the past and Muslim leaders were told that they would be held responsible and booked under stringent provisions of the law in case any trouble breaks out this time,” said a BJP legislator.
The state government also upped its intelligence-gathering machinery and vigil was heightened at Muslim-dominated parts of the state. Thus, when intelligence reports about a couple of rallies being planned in the Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts--Muslims form nearly 40 per cent of the population in Cachar and are in a majority in Karimganj and Hailakandi--was received, the district administration moved swiftly to impose prohibitory orders and ban all rallies.
“We also told Muslim community leaders and prominent clerics that we will crack down very severely against anyone who violates the prohibitory orders and tries to hold even a small demonstration. We also told the clerics that anyone found to be inciting people and urging them to hold protests would be jailed,” said Cachar additional district magistrate Dipak Jidung.
The senior home department officer said that imams and maulanas all over the state were told that sermons delivered in masjids would be strictly monitored and any incitement or provocative sermons would be dealt with harshly. They were told violators would be tried under very strong laws that include long jail terms.
The strong message achieved results. Even hardcore Muslim bodies like the Assam State Jamiat Ulama (ASJU) fell in line. AJSU president Maulana Mustak Anfar publicly asked the state government to maintain vigil while appealing to Muslims to maintain peace.
What also worked was that unlike in the past, non-Muslims organisations, including civil society bodies, did not jump into the fray. That’s because the state government learnt its lessons from the 2019-2020 violent anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests that rocked Assam and claimed some lives.
At that time, many organisations in the forefront of the anti-CAA protests had co-opted Muslim bodies and organised joint protests and dharnas. But many of those protests turned violent and some led to a lot of damage to government and private properties.
The perpetrators of the violent acts were identified to be Islamists. The attack by Muslim youth on the revered Sankardev Kalakshetra--a religious-cultural centre--in Guwahati made many non-Muslim bodies wary of associating themselves with Islamic organisations.
The state administration told these non-Muslim organisations, including some smaller political parties, that they would also be held responsible if they associate with Muslim organisations which violate the law.
The warnings and threat of strong punitive measures worked. More so since potential trouble-makers harboured no doubts over the resolve of the no-nonsense chief minister to take strong action against them. In the past, too, Himanta Biswa Sarma had not shied away from taking strong punitive measures against law violators.
Sarma’s reputation, thus, stood Assam in good stead. And while many parts of Bengal was wracked by Islamist violence, neighbouring Assam remained perfectly calm.
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