No more fundamentalism
Assam’s Muslims refuse to be shackled by the pernicious politics of limited identities
Mohammad Baharul Islam, 62, the headman of Saniadi, 40 km west of Guwahati in Hajo sub-division, limps. He was injured in a blast at the village square in 1984. “We were punished because we voted for the Congress while the rest of Assam boycotted the polls. Nobody knows who was behind that blast,” he says. Sitting at the local primary school, Islam and a group of elders ponder outcomes of the Lok Sabha polls. They are disillusioned with politicians and refuse to be wooed on the basis of their religious identity.
“If you have come here thinking that we would demand restoration of Babri Masjid or more mosques and madrasas, you are wrong. I don’t care what happens to Babri Masjid; all I need is that when I go to an office, I must get my work done quickly and without paying a bribe,” says Akmat Ali Talukdar, 55, a teacher. “Instead of madrasas, we need better schools and opportunities for our children,” adds Fatima Begum, 51, a teacher. This is the general sentiment in Saniadi, a village of some 6,000 people, half of them Bengali-speaking Muslims, 30 per cent Assamese-speaking Muslims and the rest Hindus. The village is proud of Mazibar Rahman, 38, who topped the madrasa examination in 1992 but now advocates English-medium education. “Just because I studied in a madrasa doesn’t mean I would grow a beard and wear kurta-pyjama. That’s stereotyping, often helped by media. The problem is in the madrasa curriculum which fails to keep pace with demands of the modern world,” says Rahman, now an IT consultant with TCS.
It’s stereotyping that agitates most people in Saniadi. “We live in Assam, not Afghanistan,” says Abdur Rahman, 62, a retired teacher. “We have our own culture. If some idiot bans cell phones for women, that’s his problem. My wife uses a mobile phone.” No wonder then that Arzina Ahmed, 30, a cooperative junior inspector, or Marjina Akhtar, 40, a housewife, don’t identify with the image of a burqa-clad woman. “I feel scared at public places but not because I am Muslim. Men are badly behaved in India,” says Arzina.
Saniadi’s Muslims say they’re not scared of BJP coming to power. “BJP was in power from 1999 to 2004. We were not harmed,” says Rupchand Ali, 61, a teacher. He’s echoed by Imran Hussain, 21, an MTech student at Guwahati who is home to see his parents: “BJP started several development projects of which the Congress is now reaping the benefits.”
The opinion over Rahul Gandhi and Modi is divided, but Saniadi’s residents are unanimous in their demands from the next government— better educational institutes, roads and public transport, a modern hospital, reform and vigilance in PDS system, more government support for farmers and employment opportunities for youngsters. Islam, a Congress loyalist, says this time he will back Modi over Rahul because “he talks about development and issues that concern us”.
“I don’t care what happens to Babri Masjid. I must get my work done quickly without paying a bribe.” AKMAT ALI TALUKDAR