On the evening of November 1, a group of armed men in green fatigues approached people sitting at a grocery shop in Kherbari in the Dhola region in Assam. Five men were told to go down to the riverbank, then lined up and shot at close range.

The killing of the five Bengalis by the yet-to-be-identified gunmen has sparked a serious debate in the northeast Indian state and lit the flames of Assamese nationalism.

In June, the lynching of Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath in Karbi Anglong district stirred intense discussion in the state. The Karbi tribe, where most of the perpetrators of that lynching came from, was accused by a large section of Assamese society as unruly and “uncivilized.” Provocative statements about seeking revenge for the slaying of the youths filled the air. Sharp social boundaries and the nature of being an Assamese citizen became evident amid these reactions.

Similarly, the Dhola murders brought back memories of the dozens of secret killings that took place in Assam between 1998 and 2001, which saw members of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), their families and even sympathizers eliminated. The Justice (Retd) KN Saikia Commission, appointed by the Assam government in 2005 to inquire into the secret killings, found the 35 cases he probed were pregnant with “conspiracy.”

Now, the latest murders have been pinned on militants from the ULFA. But with the ULFA (Independent) denying any role, plus rapid disposal of the bodies and circumstances of the killings have made the case murkier. The group’s denial opens up a host of possibilities, suggesting possible involvement of a “deep state” agency or even an act of provocation.

The killings of Ananta Biswas, Abhinash Biswas, Shyamlal Biswas, Subal Das and Dhananjay Namasudra on November 1, like the earlier lynching case, generated grief among a section of Assamese society. Many came out publicly condemning such brutal slayings. In the past, similar killings in the region didn’t receive such public criticism.

Assamese vs Bengalis

The latest event has also sharpened social divides. Since the victims were all of Bengali origin, the issue was turned into a conflict between two linguistic groups in the state – the Assamese and Bengalis. The rift created by the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which would open the door to illegal migrants from certain minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan being eligible for Indian citizenship, has also fueled the Assamese-Bengali divide.

There were also provocative remarks made by pro-talks ULFA leaders like Mrinal Hazarika and Jiten Dutta, who threatened Bengali Hindus if they support the bill. They were later detained in connection with the Dhola killings.

The Dhola killings also generated certain symbols of being Assamese. One of the consistent symbols of Assamese nationalism is the sword of the Ahoms military personnel used during battles. The swords, known as hengdang, became a significant symbol of Assamese nationalism. It implied valor and victory, and in many ways, completes the image of Lachit Borphukan – the Ahom general who defeated the Mughals and now appropriated by right-wing groups as a protector of Assamese Hindus from invading Muslim Mughals.

The symbol of the sword is invoked on occasions when Assamese identity, as imagined by upper-caste Assamese from the Brahmaputra valley, is questioned. This has been criticized as a chauvinist cultural insurgency which suppresses heterogeneity and is a mainstay in the public sphere in contemporary Assam.

A protest against the Dhola killings called by the All Assam Bengali Federation on November 2 in Tinsukia district took a violent turn. Locals in Tinsukia attacked some of the protesters and beat them with bamboo rods. In Lanka too, two Assamese women kept their shop open arguing against a mob of 50 and wielding bhaluka bamboo to defy the mob. The Chinese-origin bamboo shortly became a marker of Assamese defending themselves from the “Bengalis.”

Linguistic identity

Language is another key cultural facet. The remarks of minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma that the victims of the Dhola killings and their families “speak fluent Assamese” and “their children are studying in Assamese medium” schools shows the importance of language. His remarks reflect the dark underside of Assamese nationalism entwined with linguistics.

This linguistic chauvinism has also been blamed for driving many suicides that occurred after publication of the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC), which rendered many of the state’s people as non-citizens.

The fear instilled by a narrow vision of belonging and culture has become a suffocating social facet of life in Assam. It has also led to forced conversions of many Bengali families into Assamese. The brave reportage of Nirupama Borgohain decades ago of refugee camps at Nalbari, Mukalmau, Neherbari, and Rangafali stand testimony to such conversions.

The sandbars of Assam have always been stained with blood and the killing in Kherbari is an outcome of hatred cultivated for decades.