Romance Leads to Communal Hatred in Assam, India

Monday, January 23, 2006

Homes destroyed, court cases pending as a community is divided along religious lines.

by Vijayesh Lal

NEW DELHI, January 23 (Compass) – At this time last year, Noor Jehan Ahmed, 55, lived peacefully in the village of Nagaon, in the northeastern state of Assam. She and her extended household of 29 people formed their own Christian enclave within the majority-Muslim community.

Then someone falsely accused the Christian grandmother of forced conversion – her family was shattered and she spent two months in prison.

Ahmed is not your ordinary grandmother. “I’m the local general secretary of the Congress Party,” she proudly told Compass while still in prison last year. “When I get out of here I will personally go to Sonia Ji [Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi] and let her know of my troubles.”

When Ahmed became a Christian several years ago, many others in her family also turned to Christ. Ahmed and her son-in-law were baptized and made a public declaration of their newfound faith.

Mufizzal Haque, the leader of the Muslim community in Nagaon, and Ahmed differed on many things – especially religion. So when Haque’s daughter fell in love with a young Christian man, Haque hatched a conspiracy against Ahmed that still reverberates in the community almost a year later.

The Nightmare Begins

In April last year, a mission from Guwahati organized two meetings for Muslim-background believers in that city. Ahmed attended with several family members.

The first meeting from March 30 to April 2 took place without incident. Then Firuza Begum, a friend of Ahmed’s, said she desperately wanted to attend the second meeting on April 8-16. Begum had never shown any interest in Jesus Christ, and Ahmed tried to discourage her – but Begum and her husband insisted.

On April 9, however, Begum said she had to go home. Her son had apparently phoned saying her husband was in poor health. The organizers waved her goodbye in good faith, even providing money for the three-hour train trip back to Nagaon.

Begum left at 3:20 in the afternoon. At 5 p.m., Ahmed’s husband called in a state of panic. Community leaders were questioning him about the meetings in Guwahati, accusing the Ahmed family of forced conversions. They threatened him with grave consequences if Ahmed did not return immediately and seek forgiveness at the mosque.

Eyewitnesses had seen Begum arrive home and disappear into Haque’s house. The following day, Begum registered a complaint against Ahmed, accusing her of forced conversion. She accused Ahmed’s family of keeping her confined against her wishes for “many days in a hidden place.”

Haque and his colleagues videotaped Begum holding a copy of the Bible in Urdu and a New Testament in the Assamese language. They also contacted Ahmed’s friends and asked them to display Christian books they had received at the first meeting in Guwahati. The video footage was later distributed throughout Nagaon as “proof” that Ahmed was engaged in forced conversions.

Police officers intercepted Ahmed and other family members on their way back to Nagaon and asked them to make statements.

A Mob Gathers

As soon as they reached Nagaon, announcements blared from the local mosque encouraging Muslim villagers to “teach a lesson to the kafirs (infidels) who have just entered town and are at the police station.”

A huge mob then surrounded the police station, demanding that Ahmed and other family members be handed over so the crowd could stone them to death. When police refused, the mob began stoning the police station. Police resorted to firing blanks to disperse the mob.

Moments later, another message on the mosque loudspeakers encouraged the mob to demolish Christian homes. The Muslims of Nagaon went on a rampage, burning all seven Christian homes in the village and beating their inhabitants.

“It all happened very suddenly,” said Shamin Ahmed, describing the violence. “A huge crowd came. We could only run for our lives with the clothes we were wearing. Everything else was destroyed.”

In the chaos, husbands were separated from wives and children from their parents. Most fled the area, and some were still in hiding months after the attack.

Moreover, the police arrested Ahmed and her daughter-in-law Rehana Begum. They were presented before a magistrate and charged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code for “maliciously insulting” the religious beliefs of others. Bail was rejected.

Ahmed’s grandson was arrested a few days later, on April 16, but was released on bail.

The accusers did not present court documents until May, leaving Ahmed and her daughter-in-law behind bars. A long series of postponements by the court followed, until finally the victims approached the High Court in Guwahati and were granted bail on May 31, with expenses amounting to 25,000 rupees (US$565).

Today, Ahmed and her daughter-in-law are out of jail, but the case against them is still pending, as is the case against Muslim villagers who burned down their homes. None of the homes have been rebuilt; Ahmed and her family still live in temporary accommodation.

A few days after the incident, Haque’s daughter tried to commit suicide. The attempt failed, thankfully – but the community no longer sympathizes with her father.

A once close-knit community – like thousands of others torn apart by communal hatred – now lives in strained proximity.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct