Click here to EnlargeIn the first week of September, a video released by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the launch of a new group called Qaedat al-Jihad to wage jihad in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar and establish a new caliphate in the region. If that was not enough to,Click here to EnlargeIn the first week of September, a video released by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the launch of a new group called Qaedat al-Jihad to wage jihad in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar and establish a new caliphate in the region. If that was not enough to jolt security agencies in the country, Zawahiri named Kashmir, Gujarat-and surprisingly- Assam, as the focus of future al Qaeda activities.Initially, the mention of Assam created a stir across the state. But as the news was absorbed, analysed and put in perspective, the import of the threat facing the state, that has been roiled by ethnic and insurgent violence for decades, began to dawn.Nearly 160 people have been killed in Assam in the last three years between Muslims alleged to be infiltrators from Bangladesh and non-Muslims or “indigenous people”, as they are referred to. Eighty per cent of the 160 victims were Muslims. Fifty Muslims were killed this year alone, in fact all of them in May by National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) militants for apparently supporting a non-Bodo candidate in the Lok Sabha polls. The violence, observers say, is a manifestation of a deeper realignment of identities in the traditionally troubled state-an ongoing upheaval which is witnessing all fragmented non-Muslim communities coming under a pan-Hindu umbrella seeking strength in numbers.Alarmingly, the realignment is playing into the hands of political forces looking for new openings to push their cause in the state and tensions are getting further stoked in a cycle where the line between cause and effect is getting erased. Zawahiri’s announcement, as a result, fell right into this pattern.advertisementBodies of victims killed in bodo-Muslim violence in Khagrabari,200 km from Guwahati, in MayThe BJP, which hopes to win the 2016 Assembly polls riding on the most communally provocative issue in Assam- the threat to the existence of locals from illegal Muslim Bangladeshi infiltrators-latched on to it and not unexpectedly. “The video proves what every person in Assam has been experiencing for decades. There is a design to turn Assam into an Islamic state and illegal Muslims are their playing fields,” says Bijon Mahajan, a senior Assam BJP spokesperson.The BJP has reason to raise temperatures, observers say. The party won seven Lok Sabha seats this summer, its best tally in the state, and the party’s then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi thundering in April that all Bangladeshi Muslims would be driven out after the party comes to power is seen as a key contributing factor. And unlike in other parts of the country where polarisation had little impact on the bypolls this month, the BJP performed better than expected in Assam. It snatched the Silchar seat from Congress and significantly increased its votes in Jamunamukh and Lakhipur, both Muslim-dominated areas. In fact, it came second in Jamunamukh, the home turf of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal. Political experts say the BJP did not need to work too hard as there has always been a strong undercurrent of xenophobia against immigrant Muslims in the state.Badruddin Ajmal”The Muslim votes, both in Lakhipur and Jamunamukh, got divided between the Congress and the AIUDF while Hindus stood united behind the BJP. The growth and success of AIUDF, which represents in-your-face minority politics, has brought together non-Muslims in Assam divided along the lines of ethnicity and language,” says Nani Gopal Mahanta, associate professor, Gauhati University. That’s also the reason why Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi could not salvage his party in Silchar even after announcing Bangla as the official language in the Barak Valley ostensibly to woo the Hindu Bengali voters. In 2011, Gogoi won Barak Valley for the Congress by announcing refugee status to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, a plot hijacked by Modi in 2014.This sense of a threat from Islamist aggression coupled with a silent and systematic mission for Hindu resurgence, has turned Assam into a perfect laboratory for communally divisive politics. Assam’s location is strategically significant to Islamist terror groups as it shares a porous border with Bangladesh. “This is not a threat to Assam; it’s a national security issue.Once they cross over to Assam, miscreants can spread across the country,” says a top Special Branch officer. Political observers believe that Assam has turned into a fertile breeding ground for Islamist terror because of the rising Muslim population in certain districts, specially along the Bangladesh border, the economic backwardness of Muslims in lower Assam and violence against alleged illegal immigrants. And with assembly elections 20 months away, the battle lines are drawn.advertisementThe BJP is aiming to bring together Assamese caste Hindus, other non-Muslim communities and tribes under one platform against the common enemy-the “illegal Muslim immigrants”. The action plan for ‘Mission 84′- a three-fourth majority in the 126-seat Assam Assembly-is ready with illegal influx as the fulcrum. The BJP is also working on a strategy to engage tribal groups in the state and the Union Government is planning to give Scheduled Tribe status to six more communities, a move that would take the tribal population in the state to 40 per cent, besides consolidating BJP votes among tribals. The party plans to project Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, a tribal, as the next chief minister.Sarbananda Sonowal”This issue affects every indigenous person of Assam because it will change the demography of the state forever. There is no place for illegal Muslims from Bangladesh in the state. We have to finish the unfinished agenda of the Assam agitation. Our Prime Minister has made it crystal clear,” says BJP poll in-charge for Assam, Sudhanshu Mittal. Unlike the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) which led the Assam agitation in the 1980s, the BJP’s rhetoric is unambiguously aimed at Muslim infiltrators. Although not included in election speeches yet, the BJP is “softlaunching” its ‘Love Jihad’ campaign in Assam. “It’s a fact. Look at the number of women kidnapped in certain areas of Assam,” says a top Assam BJP leader who did not want to be identified. BJP leaders are also indulging in loose and dangerous talk about sex crimes targeting Hindu women in the state. This year, Assam has also witnessed a spate of incidents of meat being thrown at temples.Rumours of beef being discovered in a Narasimha temple in Silchar created tension, leading to clashes where at least 30 people, including the superintendent of police (SP) and six policemen, were injured. “This was just a rumour fuelled by some anti-social elements. Nothing actually happened in that temple,” says Diganta Bora, SP, Cachar.Similar incidents were reported from Dhubri and Dhing in Nagaon district around the same time. “There was no reaction in Dhubri as the Hindu population is minuscule but in Dhing there was tension. We later arrested some local youth who indiscriminately threw mutton bones after a drunken revelry,” says an IGP of Assam Police.RSS leader Uma Shankar Goswami, based in Hojai in the same district, however, refuses to buy the police theory and claims local madrasas are the hub of all anti-social elements and illegal weapons. More than 70 per cent of Hojai’s population is Muslim and it is also the hometown of perfume-baronturned politician Badruddin Ajmal, who runs several schools, madrasas and hospitals in the region. It also houses one of the biggest centres of RSS which conducts examinations for pracharaks in the Northeast. “It was a well-designed plot and it hasn’t happened for the first time. The local media has started reporting these incidents now,” says Goswami, who claims that the RSS is working silently and at the grassroots level to awaken the sense of religious identity among Hindus.advertisementIn fact, the success of BJP’s ‘Mission 84’ depends on the groundwork of the RSS which was behind the saffron sentiment making inroads into Assam’s tea gardens. The party has already started enrolling new members and training them at district headquarters in the core principles of the BJP.But it is not as if the polarisation is one-sided. On September 9, during an assembly bypoll rally in Jamunamukh, Sirajuddin Ajmal, Barpeta Lok Sabha MP and brother of Badruddin, announced that the AIUDF chief would be the next CM of Assam. Sirajuddin’s statement was prompted by the growing base of AIUDF, which was founded in 2005 by Ajmal and has since projected itself as the saviour of Muslims. The largest opposition party in the Assembly is now expecting at least 35 seats in 2016 and hopes to be the kingmaker. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls it won three seats, the same as Congress, up from one in 2009.Ajmal, however, refuses to directly take on the BJP’s aggressive campaign against Muslim infiltrators, a vote bank that is increasingly shifting from the Congress to the AIUDF. “We support that anyone who entered Assam after March 25, 1971, decided by the 1985 Assam Accord as the cut-off year for detection of illegal immigrants, must be thrown out of India. Many organisations are creating panic among minority communities in Assam raising this issue of illegal influx. Let’s decide once and for all the actual number of Bangladeshis in Assam,” says Ajmal. He even goes a step further to warn al Qaeda’s Zawahiri to stay away from Assam. “They are not jihadis, they are terrorists. Assam’s Muslims are mature enough. We don’t need al Qaeda support to protect ourselves,” says Ajmal.But not all Muslims are assured. Ashiq Zaman, an IRS officer who runs an NGO called Muslim Youths Forum Against Communalism, Terrorism and Sedition recounts an incident during a visit to a relief camp of Muslim victims rendered homeless in 2012 in the Bodoland violence. “We went there to distribute clothes and books. Many youngsters asked if I could provide them with guns. These camps are the most fertile ground for spread of Islamist terrorism,” says Zaman.Some security officials and representatives of public interest NGOs fear a spike in violence before the assembly elections as militants who have signed ceasefire agreements with the government and are living in 22 camps across the state could be used as mercenaries by political groups. The Congress, crippled by the lacklustre performance of CM Gogoi, has joined issue and is further fanning tensions. “On April 1, immediately after Narendra Modi’s rally in Biswanath Chariali, a local BJP leader, Bhavdev Goswami, told a TV channel that BJP had the support of NDFB rebels. I’m sure the party will now use other terror outfits to execute its communal agenda in the state,” Congress MLA from Roha, Piyush Hazarika, told INDIA TODAY.Over the next 20 months, this blame game is expected to run along a track parallel to the tensions and violence. And religious insecurities could become the primary platform to win votes in what is becoming a communal cauldron. But the dread goes far beyond politics and is already spilling over to damage the social fabric of Assam.The fear of being outnumbered has created communal tension in the most cosmopolitan city of the state, Guwahati. IRS officer Ashiq Zaman, who hails from Goalpara, was refused a house on rent in Guwahati because he is a Muslim.TISS student Abul Kalam Azad recounts how he too had a harrowing time renting a house in Guwahati and when he finally found one, the landlord sternly warned him against consuming beef at home. In 2012, a Dhing college lecturer, who is into archaeological research, and his photographer friend from Delhi were held captive by Muslim villagers for three days when they went on a field visit to Vaishnavite saint Shankardev’s birthplace in Bordowa in Nagaon district.Their captors, suspected to be illegal immigrants, thought the duo was collecting evidence against them. They were eventually rescued by the police. Locals say these are not isolated incidents. And therein lies a larger threat to Assam, where religious intolerance could become the new dimension to further divide an already heterogeneous society and spill more blood.Follow the writer on Twitter @KDscribeTo read more, get your copy of India Today here.