“Who are the people who have increased the prices of vegetables now?” Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of the northeast Indian state of Assam asked rhetorically when speaking to reporters about the surging cost of vegetables in state capital Guwahati — and indeed, around India.
Sarma then answered his own question with a straight-faced lie. “It is Miya sellers who are selling vegetables at higher rates,” he claimed, referring to Assam’s Bengali-speaking Muslims, who have lived in the state for generations but are accused by Sarma’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu right-wing ideological allies of being illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
“If Assamese sellers had been selling vegetables today, they would never have charged more from their fellow Assamese,” the chief minister emphasised.
It is of course the El Nino weather phenomenon, causing droughts in some places and floods in others, that scientists have blamed for disruptions in food production, and spikes in vegetable prices across India.
And there is of course no evidence of Miya Muslims — or any other community — artificially hiking prices.
Yet as outlandish as Sarma’s claim was, it was in keeping with a string of increasingly bizarre and unsubstantiated but conspiratorial and dangerous allegations that he has laid at the doorstep of a community that has long been othered in Assam. And it’s part of a broader pattern of villainising Muslims across India ahead of 2024’s national elections — though, in Assam, the roots of this bigotry run deeper than the relatively recent rise of the BJP.
To understand just how dangerous such rhetoric can be, remember that exactly 100 years ago, in 1923, Jews in Germany — who were a dominant force in business and finance — were blamed for the hyperinflation that led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. That sentiment allowed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
If the Jews weren’t “German” in the eyes of the Nazis, Miya Muslims aren’t “Assamese”, according to Sarma. In the same conversation with reporters in which he blamed them for inflation, the chief minister reportedly also accused Miya Muslims – who run many of the vegetable markets under Guwahati’s flyovers — of taking away Assamese jobs.
He promised to clear the markets and ensure that “Assamese boys” could get employment opportunities. Only recently he blamed Miya Muslims for destroying the soil of Assam by using chemical fertilisers. He called it “fertiliser jihad” — again, an absurd but dangerous claim.
What Sarma is telling Assamese Hindus is that Miya Muslims — who constitute 30 percent of the state’s population — not only control their lives, but are destroying the state. That they need to be driven away if the “true” Assamese people are to get what belongs to them. And that Sarma is their liberator.
A central part of that campaign has involved the use of bulldozers to demolish homes and evict Miya Muslims. Families have been left homeless with children, their toys ruthlessly crushed under the wheels of giant machines.
The message is clear: Miya Muslims have no claim over the natural or public resources of Assam.
They are similarly being denied any claim to the culture or history of Assam. When a local Miya Muslim community group set up a museum last year, Sarma had it shuttered, claiming that apart from the “lungi” — a cloth used as a wrap — there was nothing that the community could claim as its own.
From threatening a ban on madrassas in Assam to special birth control policies for Muslims, Sarma — a relatively new entrant to the BJP — has left other leaders’ parties far behind in the race for vile Islamophobia.
He does not believe in dog whistles or innuendo. There is no ambiguity about his violent, anti-Muslim political and cultural project.
And while the national climate under the BJP has enabled Sarma’s politics, Assamese nationalism has a long history — dating back to the early decades of the 19th century — of hate for the perceived “outsider”.
In recent decades, it became socially acceptable to hate Miya Muslims as “Bangladeshis”, “migrants” or “outsiders”. In 2019, the publication of Miya poetry that spoke of the xenophobia the community faces drew criticism from many in the state — including from liberal and Marxist intellectuals — underscoring just how deep Assamese nationalism has seeped into the state’s language and culture. Such vernacular violence often remains hidden, but is a critical tool in othering people.
Sarma is now taking the state’s polarisation to new depths. Words have consequences. People have been killed in the eviction drive he has overseen.
The wider public in India and the world remains largely unaware of all of this. That needs to change now.
Sarma has already turned the state’s Bengali-speaking Assamese population into “non-people”. Now even vegetables are weapons of bigotry in his hands.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.