It is typical of state governments to tuck away a simmering ethnic or religious problem under the carpet to tide over an immediate crisis and conveniently forget about it until it surfaces again in a virulent form. Rarely is the root of a problem attacked and it is not often that lessons are imbibed.
The current trouble between the indigenous Assamese as represented by the Bodos and the migrants from West Bengal and Bangladesh who are predominantly Muslim owes its origin to mistrust between them which has persisted and grown over the years. As so often in other instances, the root of the conflict is economic as the local population feels it is being robbed of land, jobs and resources by outside elements who have the covert backing of vested interests in the political spectrum who look upon them as a vote-bank that can be exploited to garner votes.
The Tarun Gogoi government’s response to the killing of scores of people and the plight of the fleeing refugees now lodged in relief camps is no less predictable. His blaming the media over ‘exaggerated’ reports and his claim that it is hogwash to say that Assam is burning when only four districts are affected by violence reflect an effort to play down the seriousness of it. There is a perceptible lack of will to deal with the schism from its basic roots. What Gogoi has left unsaid is that the four districts in question account for 35 per cent of the state’s total area. So apathetic was Gogoi to the plight of the hapless poor that he visited the affected areas a full week after the killings occurred.
There is indeed an uncanny similarity between the clash of the two communities in 2008 and the one this time around. In 2008, the violence was sparked off by the attack on a Bodo youth soon after two Bodo youth were killed after they refused to take part in a bandh called by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union. The real issue, however, was the enormous pressure on agriculture land, one of the vital means of livelihood for indigenous communities, with the migration of immigrant Muslims to the affected districts of Darrang and Udalguri. The resultant clashes took 55 lives and injured 111 while forcing 2,00,000 people to take shelter in 82 relief camps.
This time, violence erupted after four Bodos were hacked to death in a Muslim-dominated area in Kokrajhar district. It quickly spread to neighbouring Dhubri district after a bandh was called by the AAMSU in the Bodo Territorial Area districts thereafter. Consequently, nearly 50 people have been killed so far and 2,00,000 people have fled to relief camps in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri districts. Overall, 400 villages have been targeted with arson and violence. Train services between the Northeast and the rest of India have been halted as the affected districts in Assam are the only existing land link between Assam and the other states of India.
Both in 2008 and this time, the Army was called in and the violence died down as people gave in due to of fear of authority. This time too the cause of the violence was land ownership and predictably, there will once again be no serious effort to address the land issue. The failure of the state to protect people’s land from illegal occupation is one of the primary reasons for such heightened insecurity over land holdings.
There were tell-tale signs that the schism between the indigenous Assamese and the migrant Muslims had grown to alarming proportions when recently, the 33-year-old Congress MLA, Rumi Nath was brutally thrashed by a 100-strong mob at the hotel where she was staying at Karimganj. The legislator was punished for allegedly leaving her first husband and two-year-old daughter and eloping and marrying a 28-year-old Muslim, Zakir Hussain, after converting to Islam.
After the ruthless flogging, Rumi Nath, who was pregnant, was seen bleeding profusely along with her second husband. The inaction of the police until 12 hours after the ghastly act was even worse. Even Rumi’s security personnel were not spared the mob’s ire.
There can be little hope of any effort by the Tarun Gogoi government to address the deep chasm between the Hindus and Muslims when the chief minister issues a public statement that there is not a single illegal Bangladeshi immigrant in Assam. It is indeed foolhardy to deny the basis of the growing fear of the indigenous Bodo community of being swamped by illegal Bangladeshi migrants. The issue is further fuelled by the existence of Bodo armed groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
Both the central and state governments have failed to check the flow of illegal migrants, update the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC), arrest arms traffickers, and deal with armed movements in the Northeast. Some of this has to do with lack of will to deliver on this due to the immigrants being an important vote-bank. It is this disregard of national interest at the altar of vote-gathering that has made the people deeply suspicious of political parties and politicians in general.
In fact, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration and a covert move to legalise it had been first been noticed in Mangaldoi in Darrang district in a Lok Sabha by-election in 1978 when around 45,000 illegal migrants’ names were found on the voter’s list. The first strike against this began on June 8, 1979 resulting in the massive All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) led ‘Assam agitation’ against illegal Bangladeshi migration from 1979 to 1985. During that agitation, violence against Muslim immigrants continued, with the 1983 Nellie massacre being the worst with over 2,000 Muslim migrants massacred in a single day. Many other districts joined in. It was then decided that the fence along the India-Bangladesh border would be completed on a war footing — 27 years after signing the Assam Accord, it has not been fully fenced.
Significantly, between 1961 and 1971 the proportion of Assamese declined for the first time and that of Bengali-speaking people increased; between 1971 and 1981 itself, as many as 1.2 million migrants were added to a population of 14.6 million in 1971. Moreover, the number of registered voters increased dramatically from 6.5 million in 1972 to 8.7 million in 1979.
It is time the central and state governments realise that with migration from Bangladesh going on unabated and the ethnic communities losing out on land, jobs and resources, Assam will continue to be exposed to ethnic clashes, armed violence and communal tension. History will rue the days when the politicians ruined the future of a fine state due to insensitivity that suited the ruling dispensations.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author.