Assam is not new to sectarian strife, but – going by the happenings of the last 10 days – few lessons have been learnt on how to prevent violence from feeding on itself and escalating. Migration from Bangladesh has long been one of the central emotive issues in Assam, and by the early 1980s, violence on an unprecedented scale engulfed the state. In that conflict, the protagonists were the Assamese and Bengali-speaking Muslims; the opponents in the next phase of strife were the Assamese and the Bodos — plains tribals, and the people originally indigenous to Assam. The Bodos waged a two-decade long movement for autonomy that culminated in the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council in 2002, which encompassed four districts. The latest conflict is between the Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims — and, again, questions are being raised and allegations are being made about illegal migration from what is now Bangladesh. This decades-old issue persists despite a strong regime of border policing now in place, which has led the Union government to categorically declare that large-scale and illegal cross-border migration is a thing of the past.
What has just happened in Assam is clearly a case of ethnic cleansing. Leaders of the Muslim communities in the area have openly spoken of “genocide” Bodo tribals — a “sinister” plan to oust the minorities from the land the Bodos claim as their own. Indeed, Bodo leaders are quite open about what they are up to, declaring that those who have fled to Dhubri – a district that borders the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts – should not return since that will lead to “lots of problems”. The rights of forest dwellers, as well as the way in which the fruits of development extracted from their lands have passed them by, have attracted significant support and sympathy across the country in recent years. But an attack on hard-working cultivators, who are mostly immigrants of second-generation stock at the least – and who form the backbone of Assam’s recent strong agricultural performance – cannot command much sympathy anywhere. It is important to note that the victims of Bodo assertion have not just been Bengalis: adivasis from mainland India, especially Santhals, living in the area since the days of the Raj have also been attacked beginning in the 1990s — many have been living in relief camps for years. The question of outsize illegal immigration from Bangladesh should also be tempered with facts. For one, according to Census data, the rate of population growth of Muslims in the area is not significantly different from that for Muslims in India, overall.
Land certainly lies at the root of the strife, but the role of politics and of the administration needs to be examined. The first signs of trouble began early in the month when six Muslims, including two student leaders, were attacked. This was followed by the killing of four former Bodo Liberation Tigers members. This should have set alarm bells ringing in an alert administration. Then, within the span of four days beginning July 20, violence spread rapidly. It was brought under control with the induction of the Army on July 24, by which time over 50 people had been killed. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has blamed the Army for delaying its deployment; Army spokesmen have said that the military’s policy now is to step into ethnic conflicts once authorised by New Delhi. Why the state government could not have received timely intelligence and acted with the help of central paramilitary forces is not clear. Assam’s government cannot afford to allow this violence to escalate further, and must ensure that cultivators are allowed to return to their homes and are provided with adequate security.