Violence and history appear to be repeating themselves in Assam, perhaps because key protagonists have not learnt the right lessons from past turmoil. The latest violence in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts has claimed more than 30 lives; similar violence involving the same protagonists, sections of Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims, felled over a hundred two years ago. The latest violence is an eerie reminder of the Nellie massacre in Assam three decades ago. The 1983 carnage in which thousands died was the fallout of the just-concluded state Assembly elections there. The most credible reason for that violence was that those opposed to Bengali Muslims wanted to teach them a lesson for having voted in the elections that brought the Congress to power.
Similarly, the latest violence is being attributed to the ire of some Bodos who feel Bengali Muslims had not voted for the candidate of the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) in the parliamentary elections late last month for the Kokrajhar constituency, which lies at the heart of Bodo territory. If the BPF candidate loses to a non-Bodo, then the case for a separate state of Bodoland will be weakened - especially since Bodos are apparently a numerical minority in those areas. The killings were initially attributed to a militant outfit, which later disowned responsibility. The provocative public comments by a BPF MLA are now being seen as the trigger for the violence. The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's campaigning pitch against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is also being similarly scrutinised. The BPF has been an ally of the ruling Congress, led by three-term Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in Assam. However, it has recently announced support for the BJP, as have several other Bodo political fronts.
The administration in Assam appears unable to prevent periodic large-scale violence despite decades of progress in technology (telecommunications) and infrastructure (roads), enabling quick deployment of law enforcement agencies. In 2012 the army was blamed, including by Mr Gogoi, for taking too long to come out. Quicker administrative action this time may have contained the violence, but the initial spurt was bad enough. The causes of violence remain deep and the writ of legitimate politics remains limited. The Congress does not need its alliance with the BPF to stay in power in Guwahati; and since the BPF has jumped ship, its serving ministers could be removed from the state Cabinet. Earlier violence, in which Assamese speakers were pitched against Bengali-speaking Muslims, has now abated. With this, the fortunes of the Asom Gana Parishad too have declined. The BJP and various Bodo parties are aligned to take advantage of the newer fault lines. Numbers and elections matter when original inhabitants - the Bodos who are plains tribals and the earliest settlers of Assam - feel they are being swamped. On the other hand, Muslims of Bengali stock, the vast majority of whom have been living there for generations, justifiably complain they are unable to lead a normal life without fear. Since any significant illegal migration from Bangladesh is a thing of the past, those behind the recent violence are waging a war against what happened earlier - against a reality that will not go away. Those who led the Assam agitation realised this, and ended it. Until Bodo militants do so, the government of the day should do its minimum duty and protect lives and property.