Making sense of the riots in Assam, India

The recent riots in the northeastern state of Assam between Bodo tribespeople and ethnic Bengali Muslims are creating a dangerous situation for the central government of India. There might be various solutions to this recurring conflict in Assam, but we must understand that at heart this is not a Hindu-Muslim conflict.

Ibu Sanjeeb Garg
30 August 2012

The state of Assam lies on the eastern frontier of India. Often considered the “Gateway of the Northeast,” it is seen as a lynchpin of India's new, eastward-looking foreign policy. However, this eastern region of India has historically been a cauldron of trouble. The month of July saw renewed violence and riots in Assam. The resurgent violence in this part of India has dominated the discourse within political circles (for prior analysis of media coverage see, the media and intellectuals, not to mention the average Indian. The media carried reports and pictures of the horrible carnage that took place. The fact that Kokrajhar is a vital link between the Northeast and the rest of India has exacerbated the tensions and ensuing violence. We need to understand what the underlying issues behind this conflict are. The surrounding debates often seem to conclude with a statement about  “illegal immigrants” or "Hindu versus Muslim" tensions (which is very much a misnomer).

Let us start with the Hindu-Muslim discourse. The Bodos are a tribal society whose people have converted to Hinduism and later to Christianity over a period of time. They are a holistic, pluralistic society; they are not a single, colourful banner of Hindu unity as many perceive them to be. In fact, the internal war and split between the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in the early 1990s had a stronger religious dimension to it. There were no Bodos waging war to save Hinduism.

The Assamese Muslim society, like others elsewhere, is not a monolithic structure either. It has its own internal divisions between miyas, goalporais, khilonjias, etc. In India, riots have that historically targeted Muslims create a situation whereby the entire country remains tense. For example, whenever riots occur in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Muslims everywhere in the country become cautious. The situation is different in Assam. The Khilonjias in other parts of the country were not harassed and they were not tense. They knew this was not at heart a Hindu-Muslim conflict, despite how the media and a section of communalists on both sides of the social media portrayed it. The Assam riots are essentially a conflict between two groups that has further intensified because of weaknesses in governance.

This brings us to the question of government mismanagement and the related question of illegal immigration. As much as secularists and the government would like to debunk the idea, illegal immigration has occurred in Assam for a long time. It started with Sir Sadullah bringing people from the Mymensigh districts to work in the rice fields of Nagaon. This trend has since continued. Anyone who tries to debunk this notion fails to understand that migration is a human phenomenon. With Bangladesh’s extreme poverty, it is only natural that its citizens are forced to look elsewhere to earn a living. It has happened in Mexico; it has happened in Somalia; so why not in Assam? It is a question of human existence. Anyone who visits the border between India and Bangladesh will understand how easy it is to cross it. Thus, those who believe that illegal immigration cannot occur are wrong. Historical evidence and sociological perspectives are enough to substantiate that migration has occurred and will continue to occur regardless of the question of demographics.

Immigration has changed India’s demographics, and has resulted in a majority Muslim population in 11 districts within the state of Assam, raising concerns for many. A fundamental question is whether this growing Muslim population is an undesirable development? The answer is that it is not. But this Muslim population increase has also to be read in concurrence with fertility rates, infant mortality rates and maternal mortality ratio. And when these data are compared, then indeed a discrepancy can be found. The answer is migration. People have migrated to these districts. The next question we have to ask is why migration has occurred at such rapid rates, adding to the number of people in Assam? The answer to this lies in the char areas. These are small islands on the river Brahmaputra. Some of them are part of India, while others are aligned with Bangladesh and some are not very sure where their nationalities lie. In many cases their plight is comparable to the plight of the people in the enclaves of the Cooch Behar region.

Some members of the intelligentsia have argued that there has been a larige migration and flow of people into Assam that has occurred. In many ways this is a correct assessment because the char areas are regularly hit by the fury of the Brahmaputra River. That these people will migrate to the plains of Assam is only understandable. However, Sanjoy Hazarika has successfully shown in his classic work Rites of Passage that while there has been a steady inflow of people from the char islands to the mainland, the chars are not devoid of people either. Without a doubt, migrations have occurred and will continue to occur. What has perhaps changed since the 1990s are the levels of migration.

However, the root cause of the Assam riots is not migration but the patent failure of governance. After the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) were established in 1993 with the Bodoland Autonomous Council as the governing body, it failed to address the concerns of the non-Bodo people living in these areas. The highhandness of the officials in the BTAD councils only complicated matters. For years now, intellectuals in Assam, with a deep sociological understanding, have been warning of an impending crisis in Assam at the subaltern level. These riots are a concrete manifestation of their fears and warnings.

Notions of creating smaller states and autonomous councils have not proved to be a solution anywhere in this country. In the northeast, this is all the more true. In spite of smaller states with a high human development index on a few parameters, these states have not been able to develop on other indices. The aspirations of the people have remained unfulfilled. As many have argued, what is needed in Northeast India today is not the territorial sovereignty that many tribes seek but a non-territorial sovereignty and the creation of regions. This would not only seek to fulfill the aspirations of tribes that have hitherto lived on the fringes, but it would also end the debate of further state reorganization. Declaring one more state today would create a volatile scenario for the country. Thus, the aspirations of the people have to be addressed in a new manner.

Returning to the issue of migrants we must understand that it is economic resources, such as land, water, etc., that are the root cause of many conflicts between communities. They often are depicted as a conflict of religion, caste or language, but that is merely a rallying war cry. In reality, it is a fight between two groups to control resources. One of the vital resources is land. Encroachment of land, especially what has happened in and around Kaziranga National Park, must be banned. The government must admit that refugees are a problem, and plans must be made to settle them in a coherent manner. Politics, in the name of these citizens-whether doubtful or established-must be stopped. There is no doubt that the rise of Badruddin Ajmal and his AIUDF in Assam politics is a reflection of this trend. This party cannot call itself a “Muslim” party since it has no support whatsoever among the Muslims of Upper Assam. At best, it can be considered as catering to the aspirations of a certain segment of people. At one point, a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of this party had demanded a separate state in Assam based on religious lines. What was unfortunate was that it found acceptance among a section of the youth of this region. Such events bring back the pain of partition. Hence, politics in the name of these certain groups of people must be stopped.

The first step the government must take is updating the NRC roll. In spite of opposition from all sides the government must go ahead and take this step. Secondly, the concept of D-voters must be eliminated. The foreigner detection tribunal in Assam is nothing but a joke, and the reality is that it is of no use today. Hence, it must be immediately scrapped. There must also be a discussion on whether we can keep 1971 as the cutoff mark. Is it really possible to identify and deport people back? Historically, it has not been possible in other parts of the world; at best, it can remind us of the horrors of the Nellie massacre.

The thinking in this matter has to be forward looking as well. The UN has predicted that by 2020 a large number of people in the world will be environmental refugees. There is no doubt that a large number of people in low-lying Bangladesh will be rendered homeless in the coming years due to rising sea levels. There is also little doubt that they will move towards India. Thus, it is in India’s own strategic interest that it help Bangladesh mitigate the effects of climate change and tackle its consequences.

Politicians and student organizations cutting across party lines must sit down and admit that illegal immigration still persists as a problem. New approaches are required to tackle it. These approaches have to be holistic and must encompass development as the fundamental principle. The Northeast requires a new vision and a new approach to stop it from burning once again.



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