|Assam: Ethnic Communal Divides to the Fore|
By Ram Puniyani
The recent (May 01and 02 2014) violence in Kokrajhar, Baska killing 44 Bengali speaking Muslims is one more reminder of the seeping Bodo-Muslim tension in the region. This violence is being attributed to Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), whose legislator Pramila Rani Brahma allegedly stated that her party candidate and Assam minister may not win in the present elections as according to her knowledge Muslims had not voted for him and have voted for a non-Bodo candidate. This is what seems to have provoked the violence, but surely this is tip of the iceberg as the problems between two communities are much deeper and are in a way continuation of the same reasons which led to the violence in the region in July 2012. This is also related to the subtle threat for the forthcoming Assembly elections of 2015.
The fear being expressed by the party of Bodos is that a defeat of their candidate will spell the doom for their demand for the state of Bodoland, which is high on their agenda. While the dissatisfaction amongst Bodos and the travails of Bengali speaking Muslims have been simmering for a long time, they got painful expression in the form of the violence in July 2012 in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) Kokrajhar, Chirang, which are governed by Bodo Territorial Council and part of Dhubri. This violence led to killing of 108 (79 Muslims, 22 Bodo, four non Bodo Non Muslim and displacement of nearly four lakh people.
The region is gripped by the problem, due to the misconception that the Bengali speaking Muslims in the region are infiltrators from Bangala Desh. While the BJP, Modi, are projecting that the present elections are being fought on the issue of development, at every conceivable moment there is the propping up of the communal issue. In his speeches in eastern part of the country, Modi has been accusing Bengal Chief minister that she has more time to look after the Bangla Deshi infiltrators than the people of Bengal. In Assam, he went on to suggest that rhinos were being killed in Kaziranga National Park to find room for infiltrators. He also gave a threat that the infiltrators should pack themselves up as they will have to leave on 16th May, the day election results will come out and he is sure to become the Prime minister of the country.
The problem in the Assam region is a festering wound on the body politic of India. In Assam under the pressure of problems related to jobs and other livelihood issues have been given a communal tilt by the parochial forces which gave the slogan ‘Assam for Assamese’ quite on the line of Maharashtra for Marathis by the sectarian Shiv Sena in Mumbai. The first casualty of this propaganda and the attitude which was generated due to this; was the Nellie massacre (1983), in which nearly three thousand people, mainly Bengali speaking Muslims, were butchered by Lalung tribe. The massacre occurred in the midst of Assam agitation, which was demanding cleansing of the electoral rolls of ‘illegal immigrants from Bangla Desh’. A Tribhuban Prasad Tiwary Commission was instituted in the wake of massacre, but its report was never made public. Agitation of Bodo’s led to creation of Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), giving most powers to Bodos in the four districts, Khokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgiri; three of which have undergone the massive violence in July 2012. The claim that Bodos are majority and need to preserve their ethnic identity and interests in the area, does not hold any water since the estimate of percentage of Bodos in this area varies from 22 to 29% only. With full powers given to them under this council they have marginalized other sections of society very badly. The other point of view is that despite the formation of Bodo Territorial Council, the Bodos did not surrender their arms, which was one of the conditions for accepting the demand of this regional council
The study of population statistics will make it clear that the beginning of coming of Bengalis speaking Muslims in Assam was due to the policy of British. There is a long history of Bengali speaking Muslims in Assam For example there were close to one lakh Muslims in Assam in 1931. In the beginning Bengal was the very populous and politically most aware area. Assam at that time was sparsely populated. British undertook a ‘Human Plantation policy’ in the beginning of twentieth century. The basic idea of British policy was three fold. One was to ensure the shifting of people from the overpopulated Bengal to Assam. Two, it aimed to reduce the incidence of famine and unrest in Bengal, and three British wanted to habitat Assam and collect revenue from that area.
Irrespective of the propaganda about Bangla Deshi infiltrators, research based on population statistics of last century shows that Muslims in the region are settlers from pre partition Bengal to begin with. Later there was some migration at the time of partition in 1947 and still later in the after math of 1971 war with Pakistan, leading to formation of Bangla Desh. Nilm Dutta Myth of Bangla Deshi and Violence in Assam (http://kafila.org/2012/08/16/the-myth-of-the-bangladeshi-and-violence-in-assam-nilim-dutta/) shows that the migration has taken place over a period of time and the increase of population stops after 1971.
The Assam accord of 1985 granted citizenship rights to all these who had settled in Assam till 1971. This accord recognizes all those living in this area as the legal setters and so most of the Muslim fall in that category. Not to deny that that some small number of illegal immigrants, the ones’ forced to migrate for economic reasons may also be there.
Despite these facts, the issue has become a big fodder for communal politics, which keeps harping on ‘Bangal Deshi infiltrators’. Here also they go on to say Hindu migrants from Bangla Desh are refugees while the Muslims are infiltrators. Even the 2012 violence was labeled by communal forces as strife between Bodos (Nationalists) and Muslims (foreigners!). The plight of the Muslims who speak Bengali is pathetic as not only they are marginalized and looked down upon, many of them do not even have the voting rights and some of them are put in the category of D voters, i.e. doubtful voters and so are not allowed to vote. There is an active hate industry blaming that the ruling party is encouraging infiltration for the sake of votes while in reality the economic migrations which are associated with the regional disparities like Nepali’s coming to India have also come down heavily with Bangla Desh economy looking up in last few decades.
The present violence is definitely and outcome of the communal venom spread through the election speeches and unresolved issues of the two communities. The Bodos not surrendering arms, after formation of BTC, as promised by them has been the major ground for violence. It is here that we need to concentrate. The demand for giving licenses to minorities for self protection has been in the air but probably better option is to disarm the Bodos, as per the accord which led to the formation of Bodo Regional Council. The human tragedy of such proportions needs and urgent response and long term measures from the state and central Government. The reconciliation between two communities must be given top priority, adequate rehabilitation along with the development of the region, the lack of which is given the direction of ‘Hate other’ by the tendencies demanding separate Bodo land.