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The girl from a television channel in New Delhi was extremely enthusiastic on the phone. She wanted me to go on air the next evening on a live interview with another panelist on the situation in Assam — conveniently called the “Bodo-Muslim clashes”. I debated the issue internally and finally decided that it was not appropriate to do so because the situation was so complex and difficult. Scholars and media who have visited the area, not armchair pundits sitting in New Delhi and Guwahati, say that it is clear that whatever triggered the violence earlier this month, the roots of the suspicion and bitterness are still untouched.
A complex maze of factors have emerged at the heart of the problem, ranging from disputes over land and concerns about land alienation by different ethnic and religious groups, as well as fears of being driven out from their own villages. Muslim settlers, many of whom are originally Bengali-speaking but now have adopted Assamese as their language, are embittered by the fact that they are categorised as Bangladeshis despite having lived in the region for decades and remained poor and marginalised all this time.
These groups have kept a social and cultural distance from the other ethnic communities living in western Assam, unlike the “Assamese Muslims” who converted to Islam centuries ago, who maintain Assamese customs and a folklorish approach to the faith and have close relations with Hindus and those of other faiths. The result of the distance of the settlers is an enduring divide that has increased with the changing demographic profile of the region as the Muslim population began to grow and the influx from Bangladeshi became a real issue, even if media reports of their involvement in the recent riots are pretty fanciful.
The perception of the problem is as much a critical component of the tragedy that has unfolded these past weeks in Assam. Thus, the view of the “other” has been fuelled by some wild media reporting (for example, leave aside the local vernacular or English media, an international news agency has proclaimed, without attribution, that the clashes were between the Bodos and “Bangladeshi settlers”, that the Indian government bestowed “citizenship in 1985 to millions of settlers from former East Pakistan who arrived before 1971.”) If ever there is a case of turning facts on their head, this is one. Under the Assam Accord, which ended the six-year student-led agitation against illegal migration — although the issue is still volatile, a total of about nine lakh settlers, largely Hindus who had come from East Pakistan from 1966 to 71, were to be given citizenship after 10 years of the accord; and they were not even supposed to cast their votes during that period.
Assam has a total population of 30 million, of which the Muslim population is about 30 per cent. There are two clear groups of Muslims, those of Assamese stock, who number about 350,000, while the others, of Bengali stock, make up the balance of about 8.2 million. Many Bengali settlers have reported Assamese as their mother tongue as part of a complex political pact with the Congress which dates back to the 1960s. Although Islamic, the Assamese Muslims are far more liberal and open than the settler group and their identity is inexorably connected with the Asomiya language and the state of Assam. Today, Muslims are a decisive factor in at least 30 of the state’s 126 Assembly segments and are a majority in six of 27 districts. A court ruling also appears to have aggravated the tension; a judge described the influx of migrants as a “cancerous growth” and called for “political will” and “public activism” to fight it.
Vigilantism and pressure tactics followed, from groups wanting to detect and push out “Bangladeshis” while the state administration behaved like a disinterested spectator.
The confrontation in these areas is not new, although the recent bout was sparked by an attack on Bodo youth during a bandh called in August by a little-known Muslim organisation. Clashes between settlers and “local” groups goes back decades and many hark to the massacres of 1983, when over 3,000 persons, mostly Muslim and of Bengali origin (not Bangladeshi), died in clashes in Assam, especially on the killing fields around a little town called Nellie. A number of us reported on those riots and the recent incidents spark a sense of deja vu.
A senior minister has declared that a Bodo armed group, currently locked in peace talks with New Delhi, is behind some of the killings, although the organisation, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, has denied it. There are reports of Pakistani or Jaqmaat flags flying in some areas.
While these are important points, they are no longer the issue — the heart of the matter is that if Assam is to survive, trust and security must be restored to these areas. But how? How can dialogue be initiated and promoted between the communities, at the village, district and state level? There are disturbing voices who say they no longer can live with the other groups and want separate habitations. If this happens, then whatever remains of Assam’s composite culture, devastated by years of confrontation, ethnic divides, suspicion and assaults by the State and non-state actors, would be wiped out.
It is critical that civil society groups, scholars and activists who have worked here — and even those who have not — go to the area, especially the relief camps, to help the resumption of a basic dialogue and conversation among the groups. One learns that there is an understanding among some settler groups that their deliberate distance and social customs have created misunderstanding. The government must enable such processes to take place for only these can bring long-term peace.
The government cannot be seen as supine: it has to bring a set of governance tools to bear on the situation, for without that no dialogue or process of reconciliation can last. For such conversations to have any meaning there must be justice: justice for those who have suffered by punishing the attackers and protecting the weak and sufferers, from whichever community. While it is obvious that the government cannot provide protection to all at risk, it must marshal its resources competently and strategically so that such incidents are quickly quashed.
Should governments, at the state and Central levels, go about business as usual and sleep over these issues and hope that the problem will just go away, then they will be guilty of criminal conduct; unless the media and extremist politics are reined in, Assam could be, in for another bloodletting during the Lok Sabha elections.
Illegal migration cannot be accepted but rhetoric, which has spawned frustration and deep anger over these decades, does not solve the problem. Fences and laws do not keep migrants out.
Better border management and identity cards for all Indian citizens must be part of a better border management policy. But even more critical, keep the doors open for dialogue among the communities, the conversations going and the media hype down.