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The horror in Assam is not just tragic, it is a malignant devastation that has visited a place and a people who were known until comparatively recently for their hospitality, calm and kindness.
The places where the bombings have taken place are busy markets and areas known to all of us familiar with Guwahati and the other towns where they have been triggered: Ganeshguri, near the flyover and the large Ganesh Mandir and jostling market; Pan Bazar, one of the most crowded shopping centres where bakers, book, medical and cloth stores are lined up on either side of narrow streets; the Deputy Commissioner’s Court, full of litigants as well as lawyers in their black jackets and white trousers and passers-by.
Assam’s steady descent into darkness has been happening over a period of time, with armed uprisings against the Indian state and Assam itself, with a proliferation of the ethnic divisions and communal divides over the past years. And none who have had association with violence and the politics of intimidation, hatred and confrontation — and that includes the Indian state which has tried to pit one group against another, politically and otherwise — can be absolved of responsibility. Indeed, the development of Assam and the northeast has been set back by decades of agitation and confrontation, no matter how justified.
Yet, despite the blasts of the past, the killings and violence that have characterised Assam in the 1990s, as well as a series of army operations and oppressive state measures to flush out militant groups, appeared to abate with discussions between different organisations and armed groups and the central and state governments. A shaky peace appeared also to descend on many parts of Assam, especially in its rural areas.
The minds that have planned this carnage had obviously set themselves a series of tasks:
One, to inflict the maximum damage in a short space of time and in high visibility areas. Two, to create a high sense of insecurity, terror and fear in the public and fan that into a sense of outrage and anger against government and public officials. Three, to shake public confidence in the state and central governments, showing that that they were not capable of providing protection to the general public. Four, to show that terrorists can strike at will. Five, that all talk of development and possible investment takes a back seat because it makes no sense in a region that is so vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Six, to sow conflict and further confusion among different ethnic groups, already tense and divided.
Till now, the first four have certainly happened especially with the surge of media reporting in 24-hour channels. The state government is stunned and is trying to move to turn the fires out. Stern action should be taken against those responsible including those who harbored them. Punishment should be swift and uncompromising. Yet, I am aware that this sounds hollow because I am, like many others, groping to understand the scale of the horror and also the motives and the organisations behind the murders.
But it is a time when all of Assam — Assamese and Bengali, settlers and indigenous, tribal and non-tribal, Hindu and Muslim and other denominations and all ethnics –must stand together and refuse to be bullied or bludgeoned into submission. We have been through bad times and this too shall pass.
There is a larger dimension to the situation: Assam is connected to the rest of India with a Chicken’s Neck Corridor at Siliguri. With a population of 30 million with one of the most complex ethnic hues in South Asia, it is the most critical state of the entire northeast since it is not just the largest but also since all surface routes pass through it – whether it is to get to other states there or to neighbouring countries. Disrupt Assam and you hit all the northeast and its connections to the neighbouring states of Bhutan, Bangaldesh, Myanmar.