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ASSAMS SORROW

Published : Aug 24, 2012 00:00 IST

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Peace in the Bodo heartland proves fragile as clashes between Bodos and Muslims leave 56 persons dead and several thousands homeless.

in Guwahati

WHEN the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) signed the second Bodo Accord with the Centre and the Assam government on February 20, 2003, giving up its statehood demand and settling for an autonomous council under the amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, it gave rise to hopes of development and permanent peace in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD). The BTAD has its jurisdiction over an area of 8,970 square kilometres in the four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri in Assam and is ruled by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which was created following the accord.

The recent clashes between Bodos and Muslims in the three BTAD districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa and in Bongaigaon and Dhubri districts, which claimed 56 lives and displaced over four lakh people, and the clashes between the two communities in 2008 in the two northern Assam districts of Darrang and Udalguri, which claimed 64 lives and displaced over two lakh people, are indications that peace in the Bodo heartland continues to be fragile. There were also incidents of fratricidal killing among Bodos, with armed groups targeting activists and supporters of rival organisations in 2008 and 2009.

Although the accord did bring some development to the development-deficit area, various communities living in the BTAD accused Bodos, the largest plains tribe of Assam, of not sharing the fruits of development with non-Bodo communities. This feeling of deprivation, coupled with the proliferation of arms in the BTAD areas with insurgent groups as well as former militants indulging in killing, kidnapping and extortion, and the revival of the statehood demand by different Bodo groups, has kept the situation in the Bodo heartland on the boil. Even minor skirmishes have the potential to blow up into a full-scale clash between communities.

The recent clashes were triggered by two incidents in Kokrajhar district, one that occurred on July 6 in which unidentified gunmen shot dead two Muslims and another on July 19 when, again, unidentified gunmen shot at a leader of the All Bodoland Minority Students Union (ABMSU) and a leader of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU).

On July 20, four supporters of the erstwhile BLT were lynched by a mob in Joypore, a Muslim-dominated village in the district. What followed was a series of killings and counter-killings by miscreants from both sides, triggering panic among the common people. Members of both the communities began to flee their houses, leaving the ground for miscreants to indulge in arson, destruction and looting.

The rail link with Assam was cut off for nearly two days, and over 25,000 railway passengers were stranded at various stations in Assam and West Bengal as mobs blocked railway lines. The Guwahati-bound Rajdhani Express was stoned. Initial official estimates said that more than 5,000 houses had been burnt and 45,000 families of 244 villages had been affected. The clashes resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis, with over four lakh people, who fled their homes, taking shelter in 278 relief camps.

Curfew was clamped and shoot-at-sight orders were issued, but these measures could not deter the miscreants who took advantage of the delay in deploying Central paramilitary forces and the Army. The Army was called out only on the night of July 24 and was deployed in Kokrajhar, Chirang, Dhubri and Bongaigaon districts.

The Tarun Gogoi-led Congress coalition government drew criticism for the delay in the deployment of the Army. However, Gogoi claimed that his government had sent a request for Army help immediately and attributed the late arrival of the troops to system delay, without blaming the Centre. Right from the Joint Secretary (North East) in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Sambhu Singh, to leaders of various political parties and other organisations are of the opinion that four crucial days had been lost in controlling the situation. Had the Army arrived earlier, the loss of lives and property could have been minimised, they say. Gogoi also went on record as saying that despite his request to the Centre not to reduce the strength of the Central forces, they had been withdrawn and deployed elsewhere, as result of which the strength of the paramilitary companies got reduced from about 140 to 96. The BTC chief, Hagrama Mahilary, maintained that he had impressed upon the State government on the need to deploy adequate forces in the BTAD areas to deal with the situation effectively. However, his party, the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF), which rules the tribal council and is a coalition partner of the Congress at Dispur, is finding it difficult to convince the people on its position.

The BTAD has a mixed population, which includes communities such as Bodos, Koch-Rajbangshi, Rabhas, Adivasis, tea tribes, Assamese and Bengali Hindus and Muslims. Although the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) enjoy exclusive rights over land in the tribal belt and blocks, the Bodo Accord guaranteed protection to the land rights of all communities living in the BTAD, for which the provisions of the Sixth Schedule were amended. While various claims and counter-claims have been made about the population sizes of different communities, a clear picture about the demographic profile of the four autonomous districts can be expected only when the Census authorities publish the details of the 2011 linguistic survey. These districts were created in 2003 after the 2001 Census. The Koch-Rajbangshi and Adivasis and tea tribes in Assam, who have a sizable population in the BTAD, have been fighting for S.T. status.

A section of Muslim intellectuals and organisations championing the cause of the minorities see a conspiracy behind the clashes and allege that it was part of ethnic cleansing of Muslims and other non-Bodos living in the BTAD by some Bodo groups.

The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the major opposition party in the Assam Assembly with 18 legislators in a House of 126, asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he visited the State to take stock of the situation, to dissolve the BTC. The AIUDF president, Badruddin Ajmal, alleged that Bodo miscreants had been attacking non-Bodo communities at the instance of the BTC administration in a bid to reduce the population of non-Bodos to less than 50 per cent. He claimed that the Bodo population in the BTAD was about 29 per cent. The AIUDFs position has evoked sharp reactions from the BPF and other Bodo groups such as the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), which charged Ajmal with issuing provocative statements.

Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, an Assam-based literary body, described the clashes as ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Bodos.

It is nothing but ethnic cleansing. It was pre-planned. First the Muslims were driven out and their houses, documents, land records were burnt. Now, some Bodo groups are demanding that the inmates of relief camps should not be rehabilitated without ascertaining their citizenship status. This shows their motive to drive away Muslims with the aim of making the BTAD free of non-Bodos. The present BTC arrangement should be reviewed and Bodos should be given satellite autonomy as recommended by the Bhupinder Singh Committee. He also demanded an inquiry into the clashes by a commission under a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.

The Muslim population in Assam is not homogeneous. It is divided into different categories on the basis of the history of its migration and settlement: indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims whose forefathers came as Mughal warriors and settled in different parts of the State, indigenous Bengali-speaking Muslims from East Bengal who settled in Assam during pre-Partition days, Bengali-speaking Muslims who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan in different streams, and Bengali-speaking illegal immigrants from Bangladesh after its creation in 1971, who crossed over through the porous India-Bangladesh border.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) described the clashes as Indian versus foreigners, with its veteran leader L.K. Advani saying that the root cause of the recurring violence in Assam was illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Todays situation arose firstly because of a criminal delay in dealing with the situation when symptoms were already there that something could happen. The introspection must lead to identification of the root cause, which is this issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, Advani told journalists after his visit to Kokrajhar.

Prominent Bodo leader and former Rajya Sabha member Urkhao Gwra Brahma, however, feels that the clashes were the result of inordinate delay on the part of the Central and the State governments to rush adequate forces immediately after the two incidents and also intelligence failure.

Brahma does not agree that illegal immigration of Bangladeshis is the root cause of the clashes or that there was a Bodo conspiracy for ethnic cleansing.

People are trying to generalise. Such theories will only provide the Central and State governments with escape routes while the hard reality is that the present situation was the result of the failure of both the governments to respond to the situation in time. There has not been any movement in the BTAD areas to drive out illegal immigrants although issues of illegal encroachment of tribal belts and blocks are very much there, the primary responsibility for which goes to the State government, he added.

According to Brahma, a senior leader of the Bodoland Peoples Progressive Front (BPPF), a huge stockpile of illegal arms has entered the BTAD areas where groups in every community possess and use arms to exercise control over local resources. He agrees with the view that if one is really serious about bringing permanent peace to the BTAD areas, use of illegal arms should be put to an end in order to allow democratic forces to have their say.

The ongoing peace talks with various insurgent groups must be expedited to find a permanent solution while illegal arms with some former militants or other elements must be seized, he said.

Nani Gopal Mahanta, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, and Coordinator, Peace and Conflict Studies, Gauhati University, said that while containment of violence and restoration of law and order had become the parameters of sustainable peace in Assam, no attempt had been made to resolve structural issues such as ethnic reconciliation, encroachment of land by illegal immigrants and the settlement of foreigners issue through an updated National Register of Citizens.

Over the years, there has been a massive increase in the number of illegal Muslim migrants and this has posed a serious issue of identity crisis for the indigenous population. This situation has been facilitated by a vacuum, where Bodos and the lower middle classes have withdrawn themselves from agriculture-centric occupation and moved to the organised sectors. The gap is being filled by immigrant Muslims. Besides, infrastructure development has brought cheap immigrant labourers to the region.

The 2003 BTC Accord has failed to resolve the inherent contradictions as it could not ensure the protection of non-Bodos living in the BTC areas. A conglomerate of 27 non-Bodo organisations has launched a movement to exclude non-Bodo villages, which have been arbitrarily included in the BTC areas. The violence in the Bodoland areas demonstrates that an ethnically constituted exclusive homeland cannot be a panacea for a multicultural society such as Assam. Constitutional protection for Bodos and other indigenous tribes will provide a great sense of security. A durable peace process in the region will also require an amicable solution to the vexed illegal foreigners issue in the State, Mahanta said.

Relief and rehabilitation being the immediate priority, the Congress government faces the daunting task of instilling a sense of security in the inmates of the relief camps so as to meet its self-imposed target date of August 15 for rehabilitation of all displaced people in their own villages. The government will be under pressure to ensure that the inmates of the relief camps do not have to overstay as has been the case in the past.

A total of 48,556 families consisting of 3,14,342 people, who were displaced in the Kokrajhar district and the undivided Bongaigaon district following clashes between Bodos and Muslims in 1993 and between Bodos and Adivasis in 1996 and in 1998, had to overstay in relief camps in subhuman conditions for over a decade owing to a lack of adequate security and proper rehabilitation measures.

Manmohan Singh has announced a Rs.300-crore package, which includes an immediate Special Central Assistance of Rs.100 crore for relief and rehabilitation efforts in the State. Another Rs.100 crore will be provided as Special Plan Assistance for development programmes in the affected areas. Additional funds to the tune of Rs.100 crore will be made available under the Indira Awas Yojana for the affected areas for rebuilding of houses.

The real challenge for the State government and the BTC administration will be to ensure durable peace and build mutual trust not only among the two affected communities but also among all the communities living in the BTAD.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 24, 2012.)

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