Interview with Wajahat Habibullah, Chairperson of the NCM.
A REPORT on the sectarian conflict in Assam presented by a team consisting of representatives from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) and the Planning Commission has been criticised as being partisan to one particular community. While sections of the political class and the media have cited illegal migration as the cause of the conflict, several others feel that the larger economic questions concerning land and property relations may have been the real reasons for the tensions. In an interview to Frontline, NCM Chairperson Wajahat Habibullah replied to allegations of bias and explained the role of the fact-finding team. Excerpts:
Some rights groups have objected to the NCM-Planning Commission report on the ongoing conflict in Assam. They claim that it was a clash between two minority groups. Are such definitions of who is a minority and who is not in an ethnic clash not counterproductive?
A letter was addressed to the Prime Minister objecting to our report and a copy of it was sent to us by an organisation based in Janakpuri. It was written by one Mr [Suhas] Chakma [director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights]. The organisation is not based in Assam. We are responding to it. It is entirely incorrect to accuse us of bias. We have sent a reply to them. It was not an NCM team, but an NCM-Planning Commission team. In that team, one member, Syeda Hameed, was a Muslim, one was a Parsi and the third member a Hindu. To accuse the NCM in such ways is most unsavoury. The letter of this group is also full of misquotations. It seeks to make out that we have said that only Muslims have suffered. We have said that both communities have suffered; Bodos have also suffered. The idea was to address the issue of human suffering, whether Bodo, Muslim, Bengali, whatever. I will share with you a report that induced us to send a team there. This was by a group of concerned citizens, including Gagan Sethi, and people from different communities, including those from Assam.
These charges, therefore, are counterproductive. If you wish to criticise some finding, I would think if you are actually located over there and come up with something it is quite welcome; even otherwise, it is welcome. They [the critics] have suggested in their report that the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes should visit the place. Certainly. We agree. Even the National Commission for Women should visit Assam as a large number of women have actually suffered. All these organisations should go there and we will be sending them a copy of our report so that they can come to their own conclusions. Our concern basically was to see how this can be put to an end as fast as possible and people are rehabilitated and they can return to their homes and lead a normal life. But we have also drawn attention to the fact that the matter will not end with that; that may in fact be the beginning. A solution has to be found and it has been pointed out in the report. From time to time there have been ethnic clashes between Adivasis and Bodos, Santhals and Bodos, for the last several years since the Bodo Territorial Council was founded.
There is a separate notification defining the communities which are minorities as held in a Supreme Court order. There are certain sections of the minorities who face certain challenges and they have to be addressed. The NCM has been set up to address these challenges and the government has done well to notify which are the minority communities that need special attention. The minorities notified are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis. Each one of these has one or the other challenge that has pushed it behind others. That is the basis on which we are working. In the reply that we have sent to Mr Chakma, the concern of the NCM in this case was not only Bengalis or Muslims; among Bengalis, there are both Hindus and Muslims. Yes, the preponderant majority are Muslims.
Among Bodos, there are animists and Christians. The majority are animists, while 15 per cent are Christians. This was a fresh challenge for us. People of the north-east who were forced to migrate from Hyderabad, Chennai or Bangalore were predominantly Christians. Some of them were Assamese. This is the kind of crisis that affects not only the minorities but also others. It is not our stand that it has affected only one section of the minorities. You wont find that in our report. It is also a fact that the people found in the majority of the refugee camps were Bengalis. That is an unquestioned fact.
Was there any bias as alleged by the group, which stated that the team visited only one relief camp of Bodos but six camps sheltering Muslims? In such an atmosphere, how easy or difficult is it for statutory bodies such as the NCM to function?
An issue of such sensitivity, where an ethnic clash is involved, will invite allegations of all kinds. For instance, I received calls from editors of various papers asking why the report had said that the young Muslims might become jehadis and there will be jehadi outfits. It is a warning to take precautions so that such a thing does not happen. This is how the extremist forces among Muslims in India rose. There are disturbances, there are unsettled people, and these unsettled people then take recourse to violence. Therefore, this had to be pointed out. It does not make the report anti-Muslim and does not mean that all Muslims are unsettled and that all Muslims are going to be terrorists. It has to be seen in a rational manner. This is a report on places visited. It is not a judicial finding which says that this is what it should be and this is what it should not be. It is about what needs to be done. There is a general sense of fear and apprehension about what will happen when people go back, both Bodos and Muslims.
Therefore, what needs to be done by the government is to ensure that these apprehensions are allayed, there is proper police deployment in those areas so that people do not face threats or harassment when they go back, and that is basically the sum total of our report. In my view, there was no bias. Some people might feel it is biased against Muslims, some may feel it is biased against Bodos.
But as I said, when there is a sectarian kind of conflict, there are bound to be people who will say that they have suffered and that they have not been properly projected. Together with this team, there were people from the State government who were neither Bodo nor Muslim.
The critics allege that the report is biased and inflammatory and may have contributed to the vulnerability of the people of the north-east.
I dont see how. How has it contributed to the vulnerability of the people of the north-east in any way? We discussed it here whether we released it too fast. After the report came out, I think migration has dropped considerably. I am not saying that the report had anything to do with it. People are free to make judgments. People must criticise, but much of it should be constructive. The person who wrote to us was also concerned about the problem.
The report has also raised land issues in the region.
The problem is ethnic to an extent. There are ethnic groups that are cultivating land and some who feel dispossessed. It has nothing to do with religion. All communities have suffered. The commission has lamented that fact.
What was the governments response after you presented your report?
We submitted our report to the Prime Minister. I presume his office is examining the matter. Normally his office would send it to the Ministry concerned. What really needs to be looked at is our recommendations. I look upon this [the Assam killings] as Indians killing Indians. It is a tragedy. It is a dent on the whole process of nation-building. Over the past 60 years India has been engaged in building a nation out of a diverse gathering of different languages, cultures and religions. All put together, we are far, far more diverse than Europe. These kinds of incidents, which are going to question what we are, questions of illegal migration, and so on, are disturbing. Illegal migration has been going on for long.
To say the whole incident has been caused by illegal migration, and so stop illegal migration and everything will be okay as a kind of quick-fix solution, does not work. Initially, the response of the State government was too slow. A lot of damage would have been avoided had the State police acted. For example, the four Bodo youth who were killed were seized from police custody and then killed. The Chief Minister told our team that he had had very little authority over the Bodo Territorial Council. Therefore, it is necessary for the various stakeholders in the BTC to sit together and sort out their differences.
Do you think that by emphasising the issue of illegal migration, the real issues of economic hardship within the country are being obfuscated?
These issues have to be addressed. Mr Keki Daruwalla, the NCM member who went there, had studied the situation earlier. As a police officer, he was deputed by the government to study the region and hell be the first to tell you that there has been migration, illegal migration, over a long period of time. It has been happening over centuries. There was a time when Bangladesh was doing very badly, economically. Now it is doing very well and recovering economically. It may be possible to eliminate illegal migration, but that is something we will have to work with the government of Bangladesh. Hopefully, we can wish our neighbour well; we had a hand in their making and there is absolutely no difficulty in working with them on this issue.