Lack of political will magnified the issue into humanitarian crisis
Suhas Chakma says the government needs to bring the peace process with all the Bodo groups to a logical conclusion
LAST MONTH’S Bodo-Muslim conflict has exposed Assam and India while peace remains the elusive Rosetta stone.
As the Chief Minister of Assam since 17 May 2001, Tarun Gogoi oversaw the worst conflicts this country has ever seen: September-October 2005 conflict between the Karbi and Dimasa tribes with displacement of 43,132 people in Karbi Anglong district; August 2008 conflict between the Bodos and Muslims with displacement of over 200,000 people; March to May 2009 conflict between the Dimasa and Naga tribes in the North Cachar Hills district with displacement of 11,737 persons and January 2001 conflict between the Garo and Rabha tribes in Assam and Meghalaya border with displacement of over 50,000 persons. Earlier, conflicts were confined to Bodoland areas: between Bodos and Muslims in October 1993 in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts with displacement of 18,000 persons; between Bodos and Adivasis in May 1996 in Bongaigaon district with displacement of 2,62,682 persons; between the Bodos and Adivasis in Bongaigaon district in September 1998 with displacement of 3,14,342 persons.
Interestingly, Gogoi only oversaw the expansion of the conflicts. In each case, those displaced have not been rehabilitated — thereby further accentuating the misery. But because the riots did not affect the mainstream Assamese or Hindu Bengalis, Gogoi remained safe, even got elected for consecutive third term in 2011.
The latest conflict that started on 19 July could have been prevented as the portends were clear. On 6 July, two persons belonging to Muslim religious group were killed at Anthihara under Dotma police station in Kokrajhar district by unidentified persons. On 19 July, two student leaders belonging to All-Bodoland Minority Student’s Union and All-Assam Minority Student’s Union were shot at near Kokrajhar by unidentified people. In alleged retaliation of these incidents, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers members were killed on 20 July. These killings triggered a spate of attacks and counter-attacks across Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa districts under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas as well as in Dhubri district, which is outside the BTC. It is clear that intelligence agencies have failed. After so many riots, any sensible government would take preventive measures. But Gogoi failed and what unfolded is India’s largest humanitarian crisis of the decade — 53 dead and over 3,92,000 people displaced.
The role of the Army and para-military forces has been the most despicable. While the Assam government failed to mobilise para-military forces within the state, the Army waited for the Defence ministry nod instead of following the state government’s orders. This, despite the fact that the districts affected are notified as “disturbed areas” under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 and the Army is stationed nearby at Rangiya and Goalpara to aid the state administration.
With no religious fundamentalist groups to bash around, both the media and the civil society groups maintained a studied silence on the crisis. Some tried hard to explain it through narrow prism of “communalism”. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh visited the state to declare a package of Rs 300 crore, but without giving its details. It is this adhocism on humanitarian response and rehabilitation of the displaced that leads to discriminatory policies — the government has announced Rs 30,000 for reconstruction of every fully damaged house in Assam, while it builds 50,000 houses for Sri Lankan Tamils at a cost of Rs 4.95 lakh per house.
AND THERE is no peace in the foreseeable future. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was created under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution but land rights of the Bodos in conformity with other Sixth Schedule areas — where sale or transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals is prohibited — has not been ensured. The British had enacted Chotonagpur Tenancy Act in 1908 to protect the land rights of the Adivasis, but Assam failed to do that in the 21st century. The Bodoland Accord itself failed to bring the National Democratic Front of Bodoland into talks. The Bodo Liberation Tigers who signed the agreement and rechristened themselves as the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (BPPF) have been an ally of the Congress-led coalition government of Assam for the past six years but their role remains doubtful. Though Bangladesh handed over Ranjan Daimary, head of the NDFB in May 2010, the Central government failed to hold dialogue with the NDFB. The Centre appears to be emboldened by state government’s political considerations and does not seem willing to bring even the peace process with all the Bodo groups to a logical conclusion.
Suhas Chakma is the director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights. The opinions expressed are his own.