Assam riots: Real issue is development
Ram Puniyani says end of propaganda politics can help people understand actual problems
PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh has called the recent violence in Assam a blot to the nation. Fifty three people have died and almost four lakh people have been rendered homeless in the clashes that occurred last week in Khokrajhar and Chirang districts, between Bodos and ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators’, majority of whom happen to be Muslims. There was some inexcusable delay in deploying the army in the area, which resulted in worsening of the situation. That the riots occurred just around the sowing season in what is the rice country of Assam is a worrying sign. Traumatised people are now crowding 250 ill-equipped relief camps set up by the government.
But this isn’t the first time such violence has hit Assam. The strife between ethnic groups and Muslims, who are labeled as ‘Bangladeshi immigrants’, has been going on for several decades. In 2003, the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts were formed following a peace treaty between Bodo activists and the government. The districts included Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgiri. Estimates put the percentage of Bodos in these districts between 22 and 29. The rest are Tribals and Muslims. Despite being in minority, Bodos, with full powers in the region, initiated policies which have kept non-Bodos largely out of the social framework. Over the years, local disputes have been painted as problems between legal citizens and illegal immigrants with parochial politicking under ‘Assam for Assamese’.
The first major catastrophe in this occurred in the 80s, when the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanded exclusion of Bangladeshi immigrants from the electoral rolls. In 1983, at least 2,000 people were killed in Nellie, near Guwahati. Those killed were Muslims, said to be illegal migrants and occupants of land that belonged to Lalung tribals. Tribhuban Das Tiwary Commission was constituted into the Nellie massacre, but the AASU, now Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), after coming to power dropped all the criminal cases against the culprits and the report of the Commission was never made public. A decade later occurred another series of violence, the victims of which are still living in relief camps. Last week’s carnage was preceded by a rumour that people from Bangladesh have brought in a huge cache of armaments and it soon got triggered into violence that left lakhs with nothing.
Perhaps the real problem lies in the stressed land and job scenario due to a rising population. Lopsided development has put employment under pressure all over the country. In Mumbai, Shiv Sena presents it as a non-Marathis vs marathi issue. In Assam, the problem is deflected by making it an India vs Bangladeshi immigrants issue. Politics aggravates things in Assam by bringing in the foreigner angle, when actually Bangla speakers have made up a sizeable chunk of the state population for over a century.
In the early 20th century, Assam was grossly underpopulated and generated little revenue. The neighbouring Bengal, on the other hand, was overpopulated, which resulted in frequent famines. To counter the problem, the British resorted to ‘human plantation’ encouraging people from Bengal to migrate to Assam. But to maintain the core policy of ‘divide and rule’, the immigrants and the natives were kept in separate areas. This migration of Bangla speaking Muslims went on for several decades and by 1930s, the Muslims comprised a sizeable chunk of Assamese population. Post partition, divided Bengal became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, but even then both Hindus and Muslims continued migrating to Assam.
The question here is how is this immigration is looked at. Why are Nepalese immigrants to India never looked down upon or demonised here? Why even the Hindus coming from Bangladesh are treated as immigrants, while Bangladeshi Muslims are seen as infiltrators and a threat to our security?
THE PROPAGANDA by communal forces about so call infiltration by Bangledeshis has assumed alarming proportions. It has been the backdrop of many agitations in Assam. Surely the basic issue of lack of development in Assam has been deflected by political groups as the issue of displacement of locals from their lands by infiltrators. Right from Nellie to the present violence, in which displacement is the most dominant factor, the infiltrator propaganda has prepared the ground for carnage.
What is required today is to disarm the criminals, to rehabilitate the refugees and to ensure that they return to their homes for the sowing season. If this is not met, surely a bigger disaster of food deprivation is staring at us. We also need to debunk the myth of ‘infiltrators’ for good. The word has been misued for far too long. And lastly the wounded psyche of communities needs to be healed through a process of dialogue and justice.
Ram Puniyani is a communal harmony activist based in Mumbai. The opinions expressed are his own.