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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 33, Dated 18 Aug 2012

    Why blood will flow in Assam again

    The Assam riots were not the result of a sudden reaction, but an accumulation of years of anger and insecurity. Unless lessons are learnt, they will happen again. Ratnadip Choudhury and Avalok Langer report

    After-shock At least 4 lakh people have become homeless

    Photo: AP

    THE RIOTS in Assam were not communal. They were not about Hindus and Muslims killing each other for religion. These riots were about land and livelihood. They were about “outsiders” encroaching on “our” land. And the genesis of it all lies in a political system that has allowed the problem to fester for over 30 years.

    On 19 July, Ratul Ahmed and Abdul Siddique Sheikh, two prominent Muslim student leaders were attacked by unidentified men in Kokrajhar. The very next evening, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) cadres were lynched by a furious mob in the Muslim-dominated Joypur village in Kokrajhar. The bloodbath that ensued has been well documented by the media.

    So, what happened between 21 and 26 July that caused a humanitarian crisis of this scale? According to fleeing villagers, cadres of the Ranjan Daimary-led anti-talks National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) faction came out of their hideouts in the Bhutan foothills to the border district of Chirang and attacked Muslim villages between 21 and 23 July. Elsewhere, former BLT cadres also added to the carnage. Muslim settlers fleeing en masse have clearly said that it was not Bodo villagers, but heavily armed Bodo youths in army fatigues that attacked their villages and torched their houses. Sources in the military intelligence confirm this.

    The exodus of Muslims from the Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar and Chirang districts to the Muslim-dominated Dhubri district led to what can be called a reactionary move. Bodo villages in Dhubri as well as pockets of Muslim-majority Chirang, Gossaigaon and Bijni were attacked

    As the Muslim settlers of Bodoland scurried for life to the Chapar and Bilasipara areas of Dhubri, armed cadres belonging to radical Islamic organisations in lower Assam reportedly entered the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) and torched village after village.

    The current crisis could have been averted if only the administrative machinery had woken up on time. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi likened Assam to “a volcano that frequently erupts due to ethnic unrest”. If that was the case, then the Gogoi administration of 11 years has been caught napping. Former Assam DGP HK Deka minces no words while blaming the administration for the late reaction. “The intelligence should have taken note of the first incidence of violence and passed it on to the civil administration, which should then have anticipated the situation and acted accordingly,” he says. “But, it didn’t happen.”

    On 27 July, Gogoi blamed the Centre for the delay rushing Central forces to control the situation in Kokrajhar. However, on the day the PM reached Kokrajahar, he said the Centre was not to blame. After sending one minister after the other, the CM finally visited the affected areas seven days after the clashes. Initially Gogoi and the Union home ministry ruled out any “foreign hand”, claiming the clashes were communal. The CM has now asked for a CBI probe because he feels “there could be internal and external hand in it”.

    The CM said the riots were the handiwork of miscreants who wanted to create disturbance and misunderstanding between the two communities in the BTC. It finally took the intervention of a high level team of the MHA led by Joint Secretary Shambhu Singh, that directed security forces into the interior districts to carry out area-domination exercises. Gogoi’s goof-ups don’t not end here. He has set 15 August as the deadline for the victims living in the camps to return to their villages. But, he says, his home department cannot guarantee security of life in the villages.

    The riots in Assam were not communal, not about Hindus and Muslims. They were about ‘outsiders’ enroaching on ‘our’ land

    Both political forces and civil society have raised serious questions on why the government chose to ignore a problem they knew existed. “The CM has remarked that this is a volcano, but it is not a new one,” says Ved Marwah, retired IPS officer and former governor of Manipur. “It was always active, but the state government chose to look away.”

    WHILE THE issue of illegal migration has often been cited as the sole reason for the present state of affairs in Assam, the reality on the ground is far more complex. An inept administrative machinery, lack of coordination, a myopic vision and of course, the unwillingness to acknowledge a growing problem have all, in part, contributed to the bloodshed.

    In the BTAD area, the call for a separate Bodo state has only grown louder since 2010. With 12 MLAs, Hagrama Mohilary’s Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), an ally of the ruling Congress, has ruled the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) with a free hand. Trouble started in 2011, when the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) emerged as the second largest party in the Assembly polls. The Bodos began to grow skeptical of the rising influence of the AIUDF, particularly after Ajmal called for the dissolution of the BTC. The area was a tinderbox that was set alight with the first spark of violence.

    In 2011, the non-Bodos in the BTAD area, led by Muslim frontal organisations, formed the Non Bodo Suraksha Samiti, seeking safeguard of their rights. The Bodos looked at it with suspicion. The four BTAD districts were carved out of eight existing districts. Muslims were in a majority in at least five of those districts. So, the seeds of the current conflagration were sown in the 2003 BTC Accord.

    WHILE THE failure to prevent the Kokrajhar clashes is undeniably the state’s responsibility, the genesis of the current situation goes back many decades. “There are many issues involved,” says Marwah. “First is the disintegration of Assam, which started soon after Independence. The second issue concerns migration of not only Muslims, but also of Bengalis into Assam even during the colonial period, though the recent influx is predominantly Muslims. The third is votebank politics.”

    Innocent wail A child at a relief camp in Srirampur village in Kokrajhar district

    Photos: AFP

    Illegal migration and votebank politics have been the two key catch-phrases in all the debates of the past few days. But, like everything else in Assam, this is a many-layered issue. First brought in by the British for their expertise in wetland cultivation, Muslims from the then East Bengal came into Assam to further the British policy of ‘grow more food’. As the Assamese fought to assert their language in a Bangla-dominated school system, they found political support from Bengali Muslims, who not only accepted Assamese as the medium of instruction in their schools, but also as their mother tongue. Realising that the Muslim community voted as a block, the Congress party seized the opportunity to nurture and cultivate a votebank by creating conditions that encouraged infiltration from East Pakistan from 1951 to 1971.

    Interestingly, it is this period that saw the beginning of the “illegal influx” into the state. The later migrants were also Bangla-speaking Muslims, which made it easier for them to merge with an alreadyestablished Bangla-speaking indigenous Muslim population.

    Not perceived as a threat initially, the migrants worked as rickshaw-pullers, maids and cultivators for hire, filling in the demand for cheap labour. “A Bangladeshi is willing to work for 10 hours a day for less than Rs 90, whereas an Assamese will not work for anything less than Rs 200,” explains Bikas, a Bodo resident of Kokrajhar. However, with time and added numbers, these migrants are now being increasingly perceived as political and economic stakeholders in the state they once sneaked into.

    “According to the Census of India 2001, 2 million people have migrated to Assam since 1951,” says Walter Fernandes, Director of the Guwahati-based North Eastern Social Research Centre. “When the immigrants’ natural population growth rate is also taken into account, the number of migrants rises to 4 million. Around 40 percent of them are Bangla-speaking Muslims, presumably of Bangladeshi origin… Today, Muslims constitute nearly a third of Assam’s population, where in 1951 they constituted 24.7 percent. The proportion is higher in districts bordering Bangladesh, such as the Bodo-inhabited territory where the recent violence occurred.”

    Waiting for hope Scenes at the Nankar Gaon camp in Bongaigaon (left); and the Kambari Beel relief camp in Kokrajhar

    Photos: Ujjal Deb (Left), AP

    A sceptical Bodo population has been seeing this as a threat. Ajmal’s demand for the dissolution of the BTC fuelled the fear of an outsider takeover. “How many Muslims lived in the BTC in the 1980s and 90s?” asks Anjali Daimary, sister of Ranjan Daimary, head of the outlawed NDFB antitalks faction. “They keep raising the percentage issue, ‘the Bodos are only 20 percent, we are 80 percent’. We are not talking about percentages; we are talking about our rights and our land. If an outsider tries to take our land we will react.” It is this reaction and counter-reaction that is at the root of the recent clashes.

    Illegal migration has been a reality that both the Centre and the state have shied away from. The Congress might have nurtured an “imported” votebank, but other parties, while in power, also did precious little to rectify it. “When the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — which emerged from the Assam Movement (1979-1985) against the immigrants — was in power in the 1990s, it took no serious steps against illegal immigration,” says Fernandes. “Neither did the NDA, which was in power in New Delhi at the time. It was far more convenient for the parties to take no action against illegal immigrants so that they could keep the issue alive and use it as political fodder.”

    A feeling shared by Madan Sharma, professor of Linguistics at Tezpur University. “Those in power are not interested in solving the problem,” says Sharma. “When people are divided along the lines of communities, caste, language and tribes, then it makes things easier for the rulers.”

    Initially, the infiltrators were not seen as threats. They filled the need for cheap labour, something the Assamese needed

    Ironically, BJP leader LK Advani, in a press conference in Guwahati, attributed the current crisis to “the collusion between the Government of India and the state government” that has led indigenous people to feel alienated in their own land, while illegal Bangladeshi’s have embarked on land grab. Advani said that this has created a situation where “11 out of 27 districts in Assam are now Muslim-dominated”. Later in Parliament, the furore over his statement forced the senior leader to retract it, saying he did not intend to paint the situation in communal colours.

    Nevertheless, many lives have been wasted in Assam on the issue of illegal migration. Intelligence officials and locals point to an entire system that has been working overtime to legitimise the “Indianness” of the migrants. According to the officials, the migrants come across the riverine border, at first living on the chars (sandbars on the Brahmaputra), till they establish contact with the already-established Bengali Muslim community. They pay Rs 1,000 for a character certificate of sorts procured from the gaon burah (the village headman), which states they belong to that particular village and that makes them “Assamese”. With one foot in the door, they use the letter to then transform from an “Assamese” to a full-fledged Indian citizen all through forged documents — certificate to get a ration card, ration card to get a voter ID, voter ID to get a school certificate and so on.

    SUBSEQUENT GOVERNMENTS at the Centre and in Assam have been inept in handling the issue. Controversial acts like the Illegal Migrants Determination Tribunals (IMDT) Act, passed in 1983 to determine whether a person is an illegal migrant or not, turned out to be more of an impediment in deporting infiltrators. The Supreme Court had struck down the Act in 2005 terming it “unconstitutional”. In its judgement, the apex court said: “All India percentage of decadal increase in population during 1981-1991 is 23.85 percent, whereas the border districts of Assam namely, Karimganj shows a decadal increase of 42.08 percent, Cachar 47.59 percent and Dhubri 56.57 percent… . it can be assumed that the infiltration of foreigners from Bangladesh contributed significantly to the sharp increase of population in Assam.”

    Samujjal Bhattacharyya, adviser of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which first gave the call “Assam for Assamese”, feels the need of the hour is to implement the Assam Accord in totality and wants the demographic profiling of Assam to be done by updating the National Register of Citizen (NRC) of 1951, a feeling echoed by political analyst and Gauhati University Political Science Professor Nani Gopal Mahanta. “The Muslim population in Assam has increased dramatically,” says Mahanta. “The AIUDF becoming the main Opposition has added to the fear psychosis of a takeover. We need to go in for a mechanism like the NRC to resolve the citizenship issue once and for all. Otherwise we will continue to see more Kokrajhars.”

    Security forces along the border face problems manning the riverine checkpoints that can, at places, be as wide as 22 km

    The other side of this influx, the reason why so many have crossed over from Bangladesh to India, boils down to simple economics. “Search for economic means has been a persistent reason for migration around South Asia,” says Prof Syed Munir Khasru, Chairman of the Institute of Policy, Advocacy and Governance in Bangladesh. “Unskilled labour, informal unemployment, etc, are features of our economy, and undocumented migration can happen mostly with unskilled or semi-skilled labour searching for livelihood across borders.” It, therefore, comes as no surprise that with a population density of 1,150 per sq km and a per capita income of Rs 46,870 for those living in Bangladesh’s largely underdeveloped border areas, Assam with a population of 397 per sq km and a per capita income of Rs 84,400 is a greener pasture. However, when confronted, Bangladesh’s official stand is that there is no influx.

    There is also the problem of terrain that security forces face along the riverine border areas. Says a former DG of the BSF on condition of anonymity: “Given that the Brahmaputra and other rivers that flow into Bangladesh are as wide as 22 km in some areas, that makes it impossible for the BSF to man those portions. In fact, there have been instances where fishing boats from Bangladesh have been found as deep inside as Tezpur, 400 km from the Indo– Bangladesh border.” Another problem the BSF faces is that while they man the borders, they can’t police the infiltrators. “Any infiltrator we nab, has to be handed over to the local police,” explains the DG. “The police are supposed to prosecute them under the Foreigners Act, but it’s low on their priority list.”

    Is this oversight then a case of political motivation? “Yes, it is a simple matter of votebank politics,” says the retired officer.

    Votebank politics, a term thrown around by all, perhaps is a problem, but offers very few solutions. There is the humanitarian side to consider too. “Even if you determine who is a foreigner, where do you deport him to?” says Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari. “Who is going to take him? Where do we send him? It will raise a number of other issues — UN conventions, humanitarian issues. I agree, however difficult, we need to seal the border, and then put our heads together towards finding a solution.”

    Even AIUDF chief Ajmal lays the blame of the illegal migrants’ problem at the doorsteps of the ruling Congress. “There is a trend of profiling Muslims as Bangladeshis in Assam,” says Ajmal. “There is an issue of migration, but it is the Congress that is responsible for this, not our party. Our leaders have not won polls with only Muslim votes.”

    According to intelligence sources, India is home to 4 crore Bangladeshi infiltrators, and a majority of them are in Assam.

    Intelligence sources claim that at least 200 trained Muslim cadres belonging to various radical organisations are operating in Kokrajhar and Chirang. Reports say at least 15 Islamic rebel outfits are operating in lower Assam, with Dhubri as the base.

    ‘There is an issue of migration, but it is the Congress that is responsible for this,’ says AIUDF chief Ajmal

    Prominent among these are the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), and the Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA). Adding to this list, the Assam Muslim National Army (AMNA), commanded by former cop Ramjan Ali has demanded that 13 districts be carved out of the state to form a separate administrative area for the community. Although India has reportedly given Bangladesh a list of 17 training camps of Indian Islamic rebels operating in that country, no action has been taken so far.

    ALTHOUGH THE involvement of Bangladesh is hard to prove, intelligence officials are not ruling out anything. “There is this idea of a Brihot Bangladesh (Greater Bangladesh),” says an intelligence official on condition of anonymity. “Bangladesh blames India for many of its problems — unscientific partition, floods, droughts, water-sharing — and promotes a steady trickle into India, changing the demography.”

    But, is this all a part of a gameplan to change demography? The complicated history of Assam throws up many more questions. Who is to blame for this changed demography — a lax polity unwilling to ruffle any feathers, or the infiltrators? How to identify the Bangladeshis? Where to send them?

    The answer to each of these questions is not easy. But, the most important thing is to acknowledge that unchecked migration is a serious problem. And unless something is done soon, Kokrajhar might just become a “recurring volcano”.

    At last count, the official death toll of the recent clashes had risen to 78. Unofficially, it could be up to four times as high. There is already a sense of distrust in the relief camps. As a jolted Assam waits to recover, 4 lakh displaced people grope with the idea of home. The Kokrajhar clashes are just the tip of the iceberg.

    Unaddressed, they could snowball into a full-fledged civil war.

    Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

    Avalok Langer is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 33, Dated 18 Aug 2012



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