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ESSAY : Sporadic Violence in Kokarajhar
Thursday, 06 September 2012 10:47


Sporadic Violence in Kokarajhar


ASSAM IS BURNING: WHO CARES

The riot-torn Kokrajhar district of Assam witnessed sporadic incidents of violence last month even as flag marches were conducted by the Army and additional paramilitary forces deployed. The manner and pattern of violence are of concern to the security forces.

There is a fear that militant Bodo and Muslim groups are preparing for a long-drawn battle. Army personnel say “this could be just the beginning” of a prolonged fight, as several militant groups are hiding around 1,200 firearms. The affected place is South Assam- Kokrajhar, Chirang, Bongaigaon and Dhubri districts, where more than 74 people have died and 450,000 rendered homeless. For the people of Kokrajhar district, the main concern is supply of essentials whose prices have skyrocketed. It has almost been a week since suppliers discontinued sending vehicles here. This is not the first incident of violence in what are now called the Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD), administered by the nonautonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) formed in 2003.  In 1996, conflict erupted between Bodos and Santhals, an indigenous tribal community residing in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. Nearly 80 people died in ethnic clashes, over 100,000 were left homeless as their houses were burnt and another 250,000 fled to temporary camps. In 1998, 14 Santhals were killed by Bodos in Kokrajhar district after two Bodos were killed and around 100 houses burnt by Santhals. 50 people died and some 300,000 moved to refugee camps. Within a span of two years, nearly 5.5 lakh people were living in camps. The Bodo-Santhal conflict again resurfaced in 2004, displacing another 37,000 people.

In 1993, 50 people were left dead after violent clashes between Bodos and non-Bodo people (supported by ULFA) in the Kokrajhar and Bongaigon districts of Assam. In 1994, there were numerous clashes in Kokrajhar and Barpeta districts between Bodo militants and Bengalispeaking Muslim settlers, mostly Bangladeshi immigrants. In July 1994, armed Bodo militants opened fire at Bangladeshi immigrants at he Bansbari relief camp, killing at least 71 people and leaving over 100 injured. The massacre at the Bansbari relief camp prompted more than 54,000 people, mostly Muslims, to flee their villages for cities such as Guwahati and Barpeta. In October 2008, violence between Bodos and Muslims claimed 56 lives. It was caused by the killing of a Bodo youth by a Muslim. Since then, there have been sporadic clashes, including in May this year, provoked by demands, on one side, for exclusion of non-Bodo majority villages from Bodoland (many non-Bodo majority areas have been included in the BTC to provide territorial contiguity) and, on the other side, for full statehood for Bodoland. During the recent violence, BTC chief Hagrama Mahilary alleged that the complete violence was being instigated by infiltrators from Bangladesh. Denied by the union home secretary, this allegation has got a lot of traction in the media, mainly for political reasons. The continued influx of people from Bangladesh, however, is a harsh reality which has exacerbated the conflict in Assam for many decades now. Illegal Bangladeshi immigration has to stop. If that happens, the communal nature of conflict will also subside. But it is not only about Bangladeshis. There is as much resentment against Nepalese immigrants, Bihari labourers, ‘Asomiyas’ or against other ‘outsiders’ from India.

Identity is a major marker in the Northeast. Each dominant group uses identity, often disguised as a demand to protect its culture and traditions, to assert its own brand of chauvinism. Laws such as the Inner Line Permit (ILP) have helped sustain this chauvinism. Under the provisions of the Britishera law — Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873 — the ILP system is already in place in Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Manipur, which never had the ILP since independence, recently saw an unanimous resolution by the state assembly to impose ILPs to prevent ‘outsiders’ (which includes Indians) from working or settling there. Similar demands have been raised in Meghalaya which already has a work-permit and a three-tier identity scheme in place to stop ‘outsiders’. This assertion of distinctive tribal identities and claims of exclusive ethnic territories is dangerous for India’s future. Constitutional provisions for protection of tribals under the Fifth and Sixth schedule have not resolved this dilemma. Instead of narrowing differences, these laws have created bigger chasms among groups. How do we balance the need for development and modernisation with the need to preserve ethnic traditions and culture? How do we integrate the various regions of the Northeast to the rest of India while addressing the genuine needs of various communities residing there?

There are no easy answers to these questions. While we await enlightened political leadership that can tackle such tricky questions, the least the Indian state can do is establish the Rule of Law. Prevention of violence and establishment of public order doesn’t have to await answers to these complex questions. The government is duty bound to ensure safety and security of its citizens. There can be no excuses for that failure.

Old wine in New Bottle

They are in 235 relief camps spread across four districts of the state. Of the 235 camps, 99 camps are with Bodo residents and 136 camps are with Muslim residents. In Dhubri district, there are 90 relief camps. In Kokrajhar there are 71. In Chirang 62 and in Bongaigaon it is 12. School and college vacations have been extended. No one wants to go back to their villages. It is also an open secret that the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) boys have made it clear that they don’t want the Bengali Muslims back in their districts. Direct warnings have been issued: return at your own peril. Student organisations like the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) have been chanting the mantra of ‘No Bodoland, No Rest’ and ‘Divide Assam, 50-50’ for a long time. It is almost with a crusader’s zeal they have been attacking, perhaps killing, and ensuring that the Muslims are driven out of ‘their’ land.

When I confronted Pramod Boro, the President of ABSU, he sounded like he had rehearsed his answers many times over. “It is very clear. A genuine Indian citizen has every right to stay where they want to. But out of the people in the camps are also illegal migrants. They have taken advantage of the situation, of the weakness in law,” he said.

Boro travelled back to the 2008 riots between Bodos and Muslims in Udalguri in Assam. The script was pretty much the same. Cause of the riots unknown, 49 killed, houses burnt and thousands displaced. “In 2008, after the Udalguri riots, before the rehabilitation process began, our demand was to check them (Muslims). There are three categories of people. Genuine voters and those who own land is the first category. Then there are people who have their names in the voter list and do not own land. They are the doubtful voters. The third category is the one for the directly illegal migrants. We are saying judge the second category. In 2008, the Assam government didn’t do it. They came back. These people are vote banks for the government. To restore the confidence of the local indigenous population, this time  there can’t be an exception,” he told me.

Once we take the road to Kokrajhar, we cross the memorial built to honour those who died in the cause of the Bodoland movement. It was a movement that began 25 years back and sought an independent state for the Bodo  tribals, one of the largest ethnic and linguistic groups in northeastern India. The movement still continues to seek the status of an independent state. Every now and then we can see ‘Bodoland is our birth right’ written on bus stops, on walls of buildings. It was a struggle that left many dead.

Initially, the movement by the Bodos was about dispossession of tribal land by non-Bodos, mostly Bengali and Assamese settlers. The struggle also included recognition of their language and culture. As Ajai Sahni puts in his Survey of Conflicts and Resolution in India’s Northeast, the demand for Bodoland took shape towards the latter part of the 1980s. It was in 1988 that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland was formed and as Mr Sahni points out, they initiated a “guerilla war” with the Indian state.

After various twists and turns in the struggle, BLT was formed in 1996. And again after several turns in February 2003, a Bodo Accord was signed between BLT and the Indian government. It was agreed to form a self- overning body for the Bodo areas. The main objective of that agreement was to create an autonomous self-governing body to be known as the BTC within Assam and to provide constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule to the said autonomous body; to fulfill economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land-rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos, and speed up infrastructure in the BTC areas.

Background to the Recent Violence in Assam

From the first week of July, Assam has seen widespread clashes between the Bodo tribals and the Bengali Muslims living in the Bodoland Terrtiorial Autonomous Districts in southern Assam. It is primarily and basically a fight for land. The land hunger of the Bengali Muslims leads them to grab land by encroaching on reserve forests and wild life sanctuaries. The Bodos resent and resist this and try to dislodge them. This leads to clashes. In fact the Bodos do not want non-Bodos to live in their territory but they understand this is not possible and have sullenly reconciled themselves to this reality.

The Bodo-Muslims clashes have taken place earlier also. The first recorded one was in 1952. Then in 1993 and 1994 and again in 2008. There have been inter-tribal clashes between the Bodos and Santhals also. In 1998, there were widesread clashes, with the Santhals at the receiving end. Thousands of Santhals had to flee their hearths and homes and take shelter in relief camps.

The Assam Government set up a one-man inquiry commission headed by Justice Shafiqul Haque to go into the causes of the violence. In an informal conversation Justice Haque had told that given the mixed population pattern of the area concerned and the mutual distrust and animosity between different communities, it would be difficult to prevent recurrence of such clashes. This time the first clash was reported on July 6. Allegedly, two Muslims boys were beaten up at a villager under Dotoma P.S. But large-scale violence erupted on July 19 at Magurbari when Bodo mob reportedly attacked the Non-Bodos. After that violence and counterviolence spread rapidly to three districts—Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri. Villages were burnt, the attackers on both sides using firearms as well. Judging by the intensity and spread of the clashes it is obvious that a riot-like situation was building up over a long time and the police and the administration of Assam were blissfully unaware of the development. The State Government was taken completely by surprise.

There is a widespread misconception outside Assam that the Bengali Muslims are all Bangladeshis and therefore illegal migrants. The forefathers of these Muslims migrated from East Bengal, East Pakistan and later from Bangladesh and settled in Assam. They are all Indian citizens. According to the Indo-Bangladesh Agreement, all persons coming to Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 (the day Bangladesh declared independence) will be treated as illegal immigrants and deported.

The migration of Muslim farmers from the then East Bengal started in the third quarter of the nineteenth century when the British rulers actively encouraged them to come and settle in Assam. The province was sparsely populated, there were vast stretches of fertile farmland and the Muslim farmers were hardworking. They produced plenty of paddy and other crops. Initially, there was no hostility to the migrants from the Assamese people.

Things started to change from the 1930s because of two reasons. First, the indigenous population of Assam had also increased and they needed land. The second reason was that the indigenous Assamese feared that the continuous flow of Mulsims from East Bengal was leading to demographic changes and someday they, the sons of the soil, would be outnumbered by the new settlers. The idea of secession was there in 1937, ten years before independence. Some four decades later, the ULFA tried to translate the idea into reality.

Now the presence of the former migrants are being resented by the Bodo tribals also. In retrospect, Justice Haque has proved prophetic. No police or para-military force, nor even the Army, can ensure permanent peace unless the different communities living side by side for ages realise that they cannot ‘cleanse’ the area of others, that they have to learn to live together and bury the hatchet, to use a cliché. This is, however, easier said than done. Sober elements from all the communities will have to put their heads together and take up the challenge of peace.

CONCLUSION

Thus it can be said that the reasons behind such violence have been analysed in depth in the following article but as of now little has been done towards finding a lasting solution to the complex problem. True, at this stage restoration of order is of prime necessity in the districts of Dhubri, Chirang, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon. But if one does not think of evolving a long-term approach to the problem, the situation would not only turn worse but also pose a serious danger to the country’s unity since Kokrajhar, the worst affected region, is landlocked North-East’s narrow passage to mainland India through the so-called “chicken’s neck”. Thus the authorities have to be extremely vigilant and not allow the conditions to deteriorate at any cost. And the humanitarian issue must be tackled with the sense of urgency that it demands.