Because of Â “the alarming rise in the Muslim population”
Same modus operadi. The soldiers of allah move in, wait till they gain enough strength in numbers, and then Â the jihad begins. If there is a blowback, the muslims claim their ‘human rights’, Â whine about ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’, Â and the usual suspects Â spring into action:
Bodo-Muslim violence in the State has left more than 50 people dead and over 400,000 homeless. Where does the blame lie? Â Can the problem be fixed? Â CHANDAN KUMAR SHARMAÂ looks at the reasons that led to the mayhem
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Assam has been sitting on a volcano of ethnic tensions for a long time. It just needed a trigger to erupt. And at the first given opportunity it burst open in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) areas of western Assam, leading to the death of over 50 people and making lakhs homeless. Although there has been a tendency to reduce the cause of the violence to its manifestations, the roots run deeper.
The foremost factor that lies in the background of the recent violence is the massive change in Assam’s demographic landscape which has made the Muslim migrants of East Bengali (and later Bangladeshi) origin a dominant force in the State at the expense of the progressive marginalisation of the indigenous communities. This migration began in the early 20th century under the patronage of the colonial administration, which aimed to garner more land revenue by settling the Muslim peasants in the fallow and wasteland areas of central and western Assam. The land where they settled belonged to the tribals engaged in shifting cultivation. This colonial policy altered the demography of these areas within a short span of time. The reports of both the 1921 and 1931 Censuses made special mention of the threat posed by immigrants to the indigenous population of Assam. Since the late 1920s, Assamese political leaders have been airing such apprehensions. The immigration, however, continued unabated. It received a new fillip under the Muslim League Ministry in the early 1940s. This demographic transformation became a nerve-wrecking experience for the indigenous people when the possibility of the merger of colonial Assam with East Pakistan loomed large at the time of Partition.
Taking cognisance of the threat posed by immigration to the tribal population, a committee led by Gopinath Bardoloi recommended the creation of special protected areas for the tribals known as ‘tribal belts’ and ‘tribal blocks’. However, these provisions have failed to safeguard tribal interest mainly due to the collusion of politicians and bureaucrats to grab tribal land and the exigencies of vote-bank politics, which saw settlement of more and more immigrants in the reserved areas. As a result, today we witness vast mass of land in the tribal areas being usurped by immigrant Muslims, triggering serious contestations regarding access to land and other resources. The Bodo-immigrant Muslim violence in Udalguri district of BTAD in 2008, for example, can be directly attributed to the issue of land.
Successive Censuses have highlighted the alarming rise in the Muslim population of the State, particularly in the districts that share borders with Bangladesh. As the India-Bangladesh border is extremely porous, a significant section of the Muslim population of the State are illegal immigrants. It may be mentioned that according to 2001 Census, in six of the 22 districts of Assam Muslims constituted more than half of the population and in four others they appeared to be the single largest community. The projected figures of 2011 Census are more alarming for the indigenous population as nearly half of the total districts of Assam are poised to become Muslim-majority districts. It goes without saying that this rise in the Muslim population has considerable impact on the electoral politics of the State, causing consternation among the indigenous communities. The recent conflict in Assam cannot be understood without taking cognisance of the above background.
This warrants urgent steps to check infiltration and safeguard the interests of the indigenous people. However, successive governments have ignored or diluted these pressing issues. The most critical provisions of the Assam Accord signed in 1985 after a six-year-long anti-foreigners agitation to safeguard the political, cultural and constitutional interests of the indigenous people still await implementation. The issue of updating the National Register of Citizen (NRC) in Assam has also been put in cold storage. The functioning of the foreigners tribunals for expediting the cases against foreigners is in a shambles due to the indifference of successive governments. All these have added to the frustration and anger of the indigenous communities.
Having said that, it is equally important to take cognisance of the changing demographic reality of Assam. Divisive rhetoric and politics in such a multi-ethnic landscape will only contribute to further polarisation of ethnic relationships. After all, millions of people of immigrant descent, many of whom came to the State nearly a century ago, have now become a part of the demographic landscape of Assam. Despite their growing demographic and political dominance, the Muslim immigrant population remains more or less ghettoised due to lack of education and development, which makes them subservient to divisive political forces. It was incumbent on the Government to expedite the process of social development of these people. But vote-bank politics has not allowed that to happen.
Thus, the government has neither undertaken any measure to assuage the apprehension of the indigenous people nor has it cared to bring the masses of immigrant Muslims to the mainstream socio-political discourse resulting in growing polarisation between them. In recent times, the news of rising fundamentalism among immigrant Muslims and Muslim identity rhetoric from western Assam have also precipitated the tension between them and the indigenous communities.
However, if one root of the present conflict in Kokrajhar (and for that matter that of Udalguri in 2008) lies in the demographic transformation of the region, the other root seems to lie in the exclusive homeland politics in the State. Although this space-centric identity assertion is a colonial legacy, the post-Independence setup has further perpetuated these policies. As a result, several communities of Assam today ask for ethnic autonomy in specific territories, which they claim to be their exclusive preserves while ignoring the historical presence of other indigenous communities therein. This has led to a series of conflicts, often bloody, even among indigenous communities of the State.
Although the process came to a halt with the creation of Meghalaya in 1971, it got revived with the emergence of the Bodoland movement in the 1980s. The Bodos, the largest plains tribe of Assam, demanded a separate homeland in the late 1960s but the movement dissipated toward the mid-1970s. Along with other indigenous communities of Assam, the Bodos participated in the anti-foreigner agitation, which spanned from 1979 to 1985. But the Bodo leadership felt betrayed by the Assam Accord and launched a mass movement for a separate Bodoland State. This movement, often marred by violence, led to the creation of the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC) in 1993. In 2003, it was upgraded to the present Bodo Territorial Council (BTC). The BTC-administered area came to be known as BTAD made up of four districts â€” Kokrajhar, Baska, Chirang and Udalguri â€” carved out of eight existing districts of Assam.
However, the formation of the BTC has faced serious contestation from its non-Bodo population, many of who are indigenous to the area. Among them, the Koch-Rajbanshi community has already raised demands for a separate Kamatapur State, the territory of which considerably overlaps with the BTAD area. The Bodos also face challenge from the substantial presence of the Adivasi community, mostly Santhals, in the BTAD area who first came to Assam in the late 19th century. Evidently, the problem for the Bodos lies in the fact that though BTC has been conferred on the Bodos of the BTAD area, constituting around one-fifth of its total population, they don’t have the required socio-political hegemony in the region. This poses a serious concern for the Bodo leaders whose self-declared goal is the attainment of the separate State of Bodoland. The ethnic conflicts between the Bodos and the Santhals in 1996 and 1998 were the fallout of this tension.
However, the biggest political threat the Bodos face is from the immigrant Muslim community. From the economic viewpoint, too, the Bodos (and indeed other indigenous communities), engaged mostly in consumption-oriented economy, find it difficult to compete with the immigrant Muslim peasants with a long tradition of commercial production. In fact, there are many cases where Bodos have engaged immigrants as sharecroppers and eventually lost possession of their land even though that land belongs to a tribal reserve area.
It is clear that the recent violence has not occurred abruptly. The simmering tension was only waiting to erupt. This is not a mere law-and-order problem and cannot be resolved by increased presence of security personnel. However, fully knowing the volatility of the situation which is the Government’s own making, its lack of preparedness to avert the carnage is indefensible.
The writer teaches Sociology in Tezpur Central University, Assam. His doctoral study was on the Bodoland Movement