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Mainstream, VOL L, No 32, July 28, 2012

Background to the Recent Violence in Assam

Tuesday 31 July 2012, by Barun Das Gupta

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 this writer at that time 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 Bodos. After that violence and counter-violence 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. Now, with the induction of over 18 companies of Central para-military forces and staging of flag march by the Army, the imposition of curfew in the disturbed areas and shoot-at-sight order to prevent rioting, the situation is slowly returning to normalcy.

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 hard-working. 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 fear was expressed in a memorandum that the Asamiya Samrakshini Sabha submitted to Jawaharlal Nehru when he visited Gauhati in November 1937. According to the Sabha leaders, the Bengali Muslims were willing to identify themselves with the Assamese but were being ‘forced’ to learn Bengali. They maintained this would be disastrous to Assamese interests. The memorandum went on to say: “ a means of saving the Assamese race from extinction, a considerable section of the Assamese intelligentsia has even expressed their minds in favour of the secession of Assam from India”. 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.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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