The savage have struck again in Assam. Pretending to help his cause, the killers of innocent Biharis in Assam have actually shamed the ordinary Assamese. The helpless Assamese farmer, who witnessed the slaughter of his Bihari neighbour’s family and asked what he could do to prevent it, captured the essence of the tragedy. In Tinsukia, Dibrugarh or Dhubri, the killers terrorized the common people into silence as much as they preyed on their sense of outrage over the attacks on some Assamese railway passengers in Bihar. The assailants in Bihar had both fanned and exploited the anger over the assault on some Bihari candidates who had gone to Guwahati to take the railway recruitment board examinations. It is important, however, to rescue some basic facts from the ruins of wanton revenge. First, it was not a case of inter-state rivalry, which some cynical politicians sought to make of it. Second, though they were upset, the common people of neither Assam nor Bihar spontaneously indulged in violence. It would, therefore, be wrong to blame the violence in either Bihar or Assam on an entire community. In fact, to do so would be playing into the hands of the perpetrators of the crimes.
The government of Mr Tarun Gogoi cannot, however, absolve itself of the responsibility for the escalation of the violence in Assam. There was enough indication of the provocations by the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom or the All Assam Students’ Union. The bandh organized by the AASU and minor incidents of violence on the Biharis were clear signals that trouble was brewing. These organizations have a dubious reputation for stoking chauvinistic sentiments. Moreover, tribal and ethnic rivalries within Assam have repeatedly resulted in bloodbaths. Regrettably, the chief minister seems to have either ignored the warnings or reacted to them inadequately. It would be even more regrettable if the government’s inability to take sufficient precautions was the result of political calculations. The lack of initiative from both the government and the ruling Congress clearly emboldened the killers to strike. It was not merely the government’s failure to measure the gravity of the situation that led to so many deaths; the lack of political will also created a dangerous vacuum. The government of Ms Rabri Devi had failed earlier in much the same way, but the events in Bihar should have alerted Mr Gogoi to the dangers on his turf.
The immediate task, though, is to prevent the recurrence of violence in either of the two states. It is some comfort that the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, himself has responded promptly to Mr Gogoi’s request for additional Central forces for Assam. Bihar, too, may need to deploy such forces without delay to prevent any backlash against the killings in Assam. New Delhi also needs to keep in constant touch with the two states. But far more important than such deployments is the political will to firmly put down potential trouble-makers. This certainly is no time to pander to parochial passions either in Assam or in Bihar.