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LAND OF FEAR

Politicians rarely look beyond the next vote. But what they ignore or connive at in their pursuit of electoral gains often sets the stage for big trouble. Recurring outbursts of violence in Assam’s Kokrajhar district illustrate this. For decades, the state’s politicians turned a blind eye to the endless influx of people from across the border. Instead of seeing this as a major threat to the state’s demographic stability, they sought to turn the aliens into their vote-banks. While politicians played their games, the people paid the price. In large parts of the state, the local populations felt threatened by the influx of ‘outsiders’. Real or perceived threats to the local people’s land and livelihoods made both peace and social stability very fragile. For smaller ethnic groups such as the Bodos, the fears proved much stronger than for larger communities. The Bodos have long been afraid that the continued influx of ‘outsiders’ would reduce them to a minority in their homeland. Such fears have been at the root of periodic violence between Bodos and Muslims in Kokrajhar and some other districts in Assam. That the ‘outsiders’ are mostly Muslims adds a communal dimension to a primarily land-related conflict.

The issues that spark such violence are too complex to offer easy solutions. There will be more violence if the smaller ethnic groups continue to feel insecure. There will be worse violence, however, if politicians are not serious enough in tackling the issues. The latest spell of violence in Kokrajhar is largely the result of the state administration’s complete failure to grapple with the issues. The fact that some of the killings took place while the area was still under an indefinite curfew underscores a lack of political will. The chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, has alleged that some Bodo militant groups had triggered the violence. But that does not explain why his administration failed to prevent the flare-up. If the police are unequal to the task of keeping peace in Kokrajhar, the army or paramilitary forces should be given the responsibility. But Mr Gogoi must initiate a political process involving all parties and concerned ethnic groups in order to address the issues at stake. The Assam Accord of 1985 set certain guidelines for the identification and deportation of illegal settlers in Assam. The longer that task is delayed, the more ethnic and communal violence will haunt Assam.