It is an undeniable fact that in the hierarchy of what passes off as “national” news, northeastern India occupies the lowest rung. While periodic lip-service is paid to the need to rectify matters and bring this much-neglected part of India into the “mainstream” discourse, the bewildering complexity of the region and its relative inaccessibility has ensured that the Northeast remains an afterthought, a sort of fourth world in the third world.
So it was with last week’s violent clashes in the Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts of Assam that left more than 50 people dead and an estimated four lakh people uprooted from their homes. A “humanitarian crisis” — the newest coinage of media-speak — of this magnitude should have led to a furore in the chat shows, with sundry human rights bodies joining the race for competitive indignation. After all, a far lesser crisis in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in 2008 had attracted far greater attention, not to speak of the Gujarat riots of 2002 that continue to dominate media space.
To argue, as has often been done, that the editorial classes are naturally callous and prefer to focus on a relatively small protest in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar is only part of the story. The reality is that the media love simple categories — as, for example, Hindu “fanatics” versus helpless Christians in Kandhamal and the “mass murderer” Narendra Modi versus beleaguered Muslims in Gujarat. The situation in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, unfortunately, was too complex to present as a clash between “good” and “evil”. Was it, as many insisted, a “communal” clash involving Hindu Bodos and Muslim settlers who had arrived from what is now Bangladesh? Alternatively, was it an ethnic clash involving the indigenous Bodos and Bengali-speaking immigrants? The underlying presumption was that while a “communal” clash was unacceptable, an “ethnic” conflict was nominally less damning.
Then there were the invariable sub-plots that excite television channels. Was the Assam government too slow to respond? Why did the Tarun Gogoi government not take pre-emptive measures after the murder in Kokrajhar of, first, two Muslims on July 6 and then the retaliatory violence that led to the killing of four Bodo activists on July 20? Was there any basis to Chief Minister Gogoi’s assertion at a press conference last week that the army had refused to act until it got a sanction from the defence minister, A.K. Antony — a process that took two days? Is there any basis to the allegation by the Bodo tribal council chief, Hagrama Mohilary, that armed Bangladeshis from across the international border had incited the violence?
Most of these questions will remain unanswered, even after the official inquiry committee eventually submits its report. However, what is clear is that in trying to slot the violence into pre-determined compartments and exploring the vexed question of administrative culpability, the media and the political class are taking evasive action. There is an uncomfortable dimension to this ethnic-communal flare-up in Kokrajhar and Dhubri that decision-makers would rather not address, not least because they have no answers to offer.
That the origins of the violence lie in the demographic upheaval Assam has been witnessing for the past 100 years is undeniable. Thanks to waves of immigration from the region that is now Bangladesh, the population of Assam increased from 3.29 million in 1901 to 14.6 million in 1971, a 343.7 per cent increase compared to the all-India increase of nearly 150 per cent in the same period. Public intellectuals in Assam have stressed that the increase of the Muslim population has been disproportionate. In an unusual intervention last week, the election commissioner, H.S. Brahma suggested that the details of the 2011 census may reveal that 11 of the 27 districts of Assam now have a Muslim majority.
While the issue of “illegal immigration” from Bangladesh has formed an important part of the public discourse of the Assamese-speaking Hindus of the Brahmaputra valley, it has become a paramount issue for the Bodo-speaking minority living in the areas that constituted the undivided Goalpara district. The Bodo-speaking minority, which accounts for only five per cent of the population, perceives a dual threat to their existence: a cultural challenge from the Assamese-speaking majority and a physical challenge from Bangladeshi Muslims who constitute the majority in Dhubri and whose presence is increasingly being felt in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar district.
The emergence of militant Bodo sub-nationalism in the 1990s was an attempt to cope with these twin challenges and led to the formation of the semi-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council in 2003. However, much of the political gains from militant identity politics have been offset by the growing assertiveness of the Muslim community. The rise of the All India United Democratic Front led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, the All Assam Minority Students Union and the Asom Mia Parishad has triggered a frontal Bodo-Muslim confrontation. Tensions have further risen following the AIUDF demand that the BTC be abolished because Bodos no longer constitute a majority in large areas governed by it. In an astute move, Ajmal has taken care to develop links with major Muslim organizations throughout India to ensure that the concerns of his social base are easily translated into “national” Muslim concerns.
Confronted with this seemingly intractable situation, both Delhi and Dispur have fallen back on homilies. Following his tour of the relief camps earlier this week, (then) Home Minister P. Chidambaram took recourse to pious platitudes: “There are people from a variety of communities living in Assam now. Ultimately, people of all communities would have to learn to live together in peace.” There was not a word about border fencing or possible modifications to the farcical Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act. Dependant on Bodo support in Dispur but equally concerned with Muslim support at an all-India level, the Congress has very little space to manoeuvre. It can merely hope that any future conflict can be averted by more efficient administrative measures. Meanwhile, ground reports suggest an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing. Bodos in Dhubri are moving to Kokrajhar, and dispossessed Muslims of Kokrajhar are moving to Dhubri. Some may even find their way into West Bengal.
In the past, India’s liberal intelligentsia has been very vocal on the so-called “communal” question, particularly the harassment of the minorities. Yet, the usual suspects have been strangely quiet over this monumental upheaval that has shaken Assam. The reasons are obvious. The familiar stereotypes centred on brutish majoritarianism and vulnerable minorities don’t quite fit the bill in Dhubri and Kokrajhar. What we have instead is a very vulnerable indigenous tribal minority being squeezed from all sides, but particularly by the communal assertiveness of another minority that can leverage its national clout for local advantage.
In 2004, when the religious demography of the 2001 census showed some strange results for Assam, the intelligentsia buried its head in the sand and ensured that all meaningful discussions on the subject were guillotined. The same process is once again at work over recent events in Assam.
In 1947, the Muslim community was a frightened minority, unsure of its position in an India that never took too kindly to the painful Partition in two wings. In 2012, Indian secularism is deeply entrenched and has ensured both dignity and political empowerment to religious minorities, sometimes by way of exceptional consideration. A problem, however, is likely to arise if the empowerment of minorities becomes a byword for injustice to others. For the Bodo minority of Assam, the practice of secular politics is coming to imply the possible extinction of their very identity.