Another scourge, Assam singed

Ethnic clashes Loss of lives Battlefield

  • Published 30.07.12
Children at a relief camp in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. (AFP)Children at a relief camp in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. (AFP)

While Delhi was abuzz with the presidential oath-taking, in Assam, over three lakh people were rendered homeless. After the latest ethnic carnage, 40 or more people are dead.

It’s yet another communal flare-up compounded by a security lapse. The ethnic riots in Kokrajhar are not exactly unforeseen. For decades the government of Assam has remained indifferent to illegal migration from across the border. Vote bank politics adroitly cultivated by the Congress party for decades has come to roost. So much so, the indigenous Assamese is today a minority in his homeland. These illegal migrants have been allowed to settle in forest and char areas. A large population is also well-entrenched in areas now under the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD).

While East Pakistan then and Bangladesh now may not overtly declare that it is adopting the geo-political strategy of Lebensraum, this indeed has been a conscious policy for decades. Unfortunately, the accomplices on the Indian (Assam) side of the border made the process easier. But this insidious politics has the potential to flare up time and again. Spurts of ethnic cleansing by those who believe their homeland and their living space has been invaded and infiltrated are inevitable.

Ethnic clashes

This time the ethnic conflagration has taken a huge toll on human lives even while the state government was virtually caught napping. The riot victims or the elite among them had quickly dashed off missives to New Delhi pleading for the intervention of the Union home ministry. This is enough indication that people have lost complete faith in their state and local governments. The ethnic cauldron in the Kokrajhar area had been brewing for a while. Some of the steps that could have been taken by the district administration to diffuse the tension were unfortunately not done. In Delhi and Dispur, the presidential polls took precedence over an issue that should have engaged the immediate attention of politicians. But some politicians from both communities were also responsible for inciting violence.

At around the same time, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi was battling allegations of his government being insouciant about the molestation incident in Guwahati. Gogoi's luck seemed to have taken a vacation. His own information grapevine, too, seems to have let him down this time.

How could he not know of the impending cataclysm? Ethnic conflicts seem to just fall in the laps of the Assam rulers unannounced. Is this a bizarre coincidence or a design? Those who know Assam and its convoluted politics say this is inevitable. The further away you move from Dispur the more likely you are to encounter vacuum of governance. Sadly, people have learnt to countenance that. Maintaining law and order is an essential part of governance yet this is one area that stands severely compromised.

There is always the excuse that not enough security personnel are around to maintain law and order. But isn’t there a district collector and a whole chain of command under him to sense when a situation is going to go berserk? Good administration essentially means nipping mischief in the bud before it devours and destructs and becomes the misery of a hapless population. Has the standard operating procedure collapsed after years of grappling with militancy, which seemingly requires extra-constitutional measures?

Loss of lives

Look at the outcome of failing to contain the violence before it spread like wildfire. There is a deep sense of insecurity in both the affected communities; there is loss of human lives, and a virtual exodus of people from one place to another. Many have lost their life’s earnings. How can such a situation ever return to normal? Today, people feel unsafe at home and prefer to be in a relief camp. Others, of course, are forced to live in camps because they have lost everything. So many will have to start life from scratch. Can we even begin to imagine this? And think of the plight of women, children and the elderly. The Kokrajhar carnage, however, was not totally unexpected. It was a smouldering volcano waiting to erupt.

The area of misfortune falls within the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) consisting of four contiguous districts — Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. Created in 2003 after the surrender of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) led by Hagrama Mohilary, the BTAD was carved out of eight existing districts Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup, Darrang and Sonitpur. BTAD comprises an area of 27,100 square km and constituting 35 per cent of Assam’s geographical territory. Many were opposed to the creation of the BTAD under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution but Delhi which is the arbiter in all such cases does not think too far ahead.

Just by looking at the names of the districts we need not be told that at least five of them are Muslim dominated. The reality is that the Bodos are a minority in the BTAD and they have been trying to effect ethnic cleansing from time to time. This is the reason why arguments that ethnic homelands are not tenable beyond a point need to be taken seriously.

They become even more unviable when they are created for political reasons and at gunpoint. But that has been the modus operandi of all ethnic groups in the Northeast. Quite a few are demanding separate states. The Centre buys peace by granting them greater political and financial autonomy but without delving into the complexities of how the rule by a minority group over other dominant groups within an administrative arrangement is fraught with complexities that do not easily lend themselves to attempts at good governance.


The problem with homeland demands is that the objectives are unclear or are articulated by an elite group of leaders — in this case the gun-toting variety. Although the BLT claimed to be speaking for the Bodos, the fact remains that they were eyeing a larger share of the political cake. With money flowing in to the BTAD areas, those who are at the helm of the autonomous council and are also part of the Dispur Durbar have got things cut out for them. It’s the common Bodo citizen who is still living on the margins. And now after the ethnic flames have singed people on both sides of the divide it is again the ordinary, helpless citizens who are most affected. No matter which group you speak to, the refrain is the same. It is “land” and all that it stands for which is of concern for both. The Bodos fear that they would be outnumbered in “their homeland”. But that Assam is fighting a losing battle with illegal migration from Bangladesh has also been the narrative since a few decades. Nothing has changed. Things have only got worse.

While the state is often complicit in ethnic conflicts, the irony here is that the state has also completely failed to evolve any mechanism to counter illegal migration from Bangladesh. So, on both counts, the state has failed to honour its social contract with its citizens. Each time there is a bloody civil war in Assam, the Centre steps in and plants the seeds for future revolution. I do not wish to sound pessimistic but this is not the end of the bloodbath in this decade.

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