Assam Riots: Bloody contortions and homeland pitches

The most important lessons from the Kokrajhar Carnage: Nothing is as toxic as the vote bank politics of illegal migration. An incident can go viral in minutes thanks to social network sites. And, Delhi can no longer buy peace by granting ethnic homelands at gunpoint

Patricia Mukhim Shillong 

The incidents of July this year which have spilled over into August and resulted in the exodus of thousand of students and professionals from Bangalore, Pune, and Hyderabad, etc, to their homes in Northeast India, have evoked several responses, ranging from the compassionate to the bizarre. Shekhar Gupta, Editor, Indian Express, writing a column on the plight of northeasterners, blamed his countrymen/women for their ignorance and insensitivity towards a people and region they are largely ignorant about. BarkhaDutt chose her adjectives with care. She called the people of the North East, soft-spoken, gentle and cultured and said they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Very well-intentioned paeans to a population that still struggles to understand not just the idea of India but the larger ramifications of being Indian and yet be so different racially and culturally from the rest of their countrymen. 

So many things have happened in the span of a month that it is difficult even for someone writing from ground zero to give the correct perspective of things. There are too many perspectives. Whose do we put forward? Even as a mediaperson who swears by objectivity, that sometimes becomes difficult because you are too close to the sufferings and pain of those without guile who have no knowledge of the political undercurrents. It has been said that when elephants quarrel it is the poor grass that is flattened out and bears the brunt of the weighted thumps.


 The Bodo Accord signed between the government of India and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), an armed insurgent group, in 2003, led to the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) comprising four contiguous districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. Bodo leader HagramaMohilary became the chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) which is funded generously by the Centre. The BTAD was carved out of eight existing districts: Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup, Darrang and Sonitpur, comprising an area of 27,100 km square and constituting 35 per cent of Assam’s geographical territory. 

The Bodos constitute only one-fifth of the population of BTAD. There are large sections of non-Bodos — the Assamese, Bengalis, adivasis and a substantial population of ‘illegal migrants’ who have allegedly crossed over from Bangladesh through a porous border to a place that is a shade better off than their original habitat which is flood-prone and poverty-stricken. 

From its very inception the BTAD sowed the seeds for ethnic cleansing which the Bodos have effected with predictable regularity. In 2008, the adivasis became the targets of the ethnic bloodbath. Those displaced at the time are still living in relief camps. So too the victims of the ethnic cleansing of 1998! 

The Bodos are now asserting their rights to statehood. They see it as an important part of the strategy that the non-Bodos should not become a majority in the BTAD. But the unabated influx from Bangladesh poses a major obstacle to the fulfilment of their dreams. In fact, the Muslim population still plays a decisive role in the elections even within BTAD areas and this is jarring for the Bodos, to say the least. 

Those well placed to advise the government of India at the time were opposed to the creation of the BTAD under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution since the Bodos are a minority in their proposed ‘homeland’ and because the template on which the BTAD rests were not inclusive of ‘others’. But Delhi, the arbiter in all such cases, went right ahead and committed a blunder for which it continues to pay the price. 

The carnage of Kokrajhar, as stated above, was not totally unexpected. It was a smouldering volcano waiting to erupt. A simple analysis tells us that in Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang districts, under BTAD, there is a significant Muslim population. Many had already been settling there before the creation of the BTC. This is the reason why arguments that ethnic homelands are not tenable need to be taken seriously. They become even more unviable when they are created for short term political gains. 

This loss of innocence is sad because things will never be the same again. You never know when a fundamentalist group becomes your Facebook friend while you unwittingly help to spread venom and hatred

The BLT never surrendered all their weapons at the time of their stage- managed surrender. Those weapons always come in handy when the Bodos choose to go on an ethnic purging drive. How could the Delhi not foresee that by capitulating to the BLT and hoping that they would put a cap on their guns, it was actually creating further dissension? 

Interestingly, most of the ethnic groups in the Northeast who are aspiring for a homeland are citing the Bodo example. None of the ethnic groups are a majority in that particular proposed homeland. But the Centre invariably opts for the path of least resistance and ends up granting them greater political and financial autonomy without considering that rule by a minority group over a dominant one is fraught with complexities that do not lend themselves to any 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 for 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 DispurDurbar, have got things cut out for them. It’s the common Bodo citizen who is still living in 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 have to move to relief camp. For some people life is a series of bad deals! 

The recent riots that broke out in Kokrajhar and then spread elsewhere have unfortunately been construed as a communal clash between Bodos and Muslims. But things are not so simple. The Bodos argue that they have exclusive rights over their homeland. For the migrant Muslim population too land has become the temptation to cross over to India. They have been allowed to settle in the land of the Bodos by vote-banking politicians, mainly from the Congress. Ordinary Bodos who don’t have the wherewithal to understand divisive politics have cried out that they would soon be outnumbered in “their homeland.” 

From its very inception BTAD sowed the seeds for ethnic cleansing. In 2008, adivasis became targets of the ethnic bloodbath. Those displaced are still living in relief camps. So too the victims of the ethnic cleansing of 1998

Being the first settlers of Assam and the largest ethnic and linguistic group of the Brahmaputra valley, they have some legitimacy to say so. But that Assam is fighting a losing battle with unchecked migration from Bangladesh has also been the imagery and the narrative since a few decades. Nothing has changed. Things have only got worse. 

The most enduring plot of India’s Northeast, at least for the indigenous people (tribals), is that they might become minorities in their homelands. This is the surest way to whip up emotions and get people to become completely irrational. Countless lives have been lost in each of the seven states on account of such ethnic revolts. You cannot ask people who are so intensely insecure about their future to be reasonable. Hence, it is understandable that the Bodos would fear the idea of being ousted out by those they consider interlopers into their homeland. 

But, how do you counter the influx from across the border? 

The State has failed to evolve any mechanism to detect and deport illegal migrants. It has also failed to reduce the sharp edges of ethno-centrism. In his book, The Sociology of Ethnic Conflicts: Comparative International Perspective, Robert M Williams Jr says both inter-ethnic and ethnic-state conflicts tend to be severe, protracted and intractable. At the extremes, the stakes are total: survival versus genocide. 

Competition and rivalry for individualized economic and political goods are important, but the most intense conflicts are to be expected when the stakes are collective goods,including categorical claims to prestige and political authority. 

What is worrying in William’s analysis is that he points at ‘States’ as major actors in creating, accentuating, or diminishing ethnic identities. He says ‘States’ are both arenas of rivalry and conflict and resources for ethnic mobilization and counter-mobilization. This is exactly the case with Assam. 

The State does not have the resources to create peace since it is the actor that stands to gain from perpetuating ethnic conflicts. Hence, attempts at peace-building would require mobilisation of resources outside the State — in this case perhaps through civil societies. But where can you garner the resources of a non-partisan, non-political civil society especially at this juncture when the social contours are so sharply drawn? At best, the State can quell violence but what after that?

Truly, Assam is in a Catch-22 situation. 

In the Northeast, the socialisation process is different. Men and women interact freely without needing to conceal their sexuality. Friendship does not necessarily have to end with sex

Coming to the copy-cat episode at Azad Maidan, Mumbai, which was perhaps meant to signal the evolution of a counter-revolution to the convolutedly constructed anti-Muslim outrage in Assam, and its resonance in Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad, one can only term it as a sad precedence. Lakhs of north-easterners felt so threatened by threats over SMS and MMS that they boarded the first train/plane back home. 

For decades the Northeastern region of India has laboured under the burden of being different, discriminated, alienated (plus, some more adjectives) suggesting distance from a country which the people of the regions still refer to as India. Anyone coming from a state other than those of the seven sister-states are also called ‘Indians’. Not in a pejorative way but for want of a better word to relate to them. 

Over the last two decades, however, the compulsion of having to find work or to study in institutions outside the region has landed the youth of the region in nearly all the metros of the country and other lesser known destinations to study medicine, engineering, forestry, hotel management, agriculture and a host of other professional courses. A lot many are employed in the hospitality industry as they make good hostesses. Some croon their way in 5-star hotels and earn a decent package for themselves. Others work hard in the service industry on modest salaries. 

In a very quiet way, the Northeast was seamlessly integrating with the country.  

But, there were fault-lines. The youth of the Northeast, particularly young women, have always felt a sense of being violated when they are ogled at by the so-called metro-sexual Indian male. Unfortunately, this typical Indian male has not been initiated into the adult world of male sexuality where he learns not to equate sex with a power game where he always has to prove his male prowess. 

In the Northeast, the socialisation process is different. Men and women interact freely without any sense of discomfort or unease and without needing to conceal their sexuality. Friendship does not necessarily have to end with sex. Church choirs are packed with male and female singers who do things as a group and quite easily forget the biological and gender differences. 

It is not so in the rest of India; at least that has been my experience. This is the first cultural shock that the north-easterner encounters when she lands in Delhi for instance. The southern states are considered safer and less aggressive. 

Inter-ethnic and ethnic-state conflicts tend to be severe, protracted and intractable. At the extremes, the stakes are total: survival versus genocide

That an ethnic riot in distant Assam could reverberate with such fury through our modern instruments of communication is very scary. Social networks, instead of helping us to share common concerns, or innocent conversations, are today akin to weapons of mass destruction. This loss of innocence is sad because things will never be the same again. You never know when a fundamentalist group becomes your Facebook friend while you unwittingly help to spread venom and hatred. 

Indeed, after this incident of mass exodus, things will never be quite the same. We have all learnt lessons; whether we can use those lessons to reduce social tensions or aggravate them, I am not so sure. However, one thing is sure: if we don’t learn lessons from history, then history will continue to teach us many more bitter lessons.  

The most important lessons this time are (a) nothing is as toxic as vote bank politics which encourages illegal migration, (b) an incident is no longer isolated, it can go viral in minutes thanks to our social network sites (c) and, the government of India can no longer buy peace through granting of ethnic homelands at gunpoint.  

The writer is Editor, Shillong Times, Shillong, Meghalaya.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2012