Northeast: Circle of Suspicion

Published: April 7, 2015 - 14:32 Updated: June 16, 2015 - 14:48

The ever-present slots of ‘migrant’ and ‘local’ typify the fragile relations between communities in the Northeast

Sanjoy Hazarika Delhi 

The horrific images of the brutal torture and killing of Syed Farid Khan in March in Dimapur, Nagaland, will endure to underline the danger of stereotyping in India’s fraught Northeast. Once extolled for its peacefulness and tolerance, much of the region is today on a knife’s edge due to deep divisions and simmering anger between its different ethnic, linguistic and religious communities.

As more facts emerge, a growing body of information has raised questions about the nature of the sexual incident that sparked Khan’s arrest and subsequent lynching and whether it should actually have been classified as rape. Jamaluddin Khan, the victim’s brother, asserted that “the mob … lynched him just because he was a Bengali-speaking person”.  The Nagaland Chief Minister and Home Minister blamed the social media for fuelling public frenzy. 

An Assamese of Bangali origin from the district of Karimganj in the Cachar valley who was married to a Naga woman, Khan was accused of being an Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant (IBI), which he was not—his siblings and father worked in the Indian Army.

The incident shows the deadly impact of notions of the “foreigner” or the “immigrant” or, worse still, the “illegal immigrant and settler”—which are all summed up in the often sweeping generalisation, “Bangladeshi”—that have been stoked by cynical politicians and an irresponsible media across the region for decades. Now widely accepted, such definitions have created an explosive mix of anger, contempt, fear and loathing, suspicion and ill-will, and worse: hatred. The lynching also showed how vulnerable a citizen like Khan could be in the face of a mob attack, even in government custody.

Time and again, the so-called “Bangladeshi” has been at the receiving end of media glare, political unrest and sporadic violence. While the recent incident calls attention to the challenge, it is worth noting that the “Bangladeshi” and immigration issue figure almost every day in virtually every daily newspaper in Assam, in vernacular and English, as well as media channels.

The Dimapur killing shows how terribly fragile relations are between communities. But it follows a series of events where poor and vulnerable groups, mostly Muslims of Bangali origin, have suffered grievously. There are also numerous incidents where poor workers from other parts of the country have been attacked, robbed, beaten or killed by armed groups in different states of the region. Yet, many human rights groups and others who speak out against discrimination against people from the Northeast who live in cities such as Delhi have been silent on these equally outrageous abuses.

This is a contradiction that is as untenable as it is glaring. If we seek justice and equality across India, surely the same is expected of us in our treatment of other human beings in the states of the region? We cannot have double standards.

This is in part why the issue of “migration” or “illegal migration” and settlement—which emerged as part of the epic anti-foreigner movement in Assam between 1979 and 1985 and has resurfaced sporadically since then—remains so difficult to resolve.

Similar anxieties over insiders and outsiders touch almost every source of discord not just in the Northeast but everywhere in India and South Asia: religion, land, culture, politics, demography, farming, environment and even international relations.

Bangladesh has consistently denied that any of its citizens are in India, especially the Northeast. But many Indians, forget political labels, are convinced that millions if not crores of them are here. At the same time, little solid research has been done to map the movement of Bangladeshis or to come to a rational figure of how many are in India: the best that even officials come up with is above 15-20 million and those figures have been bandied about for years, if not longer.

The dozens of tribunals which were set up in Assam in 1983 to detect and deport Bangladeshis have failed. Mindsets remain rigid and suspicion is extensive. Instead of improving cross-border relations, we are building a fence that, when complete, will be the largest human-built barrier between nations, in the words of writer Kai Friese. Some 2,700 km have been built since 1989, at a cost of around $600 million. When complete, it will turn an otherwise invisible border into a 3,300-km “impenetrable barrier, a gigantic machine for processing bodies,” Friese writes in his article, “Borderlands”, in n+1 magazine.

The fence represents an effort to solve a human, economic and political problem with a security, if not military, solution. For the Northeastern states, the relationship with Bangladesh is at best an uneasy one, especially for those on the international border as they nervously review the background of powerful agitations at the regional and national levels against illegal immigrants from that country. It is a difficult issue to negotiate and Udayon Misra, one of the region’s foremost political analysts, told me once that, “People’s feelings and concerns will be voiced, they will be raised in discussions between India and Bangladesh and if governments can’t overcome that concern, efforts to promote more trade through government channels won’t work.”

One of the most sensitive areas to have emerged in the Northeast in recent times is the western edge of Assam, where violence has regularly erupted between the Bodo tribe and Muslim settlers as well as other ethnic groups.

There is a range of complex factors behind the rise of violence in this slice of western Assam, part of an extremely diverse geographical and ethnographic region which abuts on four nations—Myanmar, Tibet/China, Bhutan and Bangladesh; barely four per cent of its borders are with the Indian mainland. The communities comprise not less than 220 ethnic groups —large and small—and are barely three per cent of India’s overall population. Many of these groups have roots in other parts of Southeast Asia and are the descendants of old migrations.

The Northeast of India has been the crucible of revolt against the Indian State for over 60 years, challenging the limits of democracy; governments have resorted to extreme measures to suppress uprisings. Ethnic relations between competing groups have been fragile with clashes over space and identity. There were several armed groups seeking various forms of autonomy or independence in Assam alone but most now are in ceasefire mode or in negotiations to settle their grievances.

Indeed, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam, that wedge of land which has been at the heart of violence in 2012 and 2014, exemplifies the complexity of the issues, the challenges in handling them and how explosive such contests over land, identity and mobilisation can be. The area has seen a series of riots, gunbattles and killings over the past 20 years involving Bodos, local Muslims and other resident ethnic groups.  Yet, till 1993, when the first attacks by insurgents on civilian groups took place, there were few communal clashes.  In the 2012 riots, police linked members of the Bodo ruling party to the extensive violence.

It is necessary to understand the origins of these wideranging challenges: the BTC districts throw up a contradiction to the concept and practice of democracy where majorities win elections and rule areas. Here, the physical majority is non-Bodo—including Muslims of Bangali origin, Assamese, Bengali Hindus and tribal groups such as the Adivasis and Koch-Rajbongshis. However, under the Bodo accord, the levers of political power, including representation in the local Council or Assembly, access to funds and the force of weapons (the place is awash with illegal small arms which have never been surrendered by various ‘accordist’ armed bands) are with the Bodos.

The Bodos, the largest tribe in the plains of Assam, control this area and their leaders won special powers and privileges after a 2003 agreement with the Government of India closed armed and non-violent campaigns for separation. The Sixth Schedule was invoked here, an affirmative set of laws asserting the primacy of local tribes over non-tribe groups in different parts of the Northeast. That agreement rewarded the Bodoland People’s Party (BPP), which grew out of the Bodoland Tigers Force, an armed group, with political power which it has held for over 10 years and while also being coalition partner of the Congress party in Assam.

In last year’s parliamentary elections, a non-Bodo won the local seat for the first time in 20 years. Today, everything is at stake for the BPP, with tough competitive elections expected to the council on April 8 with the Congress, BJP and the regional Asom Gana Parishad and even the All India United Minorities Front in the running.

The 2003 agreement did not bring the anticipated peace; the conflict was sustained by another group wanting ‘independence’ but later brought into a peace process. A third faction has played spoiler and is accused by the government of being directly involved in the recent killings. Throughout this period, the victims have largely been from what Indian officials euphemistically call the “minority” community—or Muslims. Another phrase is often used to target the Muslim groups here—they are described as “Bangladeshis”, playing on a deep fear in Assam and the Northeast that illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh is swamping the region and changing its demographic profile.

Independent scholars and researchers say that there has been migration from Bangladesh in the past and some still continues. However, they say that these figures are exaggerated to play up right-wing assertions and local apprehensions. Assam saw a powerful anti-immigrant movement in the 1980s that exploded into communal clashes, which left thousands dead. Muslims constitute over one-third of the state’s population and play a key role in deciding the fate of more than 30 Assembly constituencies.

As Assam and the Northeast struggle with their past, perhaps a way forward could be to nudge all political, ethnic and religious groups to a dialogue which asserts peace and mutual respect.  The sharing of power is crucial especially at the village level so that funds and political patronage are not limited to one group alone.  A third aspect would be to ensure controls on further encroachment on tribal lands. Finally, a relentless campaign is needed against armed groups and the killers as well as a crackdown against the circulation of small arms.  This is a difficult road to take but there are
few alternatives.

In the next year, especially, as Assam builds up to the 2016 Assembly elections, it will be critical to ensure that rhetoric and suspicion do not overwhelm reason and goodwill. Political groups, activists and the media have a special role to enable calm to prevail. Too much is at stake and too much has been lost over the years. It is on these factors, and not on the armed might of the State or the activities of a handful of extremist groups, that the pivot of peace and equality rests. 

(The writer is Professor and Director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia; author of the acclaimed Strangers of the Mist and other books on the Northeast, and led a health initiative that reaches about three lakh people through boat clinics on the Brahmaputra)   


This story is from print issue of HardNews