Last year was a bad one for Assam’s Kokrajhar
district. Through July and August, local Bodo tribals and Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers clashed
violently in little known villages and towns in the poor, underdeveloped area.
By the time the state government and army got things in hand 77 people were
dead and some four lakh homeless.
Most of these people are still in relief camp limbo, waiting with diminishing hope for the day they can return home and rebuild their lives. The chances of return, at least for the Bengali Muslims affected by the riots, are slim. Some one lakh victims of an earlier series of riots in 2008 are still in relief camps.
The Bodoland Territorial Council has made it clear that it will not allow anyone without Indian citizenship documents to settle in its territory. It suspects many of the Bengali Muslims are illegal Bangladeshis.
Throughout Northeast India, and Assam in particular, fear and loathing of the Bengali immigrant has long been rife. The story stretches back to the days of the Raj when, following the conquest of Burma in 1826, these areas, until then under Burmese suzerainty, began to open up to the world.
The British ruled through the Bengali babu. For the generally unlettered tribal, the first experience of a strange new government was at the hands of this babu. Business gradually came in, in the form of Marwari and Sindhi traders. Even in farming, there was a new challenge, the Bengali Muslim farmer. Land in Assam was given to farmers from what is now Bangladesh during the early 20th century, under British rule and during the premiership of Mohammad Saadullah.
There were also strong demands from the Muslim League for the inclusion of Assam in Pakistan, and the Sylhet district of Assam became a part of that country in 1947.
After Partition, the Bengali Muslim who held on to his identity became the foreigner. He was also the one who competed directly with locals over agricultural land. Of all threats, he therefore came to be seen as the biggest.
Bangladesh has the highest population density, outside of city states like Hong Kong. At 964 people per sq km it far outstrips the Northeast’s figure of 149.
The border between Bangladesh and Northeast India runs for 4,100 km, often bisecting villages and even individual houses. It was a meaningless border for decades after an Englishman named Cyril Radcliff, who never came to India, sat in an office and drew lines on a map. The map is not the territory. The border is not the boundary.
And so, the movement of people across this meaningless border continued. In 1971, millions came across as war refugees. After Bangladesh became independent, most of the refugees returned home.
However, economic migration into India continued. Congress politicians who found a ready vote bank in these mainly Muslim migrants did nothing to stop it. Resentment and fear of loss of lands and livelihoods continued to rise, until it exploded in 1983.
The main plank of the Assam agitation that started in 1979 was expulsion of Bangladeshis from voter lists. The agitators refused to allow elections until this was done. Indira Gandhi’s government decided to barrel ahead anyway. At least 2,200 people, all suspected Bangladeshis, died in one night of brutality in Nellie (1983) as a consequence.
The struggle has not ended. The factors that brought migrants from Bangladesh haven’t gone away. Nor have the fears of local ethnic groups, relatively few compared to the millions in Bangladesh on one side and West Bengal and Bihar on the other. Until these tectonic forces can be tamed, there will be bloodshed over space and resources in Northeast India, again and again.
The Bodos are the latest to embark upon what their opponents, with some justification, call ethnic cleansing. There is reason to believe that state politics in Assam had something to do with violence in the Bodo areas. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi is on record blaming “internal and external forces” for the violence. Sources who decline to be identified have told this writer that a political tussle between two ministers was a contributing factor.
The Bodoland Territorial Council itself is run by former militants, who
have not given up arms. The Bodo leaders are pushing for statehood within the
Indian union. The Bengali Muslim population is in search of land, jobs, and the
rudiments of lives of dignity. Both groups have memories of lost glory: the
Bodos were the original rulers of Assam,
until the Ahoms came along 800 years ago. Muslim leaders in their rhetoric pitch themselves as descendants of the
Mughals, the first invaders from the west in the 17th century.
So long as the aspirations of both groups remain unaddressed, conflict is bound to be a recurring theme in Assam.
Text by Samrat