[Assam in the news again, unfortunately, yet again for bloodshed and violence. The following article provides a nuanced understating of the situation, its complexities and a possible solution for achieving just peace. This article was originally written in August 2012, but in the current situation it is even more important. Hence, we are reposting it for the readers of IndiaResists—Team IR.]
By Tanweer Fazal,
The ethnic homeland model of resolving violent conflicts has collapsed and any further pursuance of this would only end up in colossal human tragedies of the kind we are witnessing today.
From the ensuing violence in Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas, what lessons do we have for conflict resolution and for making durable peace? The simplest and the foremost one is that sources of conflict, if left unaddressed, almost inevitably raise their heads repeatedly, usually with increasing viciousness.
Therefore, ‘buying time’ could only be a momentary strategy, and certainly not an everlasting formula to bank upon. What the Bodoland Accord (2003) signed between the armed outfit, Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), the Government of India and the Government of Assam, achieved was peace between government forces and Bodo militants. The Accord assured a permanent majority to the Bodo people in the BTC, political authority and a comprehensive rehabilitation package to the BLT rebels, and unassailable powers pertaining to transfer and postings of civil officials. The Accord also vouched to protect the land rights of communities inhabiting the region. However, as is evident now, the purportedly ‘peace’ accord left more wounds open than it could heal.
Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) came into existence by carving out four contiguous districts—Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Chirang and Baksa—in disregard of the existing demography of the region. What remained undisputed was the fact that the region remained a shared space between ethnicities and religious groupings—Bodos, Santhals, Koch Rajbangshis, Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus, Assamese people etc. The oft-beaten track of propelling an ‘ethnic homeland’ model—a Bodoland for the Bodos—was potentially disastrous to begin with, it has remained as such. History is replete with lessons, and one needn’t go too far: the ‘ethnic’ model failed in the North-East itself.
The North-Eastern Areas (Re-organisation) Act of 1971 fragmented erstwhile Assam and legitimised the idea of ethnic boundaries aspiring to coincide with political boundaries. The states of Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur etc have rarely proved to be homogenous in terms of their cultural composition, neither did this succeed in mitigating conflicts between groups. Often flagged as the most successful case, the Mizo Accord (1986), sanctioned Mizo exclusivity over territories proclaimed, and almost willfully allowed the extermination of Reangs and the Hmars. Neither did the Assam Accord succeed in settling the identity quests of Bodos, Dimasas, tea tribes, and even the Assamese, once and for all.
Violence in Kokrajhar has re-opened the issue of immigrants in Assam. For all the public fulminations and posturing over the immigrants, it still remains obfuscated and rarely subjected to scrutiny. First, there’s almost a criminal apportioning of guilt that rarely comes with the noblest of intentions: foreigners, immigrants, Bengali-speaking Muslims, Bangladeshis are all invoked seamlessly. Political formations that have denied land rights of tribals in most of India (Chhattisgarh and Orissa come to mind), instantly morphed into the staunchest champions of Bodos’ claims to exclusive rights.
The national media, much of our celebrated commentators and opinion-makers, anchors on TV channels, and even a constitutional authority, found this right-wing twist to the issue so enticing that they all uncritically embraced it. Thus, the districts that have registered decadal decline in population growth were presented as being ‘colonised’ by the Muslim immigrants, the spectre of 11 districts dominated by Muslims was unabashedly presented as an ‘impending peril’, and the Bodo conflict with other communities such as the Rajbonshis and the Santhals was purposely glossed over.
In most such accounts, therefore, the conflict is portrayed as one between illegal Muslim immigrants and Hindu Bodos (even though Bodos display a wide array of religious affiliations from Animism to Christianity to Vaisnavism), the original inhabitants and the rightful claimants of the region. That Assam has had a turbulent tryst with immigration in the past is further cited to strengthen the argument. This partial chronicling of Assam’s demography deliberately overlooks, first, the long history of Muslim presence in Assam and, second, the heterogeneity of identities that Muslims in Assam refer to: Assamese Muslims, Na Assamese, Bengali Muslims, and also Hindi and Urdu-speaking Muslims from North India.
Clubbing all of them under the bracket, ‘Bangladeshis’ is outrightly an insidious and perverted design. Besides, amidst the imminent threat of a Muslim influx in Bodo areas, what is missed is the fact that the 2011 Census actually records a decline in the decadal growth rate of all the four districts under the BTC. In fact, Kokrajhar, the hotbed of violence reported the sharpest fall in decadal growth rate: from 14.49% from1991-2011 to 5.19% in 2001-2011. Rather than an influx of ‘Bangladeshis’, the decline, if only, suggests an exodus of population to the neighbouring districts.
For that matter, the alleged immigration from Bangladesh is only part of the problem for what would explain the attacks on Santhals and Bengali-speaking Hindus in the past that left hundreds killed and nearly 3,50,000 internally displaced. Recounting such painful memories is barely a solace when nearly 400,000 people, both Bodos and Muslims, are languishing in relief camps under sub-human conditions of existence. But surely we can draw lessons. The principal imperative is to rescue ourselves from the rightist propensity to conflate citizenship and identity.
Therefore, the very concept of D-voters drawn on account of their religiosity and linguistic identity is fundamentally illiberal and unconstitutional. The bogey of foreigners, frequently resonated in the public discourse and often with invented data, needs to be disputed forthwith. Two, the ethnic homeland model of resolving violent conflicts has collapsed, any further pursuance of this would only end up in colossal human tragedies of the kind we are witnessing today. Consequently, the design to cleanse Kokrajhar and the adjoining districts of its diversity demands rebuttal. Finally, a re-structuring of the BTC with enhanced provision for the participation of non-Bodo populations is possibly justified. This is a long shot into the future but the quest for a ‘just peace’ invariably begins from here.
(Dr Tanweer Fazal is an Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)