By Abhishek Saha,
Ethnic and communal violence has struck Assam, with all its stark ugliness, once again. What occurred in 2012, has returned, quite shamelessly, this month.
Muslims of Bengali origin have been mercilessly targeted—with more than 30 persons killed in two days—and mudslinging has continued ever since, unabated. Media reports have said that the non-Bodo organisations in the BTAD which fielded a non-tribal candidate (ex-ULFA member Hira Sarania) in the ongoing General Elections, in Kokrajhar district, has alleged that the minorities were targeted just because they did not vote for the Bodo candidate.
Though the Assam government promptly decided to hand over the investigations into the riots to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the truth remains that the recent spate of violent attacks on the Muslims of Bengali origin in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), is not an isolated event, or a sudden outburst of violence. To say the least, it is but the fall out of a very complex autonomy-movement that has gripped Assam since 1987, when, frustrated by the AGP government’s neglect towards the development of indigenous communities, Bodos under the leadership of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) came up with a fresh demand for a separate State called Bodoland. The ABSU was at that time led by Upendra Nath Brahma, who coined the term “divide Assam fifty-fifty.”
Bodos, the single largest tribal community in Assam—around 6 percent of the population, have been fighting for a separate State since 1967 under the banner of the political party PTCA which was backed by the ABSU. Along with the PTCA, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha also played an instrumental role in the Bodo struggle prior to 1987.
1993 Bodo Accord
In 1993, came a high-point for the Bodoland struggle—the Bodo Accord was signed by the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and its political wing, the Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC), with the Assam government in February 1993. Though they gave up the demand for a separate State while signing the Accord, it empowered the Bodos and facilitated the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC).
The provisions for the formation of the BTAD were that villages which have more than 50 per cent Bodo population should be included. But later, villages with fewer Bodo populations were also included to ensure territorial contiguity.
Moreover, the Accord did not demarcate completely the territory which would be included under the Council. And that, led “to all kinds of confusion and resentment among the Bodo groups, their leaders and the Bodo masses.”
As a consequence, the ABSU withdrew its agreement on the Accord and renewed its demand for a separate State.
Parallel to these political movements for a Bodo separate State, several armed organisations also evolved— initially the United Tribal Nationalist Liberation Front (UTNLF) formed in April 1984, and the Bodo Security Force formed in October 1986. Later, the Bodo Security Force changed its name to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in 1993, and the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) was formed in June 1996. Spearheaded by the BLTF and the NDFB a series of violent attacks, killings and massacres occurred, even within the different factions fighting for the ultimate goal of a separate State. And, into some of the large-scale killings we will look into in the next chapters.
2003 second Bodo Accord
On March 15, 2000, a formal cessation on the part of the agitating organisations was announced and the second Bodo Accord was signed by the BLTF (which played a more important role in the entire deal rather than the ABSU and other unarmed groups), Central government and State government in 2003. Consequently on December 6, 2003, “a total of 2,630 BLT cadres laid down arms, which included 508 assorted weapons and 17,137 different pieces of ammunitions.”
This second Accord led to the creation of an autonomous self-governing body of the Bodos—the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) within the State of Assam. The area under the BTC jurisdiction is called the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD). The Accord also agreed “to provide constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule to the said Autonomous Body; to fulfil economic, educational and linguistic aspiration and the preservation of land-rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos; and speed up the infrastructure development in BTC area.”
In fact, by this Accord to new districts Chirang and Baksa were formed, a proper boundary of the BTAD was affixed.
But the catch remains that in many areas under the BTC and the BTAD, the Bodos are minorities, sometimes forming only around 30 percent of the total population of the BTAD area.
After 2003, the struggle for a Bodoland went through several ups and downs. The different groups fighting for the Bodos got divided and separate factions came up—often with conflicts between each other.
The Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (BPPF) came up to rule the BTC, but unfortunately got divided into two factions—the BPPF (Hagrama), led by Hagrama Mahilary, the erstwhile BLT chief and chief executive member of the ad hoc BTC, and BPPF (Rabiram), led by Rabiram Narzary, former ABSU president. The first elections to the BTC saw violent clashes between the two factions, but Hagrama won at the end.
Hagrama’s faction was renamed as Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), and till date the BPF continues to be a coalition partner in the Tarun Gogoi led Congress government in the State.
Meanwhile, the NDFB also got divided into two factions– NDFB (Progressive) and the other faction as the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary). Ranjan Daimary was the founder chairman of the organisation, who, expelled from the party, formed his own faction in 2009.
It is important to understand that the struggle for a separate State of the Bodos, originates from the fact that they have been historically subjugated at the hands of the Assamese leadership and they fear a loss of identity. But at the same time, it’s crucial to realise that an enormous amount of violent acts have also occurred, painting the entire movement with blood and gore.
The political commentator Udayon Misra in his article Bodoland: The Burden of History in the Economic and Political Weekly, explains how “the creation of a particular ethnic homeland without ensuring the constitutional rights of the other communities living in the region” was the genesis of the series of extremely violent instances of ethnic and communal clashes, especially against the Santhals and the immigrant Muslims, that ensued thereafter.
Incidents of violence
The first instance of violence post the 1993 Accord was in October that year when more than 100 people were killed and another 18,000 rendered homeless following clashes between Bodos and Muslims of East Bengal origin in the Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts of Assam.
Then, after a lull of six months, the ugly face of ethnic violence again surfaced in Kokrajhar district. There, on May 27, 1994, Bodo militants set fire to the houses of Muslim families. News reports said that 22 Muslims were killed, more than 100 were injured, 7,000 made homeless and four villages burnt down. The army and paramilitary forces were deployed in Kokrajhar district following the incident. The attack was perpetrated by the Bodo Security Force (BSF).
In the series of massacres in 1993-94 perhaps the worst was the targeted killings of Bengali Muslim peasants by Bodo militants in July 1994 in Barpeta district of lower Assam.
In the Barpeta massacre around 1,000 people, mostly women and children were killed, around 60 villages were reduced to ashes and left more than 70,000 people internally displaced. What makes this massacre the most barbaric is the fact that, apart from killing the victims in their houses, fields and forests, Bodo militants massacred them in a relief camp also.
The next major instance of ethnic violence occurred in 2008. In the riots that continued over a period of two months—August to October, 2008—in Udalguri and Darrang districts of Assam. A few sporadic incidents were also reported in Chirang and Baksa districts. In totality, around 100 people were killed and more than 1, 00,000 rendered homeless, majority of who were Bengali Muslims.
Then, what happened in 2008 retuned, with a far devastating effect, in July 2012.
Violent ethnic riots starting from July 21, 2012 between Bodos and Bengali Muslims in Kokrajhar, Dhubri and to some extent in Chirang districts left around 100 people dead and 4, 00, 000 people in the 286 relief camps- 178 of them in the Muslim-dominated Dhubri district and 108 camps in the Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar district, at the peak of the crisis. Attacked Muslims from Kokrajhar district took shelter in the relief camps of Dhubri district while riot-stuck Bodos from Dhubri district moved to the safer Kokrajhar relief camps. And these relief camps were ill provisioned and lacked even basic human amenities.
Samrat, a North-East born journalist and author, wrote in his article on the 2012 riots in The New York Times:
The Bodos are set upon carving out their homeland. The Bengali Muslims are in need of living space. The ethnic Assamese and the government of India are at odds with both groups. It is a volatile matrix. The riots may end at some point, but the struggles will go on.
Indeed, it really is a ‘volatile matrix’.
The long narrative of ethnic and communal riots in Assam proves all over again how complex the demography of the state is.
In addition to its original, highly heterogeneous ethnic composition, the fear of the ‘other’ has been laid bare to the leeching manipulation of sectarian and identity politics. And, this wave of identity movements, often taking chauvinistic turns, bred alienation among communities and encouraged desperate measures, often violent ones, to protect whatever was one’s own. The greed for power, through the manipulation of communal and sectarian sentiments, never let the political leaders stop for a while and reflect upon how millions could die following a slight instigation.
Initiatives undertaken by consecutive governments in Guwahati or New Delhi for wholesome and inclusive development of indigenous communities in Assam have been dismal. No solid step for guaranteeing land rights to the tribals have come up by either the State or Centre. Even when such steps have come up, the administration failed to implement them effectively.
Communal politics that’s mainly played in the Indian heartland involved itself with the Assam riots of 2012, and that is something really disturbing. Arch leaders of both the Hindu Right as well as Islamic fundamentalist parties visited the riot-affected areas—Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, infamous for his hate speech, as well as Pravin Togadia, International Working President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
The recurrence of ethnic violence, which was also communal to some extent, shows that when political and administrative measures are half-hearted a problem can continue to inflict immense pain into the lives of millions of people even through three decades. Identity crisis, struggle for land and vote-bank politics, all played their own roles in stoking the flames of communal and ethnic violence alive and keeping it alive.
If instead of answering fundamental questions bothering indigenous communities for so long, communal politicians find just another avenue to gain votes, the situation will only be exacerbated.
On the crisis that Assam has been facing due to riots and massacres erupting out of clashes between the Muslim settler community and indigenous tribals, the political scientist Nani Gopal Mahanta has commented that ‘in lieu of accepting the immigrants as a part of greater Assamese society, the Indian state should provide political and cultural protection to the indigenous groups of Assam’.
What Mahanta suggests is the fact that a skewed or a one sided policy of appeasement towards a section of society against another does not hold the key to a peaceful Assam. Neither does the futile politics of blame-games and vitriolic rhetoric solve anything.
The most basic step towards solving communal and sectarian strife is a holistic understanding of the roots and the complex history of the people of Assam.