Violence in Assam has subsided, but anxieties of land and identity are still haunting the people

HARSH MANDER | Oct 18, 2012, TNN

Although Assam has disappeared from the front pages of national
newspapers, large populations still live in makeshift, underserved
camps, racked by memory, fear and uncertainty, with little prospect of
an early return to their homelands. Legitimate anxieties of land and
identity have acquired an urgent grammar of violence and hate, and
irreconcilable divisions have grown further between estranged

During my journey to relief camps in Dhubri, Chirang and Kokrajhar,
housed in the classrooms and courtyards of schools, i found that
government had ensured basic food rations and primary healthcare
services. For the rest, people mainly had to fend for themselves.
There was no bedding, no mosquito nets, toilets were scant and choked,
and there was little water for drinking and bathing. People who had
fled their burning villages or rampaging mobs had few clothes or
utensils. Children were the worst hit. There were no child care
services, or temporary schooling. Everywhere i found a longing to
return home.

The stories we heard in both Bodo and Bengali Muslim camps were
disturbingly similar, of neighbours turning into murderous mobs, of
torched and ransacked homes, of looted livestock, and of fearful
flight. Many escaped only in fear, even though their settlements were
not attacked, and in these villages, men return to guard their homes
and fields, leaving the women and children in camps.

There are legitimate anxieties and grievances on both sides of the
dispute. Udoyon Misra writes eloquently of the ‘ever so heavy’ burdens
of history of indigenous Assamese peoples like the Bodos, of ‘land,
immigration, demographic change and identity’. He describes massive
land alienation of the Bodo plains tribal people who were shifting
cultivators with few land records, by industrious and aggressive
Bengali Muslim immigrant cultivators.

Successive governments in both the state and the Centre have failed to
effectively seal borders, and to identify and repatriate illegal
immigrants. The Bodos worry also about being culturally swamped in
their traditional homelands, not just by Bengali Muslims but also
other communities such as the caste Hindu Assamese, Koch-rajbanshis,
Santhals and Bengali Hindus.

The Bodo accord of 1993, which belatedly gave administrative autonomy
to the Bodo people in their traditional homelands in which they
already were reduced to a minority, unfortunately also created an
incentive for driving out people of other communities and ethnicities.
The first attacks by armed Bodo militants on Bengali Muslims occurred
in 1993 itself, and these have recurred sporadically against also
Santhal adivasis, who are descendants of tea garden workers who
migrated centuries back. Clashes occurred in 1994, 1996, 1998 and
1999. Around one and a half lakh people displaced by these clashes –
both Bengali Muslim and Santhal – continue to live in camps up to the
present day, an entire generation of forgotten internal refugees with
no home. The government took no decisive steps to help these refugees
return to their homelands.

This remains a festering wound on the psyche of the Bengali Muslim, as
also the fact that not a single person has been persecuted for the
gruesome slaughter mounted in Nellie in 1983. They complain that all
Bengali Muslims are tainted as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, whereas
demographers confirm that only a small fraction of the immigrants are
actually illegal settlers who slipped into the state after the agreed
cut-off date of 1973. Many have learnt Assamese, and wish to be
accepted as legitimate Assamese citizens.

This already fraught environment, of legitimate competing anxieties
and grievances of diverse communities, has deteriorated sharply
because of the implicit legitimisation of violence as a means to
resolve these competing claims. People sympathetic to the concern of
Bodos and other indigenous tribal communities suggest that the
violence to which they have resorted in recent decades is unfortunate
but understandable. This is rendered more dangerous because of the
easy availability of sophisticated arms among the surrendered Bodo
militants, who were never effectively disarmed.

On the other hand, apologists for the Bengali Muslim violence justify
it as being ‘only retaliatory’. This is slippery ethical territory,
because the same argument was used to justify the post-Godhra
massacre, as well as the slaughter of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s
assassination. There is disturbing evidence of growing radicalisation
of a small section of the Assamese Bengali Muslim, of a kind which was
remarkably absent among the victims of the Gujarat violence. The
latter have remained unshakably committed to the democratic, legal and
non-violent resolution of their grievances, despite the brutal
slaughter and systematic subversion of justice and reconciliation by
the leadership thereafter.

There are wide demands today that only those Bengali Muslims in relief
camps should be allowed to return home who can first prove their legal
status. The acceptance of this demand would further incentivise the
mass violence which resulted in their displacement in the first place.
There is no doubt that the rights of indigenous communities to their
land, forests and culture need to be defended, and illegal immigration
effectively blocked.

But there should be no compromise, even by implication, with violence
as a means to achieve these demands. People in both new and old camps
must first be res-tored to their homelands unconditionally, and
assisted in rebuilding their houses and livelihoods. Only then should
a just and caring state intervene to ensure that the legitimate
concerns of both indigenous people and settlers are met, by processes
which are lawful, humane and non-violent.

The writer is a social activist.


Appeal for Contributions for Relief Camps in Assam

Over two lakh persons are still housed in relief camps in Dhubri, Chirang and Kokrajhar districts of Lower Assam, in the wake of a series of violent clashes. This is down to about half the peak of nearly five lakh people in camps, making it one of the largest humanitarian emergencies in independent India. All these internally displaced persons fled from their villages in fear of violence, and many because their homes were torched and belongings looted. There is little hope that everyone will be able to return home in the immediate future.

The camps are lodged mostly in schools and college buildings; sometimes a few classrooms and a courtyard house a few thousand people. The Assam state government assumed full responsibility for the camps, and its officials coped with the sudden explosion of the refugees. The state supplied food, some money for utensils and clothes, and ensured primary health protection.

So far the camp residents are only surviving on bare rice and dal everyday. They need at least a plastic sheet to sleep on and mosquito nets. The camps desperately require many more toilets and clean drinking water, the lack of which threatens epidemic outbreaks of cholera, gastro-enteritis and malaria.

Children suffer in many ways. There are no arrangements to study in the camps, and most students lost their books to the fires that consumed their homes. Since most camps are housed in schools and colleges, local students also cannot study.

The state and humanitarian agencies — the latter regrettably substantially absent so far — must help people return and rebuild their homes, schools and livelihoods. Children and young people must be assisted to resume their studies and normal life, without fear and dislocation.

The major duty for relief and rehabilitation lies with the central and state governments. But in a humanitarian emergency of this magnitude, it is important for people of goodwill everywhere to reach out to help and heal, to assist in relieving immediate suffering, but also as a gesture of solidarity and caring with the suffering people of both affected communities, the Bodos and Bengali Muslims.

In a very small initiative, humanist young people have decided to work together for relief and reconciliation. This initiative would be in collaboration with TISS Guwahati. Initially joint teams of young Bodo and Bengali Muslims will supply relief materials and services in the camps together. The initial focus is to support children and youth in these camps with textbooks, play things, clothes, etc, and women with clothes, sanitary napkins etc; and also utensils, treated mosquito nets etc.

We reiterate that this is a very small modest effort, and is not suggesting that this is contributing to any solution of a very complex and old problem. It is just intended as a very small gesture of collective caring. We have set a target to raise at least around 20 lakh rupees initially, to make a small tangible contribution.

We appeal to people of goodwill everywhere to contribute to this small effort. The entire money would be transferred to the joint youth group in Assam, to use entirely for purchase and distribution of relief material in both the Bodo and Bengali Muslim camps. The accounts will be managed by the Centre for Equity Studies, which will get these independently audited, and the audited accounts will be placed in the public domain.

We would also like to request you to widely circulate this appeal amongst your friends and family.

With best wishes,

Amita Joseph, Amitav Ghosh, Anu Aga, Aruna Roy, Avi Singh, Bela Bhatia, Biraj Patnaik, Dipa Sinha, Harsh Mander, Jean Drèze, Karuna Nundy, Kavita Srivastava, Mathew Cherian, Nandita Das, Nikhil Dey, Pervin Varma, Rahul Bose, Ram Punyani, Reeta Dev Barman, Ritu Priya, Sajjad Hassan, Sejal Dand, Sharmila Tagore, Vandana Prasad, Vijay Pratap and Warisha Farasat

For Aman Biradari

For further details, please contact
Jeevika Shiv (9899572770, or Ankita Aggarwal (9818603009,

Details for donations

For Indian citizens

(Please mention the purpose of the donation while making the contribution and e mail your PAN card number and postal address

Name of A/c: Aman Biradari Trust
Bank Name: IDBI Bank Limited
Branch: 1/6, Siri Fort Institution Area, Khel Gaon Marg, New Delhi 110049, India
A/c No: 010104000156950, IFSC Code: IBKL0000010, BSR Code: 110259002

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For any financial queries, please contact Sunil Snehi (9811190160,

All donations exempted u/s 80G of the I. T. Act, 1961 vide Letter No. DIT(E)/2011-12/C-693/3069 Dated 17 Oct 20122 issued by the Directorate of Income Tax Act (Exemption), Delhi for the period 1 April 2011 onwards

The Myth of the Bangladeshi and Violence in Assam: Nilim Dutta

AUGUST 16, 2012

Guest post by NILIM DUTTA,

Map credit:

The recent spate of violence that began in the Kokrajhar district of Assam in the month of July 2012 and then spread to the adjoining districts of the Bodoland Territorial Council, primarily between the Bodos and the Muslim community of immigrant origin settled in these districts, has once again unleashed a vicious debate on the perils posed by alleged unrestricted illegal immigration from Bangladesh, this time even on the floor of the Lok Sabha.

The situation has been further complicated by a ‘protest’ in Mumbai against ‘violence on Muslims in Assam’ turning into a riot or by sundry attacks as ‘retaliation’ against people from North East elsewhere in India. Thanks to either shockingly uninformed or brazenly motivated opinions being aired around incessantly, much of it in the national electronic and print media, the dominant discourse that has evolved around the issue has created three distinct perceptions:

First, that illegal immigration of Bengali Muslim peasants from neighbouring Bangladesh into Assam has been continuing unabated, leading to skewed demographic profiles of Assam’s districts bordering Bangladesh and thereafter, turning several adjoining districts of Assam to Muslim majority.

Second, that these illegal Bengali Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh have rapaciously encroached upon and occupied land belonging to the native communities, thereby creating a volatile situation for potential violence and lethal clashes between illegal immigrants and natives.

Third, that the ethnic clash that began between the native Bodos (‘Hindu’ Bodos, as emphaticallypointed out by the Election Commissioner Shri H. S. Brahma who hails from the community) and illegal Muslim immigrants settled in Kokrajhar was a result of aggression and attack by the latter on the Bodos, emboldened by their growing numerical strength, or in the least, was a spontaneous reaction of Bodos to the growing aggression of the immigrants and progressive usurpation of native land and resources by them.

The above perceptions are, however, far from accurate. In order to understand why, it would be important to carefully re-examine how they have emerged, the inherent flaws in the assumptions and what the reality actually is.

‘Migration’ rather than ‘illegal immigration’ is largely responsible for demographic transformation.

The migration of Bengali Muslim peasants from East Bengal into Assam has certainly transformed the demography of the latter, more noticeably in some districts, but to claim all of it happened due to illegal immigration from Bangladesh is not only historically incorrect, but wilful distortion of facts.

The claim of massive and continuing migration transforming the demographic profile of Assam is most commonly sought to be proven by citing the high decadal population growth rate of Assam since 1951, as per the Census of India which I have cited below in Table 1.

Read more at Kafila

Outbreak of Violence of in Mumbai – ASSAM AND BURMA KILLING OF MUSLIMS- #mustread


English: , a prominent Indian muslim scholar i...

English: , a prominent Indian muslim scholar in a seminar in Pune University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Asghar Ali Engineer


(Secular Perspective August 16-31, 2012)


The way things were happening for last few weeks it was not surprising that violence on such scale took place. It was, as if, in store, large scale propaganda was going on that Muslims are being killed all over the world. There is conspiracy to kill Muslims everywhere and on Bodo-Muslim clashes and about Rohingiyah Muslims in Burma prayers were being organized in every mosque and SMSs were circulating about it. Urdu papers were carrying articles saying there is world-wide conspiracy to kill Muslims. Articles simply appealing to emotions, not to reason.


I have not seen any sober and analytical article in the Urdu press in Mumbai. The Muslim leadership was creating a psychology of victimhood in the minds of Muslims and pent up emotions were waiting to explode with some triggering event. The photographs about killing of Muslims in Burma had greatly disturbed the Muslim youth. All photographs, I must say, were not authentic but they circulated on large scale and ignited emotions.


Muslim leadership which hardly does anything for the real welfare of the community always has an eye on such sensitive situations and wants to grab the opportunity to enhance their own interests. Also, mosques were used to announce about rally giving it further religious colour. For those who go to mosques to pray, in large numbers, particularly in the holy month of Ramadan, are gullible and the moment religious colour is given to an issue they become extra-sensitive.


These religious leaders and also some non-religious leaders of Muslims neither fully understand the problem what is the conflict about nor they care to know the facts what is going on the ground. They simply make it a case of conspiracy against Muslims. In Azad Maidan too where rally was organized despite knowing that huge crowd is there with all sorts of people, including anti-social elements, the speakers made highly emotional speeches especially attacking media for not covering killing of Muslims in Burma. Then what more do you want to incite emotions for anything to happen.


It was not only question of managing the crowd; it was utterly irresponsible act on the part of leadership of the rally. If they had expected only 1500 persons to come and 50,000 turned up the leaders should have clearly understood that situation can get out of control any time as they were simply dealing with raw emotions. A wise leadership would not have allowed highly emotional speeches in the midst of such huge crowd and fuel emotions further.


It is also not correct to say that they expected only 1500 people to turn up as they were making announcements inside the mosque on Friday and also posters were put up. It means they aimed higher and made efforts to mobilize large number of people and succeeded in it. Ideal thing would have been to have a dharnaby about 1000-1500 seriously interested people for a day long dharna and then they could have met Chief Minister or Home Minister. There was no need at all for such a huge rally.


And if at all such a huge rally was organized why such emotional speeches were made? They should have understood the sensitivity of the problem. But then if they did, how can they be Muslims leadership without arousing religious sentiments? In fact as far as Assam is concerned hardly any one of those who actively organized the rally knew anything about the nature of conflict except that Muslims were killed.


What was the history of Bodo-Muslim conflict in Assam? Bodos are not killing Muslims because of their Muslimness but the fundamental problem is of land. Bodos are in conflict with other communities also like Adibashis, Santhals and others and they have come in conflict with all these communities. Though it is not true that Bangla Deshis are migrating in large numbers (this is largely the Sangh Parivar propaganda) by unfortunately Bodos, in order to fulfill their ambition of Bodo-land and for evicting Bengali Muslims and other ethnic communities from the 4 districts of Bodo Territorial Council, are using this propaganda for their own purposes. One can of course blame the Congress Government for giving Bodos BTC to buy peace with militant Bodo outfits. They should not have without taking other ethnic communities in confidence and giving them proper representation. We have dealt with this issue on our last article on Bodo-Muslim riots in Kokrajhar and other districts.


As for Rohingiyah Muslims it is the Military Government of Myanmar which is to be blamed. I visited Rangoon after the recent riots and interviewed large number of Rohingya Muslims. No such problem existed until 1981. They were treated as regular citizens and had voting rights. It was the Military Government of Myanmar which suddenly and without any proper reason, took away their papers from them and tried to expel them from Rakhine district of Western Myanmar.


It treats these Muslims as foreigners and wants Bangla Desh to settle them in its territory which is totally unjust. Rohingya Muslims have been in that province for centuries and there is no case to describe them as outsiders. Most of them had settled there with Muslim rule. But the Military Government of Myanmar has been killing Burmese of other provinces too and killed several Buddhist monks also during pro-democracy demonstrations.


It is true that some Buddhist monks have issued pamphlets against Rakhine Muslims to show solidarity with their co-religionists which they should not have done. But then like others Buddhists monks also are getting politicized as their pro-democracy demonstration also shows. But in both cases (i.e. Assam and Rohingya Muslims) it is not part of any world wide conspiracy to kill Muslims as it is being propagated.


In Mumbai violence media came under attack for no reason except that provocative speeches were made against media. It was quite ill-advise. A wise leadership would rather try to win over media rather than antagonize it this way. Also, one cannot tar the media with the same brush. Both print and electronic media has different ideological and commercial approaches. A blatant attack is totally wrong and even if a section of media is ideologically against or indifferent to Muslim problems, solution does not lie in attacking its journalists, or OB vans. It is at best foolish.


Urdu papers often write that let Ulama-kiram (Honourable Ulama) guide the Muslim ummah and give it a lead. How can one expect Ulama who hardly have knowledge of the modern world and for whom provoking religious sentiments is part of their orientation, can provide leadership. It is not to say that all Ulama are like this but a large number of Ulama – and this has been proved repeatedly in political matters – behave either in opportunistic or emotional way.


And let us remember all this happened in the holy month of Ramadan. The ulama never tire of telling us that this month of fasting so that we become more patient and able to control our anger and we must devote us entirely to ‘ibadat i.e. acts of worship, compassion and charity. What was then hurry to take out this rally in this holy month when no fresh incidents were taking place. The Assam situation had come under control and what was urgently needed was to collect money, clothes, shoes and medicines for those in relief camps in those four districts.


In this holy month of charity they could have concentrated on collecting relief for those unfortunate 4 million people who are rotting in relief camps in most unspeakable conditions. Many Bodos also have been killed in retaliatory actions and quite a few Bodos are also living in these relief camps in as bad a condition as Bengali speaking Muslims. As a good and compassionate Muslims, in this month of charity they should adopt inclusive approach and collect relief for Bodos too. This is what the Holy Qur’an also requires of them.


If instead of making it a conspiracy against Muslims, if they had condemned killing of Bodos too and prayed for all it would not have acquired such emotional proportions. Also the rally also should not have been exclusively a Muslim rally but a rally with the support of all sections of Indian society i.e. Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and all others – besides Muslims – to strengthen our secular character. It was not only exclusively Muslim but organized by Raza Academy – representing Barelvi Muslims. What a sectarian approach. Deobandis were to organize separately a day after but was postponed because of violent turn which the rally on Saturday took.


If we have to be against violence and it should be our serious commitment – we have to be more and more inclusive. When ever sectarian approach is adopted, it becomes easier to resort to violence and if it is inclusive of all sections it is not only more democratic but also likely to be more non-violent. Sectarian approach also results in competitive approach and inclusive approach is also cooperative approach.


The police is now saying the violence was pre-planned which may result in harassment of many Muslim youth. It is shameful that some rallyists molested women constables and seized revolvers from them. The police may take revenge for this. Let us hope police does not. But one must say the police had shown lot of restraint and Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik himself had come and spoken from the platform appealing Muslims to show restraint in this holy month of Ramadan.


Let us hope wiser counsel will prevail and peace would not be disturbed.    


Centre for Study of Society and Secularism




Bringing Bangladeshi Angle to Assamese Ethnic Conflict is Disservice to the Nation


Countryside in the Bodo area of Assam "Ud...

Countryside in the Bodo area of Assam “Udalguri and Kokrajhar are considered the center of the Bodo area.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



V.K. Tripathi, IIT Delhi



           The ethnic violence between Bodos and Muslims in Bodo territorial region of Assam is a national calamity. It has taken a toll of 65 innocent lives (besides the scores of people missing) and rendered 4 lakh homeless. The first priority of sane polity and responsible government is to restore the trust between the warring groups, Bodos and Muslims, without the slightest of ill will against any of the communities and isolate miscreants from the masses. Muslims are poorer, have lost more lives and fled in larger numbers (up to 80%) but Bodos are no economic elite. The creation of Bodo Territorial Council (covering 4 districts – Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baxa and Udalguri) by the Center in 2003, has given a section of them an upper hand but masses of both the communities are in hardships.



            I spent three days (August 3 to 5) in the area, visited relief camps – 2 Bodo camps in Kokrajhar (with 560 and 1500 people) , 1 Muslim camp in Kashipara (960 people), 1 Muslim camp in Dhubri (360 people) and 3 Muslim camps in Bilasipara (2000, 2500 and 3500 people), visited a Muslim village Bhadyagudi, a mixed Bodo-Muslim village Bhatipara and met a cross-section of people. I also met Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Kokrajhar Mr.  Jayant Narlikar, DC of Dhubri Mr. Kumud Kalita and Principal, Vice Principal and Librarian of Bhola Nath College, Dhubri.



            I saw no trace of Bangladeshi offensive in the conflict, so systematically and vigorously orchestrated by BJP and VHP, led by L.K. Advani, Tarun Vijay and Praveen Togadia. They are playing with the lives of people and poisoning atmosphere for future. Bangladeshi is more of an abuse to humiliate Muslims who are native Indians. There may be a few percent Bangladeshis (as a Rajvanshi ex-serviceman in rural Kokrajhar put it at 10%), but even these, in all likelihood are labourers and labourers are no exploiters but an exploited lot.  They need to be treated with dignity. All countries have legal and illegal migrants. USA has a very significant percentage of illegal Mexicans. But who engages them and benefits from their hard work?”- the business class, for cheap labour. USA is immensely more powerful than us but it could not force the Mexicans out. India has limited resources and can’t afford to sustain work force from neighbouring countries, hence legal ways, commensurate with workers’ dignity, must be employed to identify and deport them and to stop their migration (if at all there is any loop hole). As far as the language of Muslims in the area is concerned, there is strong historical reason for it.  Kokrajhar district borders with West Bengal and Dhubri with Bangladesh. 100-150 years ago British tea planters brought labourers from Bengal where Muslims were a predominant landless work force. Thus they speak Bengali. One more observation. In 1971 India welcomed lakhs of Hindu-Muslim refugees as a part of strategy on Bangladesh. Many of them overstayed.



            The current conflict developed as a chain event. Miscreants killed two Muslims on July 6. On July 19, a prominent Muslim suffered bullet injuries and a mob killed 4 Bodos, Subsequently sporadic killings of Muslims and display of fire power by Bodo elements, created a frightening atmosphere, forcing people to flee their homes. In Muslim dominated areas Bodos were made to flee. Once people fled, many of their homes were looted and put on fire.  Most camps, having over 2.5 lakh Muslim refugees, are located in Dhubri district.  This district with 80% Muslim population suffered no loss of life  Bodos from six villages had to flee to Kokrajhar.



            Bodo insurgents have carried a long drawn violent struggle for separate Bodoland. In 2003 Center created BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts) giving substantial authority to Bodos (about 35 seats in the 40 member BTC Council). This created a wedge between them and other communities (Muslims, Santhals and Rajvanshis) who have a much larger share in population. Many insurgent groups surrendered their arms but some still have them.  Disarming them is a major responsibility of the state.



            All relief camps are facing severe hardships. The Muslim camps look even more dejected and worried, besides being poorer.  On August 5 as I was sitting with people in a camp in Bilasipara when Roja Aftar time arrived, I noted that they had only one bucket of dates and biscuit packets for aftaar for 2000 people. On behalf of Sadbhav Mission I offered them 1000 rupees to purchase additional dates. Same was the scene in another camp. At night often there is load shedding for several hours and these camps plunge into darkness besides exposing them to mosquito bite. People cook their own food from the ration (rice, pulses and oil) provided by the government and vegetables provided by local support or NGOs. In most places people of all the communities are coming forward to extend support. Despite heavy odds people are at peace. I wish they had a creative engagement. They could be given some training or exposure in relevant trades. Students can be given tutorial sessions, game sessions or could go for jogging.



            Mine was a short visit that began with my arrival in Guwahati at 7 AM. From the airport I took bus to train station. At 9:45 I took North East Express and got down at Kokrajhar at 1:20 PM. I walked through the city and then took a tempo to Kashipara (8 km away). I visited a Muslim camp and walked 3 km to visit two villages. At 8 PM I met the DC. By that time curfew had started hence I stayed in the circuit house in a awesome room for Rs. 130. Next morning (August 4) at 7 AM, I walked to Bodo camp Swrang M.E. High School. People were nice. Some got annoyed when I mentioned Nellie massacre. From there I took tempo, minibus and bus to reach Dhubri by 12 noon. I walked to a relief camp and talked to people for one hour. This interaction was heartening. From there I went to Bholanath college. At 3:15 PM I met the DC and then left for Bilasipara. During 5 to 8:15 PM I visited 3 camps. Then took shelter in ABI hotel (for Rs. 250). It gave me the feeling of hardships faced by camp people as there was no light and mosquitoes were in abundance.


            At 6 AM on August 5 I left for Kashipara and from there to Kokrajhar. I visted the Commerce College Bodo camp. People treated me with warmth and showed appreciation for peace efforts. At 12 noon I took Kamrup express to Guwahati. After reaching there I called some friends and left for the airport en route to Delhi.







This land is my Land- How are demographics changing in Assam and Bengal?

How are demographics changing in Assam and Bengal? And what does this mean for ‘indigenous’ communities? Garga Chatterjee considers the argument for territorial purity, in the Friday Times, Pakistan’s First Independent Weekly Paper

This land is my land 2 0 Bodo women cry at a relief camp at Bhot Gaon village after ethnic clashes in Assam

The Assam state of the Indian Union has seen violence flare up suddenly from July 6th. With more than 40 people reported dead and upwards of one and a half lakh displaced in a week, the Kokrajhar riots between Bodos and Muslims have again brought in focus certain issues that are not limited to Kokrajhar district, or for that matter to Assam. There will be the usual game of getting as much mileage from the dead and the displaced. There will be a lot of talk of Assam becoming another Bangladesh or even Pakistan, with careless fear-mongering thrown in for good measure. There will be still others who sell the absurd fiction that almost no illegal migrants from the Republic of Bangladesh exist in Assam. To go beyond this, let me focus on two contexts – regional and global.

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A Muslim man removes a tin sheet from his burnt house following ethnic violence
A Muslim man removes a tin sheet from his burnt house following ethnic violence
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If one looks at a special kind of map of the world, the type where different population densities are marked with different colours, something sticks out very starkly. The part of the world with one of the biggest continuous stretches of the highest range population density is Bengal – East and West. Now incompletely split along religious lines, the Bengals are veritable pressure cookers – with millions of desperately poor people looking to out-migrate to any area with slightly better opportunities. At this point, it is important to realize that when ethno-religious communities are awarded a ‘home-land’, be it a province or a country, a process of myth-making starts from that time onwards, which aims to create a make-believe idea that such a formation was always destined to be. In the minds of later generations, this solidifies into a concept as if this demarcated territory always existed, with vaguely the same borders, with vaguely the same culture and demography. This process is both creative and destructive. It is creative in the sense that it gives the ethnic-mentality a certain ‘timeless’ territorial reality that is often exclusive. The destruction often lies in the twin denial of the past of the region and also the rights of those who are neither glorious, nor numerous. With this in mind, let us come to Assam.

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To take the issue head on, the elephant in the room is the Muslim, specifically the ‘Bengali’-speaking Muslim in Assam. I saw ‘Bengali’ in quotes, as many of the ‘Bengali’ speakers in Assam are more correctly described as Sylhoti speakers. And Sylhet is an important part of the story. Today’s Assam state with its Axomia core and a few other communities is the successor to the much larger province of yore, which included the whole district of Sylhet, much of which is now in the Republic of Bangladesh. Sylhet has for a long time represented something of a frontier zone between Bengal and Assam. And most Sylhetis are Muslims. So when Sylhet was a part of the province of Assam before partition, the idea of Assam was very different. In the Assam legislature, most Muslim members were elected from Sylhet. In short, they were an important contending bloc to power. In fact, before partition, the premier of Assam for much of the time was Mohammad Sadullah, a Brahmaputra valley Muslim, who was solidly supported by the Sylheti Muslim legislators, among others. Though a Muslim Leaguer, he stayed back in Assam after partition. Unknown to many, the Assam province, like Bengal and Punjab, was also partitioned in 1947 – the only one to be partitioned on the basis of a referendum (held to determine the fate of the Muslim majority Sylhet district). The largely non-Muslim Congressites in Assam did not even campaign seriously for the referendum, for they were only too happy to see Sylhet go, so that they could have a complete grip over the legislature minus the Sylheti Muslim threat to power.

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Modern transportation now enables mass movements in short periods of time
Modern transportation now enables mass movements in short periods of time
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The Sylhetis are but reluctant Bengalis, but that is another story. What I want to impress here is that the origin of the feeling of being slowly outnumbered and besieged also has a certain past. This feeling never died out. The post-partition demographic shift of Assam has again started sliding back, with an increasing proportion of the populace now being Muslims. Whether it is differential fecundity rates or Bengali-speaking migrants from the Republic of Bangladesh, or a combination of both, the net effect is a slow growth in this siege mentality. It is important to note that there really are many illegal settlers from the Republic of Bangladesh. This has often led to an accusation leveled against the Congress party of shielding the illegal migrants by creating captive vote-banks out of their insecurity. This may be partially true, given its reluctance to fulfill the terms of the Assam Accord that was signed to end the Assam agitation of the 1980s. Among other issues, it sought to identify illegal settlers and take legal action. Given that onus is on an accuser to prove that someone is not a citizen of the Indian Union, rather than the onus being on a person to prove whether one is a citizen of the Indian Union, the illegal settler identification process has been a gigantic failure. So the issues remain, the tempers remain, so does the politicking and the volatility that could flare into violence, as it has done now.

Sylhet has for a long time represented something of a frontier zone between Bengal and Assam

Let us return to the population bomb that is Bengal. If it appears from the story till now that this is some Muslim immigration issue, I want to dispel it right away. To the east and north-east of Bengal are territories that have been inhabited by tribes for centuries. Due to the post-partition influx of refugees, some of these zones have essentially become Bengali-Hindu majority homelands. One prominent example is Tripura. This tribal majority kingdom, inhabited by many tribal groups, most notably the Riyangs, is now a Bengali-Hindu majority state. There is the same kind of tribal son-of-the-soil versus settler Bengali conflict as in Assam with a crucial difference. Here the game is over with the Bengalis being the clear victors. The future of the tribal groups possibly lies in tenacious identity-preservation in ‘Bantustans’ called autonomous councils or slow cultural assimilation into the Bengali ‘mainstream’. Sixty years can be long or short, depending on who you are.

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A similarly sad saga is unfolding in the Republic of Bangladesh where the government in its immense wisdom settled large groups of desperately poor landless Muslim Bengalis in the hill tracts of Chittagong. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, one of those ‘anomalies’ of the Radcliffe line, had a tribal-Buddhist majority all through the Pakistan period. The large group of tribes, the Chakmas being the foremost, have a distinctive culture, lifestyle and religion, quite different from the Muslim Bengali settlers. After active state-supported migration schemes, now the Chittagong Hill Tracts have a Bengali Muslim majority, except on paper. The army is stationed there largely to protect settler colonies as they expand. Clashes between the indigenous tribes and the settlers are common, with the military backing the settlers. Human rights violations of the worst kind, including killings, rapes, village-burnings and forced conversions, have happened, aided and abetted by the state machinery. The indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill tracts are fighting a losing game. Like Assam, here there has been an accord in response to insurgency by the tribes. The accord remains unimplemented. The state possibly believes that the indigenous tribes will take to Sheikh Mujib’s heartless advice to them in 1972 ‘to become Bengalis’.

Many of us have lost the sense of intimate belonging to a community

All of this is happening in a global context, where the questions of ‘special’ indigenous rights are being raised. Some of it takes the form of racial politics of the majority, as in certain European nations. There are the interesting cases of ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like Mumbai and Karachi – with sons-of-the-soil in and out of power respectively, but both with a strong undercurrent for rights of the local. It is easy to label these as ‘xenophobic’ or ‘prejudiced’, especially in the ‘interconnected world of the 21st century’ or whatever global consumer culture calls such dissidents now. Yes, this too is dissidence and of a primal variety that dare not tell its name in these times when the contours of what is dissident and what is sociopathy have lost their human connection, to become ‘discourse’ categories.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, clashes between the indigenous tribes and the settlers are common, with the military backing the settlers

I am not talking of ‘nationalism’ but a variety of ‘ethnocentrism’ which has known and lived in a territorial space and now finds too many ‘outsiders’ in that space, playing by different rules, making their ‘own area’ less recognizable, all too sudden. The reaction to this loss of familiarity and challenge to position from ‘outside’ groups constitutes a strain that cannot be shouted down for its supposed political incorrectness. While many may think that it is inter-connected-ness that feeds life, and that there are no ‘pure’ indigenous people anymore, the rate of such change is crucial. When some clans of Kanauji Brahmin migrants to Bengal became Bengalis no one knows, but now they are undeniably Bengali. At the same time, modern transportation now enables mass movements in short periods of time that were unthinkable earlier. Such migrant communities change local demography all too quickly and by quick I mean decades. Often, such migrations happen in spurts and successive waves, where kinship ties are crucial. Such settlers have more in common with co-settlers than the indigenous. Often the settlers have a perilous existence, partly due to the animosity of the indigenous people. This leads to huddling with knowns rather than huddling with unknowns. Thus this new ghettoisation, both geographical and psychological, inhibits the kind of integrative processes that in the past led to the formation of new, syncretic communities.

[box8]The notion of a legally uniform country, where anyone is free to settle anywhere else, is geared towards the rights of the individual, with scant heed to the rights of a community to hold on to what it has always known to be its ‘own’. The modern nation-state forces such communities into playing by the rules of atomization, for the only entity that the state seriously recognizes is the individual. And in a flat legal terrain, the rights of the citizen can be used against the rights of a community, not even his own. Bengal, Assam, Burma – these places have hard cartographic borders and soft physical borders. The nation-state aspires to a uniformly hard border, often working against the reality of culture, ethnicity and terrain. In the specifically charged context of demographic change, it is useful to realize that no one comes to live a precarious life in an unknown place with few friends and many enemies to embark on a 200-year plan to effect demographic change. People simply live their lives.

[box9]However, from the vantage of the indigenous, this sudden settlement is a change and a concern, and it animates itself as demographic projections. In the absence of any sanctioned way of controlling the speed of change or the nature of influx, ethno-religious theories of ‘being besieged’ provide a way to gain a wider moral sanction for extra-legal intervention. Our porous subcontinental realities require an approach that devolves power and rights that would protect against such massive change. Just like the elite quarters of the cosmopolitan city, everyone has a right to preserve what is dear to them, before it becomes dear to someone else. If this sounds like a scheme to rationalize the tyranny of a communitarian xenophobia, that is possibly because many of us have lost the sense of intimate belonging to a community. Living creatively with differences assumes a certain element of consent between communities. That consent is important. Fear of total change, loss of self-identity and self-interest hinders consent. Metropolitan diktats of assimilation deny communities that dignity. Communities assimilate in their own way. Speed is a new factor that needs to be dealt with creatively. Lack of a serious move towards according communities to determine the future of their locale and futures would end communities as we know them.

Assam riots: Real issue is development



Ram Puniyani says end of propaganda politics can help people understand actual problems, in Tehelka

PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh has called the recent violence in Assam a blot to the nation. Fifty three people have died and almost four lakh people have been rendered homeless in the clashes that occurred last week in Khokrajhar and Chirang districts, between Bodos and ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators’, majority of whom happen to be Muslims. There was some inexcusable delay in deploying the army in the area, which resulted in worsening of the situation. That the riots occurred just around the sowing season in what is the rice country of Assam is a worrying sign. Traumatised people are now crowding 250 ill-equipped relief camps set up by the government.

But this isn’t the first time such violence has hit Assam. The strife between ethnic groups and Muslims, who are labeled as ‘Bangladeshi immigrants’, has been going on for several decades. In 2003, the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts were formed following a peace treaty between Bodo activists and the government. The districts included Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgiri. Estimates put the percentage of Bodos in these districts between 22 and 29. The rest are Tribals and Muslims. Despite being in minority, Bodos, with full powers in the region, initiated policies which have kept non-Bodos largely out of the social framework. Over the years, local disputes have been painted as problems between legal citizens and illegal immigrants with parochial politicking under ‘Assam for Assamese’.

The first major catastrophe in this occurred in the 80s, when the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanded exclusion of Bangladeshi immigrants from the electoral rolls. In 1983, at least 2,000 people were killed in Nellie, near Guwahati. Those killed were Muslims, said to be illegal migrants and occupants of land that belonged to Lalung tribals. Tribhuban Das Tiwary Commission was constituted into the Nellie massacre, but the AASU, now Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), after coming to power dropped all the criminal cases against the culprits and the report of the Commission was never made public. A decade later occurred another series of violence, the victims of which are still living in relief camps. Last week’s carnage was preceded by a rumour that people from Bangladesh have brought in a huge cache of armaments and it soon got triggered into violence that left lakhs with nothing.

Perhaps the real problem lies in the stressed land and job scenario due to a rising population. Lopsided development has put employment under pressure all over the country. In Mumbai, Shiv Sena presents it as a non-Marathis vs marathi issue. In Assam, the problem is deflected by making it an India vs Bangladeshi immigrants issue. Politics aggravates things in Assam by bringing in the foreigner angle, when actually Bangla speakers have made up a sizeable chunk of the state population for over a century.

In the early 20th century, Assam was grossly underpopulated and generated little revenue. The neighbouring Bengal, on the other hand, was overpopulated, which resulted in frequent famines. To counter the problem, the British resorted to ‘human plantation’ encouraging people from Bengal to migrate to Assam. But to maintain the core policy of ‘divide and rule’, the immigrants and the natives were kept in separate areas. This migration of Bangla speaking Muslims went on for several decades and by 1930s, the Muslims comprised a sizeable chunk of Assamese population. Post partition, divided Bengal became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, but even then both Hindus and Muslims continued migrating to Assam.

The question here is how is this immigration is looked at. Why are Nepalese immigrants to India never looked down upon or demonised here? Why even the Hindus coming from Bangladesh are treated as immigrants, while Bangladeshi Muslims are seen as infiltrators and a threat to our security?

THE PROPAGANDA by communal forces about so call infiltration by Bangledeshis has assumed alarming proportions. It has been the backdrop of many agitations in Assam. Surely the basic issue of lack of development in Assam has been deflected by political groups as the issue of displacement of locals from their lands by infiltrators. Right from Nellie to the present violence, in which displacement is the most dominant factor, the infiltrator propaganda has prepared the ground for carnage.

What is required today is to disarm the criminals, to rehabilitate the refugees and to ensure that they return to their homes for the sowing season. If this is not met, surely a bigger disaster of food deprivation is staring at us. We also need to debunk the myth of ‘infiltrators’ for good. The word has been misued for far too long. And lastly the wounded psyche of communities needs to be healed through a process of dialogue and justice.

Ram Puniyani is a communal harmony activist based in Mumbai. The opinions expressed are his own.



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October 2021
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