Assam’s tragedy, #mustread


Harsh Mander

25 August,2012 
Almost an everyday sight. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
Almost an everyday sight. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

How partisan policies and a bitterly divided people keep the State in an endless cycle of violence.

The current tornado of targeted mass violence in Assam is only the latest in a series of several storms of violence which have convulsed the state over the last three decades. Each wave of blood-letting has further deepened fractures between various religious and ethnic groups. It is important to recall this troubled history if we are to find ways forward to lasting peace and calm for the diverse religious and ethnic communities which inhabit the fertile river valleys and low hills of this beautiful State.

The beginning

The foundations of ferocious ethnic and religious hostility in the state were laid in the anti-‘foreigners’ agitation which racked the state from 1979 to 1985. The demand of the agitators was for the State to detect and deport ‘foreigners’, or Bangladeshi immigrants. Migrations from Bangladesh occurred from the early 20th century, partly the result of conscious colonial state policy, mainly of peasants and landless workers, drawn to Assam by land hunger and unemployment.

The Tewary Commission appointed by the State government to enquire into the violence during the agitation reports of diverse groups attacking each other in every district in Assam except Cachar and North Cachar Hills. Baruah in his definitive account of the agitation recounts that violent attacks against Bengali Muslim settlers in Assam, regardless of their vintage, rose after 1979. The most gruesome communal violence in those years, and indeed since Independence anywhere in India, occurred in 14 villages of Nellie.

The Centre for Equity Studies studied this largely forgotten massacre and its aftermath. The author Surabhi Chopra recounts from official records: “On the morning of 18th February 1983, thousands of people surrounded the Nellie area and attacked Bengali Muslim residents… The attackers were armed with machetes and other weapons. They systematically set fire to people’s huts. As residents fled their burning homes, they were hacked to death. Roads to the Nellie area were blocked and the Muslim villages surrounded, so people could not go to Jagiroad police station while violence was unfolding. Unofficial estimates say that the massacre orphaned 371 children and left over 2000 people dead.”

One remarkable feature of this massacre is that not a single person responsible for the violence has been prosecuted or punished. The Assam Accord signed between the Indian government and the leaders of the movement in 1985 included a clause to review criminal offences, except heinous offences. But, as Surabhi Chopra notes: “In practice, what the accord was interpreted to mandate was a full amnesty to all persons charged with crimes, even of murder and rape, during the mass communal violence.” She notes further that “Only one, fairly junior police person faced disciplinary measures. Survivors received minimal compensation.”

This laid a dangerous precedent in Assam of State-sanctioned, officially brokered immunity for people charged with heinous hate mass crimes. This was further nurtured by a policy of enabling, even incentivising ethnic cleansing. The militant agitation of indigenous Bodo tribal people from 1987 was originally not targeted against the East Bengali Muslims: it saw them as allies in a fight against the dominant caste-Hindu Asamiya people. The situation changed drastically in 1993 when the government signed the Bodo Accord, which created an autonomous Bodoland within Assam, but laid down that only settlements with populations of more than 50 per cent Bodo people would be included in Bodoland. The die was thus cast by state policy itself for violent ethnic cleansing.

Former militants organised themselves to drive out the settlers. In 1993 itself, Bengali Muslims were killed and their homes looted and burnt. The terrified survivors fled into camps that were to be their homes for years. Attacks were then mounted against the Santhal descendants of tea garden workers in 1996, and at its peak, around three lakh people were displaced by the violence. In 1997, some returned, but were freshly evicted after new clashes in 1997. In 2000, the Muslims were forced to vacate the official camps, but again were subject to attacks. They set up their own camps by encroaching on government or private land, where they continue until today.

In no man’s land

After visits to these camps, I wrote in 2007 about these ‘nowhere people’ who had lived for a generation in relief camps in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, and the State has done nothing to assist them to return to their homelands. I found them surviving on erratic supplies of rice rations for registered camp dwellers for 10 days a month, without child-care centres, health centres or schools, unable to return to their lands and homes, boycotted from seeking work, and attacked if they strayed back to indigenous habitations.

I noted then: “Assam has near-fatally imploded with the politics of competing persecutions, as oppressed groups arm and organise themselves to violently drive away other wretched and deprived people, in pursuit of dangerous, impossible (and unconstitutional) aspirations of ethnically cleansed homelands. Their plight is aggravated by bankrupt and opportunistic politics and State policy, and equivocal rationalisations by civilian observers. In battles between indigenous inhabitants and settlers, many of the region’s poorest people are living out their lives in fear, confined to camps, people who no one wants and who have nowhere to go.”

I added: “The Assam government indifferently says it can do nothing for the people in camps, who must return to their homes from where they were expelled. The displaced people plead that to return is to only live daily in the shadow of fear of the assured next attack, by a people determined to reclaim their ‘homeland’ from the settlers, spurred by the Bodo Accord which recklessly incentivised such ‘cleansing’.”

That next attack has occurred, this sombre monsoon of 2012, and four lakh more people are exiled to pitiless camps. The cauldron of ethnic and religious hatred continues to boil, spurred by a bitterly divided people, and State policies which assure official immunity to perpetrators of mass violence, and incentives for ethnic cleansing.

There seems no end yet to the tragedy of Assam.

An Aarti From Time, A Brookings Chalisa- a Response to Times Cover on Narendra Modi

Are they drowned in Modi’s magnetism? Is this worship exigency?

Narendra Modi is no doubt a successful politician. There is almost a special kind of luck that accompanies him in the public domain, luck that can be explained in two decisive electoral victories and the attraction that follows such success. He is constantly in the news and a set of those who fear and adulate the man suggest that the more the institutions of justice berate him, the more his TRP soars. News constantly props up the picture of a decisive chief minister. Last week, Time had him on the cover and Brookings Institution had a favourable report on him. There is a curious timing behind these reports. They hint that he is prime ministerial material and that a realistic sense of politics demands that one engage with the emerging Indian future.

One can match statistics with statistics to show that Modi’s achievement is exaggerated, that other states have done well or that GNP and GDP could take contrary turns in Gujarat. One can say, for instance, that in the five years between 2004-05 and 2009-10, Gujarat’s per capita income nearly doubled from Rs 32,021 to Rs 63,961. In the same period, neighbouring Maharashtra, the perceived laggard, saw its per capita income grow from Rs 35,915 to Rs 74,027. Several states besides Gujarat have shown double digit growth in their GDP in recent years, and Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have bigger economies. Gujarat now runs a revenue deficit—it spends more than it earns—and its surplus has disappeared. Several other states have improved their fiscal positions meanwhile. Reforms? Five states passed the Fiscal Responsibility Bill before Gujarat did in 2005, and 20 states preceded Gujarat in implementing VAT. Surplus power? Facts on the ground and increasing protests show this to be an exaggerated claim. Human development indicators? Gujarat lags behind in access to primary and higher education, is high on the percentage of population prone to hunger and starvation, access to fiscal credit among the marginalised is low, girl child schooling shows poor figures. State and central government figures support all this.

We think there is also a different way of responding—by asking what is the criteria for decency and well-being? One has to go to the structural roots of the argument, move beyond a gasping portrait of Modi already basking in a future at Lutyens’ Delhi. Time magazine’s two-page picture of Modi on the lawns is suggestive of that. It is as if the props are there, the script is also there, the players are waiting, and all one needs is an auspicious time. The Brookings essay on Modi goes one better and writes him a certificate of good conduct that would help revoke the ban on his US visa. For Brookings, banning a future prime minister would be bad politics.

Why the unholy haste by the brookings institution and time to glamourise a glamour-hungry modi who could well face charges of mass murder?

Time cites a social scientist in a preemptive act, a jumping of the gun proclaiming a once and future king before the democratic and legal process is over. Indian courts are yet to assess whether the evidence collected by investigators and assessed by the amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court can make out a case to prosecute Modi, his cabinet colleagues, ideologues, administrators and policemen. The charges are criminal culpability to conspire to commit mass murder, subvert the justice process and destroy critical evidence and records. Why then, we may ask, the unholy haste by Time magazine and the Brookings Institution when courts are seized of the matter, Modi could (or may not) be charge-sheeted for criminal offences, when general elections are nearly two years away?

The analysis presented states that Muslims are voting for Modi as the Congress is too weak to do anything for them. The question one has to ask is: Is such a lazy social science enough? Which section of Muslims is voting for Modi? Two, is a vote for Modi a legitimation of Modi or is it a shotgun wedding of a community that is desperate to survive and see that its people still wrongfully locked in jail are released?

Anyone who watched the Sadbhavna festival would realise that the Muslims who came were paying court to a king. There was no rapprochement, no forgiveness. If anything, the ritual expressed its distance from Muslim life. The Sadbhavna yatra was more a power game like ancient times where people swore fealty to the lord. The state government, in the ultimate display of control, has refused activists access to accounts of the public monies spent on an autocratic chief minister’s personal agenda.

One has to read the metaphors of the Time report. Modi is presented as wearing the white of a penitent embarking on fasts. The writer, Jyoti Thottam, suggests it’s an act of purification,
humility and bridge-building. To read Modi’s Sadbhavna fasts in this way insults the idea of fast as a moral weapon and confuses it for a strategic tool. White, anyway, is the most hypocritical colour of politicians. The question one has to ask before one uses words like humility and purity is: What is the moral nature of the act?

But Modi should not be seen only a personality. He is a Rorschach inkblot set before society, provoking basic questions. Modi, in terms of civic indicators like investment, rule of law and governance is scoring high. These statistics have been rigorously contested in the public domain, by the Gujarati media, by the opposition, even the state government’s own figures. And what about the CAG reports on Sufalam Sujalam project, the Kutch melas and the public disinvestment scams? A dispassionate assessment exposes the Modi makeover for the brazen public relations job it was meant to be.

The question that needs asking is whether modi fits into a vision of a society where the minorities have a place, where dissent has a place.

And then how does one look at and talk about his institution-building? He has refused to allow the Lokayukta to function freely. He has silenced the bureaucracy with threats, incentives of plum posts, juicy extensions that let senior bureaucrats retain power and visibility. His privatisation of medicine has to be independently assessed in terms of ethics, care, cost and well-being. Ahmedabad, home to at least four universities and some of the finest institutes, still cannot produce a critical debate on him, as many institutes have quietly imposed a gag order on dissenting intellectuals. The Congress, though weak as an opposition, has highlighted a major issue. Land is being bequeathed to major corporations like Tatas and Adanis on easy terms, transforming public lands into private goods. At the Gujarati taxpayer’s expense.

The Brookings narrative adds a second halo to Modi. It converts him tacitly from a politician to a statesman receiving courses on climate change and even writing a book on it. Behind both essays is an even more tacit semiotics. It is what we must call the Americanisation of Modi. It creates a political palatability to his reception abroad. Leave aside the American’s love of the Asian dictator with a keen and ready investment plan, there is first the Horatio Alger syndrome, portraying him as a self-made man, as a protestant ascetic, a journey Time portrays in the from-smalltown-boy-to-CEO-of-Gujarat, succeeding without family connections or fancy education. He seems very different from the young Congress elite, with their pampered backgrounds. Unlike other Indians, he keeps his family at a distance. There is no family coterie hanging around him, unlike around Laloo Prasad Yadav or Karunanidhi or Yediyurappa. The Brookings report then steps in by showing Modi to be a keen student of American politics, wondering whether Indian states can have the sort of freedom states in the United States do. He is entrepreneurly, eco-friendly, and all in all, a global man awaiting his time, open to World Bank reforms and yet a home-grown nationalist. Modi is also presented not just as prime ministerial material but as the Indian answer to China, a note that will play deep into the American and Indian psyche, presenting them a streamlined politician for the future.

The question one is asking is not whether Modi is a future prime minister. The logic of Indian electoral politics will answer that. The question is: Where does Modi fit into a vision of decent society in which the minorities and those in the margins have a place, in which dissent has a place? Is Modi’s future a participative future and a pluralistic one? His technocratic credentials are not in doubt, but his vision of democracy needs to be examined. Oddly, Modi might fail by the norms set by his own hero, Swami Vivekananda. Modi has failed to provide a civilisational answer to the crisis of Gujarat. Investment and development, even with the distorted statistics bandied around, are poor substitutes for such a vision. In Americanising him, the reports reveal the modernist flaw deep within his programme.

(The authors are trustees of Citizens for Justice and Peace) in the Outlook,Magazine


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