If you are a keen angler and can travel great distances to catch the wild mahseer, you may have visited Nameri in Assam. If you like long drives through bad roads and high passes, you may have taken the same road through Bhalukpung into Arunachal Pradesh. Either way, when you approach Nameri, the two sides of the narrow highway are dotted with chopped tree stumps. In the years after 2003, any interest in why so many trees were chopped would invite violent reactions from the Bodo villagers who were settled on these flattened reserve forests. Now they ignore it or even admit upfront.
As one moves towards Tezpur (also the headquarters of the Indian army’s 4 Corps) and further to Mangaldoi, such denuded landscapes are a common sight. Now there are regular paddy fields or villages with tell-tale signs of what used to be. The rate of deforestation was rapid and blatant. Everyone enjoyed the booty. Even elected legislators in the Congress government were caught in the act. The uprooting of trees, though, was rooted in a deeper idea. The Bodos (a plains tribe of Assam) were being settled across a stretch that bordered Assam with Arunachal Pradesh. Village after village was designated, given names and superimposed on what used to be tiger reserves in some areas.
The story of Bodoland (a homeland for Bodos) is too recent for people to forget. It has been a violent assertion of identity. The anarchy let loose on the plains of the Brahmaputra was systematic, with a definite pattern. For those who haven’t followed the story of Assam, the Bodo assertion started in the ’80s and was followed up by an accord, an autonomous council and then a territorial council in 2003. What does that imply? Under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, educational, economic and linguistic aspirations, land rights and the socio-cultural and ethnic identity of Bodos were secured. The others inhabiting the area were not taken into consideration. The debate on the 6th Schedule in the Constituent Assembly was originally oriented towards hill tribes. Any which way you take it, it did not grant reservation to one community. The Bodos, however, extracted this from the government and reserved 75 per cent of the seats in the Territorial Council, thus denying the area’s other residents their legitimate rights. Thus was born the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), which claimed 35 per cent of Assam’s land. The Bodos need another 15 per cent to raise the pitch for their long-standing demand of halving Assam.
The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) was formed in 1986. One faction today is on a ceasefire agreement. If you recall, 26 days before Mumbai 26/11 they had triggered Assam’s biggest terror attack, launching serial blasts from the ceasefire camps, camps which were meant to be monitored by the government. Some 100 people were killed, over 700 injured. Nobody has been convicted yet.
Since 1986, hundreds have been killed in violence related to the Bodo assertions. Presciently or otherwise, new Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde in his very first reply in Parliament made a Freudian slip and referred to BTAD as the “Bodoland Terrorist Autonomous District”.
The story is, however, incomplete without a mention of the so-called ‘ethnic riots’ that have erupted in regular intervals since the ’90s. When such violence is repeated again and again on the very same issues, with ethnic groups displaced forever, it assumes the proportions of ethnic cleansing. There is no data on how many Assamese Hindu families have fled over the years from these districts. The Bengali Hindus are also not accounted for. But both these groups had significant presence in the stretch. There are other indigenous tribes who question the legality of only Bodos getting autonomy and the government kowtowing to just their demands.
The late ’90s witnessed the hardest ruptures, pushing Bodos, Adivasis and Bengali-speaking Muslims into hundreds of relief camps. Several lakhs were displaced. Ten years later, the Bodos have made their way back leaving behind the other two. Subsequently, the other two communities also returned but by then their land in many places had been usurped. Some of those old relief camps have grown into colonies and slums, still waiting to be rehabilitated.
The 2012 violence is only a work-in-progress in the cleansing of other communities from the area. This is not unique to Bodoland. In the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council, India’s oldest autonomous council set up in 1952, similar violence was triggered by the Dimasa armed groups. The Biharis and Nepalis, amongst others, were the targets. In Karbi Anglong district also, where another autonomous body operates, there has been violence against ‘outsider’ and neighbouring communities. In neighbouring Meghalaya, between 1979 and 1989 thousands of non-tribals were thrown out of the state.
But Assam’s case is different, for it is the most heterogeneous state in the country with 72 communities (each with over 5,000 members speaking their own tongue) living together. Here, it is the dangerous politics of ethnic identities and ethno-exclusivism that has resulted in such divisiveness. Ex-CM Hiteswar Saikia abetted this by creating seven autonomous councils. His successor Tarun Gogoi went much beyond, doubling the number (one of these had a population of just 10,000). These councils (21 in all) with their ethnic militias have created a climate of disgruntlement amongst those who felt discriminated by the state. The government’s policy of ceasefire, talks and appeasement has made the situation more explosive.
This time, however, the tone and tenor of the violence is changing. In the chaos and with the government showing ambivalence, certain groups have started ascribing their own reasons to this round of death and destruction. The popular Sri Sri Ravi Shankar set up his Art of Living volunteers in relief camps and issued a statement saying, “This heinous crime against ethnic people in Assam by fundamentalist immigrants is causing a huge humanitarian crisis. Wake up and join in to condemn this act.” Either he is ignorant of the facts, or is stoking a dangerous fire. Sri Sri was not alone in this campaign to polarise communities.
More and more leaders from political parties continue to descend on the plains and issue statements which dangerously divide the population into Hindu and Muslim camps. The victims are called “migrants” by some, “illegal migrants” by others. The Bodo leaders reportedly refused the offer of ngos to come and work in the area because the “illegal migrants” would benefit. They say that rehabilitation can take place only after proper identification of the citizenship of the relief camp inmates. This, when 8,000 children were reported unwell and 4,500 pregnant women required urgent help.
This strain of analysis—that the violence was triggered by the unabated march of ‘illegal migrants’—has had takers across the nation. Simultaneously, a sense of victimhood and ‘Muslim brotherhood’ has also played out with certain sections dissecting the issue under the communalism scanner. People were killed in Mumbai when members of the minority community took out protests against the killing of Muslims in Assam. Thousands of students from the Northeast had to flee the big cities after rumours of threats and intimidation.
The ‘relief camp tourism’ and the wide coverage given to this year’s violence have been on an unprecedented scale. This is also the first such violence where civil society has been empowered by social media. The jury was out even before the dead were counted, driving a wedge and bringing back the black mood of the 1970s to raise the pitch against illegal migration from Bangladesh.
Illegal migration is indeed a reality, but it is a result of a flawed mechanism of detection and deportation. In this discourse, the presence of such large quantities of arms with the Bodo militants and other surrendered militants deserve equal concern. The two issues cannot be mixed up. To repeat the argument, let’s replace the ‘Bengali-speaking migrant’ community with Community A or B and this violence would still be inevitable. Land may be at the heart of the dispute but the narrative is also of ethnic cleansing. The Adivasis were at the receiving end once—and if they are granted scheduled tribe status they may have to confront another round of violence. The government’s silence regarding its coalition partner’s role in this violence is also rather alarming. As alarming as the changing demography across Assam.
(The author is resident editor, NDTV Northeast.)
The column There We See Only the Stumps (Sep 3) makes serious allegations about Sri Sri Ravishankar. As per published evidence, Sri Sri, during his Assam visit, had met representatives of the absu, bpf and also the minority students union. He also put out a statement: “The migrants have to live with the rest of the population in an amiable manner and the indigenous people have to understand that some of them were born here over 30 years ago. This has become their land as well.”
Aeticles like these have to be economical with the truth, to put their theories across. When we travel in a direction prescribed by the author, all we see are denuded forests which have been cleared.Thus environmental awareness is not a strong point with cultivators,so what?Such biased love of nature/forests where tribals are concerned is not only irrevelant but doiwnright thoughtless. If past governments have been kind to several tribes in Assam, they have also been mindful of their bread and butter vote banks.It took years of struggle by the AASU to highlight the issue, and then by the Bodos who are more aggressive.Putting the blame on ULFA, while encouraging Bengali speaking locals and migrants to organise has been a cornerstone of policies by the grand old party all these years. So when Tarun Gogoi wins NDTV and its clones go about trumpeting the'victory', till the sheen comes off.The hard reality is nothing purposeful will be done till another round on violence is upon us. The parallel ethnic cleansing of J&K which pushed local Hindu Pundits(not immigrants as in the case of Assam)does not evoke similar response from the 'secular' media..What is OK in J&K is a 'no no' in Assam..Neither the sarkar nor the media can live with such double standards for long.
"Thus was born the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), which claimed 35 per cent of Assam’s land. The Bodos need another 15 per cent to raise the pitch for their long-standing demand of halving Assam."
When I checked the last time, area under BTAD was just 8800 square KM out of total areal of 78000 Square for entire Assam. So that makes BTAD just 12% of Assm's total area. So this author has all the qualities required for an NDTV journalist such as being dumb and the infinite ability to speak lies to support his cause. First get the basics right and then preach dumbo.
People from the NorthEast have to realise that there is a problem in their own socities with regard to people who are considered 'different'. It's not a one-way street.
Part of the problem is that the North East never featured in mainstream Indian media. How often do you get to hear about the armed forces fighting the militant outfits from Nagaland, Manipur or Mizoram as opposed to Kasmir, even though these incidents have been happening for decades? The communal nature of the divisiveness, identity politics across tribals , role of Christian missinaries etc. are not much discussed. Rise of Bodo militancy is more than two decades old and Bodos have threatened all non-Bodos- not the Bengali speaking Muslims alone.. Every year around the Republic Day or the Independence Day there is violence by one group of secessionist element or another in the North East, but the newspapers carry the news of threat from the Kashmiri separtists alone.
Not all Bengali speaking residents are illegal immigrants. Historically, millions of Bengali speaking people have been living in Assam because it is adjacent to Bengal in pre-partition days. BJP supporters jump in action when there is a communal color to a conflict, but ethnic conflict of Bodos with non-Bodos predates the present riots by at least two decades. Perhaps blaming on illigal Bengali speaking Muslims is a convenient ploy to divert attention from the rising Bodo militancy in Assam.
Many ignorant commentators here do not appreciate the nature of the conflict. If Bodos can launch militancy against every non-Bodo in the garb of anti-Muslim/ anti-Bangladeshi riots, then every Maharashtrian can attack non-Maharashtrians of Mumbai, every resident of Delhi who is not originating from Haryana/Punjab is vulnerable to xenophobic attack. A backlash against the North Easterners will be inevitable if they attack legal Indian residents settling there.
"In 1979, about 20,000 Bengalis were displaced from Meghalaya following attacks by Khasis, and in the 1980s, a mind-boggling 150,000 Bengali and Nepali-speaking people quit Assam because of turmoil created by the six-year anti-foreigner movement launched by the All Assam Students' Union and other organizations. Again, in 1980, close to 100,000 Bengalis were kicked out of Tripura even as Biharis around the same time faced the brunt of Manipuri nationalism . One of the biggest migrations was that of 50,000 Reangs from Mizoram in 2003"
Sickening, and all the more so for not being covered well by either the international or Indian media. It looks like there are powerful, well armed groups in the North East who have no intention of being tolerant or accommodating to outsiders.
The recent panicky migrations of persons from the NorthEast from Bangalore, Pune et al was entirely condemnable, but the forced migrations from the NE were far worse, and more violent. People from the NorthEast have to realise that there is a problem in their own socities with regard to people who are considered 'different'. It's not a one-way street.
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