The Bihari seems to be at the receiving end of a xenophobia sweeping Assam and Maharashtra. Assam was witness to an anti-Bengali explosion two decades ago, but local ire now seems to be trained on Biharis, as violence against the Hindi-speaking people rocked the state last fortnight. The trigger was a Railway Recruitment Board () test for lower-end C and D category jobs in Guwahati. With the general perception being that Biharis were grabbing jobs in the railways—since Union railway minister Nitish Kumar is from Bihar—the anger over non-Assamese people appearing for the exam boiled over. Via a sequence of retaliatory incidents here and in Bihar, it spiralled into full-fledged mob violence that left 56 dead and led chief minister Tarun Gogoi to demand a CBI enquiry.
It wasn't long before the Shiv Sena took an opportunistic cue and raised the pitch in Mumbai. On November 18, over 800 activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena ransacked the RRB offices at the Mumbai Central station, not even sparing board chairman Anil Mittal's office. The agitators were reacting to news that six lakh candidates, a sizeable chunk of them from Bihar, had applied for 2,000 Western Zone jobs. With Sena chief Bal Thackeray threatening to disrupt the exams, and nephew Raj pitching in with the cry of—"Throw Biharis out. No Bhaiyyas allowed"—the ministry decided to postpone the exam scheduled for November 23.
Even Maharashtra deputy CM Chhagan Bhujbal, while condemning the vandalising, echoed the Sena leaders. "Sidelining locals is not proper," he said. "We cannot invite too many outsiders for government jobs in one state." The postponement of the exam made the Sena back off for the moment, but they could be back in action once the new dates are announced.
Back in Assam, it was Tinsukia, the business town dominated by north Indians, and adjacent areas that bore the brunt. Sporadic killings, violence and arson were reported from Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur and Dhubri. Why this area? "Here, the non-Assamese dominate us," a local student answers. The choice of Tinsukia thus went out as a veiled warning to 'foreigners'.
The issue of job reservations has held Assam asimmer for a while. As senior columnist Hiren Gogoi says in the Assamese daily Janambhumi: "Students and youth in Assam have agitated for long for reservation for locals in the recruitment of grade III and IV jobs. Everybody in Delhi agrees that the insurgency in the Northeast is fuelled by unemployment. Yet, only weeks ago, when the recruitment procedures began, people saw trainloads of Bihari youth descending on Guwahati. Given the background of joblessness in the region, could anyone expect to hear slogans of Assamiya-Bihari bhai bhai?" Added Gegong Apang, former CM of Arunachal, "Of the central government jobs, only .06 per cent go to the Northeast."
In this scenario, the recent recruiting methods for lower grade employees during Nitish Kumar's regime have only proved surefire recipe for ethnic strife. For instance, the Eastern Railway is headquartered in Calcutta, but the exam and interviews for the recruitment of 2,000 security personnel were completed in Patna earlier this year. This is seen as a sop for the Biharis at the cost of the unemployed in the eastern region.
Oblivious to these portents, political parties have been busy blaming each other and making capital out of the violence. ULFA supreme commander Paresh Barua has demanded that Biharis quit Assam. But many outsiders living in the state have nowhere to go. Like Suneswar Prasad (60) of Duliajan in Assam. Living in the state for over 40 years, his family has not seen their home in Bihar's Gopalganj. On the night of November 19, two armed youth threw them out of their house and set it ablaze.The subsequent looting reduced to ashes assets accumulated through 40 years of hard work. Now, Prasad remains huddled with 450 others, among them women and children, at the Hindustani Vidyalay camp off Duliajan town. He begs visiting journalists to report his woes: "Please write about us, we've lost everything." Among the 6,000-odd Hindi-speaking people herded in upper Assam's 50 relief camps, there are many such Suneswars.
Intelligence officials attribute the victims' plight to the abysmal collapse of governance both at the central and state levels. And the authorities could not have sent a worse message to the people on the crucial question of crisis management and response. Gogoi asked the Centre for 30 companies of paramilitary forces but only 13 were sent. The state government's offer of Rs 1,00,000 as compensation for each death and Rs 25,000 for loss of property too is seen as too meagre.
Gogoi, who found time to visit the worst-affected upper Assam areas only two weeks after violence broke out—after Union ministers C.P. Thakur and Swami Chinmayananda had already visited the camps—defended his intelligence set-up. "There has been no intelligence failure, no one can predict hit-and-run attacks in the remote interior areas," he said.
Finally, it took Laloo Prasad Yadav to cool things down, both in Bihar and Guwahati. Counter-violence against suspected Northeasterners on Bihar stations, with the state and rail police initially slow to respond, was an element that fuelled the initial fire. Though there were no deaths, tempers ran high. The rjd chief's November 25 Guwahati visit raised apprehensions, but Laloo used his inimitable style to assuage both sides. "Do these people bother you too much?" he asked of the Assamese on a Guwahati street, pointing to some Biharis. "You should get along with everybody," he told everyone.
Violence anyway is something either side can ill-afford, with the only road link to the entire Northeast region running through Bihar. Upendra Sharma, general secretary of the Bihar Truckers' Association, calculates that over 400 trucks from Bihar go to Assam every day while over 4,000 truckers coming from different states carry food items through Bihar. "If killings do not stop in Assam, there could be trouble ahead," he says. Politically too, Laloo has decided to observe restraint because the Congress, an rjd ally, is in power in Assam.
Nitish Kumar, meanwhile, has become the Assam politicians' pet hate. His belated announcement of changes in the recruitment methods proved no balm. Says a Congress leader, "This is wrong. It means the Centre heeds only the language of violence. Nitish should not have yielded so soon, or should have tried to defend existing methods more convincingly, if he wanted to be transparent."
Pronouncements by other central leaders were equally vague. Thakur blamed the ULFA without naming it, although the outfit made it clear in a statement that it never attacked poor labourers. Could other organisations have been active? Swami Chinmayananda blamed a mysterious 'third force' comprising the ULFA and the isi for the trouble in Assam without elaborating on his charge.
The latest round of violence has left the average Assamese ambivalent about the Bihari's future in his state. Many have come to accept him. But the unemployed resent his presence. The Bihari settled in Assam optimistically regards the bitter November as a one-off affair. But the new migrant labourer is keen to get away from Assam. Might not be easy, for there's no work in Bihar to return to.
Ashis K. Biswas In Dibrugarh with bureau reports