The raging violence in Assam’s Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts, Khokrajhar and Chirang (July 2012) has shaken the conscience of the nation. The Prime Minister has rushed to the area and called it as a Kalank, a shame for the nation. He also reprimanded the Chief Minister from his own party for the violence. There was some inexcusable delay in deploying the army in the area, which resulted in worsening of the issue. In this case of violence while on one side there is a great loss to the lives of people, still the larger tragedy is that lakhs of people have been displaced from their areas, home and hearth, just around the sowing season. The refugee camps housing them are grossly inadequate and not having enough facilities so far. Still at another level this violence has been presented to be one between Bodos and ‘illegal Bangala Deshi infiltrators’ majority of whom happen to be Muslims.
While this is not the first time that such violence has hit Assam, impact wise, this violence is one of the major tragedies of the area. The strife between ethnic groups and Muslim minority, that are labeled as ‘Bangala Deshi Infiltrators’ has been going on from last many decades. The local issues have been given the color as if the problems are due to the illegal migrations. It is propagated that the time bomb is ticking. Such a propaganda is accompanied by the slogan ‘Assam for Assamese’, this is very similar to the one floated by the parochial Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, which has been doing violence on the slogan of ‘Maharashtra for Marathis’. The roots of this Assam conflict have been in the society, which have been ignored by the state and central governments.
The first major catastrophe in this direction occurred when All Assam Students Union started the agitation on the issue of electoral rolls, to exclude the ‘Bangla Deshi infiltrators’ from the lists. This was backed up by BJP through and through. During this time a massive violence was unleashed against the minorities, the Nellie massacre, when over three thousand Muslims were done to death within a matter of few hours. In the wake of these; two things happened. One, All Assam Students Union AASU, now Assam Gana Parishad, came to power, and two and inquiry commission in to Nellie massacre, Tribhuban Das Tiwary Commission was instituted. AGP, after coming to power dropped all the criminal cases against the culprits of Nellie massacre and the report of Tiwary Commission was not made public.
A decade later, series of violence took place, the victims of which are still living a pathetic life in the refugee camps. During early part of first decade of this century, the demand of Bodos was met with the formation of Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts after the treaty with Bodos. The districts covered in this territory are Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgiri. As per agreement the Bodo militants were to surrender their arms which they did not do, with the result many of them continued intimidating others. The percentage of Bodos in these districts varies from 22 to 29% according to different estimates. The others are the Santhals, Rajbangshis, Adibashis and Muslims. Despite being in the minority, with full powers in the region, the Bodos initiated policies where by non Bodos have been neglected in different aspects of their lives. The condition of these groups is very bad and they are against the formation of Bodo Territorial Council. In this area, the present carnage was preceded by the rumor that people from Bangla Desh have come with large number of armaments. This got triggered into violence leading to the present tragedy. The Chief Minister of Assam has denied any such ‘foreign hand’. The real issue has been the pressure on land and jobs due to the natural rise in population over a period of time. This pressure has been deflected by saying that it’s all due to the Bangla Deshi infiltrators, a phrase very popular all over the country and more so in Assam. True, the overall lopsided development has caused the pressures on employment all over the country. In a place like Mumbai, this got presented as being due to immigration of non Marathis into Maharashtra. While in Assam the added part of parallel politics is that the problem is projected on to the foreigners. Is that true?
The Bengali speaking people in Assam are a sizeable part of the population. Amongst these also the majority are Muslims. Have they come recently or have they come to infiltrate for political motive? Have they come during last few decades? The myth of Bangla deshi immigrants has been the major plank of communalists all the time. It has become a sort of ‘social common sense’ all over the country. This pet theme of Bangla Deshi immigrant is quite a myth to a large extent. While some immigration of Bengalis into Assam began in last quarter of 19th century, the seeds of this issue were sown by the British in the first decade of twentieth century. That was the time when neighboring Bengal was over populated and politically a very aware state. Famines were one of the symptoms of overpopulation of Bengal. Assam was grossly under populated not giving much revenue to British. The British resorted to ‘Human plantation program’, where by the people from Bengal were encouraged to migrate to Assam, with lots of incentives. British also wanted to pursue their core policy of Divide and rule here’ so they allowed this migration with a ‘line system’, where by the immigrants and the natives were kept in separate areas. This migration of Bengali speaking Muslims went on for quite some time and by 1930s a good chunk of Assamese population was constituted by these Muslims. In post independence India the Muslim population of Assam has shown decadal growths which match with other states of India. (Source: ‘Muslims in India by S.U.Ahmed’, based on analysis of Census data)
One is very clear about the census figures of Assam and the number of Muslims during that period. During the Pakistan army atrocities in East Pakistan many a Bangla Deshi did emigrate. After that also the economic migration might be going on as is the case in most of the regions. The question is how this immigration is looked at. For example the immigration to India by huge number of people from Nepal is never looked down or demonized. Even the Hindus’ coming from Bangla Desh were treated as immigrants, while Muslims coming from Bangla Desh were seen as infiltrators, threat to security of India and what not. In whole of North Eastern states trade is by and large controlled by Marwaris from Rajasthan. There are good numbers of Biharis also in Assam.
The BJP associates’ propaganda about the ‘infiltrators’ is based on political calculations, not on reality. As in other parts of the country they have used medieval history to demonize minorities here they are using the Bangladeshi factor. The worst part of the scenario is that even National Council of Churches in India spokesperson has also been so taken in by this propaganda that he went on to say the Bangal Deshi infiltrators are occupying 10000 square kilometers of land in Assam! From the time of India’s partition Assam had a good deal of Muslim population. Later of course some migration did take place from Bangla Desh for economic reasons, it sounds to be large as after the carving out of other six states from Assam, the majority of Muslims remained in Assam, so percentage wise it sounds larger.
The propaganda by communal forces about so call infiltration by Bangle Deshis has assumed huge proportions. It has become the part of the mind set in India; it was also at the backdrop of many agitations in Assam. Surely the basic issue of lack of development in Assam has been deflected by political groups including communal groups as being the issue of displacement of locals from their lands by infiltrators. Case of Assam has a mix of Mumbai’s Shiv Sena politics, mixed with ‘communal-foreigner’ tones. The issue has also been the one related to Adibashis, the ethnic component has also been a part of the whole thing. Crucially 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 those having arms of various types, to rehabilitate the refugees and to ensure that they are able to go back to their own areas to catch up with the sowing season. If this is not met, surely a bigger disaster of food deprivation is baying for all the year. What is also needed is that the myth of infiltrators is to be debunked for good by scholars and activists who have observed the pattern of population profile during last one century. The communal forces have misused this very word of Bangla Deshi infiltrator. And lastly the wounded psyche of communities needs to be healed by a process of dialogue and justice.
(Ram Puniyani was a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai and works keenly on social issues. He is the author of three books including Communal Politics: An illustrated primer.)