Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Kokrajhar and After
Ethnic violence in Assam is not a new phenomenon. Even in and around the present area of conflict in western Assam, there were violent conflicts between Bodos and migrant Muslims in 1993, 1994 and 2008. The Udalguri conflict in 2008 was of the same scale, due to the same reason; the pattern of the conflict was also identical. Earlier also, while 3000 migrants were killed in the Nellii massacre in February 1983; 113 people died in Kokrajhar clashes in 1994. While the main issue of illegal migration was not properly addressed, the callous administration did not take preventive measures after the small incidents to stop the flare up. As usual, no lesson was learnt from the past incidents. Of course, the administration of Assam has become complex and more difficult. Assam with three territorial councils for Karbis, Dimasa and Bodos under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, six statutory tribal councils and 18 non-statutory ethnic council — Chief Minister Gogoi granted 18 Councils just before 2011 Assembly elections for the various communities — Koch-Rajbanshi-Adivasi, Mattak, Moran, Tai-Ahom (Gogoi’s own comminity), Chutiya and others. Even Tai-Aitons, with tiny population of 739 according to 2001 Census, have one — with liberal plan and non-plan funding and corruption and pilferage of resources on the same scale, is witnessing frequent clashes. Many councils have undefined boundaries and the main tribes are in minority, leading towards the tendency of ethnic cleansing. Thus proliferation of ethnic insurgent groups has further deteriorated the situation. But there are also other factors responsible for the ethnic clashes. We had clashes in Karbi Anglong in 2005, Dima Hasao in 2008, Rabha Garo in 2011 and now Angami-Sema clashes in Dimapur (Nagaland). At least 300 Santhals were killed in the 2006 Bodo-Santhal conflict; three lakh Santhals became homeless; a large number of whom continue to be in relief camps. About 18 Assamese villagers were gunned down by Bodo militants in Kekerikuchi village near Guwahati during Rongali Bihu festival in 1998. It needs mention that migrants were not targeted during these ethnic clashes. Anyway, administrators in the region, especially Assam, are a harassed lot. But apathy and neglect in the present case are evidently clear.
The roots of the present crisis lie in the trust-deficit between Bodos, rather all the North-easterners, and migrant Bangladeshis. As the Bodos fear for their identity, they want Bangladeshis to vacate their area. On the other hand, the immigrants resent even if their unlawful occupation of the forest/government land is vacated. Moreover, migrants’ attempts to get the Bodo Territorial Council abolished or to increase the role of the non-Bodos in BTC administration is also resented by the Bodos. The Indian Muslims’ preference for the ummah; their putting obstacles in the way of the identification and deportation of the aliens, violent mob actions as in Mumbai and elsewhere in support of the Bangladeshis and Rohingiya Muslims of Myanmar, remind us of the direct action phase of the Muslim politics.
In this case, there was communication gap leading to retaliatory action by the migrants against the Bodos. Although, a few Muslims were killed by others, they wrongly assumed the Bodos to be the killers and killed seven of them. As it happened, the immigrant Muslims encroached and put the signboard of Idgah in the forestland in Bedlanmari village of Kokrajhar district. The forest department authorities vacated the encroachment and removed the signboard with the help of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). In protest, All-Bodoland Minority Students Union (ABMSU) called for Kokrajhar Bandh. Simultaneously some people were murdered. Initially, a Muslim member of the insurgent outfit — National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) — was murdered in Habraguri village on May 25, 2012, by the villagers while he was trying to terrorise and extort money from a Muslim businessman. A Muslim carpenter was killed after that on June 30; the killer was not a Bodo. Then two members of the ABMSU of Antihara village were killed on July 6, 2012. The migrant Muslims retaliated by lynching four members of BLT on July 20 and another three Bodo elders next day. The retaliatory lynching of seven Bodos, on the baseless presumption that the killers of the migrants were Bodos, provoked the rioting. The riots spread like wild fire within two days to four districts of Bodo Territorial Council (BTC)·- Kokrajhar. Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa - and also to Dhubri, Bongaigaon and Kamrup districts. Role of Bodo insurgent outfits and Islamist radical outfits like MULTA Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) in aggravating the problem can not be denied. About 5000 houses of 500 villages were burnt down; About five lakh people were sheltered mostly in 224 relief camps — about three lakh in Kokrajhar and Chirang camps and about 1.8 lakh in Dhubri relief camps. About 100 people were killed. The backlash threat from the Muslims scared 1,200 Bengali Hindus out from Dhubri district, which has 70 per cent migrant Muslim population. Many others did likewise.
While rioting continued in Assam, widespread subversive SMSs sent to the Northeasterners staying in South India, threatening them of the post-Eid violence, led to exodus of 70,000 North-eastern young men and women, mostly blue collar job holders from Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad, for their respective homes. Six million SMSs were sent in a single day. Whereas there was no report of North-easterners fleeing Kerala, but Kerala based Popular Front of India (PFI) came under the scanner of intelligence agencies for its suspected role in spreading inflammatory SMSs and MMSs triggering exodus. Whereas the Governments, Parliament and enlightened citizens tried to persuade them to stay back, only the educated ones stayed back; the violent incidents of Mumbai and elsewhere unnerved many, making the persuative efforts ineffective. As reported, Pakistan based websites generated doctored and morphed videos that spread malicious rumours about atrocities against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. The Indian Islamist outfits - HuJI and PFI — multiplied incendiary messages through millions of SMSs and MMSs.
The Muslim mob in Azad Maidan, Mumbai, during Raza Academy rally protesting the attacks on Muslims in Assam and slaughter of Rohingiya Muslims in Myanmar, ran amuck, set public property and OB vans on fire; molested women constables, attacked media men and the police, snatched arms from the policemen, dishonoured Amar Jawan Jyoti; two persons were killed. Arup Patnaik, Mumbai Police Commissioner issued instructions to be soft and not to arrest many. Not only that Patnaik publicly insulted his deputy, Ravindra Sisve, called him stupid for nabbing a rioter and ordered his release under the threat of suspension. According to Julio Ribeiro, former Police Commissioner of Mumbai, 650 policemen on duty on August 11 were capable of controlling the mayhem. Such dereliction of duty for which he-was punished, of course due to fear of public wrath, was praised as ‘exemplary restraint’ by Javed Ahmed of ‘Muslim for Democracy’ and Teesta Seetalvad of ‘Citizens for Justice’. Shocking information confirming soft state syndrome is that a chief minister put pressure on External Affairs Ministry to summon ambassador of Myanmar to record officially its unhappiness over the Rohingiya issue. He did this forgetting the fact that it amounted to interfering in the internal matters of Myanmar. Apart from Mumbai mayhem, there was assault on North-easterners in Pune and Hyderabad. There were protest rallies in Lucknow and Allahabad also. In Lucknow, more than 50 people attacked Gautam Buddha Park, broke the statue of Lord Buddha and got themselves photographed. It needs mention that present crisis is a complex one and needs urgent multidimensional tackling. On analysing, one finds that identity crisis due to demographic onslaught and resultant pressure on the land is the root cause of the present crisis. The encroachment of forest and river-island lands (Char lands) by the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is a regular affair. But the violent offensive assertiveness of the migrants against the action of vacating the encroachment was both uncalled for and somehow surprising.
There is no denying the fact that North-Easterners are a highly worried lot today. They are fearful about their future in their own states. Many of them have lost hope and feel that their very existence is at stake. In Assam, the Bangladeshis are in a position to influence the electoral outcome of 56 assembly constituencies out of 126. Six districts of Assam (Muslim population given in the brackets) out of 22 districts — Dhubri (74.3%), Barpeta (59.3%), Hailakandi (57.6%), Goalpara (53.7%), Karimganj (52.3) and Nagaon (51%) were already Muslim majority districts and two others - Marigaon (47.6%) and Cachar (36.1 %) were in line in 2001. The Muslim population growth was very high in most of the districts – Dhubri (Muslim - 29.5%, non-Muslim - 7.1%), Goalpara (M - 31.7%, nM - 14.4%), Hailakandi (M - 27.2%, nM -13.3%), Karimganj (M - 29.4%, nM -14.5%), Cachar (M - 24.6%, nM -16%), Barpeta - 25.8%, nM - 10% , Nagaon (M -32.1%, nM -11.3%), Marigaon (M -27.2%, nM -16.3%), Darrang (26.9%, 9.6%) The overall population growth of the Muslims in Assam was from 15.03% in 1901 to about 33% today. A sad fact, which needs to be pointed out, is the negative growth of Hindu population in certain Muslim dominated tahsils of Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Barpeta and Bongaigaon districts of Western Assam, such as in Kalagaicha (-48.79%), Baghbor (-21.85%), Chapar (-2.17%), Bagribari (-4.11 %), South Salmara (-23.14%), Bijni (-9.18%), Dotoma (—15.84%) and Bhowraguri -(0.09%) tahsils during 1991-2001. This clearly indicates that such high Muslim growth rate cannot be accounted for by higher fertility alone. Moreover, India, with such adverse ratio of area and population — 17.5% of the world population on only 2.4% landmass — can neither afford nor allow unrestricted growth of population and to make exceptions on account of religious sensibilities.
It is unfortunate that there is trust deficit not only between the Bodos and other North-easterners on one hand, and the aliens on the other, but also between the people of the region and the Central and the State Governments on aliens’ issue. The loss of Central and State governments’ credibility in this case is a sad reality. The assertion of Chief Minister Gogoi — that there is no Bangladeshi illegal migration in Bodo territory — has further increased the credibility gap. He has, however, now admitted that illegal migration from Bangladesh had decreased but had not stopped altogether. But, his claim that no illegal Bangladeshi migrant was involved in the recent riots is irrational and baseless. The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) also denied the presence of illegal migrants in the conflict zone and then submitted a controversial report, denting its credibility. According to its report, the conflict was unequal as Bodos were killing Muslims and there is fear of militant jihadis supplying arms. Obviously, NCM failed to exercise restraint as a statutory body. While NCM talked of the jihadis supplying arms, the Muslim MP from Hyderabad warned about the possibility of the third wave of Muslim extremism, in case their grievances are not addressed. Any such attempt to communalise the issue should be resisted. After all, illegal migration is not a Hindu-Muslims issue.
The Muslim League government of Sadullah, in pre-Independence days, encouraged the settlement of Muslims from Mymensingh district of Bangladesh (the then East Bengal) on the name of "grow more food", which a British colonial functionary termed as "grow more Muslims". The Line-System, providing areas exclusively for the tribals, was violated and their lands encroached. The tragedy is that even Congress governments in post-Independence Assam continued to encourage the settlement of illegal migrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh in Assam. Late Dev Kant Barua, a former Congress president and Governor of Bihar, used to say that his party would win elections with the support of the’ Alis’ (Bangladeshi migrant Muslims) and ‘Kulis’ (Tea-Garden labour) and form the government.
The non-implementation of the Assam Accord is a reality, which has immensely harmed the nation. The updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is yet to start. The IMDT Act protected the aliens rather than helped in their identification and deportation. It is a sad reality that from the time of the Assam Accord till April 30, 2012, only 54,906 foreigners had been identified. Out of that, only 2,431 were deported, 34,287 were absconding and 95 were sent to the detention camps. From May 2011 to April 2012, out of a total of 8,255 foreigners’ detected, only 69 were deported! The Supreme Court, in its judgement on July 12, 2005,declared the provisions of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983as ultra vires of the Constitution, and observed: "There can be no manner of doubt that the State of Assam is facing ‘external aggression and internal disturbance’ on account of the large scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals’." The court further said: "The Bangladeshi nationals who have illegally crossed the border and have trespassed into Assam or are living in other parts of the country have no legal right of any kind to remain in India and they are liable to be deported."
The Government of India, in the wake of Kargil, constituted the Task Force on Border Management headed Madhav Godbole, a former Home Secretary. Its report, submitted in 2000, was quite critical of the government for its failure to tackle the problem. The Vajpeyee Government, rather than making the report public and acting on its recommendations, handed it over to the group of ministers, which came out with highly diluted version of the same in 2001, which highlighted the grave danger posed by massive illegal Bangladeshi immigration for our security and social harmony. The figure of aliens, according to that report, was 1.5 crore.
It is unfortunate that the problem of illegal migration is not properly tackled in spite of serious notice taken by the Supreme Court, Guwahati High Court, Indian Parliament, senior government functionaries and the civil society. The Government of India, rather than taking proper action and protesting to the Bangladesh Government, was so considerate to that country’s sensitivity on this issue that it never raised issue of influx with that country, as reportedly Dhaka asserts. When Naresh Chandra was Home Secretary, he found some illegal Bangladeshi immigrants working in his appartment. Imagine, where we are and how safe we are, when aliens have access to the nation’s home-secretary’s residence? Chandra called the Chief Secretaries of Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Tripura, Manipur, etc (the effected states), to discuss the problem and one of them said: "Look, it is very difficult to persuade the State Government to take effective measures."
Godbole (Home Secretary, Chairman, Working Group on Border Management) has rightly pointed out: "There have been repeated allegations over the years that successive Congress (1) governments in Assam had actively encouraged migration from Bangladesh. The record of CPI (M) government in West Bengal has been no better. Some political parties have unabashedly stood in the way of deletion of names of illegal migrants from the voters’ list. Not too long ago, there was practically a revolt in the Assam cabinet over the deletion of such names. Unfortunately even the BJP, the so-called Hindu party, did not have the courage to take a principled stand on the concerned issues when it came to power at the centre." (vide: Foreword of BB Kumar (Ed.), Illegal Migration from Bangladesh), Obviously, rather than to have political will to solve the problem, the parties and the Governments selfishly promoted illegal migration to derive short-term vote-bank benefits. It is clear that the Governments, the political parties and Indian Muslims are providing ‘secular’ shield to the .aliens from Bangladesh. Under such circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why the lessons were not taken from the communal clash of the same scale between the Bodos and the aliens in Udalguri during 2008, leading to the repetition of the same. Recent incidents show that not only Assam and West Bengal, but by whole country has started paying dearly for their folly.
The present crisis points towards the need of immediate settling of the issue of illegal migration and ethnicity-related issues. It must be understood that it is not a communal issue and any effort to promote it as such need to be strictly discouraged. This should be done keeping the fact in view that all the Bengali-speaking Muslims in the region are not aliens. At the same time, any attempt to provide ‘secular’ shield to any alien shall harm the protected and the protector both. In this case, the appeal made by representatives of 13 Bodo organisations under the chairmanship of Kameshwar Brahma, president Bodo Sahitya Sabha, to the Assam Government "to conduct scrutiny of relief camp inmates before they are sent back to their home villages or to villages claimed to be their place of residence" needs serious consideration. The Government should also ensure that those found to be aliens just do not go and settle elsewhere in the country. The pattern in the past have been for the migrants to first come and live in places like Dhubri, procure documents, then migrate and settle elsewhere in Assam or other parts of the country.
Immediate steps need to be taken to ensure the return of the North-eastern brothers to their jobs. Strengthening of the intelligence agencies and co-ordination among them was lacking; law and order machinery was slack. Steps need to be taken to ensure non-repetition of the traumatic experience which our countrymen have experienced during the last six weeks. What has happened was a cruel and most painful assault on our emotional integrity chord.
It is true that some Bangladeshis are coming to the North-East due to the economic reason. But, such people never form insurgent groups to oppose the state which gives them shelter, nor become partners in its sovereignty. Bangladeshis are doing both. There is not one, but 14 radical Islamic outfits in existence in Assam as per information provided by Union Home Ministry, which are: Assam-Muslim Security Council of Assam, United Liberation Militia of Assam, Islamic Liberation Army of Assam, Muslim Volunteer Force, Muslim Liberation Army, Muslim Security Force, Islamic Sevak Sangh, Islamic United Reformation Protest of India, Revolutionary Muslim Commandos, Muslim Tiger Force, Muslim Liberation Front, Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam, Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam and Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam. At present, there are 28 Muslim MLAs in the Assam Assembly, out of which 18 belong to the All-India United Democratic Front (AI UDF) of Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal. Ajmal, a multi-billion perfume baron from Hojai is also an MP from Dhubri; the other MP is from Congress. His party is working for the immigrants’ cause. Recently, he called for the disbandment of the BTC.
What has happened in Kokrajhar and elsewhere is a sad chapter of our history. We should take a lesson and ensure that the same is not repeated. Government should sincerely try to detect and deport the aliens. The security and intelligence machinery need restructuring and strengthening. Muslims of India should realise that India cannot fight Myanmar for the Islamic cause, nor allow the aliens to stay here. Any attempt to blur the identity of the aliens and communalise the issue is harmful for all. The rioting should not be started on flimsy ground, as it happened recently in places like Barsoi in Bihar, the area which has no record of communal flare up, and Koshi Kalan. Otherwise, ISI may get broken glasses thrown and in thousands of Idgahs to see India burning. After all, India is a vast country and the hotheads are also among the others. Incidentally, it needs mention that there was a media report that ‘NSF (Naga Students Federation) warned of befitting response’ after what happened in Mumbai and elsewhere.
It is heartening to observe the behaviour of our people towards our North-eastern brothers and sisters. It indicated that the soul of India is alive and vibrant. The media, by and large, behaved and informed properly. However, a large number of the write-ups indicated that the writers hardly understand the agony of those whose very existence is at stake. Their ignorance was further compounded by their patronising tone. Unfortunately, India is misguided by the pigmies imitating Gandhi.