Making Sense of Assam: A Portmanteau Article

December 31, 2014

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The killing of villagers by Bodo militants has succeeded in silencing a major flash point. Ration provisions for tea garden workers by the Central Government are going to stop from 1st January, 2015. For the last one month the public discourse in Assam was animated by this abrupt decision. A state-wide agitation by tea garden workers’ unions was to start from 1st January. There were even signs that the State Government would at last gather courage to compel the garden owner to bear the responsibility of providing food. With the ruthless gunning down of hapless villagers who incidentally belong to the tea tribe community, all that talk is gone. Familiar images of shivering, starving children in rickety relief camps, convoys of gargantuan military trucks rolling out on foggy paddy fields, hubris of political leaders to eliminate anti-national terrorists are back in business.

Trapped in this old narrative we shall forget the utter failure of the State to stop the cycle of unending conflict, fought in the name of ethnic loyalty. The reason for this failure may lie in the State’s understanding of nationality struggle. As long as the series of violence and counter-violence does not dent, but in fact bolster, the legitimacy of the State’s military control over the region, the repeated massacre of the marginalised is of minor consideration for the powers that be.

We present a portmanteau of four articles in this special entry. Some of these are on the formation of identity. Some have explored the cynical ploys which are used to push the interests of the business and the State.

1. The Ghosts of Nellie, Assam: Thirty Years After – Debarshi Das (2012)
2. A Note on Recent Ethnic Violence in Assam – Hiren Gohain (2013)
3. Ration for Assam Tea Garden Workers to Stop – Debarshi Das (2014)
4. Harvest of Innocent Blood: The Democracy Deficit in Bodoland, Assam – NSI (2014)

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The Ghosts of Nellie, Assam: Thirty Years After

By Debarshi Das. Originally published on Sanhati in 2012.

Nellie has been with us for quite some time. I vaguely remember the black and white photograph of Nellie printed on the front page of the Assam Tribune. The high contrast grainy photograph contained rows of corpses laid out on a winter paddy field. This was February 1983. For more than three years the state had been caught in a vortex of agitations, bandhs, killings and curfews. The central government led by Indira Gandhi had declared assembly elections and parliamentary election to be held simultaneously in February. The Assamese nationalist organisations, AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) and AAGSP (All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad), which were spearheading the Assam Movement [1] (1979-1985) had called for a boycott of the elections. The electoral rolls contained many illegal immigrants they alleged. Already in 1979 Assam had become the first state of independent India to have missed the national parliamentary elections on the same issue. Some political parties, as well as Bodo and Bengali groups, welcomed the 1983 elections. Clashes had started to break out well before February. In February 1983 things were on the boil.

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In those days newspapers would come to the town only intermittently. Four to five days’ papers would arrive in a bunch. On curfew days papers would be hurriedly collected when people went out to buy milk, rice, potato and such stuff in curfew relaxation hours. It was difficult to buy things in those frantic relaxation hours. Curfews would usually coincide with bandhs because anticipating trouble authorities would declare a curfew when the political parties called a bandh, and who knows what may happen to your shop if it’s open during a bandh. Shop owners of our neighbourhood market adopted a middle path. They would pull down the shutters, station themselves inside the shop, and sell things when the furtive customers knocked on the small door by the side of the shop.

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Then Nellie happened. Nellie is a small town about 50 kilometres east of Guwahati. On 18th of February Bengali Muslims living in 14 adjoining villages near the town were attacked and butchered in a pre-planned manner. The immediate provocation was a rumour that children belonging to the local tribes had been killed by the Muslims. The real reason could be more political. There were reports that the Muslims of the area had taken part in the elections in large numbers, which were held on 14th of February. It’s also suspected that Hindu rightist cadre of the Rashtriya Swayangsevak Sangh who had infiltrated the AASU may have played a part [2].

But complicity of other elements cannot be ruled out. Three days before the massacre a local police station had sent out a warning “one thousand Assamese villagers [are] getting ready to attack…with deadly weapons”. This was ignored. The attackers were mainly of the Lalung tribe, who were accompanied by some Assamese. According to the official estimates 1,819 men, women and children were killed, unofficially the number crosses three thousand. Primitive weapons such as swords, spears, machetes, guns, sticks were used. A large proportion of those killed were women and children: as if the killers wanted to snuff out the future generation of illegal foreigners.

Till date, no one has been convicted. The police had filed charge sheets, which were dropped later on. The Tiwari Inquiry Commission, constituted in 1983, submitted its report in 1984. The report has not been made public by any of the successive state governments. The secrecy has lived to this day. In 2004 the government prevented a Japanese scholar from delivering a talk on the massacre at Omeo Kumar Das Institute, Guwahati.

After this brief description let us return to February, 1983. Besides Nellie other alarming incidents were being heard. A local Congress leader who was a family friend, was hacked to death. One night some college students of the town went on a raid of a Muslim settlement located at the outskirt; in the clash a student leader got lynched. Houses and shops were being set on fire. There was a popular slogan at that time, Ei zui zawlise! Zawlibo, zawlise! The fire is raging, it will keep on burning. Holding aloft burning torches, agitators would take out night processions through the town. They usually consisted of a large number of school and college students. To add to the excitement BSF jawans were camping at our school, which meant an indefinite suspension of classes. Sadly, the parents did not have the stomach for so much adrenaline rush. Locking the house we went for a long trip out of Assam until things would calm down. By the time the Assam Movement wound up in 1985 with the signing of Assam Accord between Rajiv Gandhi and the leaders of the Movement some 4000 people had been killed.

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Thus, Nellie has been with us. Nellie, the place, is a regular mufassil – deep green paddy fields, dark hills of Meghalaya at a distance, clumps of teaks and bushes, a busy market place, a Durga Puja community hall, and going by the clothes a high percentage of Muslims. No landmark could be seen to indicate what went on on that day of 1983.

But this was expected. Unlike Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002, where the State had to show the minimum gestures of justice because sometimes the ghosts come back to haunt, Nellie is off the radar of state politics, let alone national politics. Who remembers a carnage where the poor rural Muslims perished. That the victims were massacred during the heat of a movement against illegal immigrants further robs them of their share of justice. The dead of Delhi and Gujarat may not have had the right religion. There is scarcely any doubt however that they were Indian citizens and not trespassers. Moreover, that it took place at a border outpost, far away from the Indian heartland, thickens the national amnesia. Nellie therefore is not heard of. Not even when one massacre is deployed as an indirect justification for a subsequent massacre, for Nellie possesses no utilitarian value as a basis for further massacres. To the national collective memory Nellie has not happened.

The only people whom the ghosts of Nellie are troubling seem to be those of the Left. Since the Assam Movement, an important episode of which Nellie was, Left politics in the state has waned. In the 1978 state Assembly elections the CPI had won 4.3% of the popular votes (5 seats in a house of 126), CPI(M) received 5.6% of the votes (11 seats). These numbers were a marked improvement over their previous performance. The Left was on the rise. The Movement began in 1979. In the latest 2011 assembly elections CPI and CPI(M) have won 0.52% and 1.13% of popular votes respectively. As for the non-traditional Left, it has been reported that the Maoists have been developing their base in Assam, specially among the Tea Tribe community. There is lack of substantive proof for the claim. The recent encounter killing of four Maoist cadre has been cited by the chief minister as evidence. But questions have been raised if it was a genuine encounter, or if the young men were at all Maoists [3].

Along with the alleged bahiragatas (those who have come from outside) what else was massacred in Nellie? Why have the Left not been able to recapture the popular support, admittedly limited, that it once enjoyed? If this question is not clinched it is doubtful if a coherent and vibrant Left politics would gain ground in Assam.

What makes incidents of such nature difficult to come to grips with and take a position on is the intermingling of different cross-currents. Many have commented that on the question of nationality struggles the response of the traditional Left has lacked clarity [4]. It would be useful to examine the reasons why this has been so. Let us briefly probe some of the complexities involved.

First, those who were killed in Nellie were mostly of peasant, agricultural labourer background. In general, there can be little doubt that for most of the bahiragata victims of the Andolan the main source of income was their labour, mostly unskilled. From the first principle of Left politics a support for their lives and livelihood follows.

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Secondly, it is possible that many of them were immigrants from Bangladesh or East Pakistan [5]. In the documents of the Left parties territorial integrity of the nation State and sanctity of its boundaries are given cardinal importance [6]. From the point of view of Left politics the simple agenda of upholding the rights of the working people gets entangled with their legitimacy as citizen.

Thirdly, those on the side of the Movement were in it in the name of protecting their national interest. It can be reasonably argued that the nationalities in the region are often at the receiving end of economic exploitation, resource extraction and State oppression. Protecting the rights of immigrant labourers gets fraught with political confusion as the labourers could be on the wrong side of nationality struggles, which the Left espouses. Many a time the immigrants and the indigenous communities are locked in a battle over same resources. This renders a resolution almost impossible.

Fourthly, nationality struggles often assume a secessionist edge. In this narrative, to the metropolis Indian state the Northeast is a colony. The colony is held because it benefits the metropolis economically and militarily, among other things. Only a territorial separation can enable the local communities to embark on a journey of national rejuvenation and development. The traditional Left parties however hold the boundaries of the Indian nation state supreme, as has been pointed out above. Demand for right of self-determination is alright, but it has to be accommodated within the constitutional perimeter. From the point of view of the nationality movement this makes the Left suspect, if its pro-labour ideology was not bad enough. Many Left supporters had to face the accusation of being stooges of the Indian establishment during the Assam Movement. One reason was that Left parties decided to participate in the 1983 elections. But their inability, or reluctance, to imagine nationality movements which do not conform to national boundaries may be an inner, contributory factor.

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Before we conclude two disclaimers are in order. First, this short note does not claim, nor did it intend, to cut through the complex web of political currents in the Northeast. It tries to understand some of the complexities involved. These include, to name a few, cross-border labour flows, nationality struggles [7], the nation State’s power dynamics of self-preservation, attendant ebbs and flows of capital, dimensions of religion, ethnicity and language. It appears prima facie that the traditional Left understanding of nationality struggles through the prism of paramount-ness of the nation State is a handicap. By according the borders a position of sacrosanctity the Left alienates itself from the either quarter of nationality struggles and immigrant labourers.

Secondly, immigration is not as major an issue in some other states of the Northeast as it is in Assam. In Assam the decadal population growth has been falling of late. At present it is less than the all-India population growth rate. This perhaps indicates that immigration has been on the decline [8]. Having noted this, it is also recognised that the state politics has been through a watershed during the early 1980s, from which the Left has not recovered. The fertile socio-political space which could question the exploiting nature of the Indian State, or its capital, has been occupied by identity politics of different hues, much to the benefit of the State. On the thirtieth anniversary of Nellie genocide a fresh and honest attempt to understand the contemporary society of Assam could be the Left’s homage to the hundreds of peasants and farm labourers whose corpse its political narrative is yet to embrace.

(Acknowledgement: scanned images from an old issue of India Today have been used. I also thank Ashok Prasad for raising some simple and penetrating questions.)

Further Readings:

Anju Azad and Diganta Sharma (2009) “Nellie 1983” TwoCirclesNet, February 18, http://twocircles.net/special_reports/nellie_1983.html

Sanjib Baruah (1986) “Immigration, Ethnic Conflict, and Political Turmoil – Assam, 1979-1985,” Asian Survey, Vol. 26, No. 11 (November, 1986), pp. 1184-1206.

Teresa Rehman (2006) “The Horror’s Nagging Shadow” Tehelka, September 30 http://www.tehelka.com/story_main19.asp?filename=Ne093006the_horrors.asp

Myron Weiner (1983) “The Political Demography of Assam’s Anti-Immigrant Movement,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (June, 1983), pp. 279-292.

Notes

1. The English phrase which is often used to refer to the churning which went on in those years is ‘Assam Agitation’. I am using the phrase ‘Assam Movement’, a more correct translation of Axom Andolan, the phrase which is used in Assamese.

2. http://twocircles.net/2009feb20/who_responsible_nellie_massacre.html

3. http://sanhati.com/articles/5054/, http://sanhati.com/articles/5062/

4. This interview of Prof. Hiren Gohain describes some of the failing of the traditional Left: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/2208/

5. A main demand of the Assam Movement was to use 1961 as the cut-off year to determine which migrants would be considered illegal and are to be deported. Those who immigrated between 1961 and 1971 were from East Pakistan.

6. For instance, CPI(M) party programme reads:

5.4 The problems of national unity have been aggravated due to the bourgeois-landlord policies pursued after independence. The north eastern region of the country which is home to a large number of minority nationalities and ethnic groups has suffered the most from the uneven development and regional imbalances fostered by capitalist development. This has provided fertile ground for the growth of extremist elements who advocate separatism and are utilised by imperialist agencies. The violent activities of the extremists and the ethnic strife hamper developmental work and democratic activities.

7. Confounding any neat theorisation further, nationality struggles are at times fought against one another. During the Assam Movement numerous clashes broke out between different indigenous groups, specially between the Bodo and Assamese orgnisations.

8. An argument of the proponents of the Assam Movement rested on the high population growth of Assam compared to the national average. This was put forward as an evidence of immigration.

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A Note on Recent Ethnic Violence in Assam

By Hiren Gohain. Originally published on Sanhati in 2013.

In the last few weeks, in fact soon after announcement on forming a separate Telengana state, violence erupted in several regions of Assam with significant tribal populations, almost as if on cue. In the Bodo Territorial Council area, thousands of young tribal youths and girls, decked out in war-paint and Apache hair-cuts, sat down on rail tracks threatening to cut off communications with the rest of the country unless their demand for a separate state was met.

Almost all organized Bodo groups supported them vocally. AKRASU, the militant students’ organization of the Koch-Rajbangshis, who have nursed a long grievance for having been cut out of a deal between the government and the Bodos in spite of being as indubitably autochthonous as the Bodos, also began to breathe fire and raise vehement demands for a separate state of their own, scissored out of areas of West Bengal and Assam, not excluding the Bodo Territorial Council. Panicky at the prospects for themselves immigrant Muslims, Adivasis transplanted in the 19th century from Chota Nagpur by the British, and the Assamese ( new settlers or people who had been there for ages ) banded together in a common platform to voice their own opposition to such demands.

In the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District, Karbis too blocked roads and shouted slogans in a fiery temper with women in an equally war-like mood, insisting that their long-standing demand for a Karbi autonomous state be met at once, and then went on to burn down one after another government offices that were rumoured to have been stacked with files containing massive evidence of corruption by the Karbi elite in association with largely Assamese officials. The local Assamese residents of Diphu were in a state of shock, and curfew had to be declared and maintained for days to bring the situation under control.

The air is thick with accusations and counter-accusations, with the tribals growling against long-standing oppression and deprivation by the Assamese ruling class, and the Assamese bitterly denouncing the political ambitions and greed for lucre among the emerging tribal elite,forgetful of their own record. There are a few sane voices pleading for reason, a democratic attitude and accommodation, but their voices seem lost in this wilderness.

History, genuine and mythical, is quarried selectively to prop up each side’s argument, though events of two millennia ago cannot have much relevance on what is happening today. The Assam Chief Minister has deployed the army and the CRPF in Karbi Anglong, but has not cared(dared?) to take a tough line with the tough-talking Bodos and Koch-Rajbangshis, who have not yet resorted to violent methods ,but have broadly hinted that that option is not closed. In reaction the long-suffering and now desperate non-Bodos are also murmuring about resisting violence to the bitter end. The Chief Minister has recently had a series of talks with leaders of these movements and assured them that he will convey their views to the Centre.

What is the Centre’s outlook on these contentious issues? To the central leaders tribal demands for autonomy and Assamese anxieties about dissolution of an historic nationality with its rich culture and literature are mere law and order issues, and not matters of crucial moment to Indian democracy. They are given to finding stop-gap solutions that carry in their wake dangers that get full-blown later on. The new ideal of smallest possible government that came in with neo-liberalism has allowed them to scatter inadvertently seeds of further tensions and conflicts. All that matters now for their friends, big multi-nationals, national monopoly capital, is a reasonably stable condition with various ethnic groups hostile to one another but not engaging in internecine feuds, so that rich natural resources of the region like precious minerals, oil, natural gas, hydro-power and rare medicinal plants can be plundered in a matter of a few decades leaving the indigenous tribes and later immigrants to fight it out among themselves in the end.

When Meghalaya was formed ,initially by amending the constitution to insert clause No.244A, the Karbi leaders clearly said that they did not want any such arrangement and were quite happy to remain in Assam. But the 6th Schedule of the constitution had been drawn up with a primitive tribe in mind, and when education and consciousness spread, however slowly, the new educated Karbi elite realized the rudimentary nature of powers conferred for self-government and started agitating for a separate state, which reached extensive support among the Karbis. But the Congress with its own Karbi leaders with their following, succeeded in keeping things within limits.

Over the years, however, more and more powers were delegated to the Autonomous Council in order to mollify restless Karbis .But that dream never quite disappeared. One of their grievances was that even the annual budget of the Autonomous Council was prepared at Dispur. Under Dr Jayanta Rangpi’s leadership the movement, though massive, never slid into violence against non-Karbis. But as things dragged on Jayanta Rangpi fell out of favour and more militant and reckless leaders took over, and inter-community relationships suffered a set-back. It became common wisdom that only such ‘direct action’ could yield results. Such misadventures were not dealt with with a firm hand.

A ghastly incident took place on July 15, which many consider a prelude to the more recent outbreaks of violence. An Assamese resident of Diphu hired an auto-rickshaw driven by a Karbi youth, perhaps representing a more impatient and intolerant Karbi generation, to take him and his young son to the market. Upon arrival at the destination an altercation on fare ensued, a minor everyday occurrence. Suddenly the driver shouted in rage: ’’Are you Karbi or Assamese?”At this several other youths among by-standers drew nearer and started belabouring the Assamese youth who had just reached twenty years. The father, who had been in Diphu for twenty-three years tried to save him ,but to no avail. He phoned the nearby police station and a police jeep soon after arrived. By that time the excitement had risen, and the police also lost their nerve, in the presence of a huge gathering on the spot, and left the place in a hurry. The father’s wails had no effect. His young son Jhankar Saikia was beaten to death before his eyes, and nobody intervened to save him. Yet he was a familiar figure in the market and called every shopkeeper by his name. Condemnation by the press and public in Assam reached such a pitch that the Chief Minister of Assam was forced to order stricter management of law and order. But the culprits are yet to be booked.

The Bodo case has its own history. From the early twentieth century, educated Bodos led other tribal communities against the dominant castes of Assam ( not the colonial masters who backed them) accusing them of caste-based discriminations, mistreatment and suppression of their rights. Under the banner of the Tribal League, the Bodos, the most numerous and advanced among the indigenous tribals, fought to wrest from an apathetic government, guarantee of land-rights to people accustomed to shifting cultivation, and facilities for education of their children, reservation of jobs in government service.

The fight against colonialism became a little obscure as Caste-Hindu Assamese ,backward castes, scheduled castes and tribals fought among one another for a share in the pittance offered by colonial rulers in the name of public benefits. The Caste Hindu leaders of the Freedom Struggle promised action on such matters once independence was attained, but the tribal leaders openly expressed doubt that it was a ploy to delay and deny them the right to a decent and dignified life ,condemn them for ever to poverty and backwardness.

However, just before independence a deal was struck between Bhimbar Deuri, charismatic leader of the Tribal League and Gopinath Bardoloi, undisputed leader of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, which assured tribals of protection of land with tribal belts and blocks, reservation in educational institutions and government service, and reservation of certain assembly seats for tribals. Accordingly , the Assam State Assembly passed certain Acts creating such belts and blocks where land will be inalienable with certain conditions.

However, even though after independence the tribals could take a few steps forward and some progressed far enough to form a small middle-class, implementation of this act was insincere and patchy. Parts of such belts and blocks were de-reserved for settling refugees from Pakistan and immigrant Muslims left high and dry by erosion of river-banks and chars, and start industrial projects without consent of tribals. The tribal elite now reviewed the earlier decision of the Tribal League and formed a Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) to mobilize people for pressing their demands and eliminate injustices. Started in late sixties it soon assumed a turbulent character filling the Assamese elite and their compatriots with anxiety with demand for a separate tribal state in the plains.

But soon dissensions among leaders of various communities heading PTCA left the Bodos as the predominant group. They demanded and won the right to teach their children in Bodo language in stead of the prevalent Assamese. In 1973 they raised the demand that the textbooks should be in Roman script as Assamese phonetics could not properly articulate Bodo sounds. It was a plausible scientific theory, though as is well known, a script and its sound-system may vary widely. The real intention was to insulate the Bodos from Assamese influence. The degree of mistrust and hatred reflected in the move reveals the bitterness of the Bodos at the complacent assumption of the Assamese that they were doing well enough under Assamese tutelage. In the Mangaldoi subdivision( now a district) police opened fire on a Bodo demonstration killing 13 people, deeply embittering the Bodos.

The PTCA movement lost its momentum by the late seventies, and its leaders became ministers briefly in a Janata government. Its place was taken by the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), which for a time even came under Leftist influence. The Bodo Sahitya Sabha had also become an influential body, and along with the ABSU it began to echo the demands and aspirations of the Bodos, esp. its middle-class. The Bodo peasantry were particularly handicapped by the loss of their land to hard-working immigrant Muslims better trained to manipulate land-tenure regulations and officials managing them. Many had been reduced to landless labourers. Therefore they joined en masse in the anti-foreigner Assam movement in the hope of recovering land. When the leaders of the AASU, with whom ABSU leaders like Upen Brahma, who had become a charismatic leader in his teens had collaborated with zeal, came to power and let them down by neglecting their concerns they raised the slogan for a separate Bodoland with catchy and stirring sentences like “Divide Assam 50-50”, “No Bodoland , No rest” and so on.

Unfortunately the AGP government drunk with the illusion of power and die-hard Assamese nationalism, decided to crush the movement by force when small concessions did not satisfy the Bodos. This period is a little murky. The ULFA had arisen with a resolve to carve out an independent Assamese state, and the Government of India had reportedly sent experienced RAW officers to Bodo-majority areas to train Bodos in the use of modern arms, presumably with the hope of countering Assamese chauvinism. The repressive measures taken by the AGP government were crass and brutal, including indiscriminate shooting, rape of Bodo women by the police and the CRPF, and a place called Bhumka saw rape and murder of as many as seven women, filling not only Bodos but also decent Assamese with horror.(The present author wrote about those incidents in EPW at that time.) Slowly Bodos began arming themselves., but turned their guns against other communities in neighbourhood.

A Bodo Security Force inspired terror among non-Bodos with its intemperate violence. A Bodoland autonomous Council was formed by Hiteswar Saikia, then Chief Minister of Assam, in precipitate haste. It did not work out as the leaders of the administration of BAC allegedly indulged in massive corruption, ultimately yielding place to the fearsome Bodo Liberation Tigers, who used terror-tactics on defenceless and helpless common Assamese people of the region to force the government’s hands. Primary School teachers, postal peons, small businessmen were hunted down. Certain national political parties in the opposition encouraged Bodo aspirations in the hope of electoral gains. The BLT cadre struck terror with unimaginable acts of brutality like surrounding a family of ordinary Assamese people and their kinsmen, without any interest in politics as they sat down to an annual Bihu feast in the courtyard of their house and mercilessly gunning them down. Many such incidents were a sort of misguided retaliation against the sufferings of the Bodos at the hands of the Assam Police and the CRPF in the past. But they did not even spare moderate Bodo leaders if they questioned their methods. Quite a few lost their lives under BLT fire.

One serious argument against granting of a separate state to the Bodos was the fact that over the extensive region where the Bodos demanded their state there have been from distant past a mixed population ,with mixed settlements of Bodos and non-Bodos (largely Assamese). In certain villages Bodos were in indubitable majority, but in other villages their proportion was at best 37 p.c. or so. But the Bodos claimed that they had been reduced to a minority by the influx of outsiders.

In order to empirically test the veracity of this strongly held idea in the early nineties I started examining the records found in Census Reports from 1901 onwards. To my surprise I found that if the region was considered as a whole, the Bodos never could have been a preponderant community there. In most of the P.S (Police Station) areas they were not in a majority. The situation has not changed much over the decades, though there has been a spurt in population both among Bodos and non-Bodos. Then how did such an idea take such a deep root among the Bodos? The ABSU during a phase of militancy undertook a self-operated census in the region they claimed as their own, native land, and showed that it had 97% Bodo majority!!

There may be two reasons for such a subjective idea taking firm hold in their minds as the truth itself. First, it is a fact that Bodos were natives of the region and have identified themselves with it. Secondly, there were sizable numbers of people from outside who had settled in it. But this is no reason to hold that all non-Bodos were outsiders who had robbed the Bodos of their inherited land. A few years back I came to the conclusion that the reason for the numerically weaker position of the Bodos lay in their way of life. They depended for livelihood on shifting cultivation with primitive tools. Production at that level therefore could not support a substantial population. From my own memories of a childhood spent close to a Bodo community was that incidence of infant mortality was quite high. Modern medicine was also not familiar to them. Now that they have access to more dependable sources of livelihood and modern medicine the growth in their population today is fairly high.(I cannot cite the newspaper articles and articles in fugitive magazines in Assamese, where I first published those findings. But my interest was less in making a name as a researcher than in resolving tragic disputes in the society of Assam then in turmoil.)

Now comes the role of the Centre as a decisive factor. When Assam, especially Western Assam was in the throes of a campaign of terror by Bodo extremists, the Congress government in Delhi sought a hurried answer through the mediation of Rajesh Pilot, who then served as the government’s trouble-shooter. It was he who initiated a tripartite conference and offered the Bodos the present dispensation of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) with substantive powers and covering a very large area of three different districts. The Bodo leadership accepted it with alacrity and declared that henceforth they would live in peace and friendship with the Assamese.

It was a package hastily made up, with Bodos given 30 seats in a council of 46, with only 5 seats reserved for the Non-Bodos. The then Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteswar Saikia, pointed out that the arrangement was patently unrealistic and unfair to the non-Bodo majority, but was over-ruled. Thus the BTC was by no means an extension of democracy, but of Congress Realpolitik. The Bodo leadership nursed a grievance that while the Assamese ministers and officials spent money at will, the expenditure of sums given to BTC was strictly monitored. There was further a grouch that the Home department was exclusively in the hands of the state government.

Apart from the Assamese the Koch-Rajbangshis, who were as indubitably indigenous to the region as the Bodos, and who had a line of powerful kings in late middle ages there, were deeply aggrieved. So far they were as passionately and patriotically Assamese as any other Assamese community. But this bitter blow which disempowered them in their ancestral land under the very nose of the Assamese rulers, made them turn to other ways for finding justice and they also claimed their right to a separate state comprising areas from both Assam and North Bengal. At first there was some hope that by gaining the status of a Scheduled Tribe they would be able to free themselves from the constraints imposed by the BTC provisions, but the hope faded when on academic grounds the Government of India rejected their demand time after time. The gesture from New Delhi with the Telangana proposal has stiffened their resolve to serve an ultimatum, with the implied threat that they too would take to arms if the demand is not fulfilled.

Such are the consequences of refusing to think out the implications of democracy as regards the ethnic question, and especially of conflating the fate of a nationality or an ethnic group with that of its elite. There have always been masses of working people suffering from want, unemployment and loss of entitlements expected in a democratic society, and they have been manipulated by successive elites with ethnicist or nationalist slogans. The situation is not worrisome to the Centre. There is the concrete exemplification of the theory of so-called “circulation of elites”. All very nice and comfy. Perhaps the motive is to keep the North-east permanently on the boil to the advantage of big capital native and foreign, like certain regions of Africa haunted by poverty, massive displacements, wars and epidemics. There will also be certain foreign-funded agencies given a free hand by the GOI to offer their support and assistance to such machinations.

Postscript

Owing to the virulence and brutality of saffron gangs’ attacks on Christians (one recalls burning alive of Grahame Steines and his two sons), it is assumed that as a victim the Church (its many denominations) is always above reproach.That is a dangerous myth. In fact, George W.Bush during his first time in office ordered that all foreign aid (except government to government ones) be routed through the Church.The reason is not far to seek.The Church is known to intervene in local and regional politics from time to time.They have sometimes even backed armed militants.This is not without profit to Washington. Besides,some U.N.agencies are packed with American and pro-US elements to back such regional conflicts. It is a pity that an unwritten pact between some official Communist parties and the Church in the midst of saffron terror make the Left tongue-tied about Church-led intrigues that complicate matters. One is of course aware of the Church’s backing for Solidarity, and loyal clerics who are well-known human rights activists.

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Ration for Assam Tea Garden Workers to Stop

By Debarshi Das. Published on Sanhati in 2014.

Public discourse in Assam is heating up on a vital issue on which there is little clarity. The ruling Congress party has accused BJP of being more treacherous than the British. The invocation of the British Raj is interesting because tea industry, a British colonial legacy, is in the eye of the storm.

From 1st of January, 2015, tea garden workers would be deprived of the cheap subsidised ration. Rice and wheat are the main food grains they are entitled to at a nominal price of 0.55 rupees a kilogram enacted first under the Essential Supplies (Temporary Powers) Act 1946 and then Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (ECA). Around 12.6 thousand metric tons of food grain per month are distributed this way (5 thousand tons wheat, 7.6 thousand tons rice). They benefit about 1.9 million tea worker households reportedly. The Centre makes bulk provision for Assam tea workers through the Food Corporation of India (FCI). This will be discontinued from January.

Congress has alleged that Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ministry of the Central Government has taken the abovementioned decision. According to BJP MPs, on the other hand, it was a proposal sent by the State Government on which the Centre is merely acing. Apparently, the State Government had proposed that the Centre discontinue the special ration for tea workers. It suggested that tea workers be brought under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) instead. Congress has retorted that although the State Government is for implementation of National Food Security Act, it had urged the Centre to continue with the bulk provision of 12.6 thousand tons for tea workers, which the Centre has refused. According to the communiqué from the Centre, the garden owner has the responsibility to provide cheap food.

This is not incorrect. The wage rate in Assam tea gardens is much lower compared to gardens in South India. This is because the owners here are supposed to provide food and other materials at subsidised price. But the owners instead of paying for workers’ food unscrupulously pocket a part of workers’ wage. According to a calculation of KMSS (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti), the owner pays Rs. 94 as daily wage after deducting Rs. 75 from the actual wage of Rs. 169. The money the owner spends to buy ration from the government is Rs. 3.60 per worker per day (buying rice and atta at Rs. 8.30 and Rs. 6.10 per kilogram and supplying 3 kilo of each of item for 12 days of work). Thus the owner pockets Rs. 71.40 each day from each worker. This is a staggeringly large amount. If the costs of non-food items – umbrellas and sandals – and food for dependents which the owner provides, are deducted the number will still remain large (these costs have been ignored in KMSS estimate). In short, in the pretext of providing food the owner deducts more money from workers’ wage than what he pays. But, it is reported that without the bulk provision from the FCI the garden owners will not buy food from the market to continue the ration. This is possibly because market food being non-subsidised will not help them to earn the profit they were doing.

Thus, so far the garden owners were buying food at APL (above poverty line) price from the FCI to sell at 0.55 rupees to workers. At least this was what they were supposed to be doing. The fact that incidents of hunger and starvation abound in tea gardens is another matter.

It is important to note that under NFSA the workers would be entitled to far less grain, at a much higher price than ECA. Under NFSA a beneficiary tea worker will have to pay Rs. 3 for a kilogram of rice, instead of Rs. 0.55. Furthermore, the NFSA would provide 25 kilogram of food a month to a beneficiary household of five members (NFSA has provision for 5 kg. per head per month). A tea workers’ household of 5 members comprising of 2 working members and 3 dependents is entitled to 55.36 kilogram of grain under ECA (an adult worker is entitled to 3.22 kg, an adult dependent 2.44 kg. per week; 4*(3.26*2 + 2.44*3) = 55.36). It is natural to wonder what the State Government has in mind to protect workers’ ration given that NFSA is going to be effective soon. At the heart of all this is a simple question. Why are provisions of NFSA being treated as in lieu of the provisions under ECA? Shouldn’t NFSA be treated in addition to ECA? The latter is owners’ obligation, while the former is government’s obligation. Posing the former as replacement of the latter is an old trick of externalising costs and boosting up profit margins.

Why the BJP-led Central government is hell-bent on stopping the bulk food provisions is another mystery. It is true that the garden owner has the responsibility to provide cheap food. But neither the State Government run by Congress, nor the Central Government run by BJP, appears interested to make the owners do so. Willy-nilly the buck gets passed to FCI, that is, the public exchequer. When FCI cuts supply, as it is doing now, it will not be the owner but the labourers who will go without food. Before taking the decision to stop supply and making disingenuous posturing on the duty of the owner the Centre could have gone into deliberations with concerned parties, including workers and owners. On whittling down labour rights Congress and BJP appear to be on the same page.

At present Congress has got a chance to whine that the fund for implementing NFSA has not been released by the Centre. This means, come January, even food under NFSA may not be available.

The state is headed for acrimonious assembly elections in 2016. Increasing religious polarisation is setting an ominous background where the BJP is gaining ground at the expense of Congress. Nonetheless, the showdown on tea labourers’ food depicts yet another instance of unity in diversity between the two parties.

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Harvest of Innocent Blood: The Democracy Deficit in Bodoland, Assam

By New Socialist Initiative (NSI). Published on Sanhati in 2014.

Once again, and very soon after the last instance of mass killings and displacement, another series of bloodshed and violence has rocked Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) – Assam. On 21st December 2014, two suspected militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland- Songbijit Faction (NDFB-S) were killed by the security forces in an alleged cold blooded encounter in the Chirang district of BTAD-Assam. In retaliation, on 23rd December, armed militants of NDFB-S attacked Adivasi villages in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitpur districts. Since then it has resulted in the death of 81 people – 73 Adivasis including many women and children as well as 3 Adivasis killed in police firing on protestors. As a mode of retaliation Adivasi mobs killed at least 8 Bodo civilians. Since 23rd December, the entire BTAD and adjoining areas like Sonitpur district have been extremely volatile and under curfew. On 25th December, the Home Minister Mr. Rajnath Singh, in a meeting with the top security top brass, which was also attended by the Assam chief minister Mr Tarun Gogoi, declared Government of India’s resolve to fight terrorism and reportedly asked the security and intelligence apparati to ensure the elimination of the top leadership of NDFB-S within the next six months. Around 50 additional companies of paramilitary forces are being sent to Assam. The Army has also reportedly launched major operations in the Assam-Arunachal border region, in search of the NDFB-S militants.

The NDFB-S massacre of Adivasi civilians is not a pre-modern tribal savagery. In fact such violence is justified by notions of exclusive ethnic-homelands and nations, and their corollaries like aspiration for spatial homogenization and monopolization of resources by particular communities. The Northeast of the country is home to many armed mobilisations against the domination of Indian state that are driven by an ethnic conception of political community in a contiguous territory. The Bodos of the Assam valley started an armed movement for Bodoland in 1980s against their marginalisation by the dominant non-tribal Assamese. Following the time tested carrot and stick policy, the Government of India managed to win over a faction of the armed groups in exchange for internal autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The BTAD was formed in 2003. Curiously, even while the majority of citizens under the BTAD area identify themselves as non-Bodos the distribution of seats under the BTAD agreement is so designed that Bodos enjoy majority in the elected body. While a faction of the Bodo leadership settled to run the BTAD, the seeds were sown for inter-ethnic clashes and violence.

Both Bodos and Adivasis are two of the most oppressed communities of Assam. The history of colonialism made them neighbours, just like the way Muslims of East Bengal origin became their neighbours in the early 20th century. All these communities have legitimate demands for political autonomy, but their rights have to be envisioned in such a way that they do not violate similar rights of other oppressed communities. It is precisely here that the democracy of India and its attendant institutional mechanisms have failed. Instead of creating space for a democratic dialogue between communities, which could have opened ways to resolve thorny issues between them, the security obsessed state in the Northeast, which looks at political problems primarily in terms of military solutions and opportunistic deals, creates ethnic polarization. It needs emphasis that the ordinary Bodo people have genuine democratic aspirations for greater political and economic autonomy. However, under the current political arrangements the legitimate aspirations of the Bodo people have been completely hijacked by power mongering among vested interests, which try to advance their politics at the cost of the rights of other ethnic groups. Hence, it has become a norm in the BTAD to pit ordinary Bodo people against similar non-Bodo people of the region.

The year 1996 saw extensive Bodo-Santhali riots, which left around 300 dead and displaced 2,00,000. Sixty thousand of those are still living in relief camps after eighteen years. Similarly between 2012 and 2014, there was another series of riots and violence, this time between the Bodos and Bengali speaking Muslims. In 2012 alone around 100 people, mostly Muslims were killed, and 400,000 displaced. At the heart of these riots lies the unresolved question of Bodoland: how to grant rights to the historically marginalised and dispossesed Bodos in Assam, so that the rights of other communities like the Adivasis and the Muslims of immigrant origins, who are even more marginalized, are not compromised? The problem is that political deals initiated by state are never substantial and end up satisfying none. On the one hand, since other communities are not taken into confidence and are kept outside of the whole process breeding further dissatisfaction, and on the other, even the ‘deal making organisations’ realize the futility of the arrangement and thus, the cycle of demand-making and arms-taking begins again. There should be a revision and reworking of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord under which BTAD came into existence and is governed; so that democratic aspirations of all communities in the BTAD are upheld and get realized.

Ethno nationalism provides political incentives for violence against other communities. The actual violence is taking place with such regularity because the dominant players in the area see it as a legitimate tool. The state considers its security responsibility primarily in terms of flushing operations, encounters and torture. The area is saturated with armed groups, some surrendered, some in the process of negotiations with the state, and some like the NDFB-S are still up in arms. Some of these groups are also integrated into the contractor economy of the region, indulging in extortions, abductions and murder. Some act as mercenaries of political interests, far from the idealism seen in their constitutions and at the time of their genesis. Violence against civilians, extortions, abductions and mass killings cannot be any road to self determination. It merely plays into chauvinistic demands of majoritarianism. Even these, incidentally, cannot be realised given the ethnic diversity of the region. Yet these simple realisations are not always part of the moral world of the militancy.

The NDFB-S has justified their attacks as retaliation against encounters and fake encounters carried out by the state to decimate the organisation. The singular point is that the current attack on adivasi people is unjustifiable. It must know that they do not and should not assume that their fight represents the community and its desires. On the other hand, the state must acknowledge that carrying out encounters and fake encounters against the NDFB(S) has only helped deepen the prolonged resentment of the Bodos, who are already in a situation of conflict and suspicion since the Bodoland movement days. The central and state police intelligence reportedly had intercepted radio message from one of the commanders of NDFB-S ordering the cadres to “kill as many non-bodos as possible in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts”. According to Assam Police they had been getting intelligence inputs for about a week about possible attacks. Yet, the State once again failed to process the intelligence inputs from its own sources. Why the police took two hours to decipher the messages which were in Bodo language, is a matter of serious concern. Such callous attitude of the state can only bring in a circular play of violence and counter violence.

Indian state claims to be democratic and liberal. Yet all elements of the political order in BTAD are leading the region towards an inescapable cycle of violence. Exclusivist ethno-nationalisms, a number of competing militant groups, ethnic cleansing, irrelevance of institutions of representative democracy, absence of a meaningful dialogue across communities, monstrous growth of and expansion of the bloodthirsty security apparati and their complicity in exacerbating the civilian strife, rise of a mafia run political-economy, AFSPA, secret and open killings, all mix dangerously so that state violence and ethnic cleansing are seen as normal state of affairs. The Northeast and the BTAD in the past two years have witnessed large scale of violence against innocent civilians. Yet the Northeast remains unseen in the national imagination and the underlying causes of this violence are little appreciated.

Violence in BTAD points to the true nature of Indian state’s machinations in the entire Northeast. For a long time, the Indian state has followed a two pronged policy of generalised armed violence to spread terror, along with propping up of sections within the local population who survive mainly on its largesse. These sections which are now in control of local politics, bureaucracy, the contractor economy, and are also moving out of the region for better prospects, are utterly corrupt and opportunistic. In a sense, they are a parasite and an anti-social elite that is incapable of giving any political leadership to the society. The use of Army against challenges to Indian state’s authority has not succeeded and cannot succeed. Some of the insurgencies in the North-East have now gone on for over three generations.

The character and strategy of Indian armed forces too plays a big role. The blanket of impunity provided by the AFSPA encourages Army’s corrupt officers and soldiers to fish in troubled waters for personal gain. The scandals of Indian armed forces in the Northeast, or Kashmir, which come into the mainstream media are actually only the tip of the iceberg. Indian armed forces as a matter of a strategy selectively arm and support competing armed groups to benefit from internecine bloodshed among militants. Indian defense strategy is a direct contributor to violence in the region. The politics of Indian state in an environment of diverse militant groups have created an ethnic cauldron in which the marginal and the weakest social groups are most vulnerable. It shows how Indian state has failed to provide even the first condition of a civilised rule, that is, the security of person. The near absence of the state from rehabilitation process and provision of basic right to life and dignity has created a room for the entry of religious right to operate as providers and protectors of those affected by violence.

An additional factor in 2014, at places contributing to the acceptance of violence as politics, at others benefitting directly from such violence, is the Hindutva in the Assam valley, which has made significant strides here in the past two years. With the bogey of Bangladeshi muslims as its favourite propaganda tool, Hindutva has developed a base among caste Hindu Asasamese and even economically prosperous sections among tribals who find Hinduisation beneficial for their economic and cultural interests. They favour its aggressive politics which demonises and targets the vulnerable, over the populism of other political parties. It is not recognised widely in the rest of country that a section of the Assam agitation leadership of the 1980s had strong Hindutva sypmathies, and that in the Nellie massacre of 1983 too, the Hindutva forces had played an important role.

The centre and the state governments have started an NIA enquiry of the massacre. To be credible, this enquiry should be impartial and find out the nexus between the armed mercenary groups like NDFB-S and the ruling dispensations and power groups who utilize the “services” of such groups. By simply giving a blanket order to flush out and eliminate the “miscreants”, the state cannot resolve the complex situation in Assam and the Northeast in general. It is actually a license for harassment, and violence on the ordinary people. One must also remember that the elections are due very soon, 2015 is marked out for BTAD elections, and Assam Assembly elections are due in 2016. The state and the center governments, led by two contending parties, may possibly make decisions for their own electoral gains rather than for a sustainable solution to the issue. Elections in India have more than ever come to depend on segregation and division of communities through violent means. BTAD being the one of the most sensitive area in contemporary India serves as a hot cake for ruling dispensations to take advantage of. It is time for the democratic and progressive sections of the society to remain vigilant about such machinations of the powers that might be.

In solidarity with the victims of ongoing December 2014 massacre in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar, BTAD, Assam.

NEW SOCIALIST INITIATIVE (NSI)
28/12/2014

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1 Comment »

One Response to “Making Sense of Assam: A Portmanteau Article”

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    September 28th, 2016 at 17:58

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