Analytical Monthly Review Editorial on Assam Riots and Aftermath

October 14, 2012


September 2012
The massive exodus of migrant labour/employees and students of the North East from the big cities of central India, especially Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, and Hyderabad, became a national issue for a moment this monsoon. Yet the discussion of this shocking event in even the best of the mainline press was singularly empty and one-dimensional. We saw the images of young crowds disembarking from special trains that had been put on, accompanied by interviews remarkable for the absence of content. Part of the explanation for this strange state of events was the caution, in part legally mandated, with which communal disturbances are reported. Many viewers and readers nonetheless were aware that what they were viewing and reading about was an unprecedented panic–analogous, on a far smaller scale, to the “great fear” of the French Revolution or that of the communal expulsions and atrocities that accompanied Independence. We knew that Bengali-speaking Muslims had been slaughtered in a communal disturbance in Kokrajhar, Assam. But though the fleeing crowd repeated hearsay stories of Muslim “revenge” attacks on North-easterners in the major urban centers, even at the time it seemed the reports had no substance. Then the panic subsided, and the story disappeared from the mainline media. After all, political turbulence in the North East is not news–what was extraordinary was that for a moment it broke through into national consciousness. We saw the product of long years of a communal tint imposed by the vested interests on conflicts the result of different and complex socio-economic, political, cultural, historical and even international issues. It is worth attention, because it is an ill-omen.

An outline of the history of North-east is a necessary starting point. On February 24th, 1826 Assam was incorporated into the British empire by the Yandabu treaty and in 1838 Assam was placed under the direct administration of the British after disposing of the then Ahom king, Purundar Singh. Sparsely settled Assam was not a region to annex to earn revenue, but to create “plantations”–the initial form taken at that time everywhere but India for the subjugation of land and peoples to the British dominated world market and to the imperatives of accumulation. Assam was a perfect fit. There were vast tracts of virgin jungles appropriate for tea-plantation, in a district where tea was already successfully cultivated by the indigenous inhabitants. And there was a substantial pauperised and desperate population at hand that could be relied upon to work for subsistence wages. The migration of peasants from the adjoining districts of undivided Bengal, districts then as now primarily Muslim, began shortly after the British annexation. The extraordinary degree of extortion of the peasantry made effective by the Permanent Settlement of Bengal was one element in the origin of the workforce. The zamindari system did not exist in Assam, and fertile land was available for settlement. The British welcomed the migration, seeking readily available cheap labour for the emerging plantations and tax revenues from successful settlements.

A second element creating the plantation workforce were Adivasi brought into Assam as indentured labour, not without force on the part of the British. Communities like Santhal, Oraon, Munda, Khamer are the descendents of indentured tea labour brought into Assam by the British in the nineteenth century. The descendents of these indentured labourers started settling in and around the tea gardens and then into more remote districts.

But what of the original inhabitants? Accustomed to a pre-modern lifestyle under the weak control of an independent kingdom, the approach of the British dominated world market was recognised as a horror to be avoided at all costs. Their lifestyle was “pre-modern” but they cultivated rice and tea, and raised silkworms; they represented an alternate and arguably superior path of development. The colonial regime, at the beginning, resorted to the policy of non-intervention in most of then larger Assam. In 1873 was introduced “The Inner Line” in hill areas, beyond which no person could pass without a license. Local tribes-people resisted colonial interference in their affairs, and often attacked the British. Their resistance were depicted as ‘raids’ and ‘uprisings’. There is a long chronology of such resistance. In 1860 and 1862 the entire Jaintia tribe and the Garos (1852-57, 1872) rose against imposition of taxes. The Lushai-Kuki, Manipuri and many plains-Assam tribes (today’s Bodos) raided British posts in 1860-90, 1891 and 1892 – 1894. There are records of Aka/Khamti resistance in 1835-1839; Naga resistance in 1835-1852. An excerpt from the editorial in The Amrit Bazar Patrika (February 14th,1894) on the issue is worth quoting—“In the Deccan the fury of ryots was directed against money-lenders, in Bengal against indigo planters, in Pabna against zaminders, but in Assam, at this moment it is open rebellion against the Government”.

The attempt to mobilise Bengalis already present in Assam against the rebellious tribes was almost automatic to the British regime; a primary means of colonial government. The great famines of the end of the 19th century, coincident with a major explosion of resistance in Assam, encouraged further British-assisted migration, but now with little prospect of tea plantation employment. The results are well described by Nilim Dutta:

The quality of land available for settlement became progressively degraded. Many were left to settle on marshy wastelands and the shifting sandbars of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries called chars or chaporis in the vast floodplains of the valley. This is where a substantial percentage of their descendents still live after a century. At the mercy of annual floods, shifting of the chars regularly and incessant erosion of their lands by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, a large percentage of the Muslim population in these districts is rendered homeless regularly. To eke out a living, they often migrate to the towns and cities as construction labourers, vegetable vendors or rickshaw pullers, living in ghettoized shanty towns, raising the spectre of illegal Bangladeshis in minds of a hostile urban elite with little sympathy or insight into realities of life about the areas they have migrated from…It wouldn’t be surprising to find a sizable percentage of such internally displaced persons encroaching on community land, reserved forests etc. But they are not alone in this. For instance, many Assamese Hindus displaced by constant erosion in the Palashbari area just west of Guwahati relocated to Rani nearby, a ‘tribal belt’ and settled on forest land.

Bodo is the largest tribe in Assam and the entire North East. Their population is estimated at 20 lakhs. The colonial regime attempted both to suppress their resistance, and by compromise partially to recognise their intuitively legitimate claims to the lands on which they had lived from before the British conquest. The “Line System” and recognition of community lands and reserved forests were the gestures made by the British. Yet at the same time the British found it to their interest to encourage Bengali migration and the settlement of “waste land” that could be brought onto the tax rolls. But community land is abhorrent to the capitalist so-called “rule of law”. In a pattern repeated again and again where “Common Law” regimes–both before and after Independence–faced community rights, means were found by force and fraud to dispossess the holders of community rights. And so with the Bodo. The classic agent of the dispossession of the pre-capitalist peasant, the merciless moneylending usurer, played a central role. By the 1990s much of what had been Bodo land had been alienated.

Communists must not fall into an easy acceptance of bourgeois legal imperatives; the tribal lands, although boundaries are not demarcated, is not without an owner. If anything, we are obligated to give even greater respect to community rights. Individual rights over land were embedded within communal rights; in a sense land simultaneously belongs to community and individual. This may be a forest, grazing field, river or cultivable land. In short, the life, both material as well as spiritual, of tribals is based on it. And any attempt to disturb or destroy this must be resisted. The bourgeois and “official” perspective is that for the sake of progress the division into individual property of common resources is essential and so communal land system is incompatible with development. But in the preface of Russian edition of Communist Manifesto, signed by Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, it was affirmed that the then contemporary Russian system of common ownership could serve as the starting point for communist development—“ Now the question is: can the Russian peasant commune, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West? The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”

The more recent disturbances between the Bodo and the communities seen as “immigrant”–Bengali-speaking Muslims above all–can now be placed in context. The neoliberal regime, in reaching an accord with the Bodo militant outfit to create the Bodo Autonomous Council, excluded from the council over 1000 villages where the Bodo were not a “majority”. This was a provocation in the tradition of British colonial rule, to which the neoliberal regime is in all relevant respects the heir. The result, as could have been predicted, were demented attempts to “create” majorities, with attacks on Bengali-speaking Muslims in 1993, on Bengali-speaking Hindus in 1995, and on ethnic Santhals in 1996. More than 3 lakh people were internally displaced and hundreds killed. Playing their own vile role, the Hindutva forces have carried on a continuous campaign making false claims of recent illegal Bangladeshi immigration into Assam. Sadly, but not surprisingly, many Bodo have repeated the lies. In fact, census figures prove that Assam in general, and the key areas of conflict such as Kokrajhar in particular, have not shown increases in population out of line with all similar areas in India. Almost all Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam chose to stay with India at Independence, and the mainstream media could not help but notice that the displaced refugees after the violence at Kokrajhar generally carried documentary proof of birthright citizenship.

The story that could not be told by the mainstream media at the time of the great panic among young Northeastern migrants is the story of imperialism. How the British colonial master–and their current successors, the U.S. dominated Manmohan Singh/ Chidambaram regime of lies and corruption–have used the “divide and conquer” policy in Assam to play off the tribals and the Bengali speakers for more than a century. The Congress regime alternatively plays protector to the Muslim victims of violence, and puts into place programs of crazed hydro-power development that dispossess the tribals and are guaranteed to create new violence. The despicable BJP Hindutva forces spread communal fear and lies of non-existent Bangladeshi illegal immigration. All elements of the power structure create and manipulate communal hatred to divert the justified rage that would otherwise unite all the oppressed and outraged communities of the North East. The answer is revolutionary politics, otherwise all the differences, contradictions, conflicts among the masses regarding language, culture, religion, caste etc. are going to be used by parliamentarian political formations for electoral gains. Finally we must remember the history of resistance to both the colonial state and its successor, and the stark fact that almost the entire North East has long been under military rule. The manipulation of communal tension is but one tool of a brutal state repression under the pretext of combating “terrorism” armed with oppressive laws like The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). The Great Fear of this past monsoon is an omen of the opening beneath our feet of the communal chasm that our rulers have created in their own wicked and short-sighted interests over the last two centuries.

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