A Note on Recent Ethnic Violence in Assam

September 24, 2013

by Hiren Gohain

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.

1 Comment »

One Response to “A Note on Recent Ethnic Violence in Assam”

  1. Padmini Says:
    May 3rd, 2014 at 14:30

    There is no saffron terrorism at all.people of one community try to protect themselves when they are really pushed to th corner.it is the Christian atrocities of killing that is creating all this issue.
    Muslim migrants by congress further killing of local Hindus have made situation terrible.

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