Assam's Cycle of Violence Began in 1979, Politics Continues to Stoke Fires
violence in Assam by bodo militants isn't new
NEW DELHI: This current episode of targeted brutal killing of Adivasis including children and women in Assam is the only latest in a series of several storms of violence which have convulsed the state over the last three decades. Each wave of blood-letting has further deepened fractures between various religious and ethnic groups.
The foundations of ferocious ethnic and religious hostility in the state were laid in the anti-‘foreigners’ agitation which racked the state from 1979 to 1985. The demand of the agitators was for the state to detect and deport ‘foreigners’, or Bangladeshi immigrants. Migrations from Bangladesh occurred from the early twentieth century, partly the result of conscious colonial state policy, mainly of peasants and landless workers, drawn to Assam by land hunger and unemployment.
The Tewary Commission appointed by the state government to enquire into the violence during the agitation reports that in every district in Assam except Cachar and North Cachar Hills, diverse groups attacking each other. Baruah in his definitive account of the agitation recounts that violent attacks against Bengali Muslim settlers in Assam, regardless of their vintage, rose after 1979. The most gruesome communal violence in those years, and indeed since Independence anywhere in India, occurred in fourteen villages of Nellie.
‘On the morning of 18th February 1983, thousands of people surrounded the Nellie area and attacked Bengali Muslim residents... The attackers were armed with machetes and other weapons. They systematically set fire to people’s huts. As residents fled their burning homes, they were hacked to death. Roads to the Nellie area were blocked and the Muslim villages surrounded, so people could not go to Jagiroad police station while violence was unfolding. Unofficial estimates say that the massacre orphaned 371 children and left over 2000 people dead’.
One remarkable feature of this massacre is that not a single person responsible for the violence has been prosecuted or punished. The Assam accord signed between the Indian government and the leaders of the movement in 1985 included a clause to review criminal offences, except heinous offences. But ‘In practice, what the accord was interpreted to mandate was a full amnesty to all persons charged with crimes, even of murder and rape, during the mass communal violence…Only one, fairly junior police person faced disciplinary measures. Survivors received minimal compensation.’
This laid a dangerous precedent in Assam of state-sanctioned, officially brokered immunity for people charged with heinous hate mass crimes. This was further nurtured by a policy of enabling, even incentivising ethnic cleaning. The militant agitation of indigenous Bodo tribal people from 1987 was originally not target ed atthe East Bengali Muslims: it saw them as allies in a fight against the dominant caste-Hindu Asamiya people. The situation changed drastically in 1993 when the government signed the Bodo accord, which created an autonomous Bodoland within Assam, but laid down that only settlements with populations of more than 50 percent Bodo people would be included in Bodoland. The die was thus cast by state policy itself for violent ethnic cleansing.
Former militants organised themselves to drive out the settlers. In 1993 itself, Bengali Muslims were killed and their homes looted and burnt. The terrified survivors fled into camps that were to be their homes for years. Attacks were then mounted against the Santhal descendants of tea garden workers in 1996, and at its peak around 3 lakh people were displaced by the violence. In 1997, some returned, but were freshly evicted after new clashes in 1997. In 2000, the Muslims were forced to vacate the official camps, but again were subject to attacks. They set up their own camps by encroaching on government or private land, where they continue until today.
These ‘nowhere people’ have lived for more than a generation in relief camps in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, and the state has done nothing to assist them to return to their homelands. Up to 2007, we found them surviving on erratic supplies of rice rations for registered camp dwellers for ten days a month, without child-care centres, health centres or schools, unable to return to their lands and homes, boycotted from seeking work, and attacked if they stray back to indigenous habitations. The Assam government indifferently said it can do nothing for the people in camps, who must return to their homes from where they were expelled. The displaced people plead that to return is to only live daily in the shadow of fear of the assured next attack, by a people determined to reclaim their “homeland” from the settlers, spurred by the Bodo accord which recklessly incentivised such “cleansing”.
That next attacks occurred in the monsoon of 2012, when a series of local skirmishes and murders grew into a raging inferno, which rapidly engulfed several districts of Lower Assam: Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang. The homes and fields of Bengali Muslims who lived in enclaves surrounded by Bodo majority settlements were torched and their livestock and belongings looted. In areas where Bodos were in a minority, they faced identical arson and looting by the majority Bengali Muslim population. Fear swept both populations, and terrified people fled their homes, desperately traversing flooded rivers and kilometres of forests to reach areas where their respective communities were in majority. Both fugitive populations took refuge in the grounds of schools and colleges, and at the peak, five lakh more people were exiled to camps.
The state government disbanded the camps in a few months, forcing people to return to their homes. But the hatred and fear did not abate substantially, and in many villages, people lived in makeshift camps outside their villages, still finding safety in numbers. The situation was aggravated by the open call for economic boycott of Bengali Muslims, and posters came up announcing a fine for Bodo people who employed them. This unofficial boycott is still in force in many areas, and deepens further the fractures between the two communities.
As noted, in 1994, it is remarkable that in the same village in which this new bout of brutal violence occurred, 50 people had been killed, again including many children and women. No one was punished for these crimes, although the perpetrators were well known. In this way, the cauldron of ethnic and religious hatred continues to boil, spurred by a bitterly divided people, and state policies which assure official immunity to perpetrators of mass violence, and incentives for ethnic cleansing. Assam has near-fatally imploded with the politics of competing persecutions, as oppressed groups arm and organise themselves to violently drive away other wretched and deprived people, in pursuit of dangerous, impossible (and unconstitutional) aspirations of ethnically cleansed homelands. Their plight is aggravated by bankrupt and opportunistic politics and state policy, and equivocal rationalisations by civilian observers.
The movement for a separate state of Bodoland began in 1987, and involved the usual features of insurgent groups: shooting, bombing etc. But since 1994, the features of violence underwent a change- these became targeted against non-Bodos, mainly Bengali-speaking Muslims and the former ‘tea-tribes’ or tribes which were brought in by colonial rulers from central and east India as labour for the tea gardens. The reasons for this change lie in the nature of the accords reached by the state and central governments with the Bodo militants.
The Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) was formed in 1993 as the outcome of an agreement between Assam Government and the All Bodo Students Union and Bodo People’s Committee. This was not under Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The BAC converted into the Bodoland Tribal Council (BTC) after less than a decade of BAC. This was the result of an agreement signed with the militant group, the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), the state government and the union government.
It is important to note that this BTC enjoys protections under the 6th Schedule. But the 6th Schedule had originally been intended for the “hill tribes” of Assam and Bodos are not a hill tribe. The idea of the 6th Schedule itself comes through the Cabinet Mission proposals of 1946- translated through the Constituent Assembly. In colonial area, composite Assam had “excluded” and “partially excluded” areas over which the Governor- not the Assam government- had jurisdiction. As such these areas were not covered by normal government schemes and laws etc. The 6th Schedule was conceived to integrate these areas and people living in them with the rest of the development and administrative apparatus.
The BTC has 46 members. 30 reserved for Bodos, only five for non-Bodos, five are open seats, 6 to be nominated by governor (at least two women). This gives Bodos unfettered political power over the region, although they constitute less than a third of the population. Under the 6th Schedule District Councils control land rights, water courses, tax over shops etc., plus some judicial powers to ensure the tribal way of life.
But the BTC- under the 6th Schedule- cannot give non-Bodos respite from violence and from unequal development opportunities, as well as political marginalisation. What should replace the present arrangement? Scrapping it is a popular demand with non-Bodos of the area, but it now unlikely that history can be reversed without outbreaks of fresh violence. However, the non-Bodo populations need to be given a fair share in the political arrangements, as well as in village and district councils.
The Lok Sabha,2014 elections triggered off a fresh bout of violence in Assam.Many observers and commentators have been speculating that the incident on polling day and the recent round of violence against Bengali Muslims is linked, and that the violence itself is linked to the elections.
It is simplistic to blame violence of the magnitude and intensity as seen in the Barpeta and Baska districts of BTAD in May this year to administrative failure. The history outlined above provides the backdrop of continuing fissures that trigger off episodes on the flimsiest and as in this case, the most undemocratic of issues. It is not difficult for those trying to consolidate constituencies and gain strength through violence to use the decades of injustice and discrimination based entirely on false and created perceptions to mobilise mobs to kill and maim the ‘other’ with impunity.
The elections were the trigger for the largescale violence in May where women and children were attacked with impunity, many drowning in the river waters into which they had jumped in terror, with the 30 per cent Bodo population that had till now been virtually winning uncontested elections running into resistance from the 70 per cent non Bodos with a four cornered contest in these Lok Sabha polls. Earlier land had been the issue for violent conflagration between the Bodos and the Adivasis in 1996 and 1998, and between the Bodos and the Muslims in 1953, 1993, and 1994. This is the first time that politics became the direct issue for violence, in which Bodos then attacked the Muslims for seeking to vote differently.
Kokrajhar, a constituency that has, for the last ten years, been politically dominated by the ruling party, the Bodoland Political Front, was suddenly facing a potential upheaval. Minority non-Bodo communities, alarmed by the increasingly vigorous calls for a separate Bodoland, decided to field their own, ‘non-Bodo’ candidate in the elections. Bodos themselves, disgusted by what they see as the poor performance of the BPF over the last decade, fielded a ‘rival’ Bodo candidate to the BPF’s own, thus potentially splitting the Bodo vote as well. Reports were heard, in the run up to the election, of the panic caused within the BPF at the prospect of a loss, for the first time since they came into power. The BPF itself is a political party that emerged after the Bodo Accord of 2003, signed between the central government and the militant Bodoland Liberation Tigers. Many, if not most politicians in the BPF, are ex-militants.
In the run up to the elections, about a month before polling was to take place, a young Bodo girl was gangraped and murdered in Chirang, allegedly by a group of seven Muslim men. Four of these men were caught, while three remain missing. In the immediate aftermath of the rape, Chirang froze into a panic, expecting retaliatory attacks, and a repeat of the sort of horrific violence they had seen less than two years ago. The body of a Muslim trader was found a few days later, and although it could not be confirmed if it was related, it nonetheless had the effect of fuelling further panic.
Obodo Suraksha Samiti, a BTAD organisation that has been protesting against the creation of Bodoland, set up a former ULFA militant Heera Sarania as a candidate. Word spread, rightly or wrongly, that the Muslims (already under fire for being Muslim and Bengali speaking) had voted for Sarania. The other two candidates were RS Mooshary, a former governor of Meghalaya set up by the Trinamool Congress, and an independent candidate Urkhao Gwra Brahma being backed by the militant National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Progressive) along with other organising including the All Bodo Students Union. The Bodoland Peoples Front that has usually bulldozed the opposition to have its way, had fielded transport minister Chandan Brahma, dropping the sitting parliamentarian, and resentment spread when it became clear that other sections were exercising their own choice.
Anger was further fuelled by former minister Parmila Rani Brahma who declared openly that the Muslims had not voted for Brahma. Her words are being cited in the relief camps and outside as immediate provocation for the attack. Reports suggest that the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland instigated the massacre of the Bengali speaking Muslims.
The political emergence of the non-Bodos, always in an overwhelming majority in BTAD, as an independent force is seen as a majorly threatening factor by the Bodos who have always been conscious of their minority status in the autonomous entity carved out for them by the political leaders of both Assam and Delhi. The BTAD had through alliances with the state government, in this case the Congress government under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, had managed to remain in political power not just in the Bodo Autonomous Council, but also the state government. Local people alleged that the Chief Minister was unwilling to disarm and arrest the former Bodo militants for this and earlier incidents of violence, because the survival of his government depended on their support.
Although the incident in Narayanguri in Baksa District described here was the most brutal, there were many simmering acts of violence in the build-up to this major episode of violence, related to the elections. On the 24th of April 2014, polling took place in the Kokrajhar constituency, covering all the districts of the BTAD including Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. In the Harbhanga poll booth, a policeman was killed and another seriously injured as a mob tried to capture a booth, near Harbhanga and Balapara villages. A report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) describes how a day after the elections, police began to beat and physically assault villagers in the area. The report also states that girls have been raped and hundreds of houses set on fire. People of the village were reluctant to file an FIR, fearing the police, but at the insistence of activists in the area, have filed the FIR.
On the next day, the 1st of May, CSJ reported that the first attack was on a journalist, who sustained injuries, while the second attack the same evening killed three persons. Both these incidents took place in Baksa district. The next day the attack on Narayangura village was mounted.
The state and district administrations, including Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, even then blamed the militant group NDFB(S), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit), a banned outfit for the attacks. The NDFB(S) has denied its involvement in the attacks, and claimed that a third party must be responsible. Siddique Ahmed, Assam minister for Border Areas Development has blamed the ruling BPF, which has been denied by the chief Hagrama Mohilary.
Police had picked up several people for questioning (including some forest guards), and two Bodo militants allegedly involved with the violence have been killed on Sunday, 4th May, but no clarity has emerged in the situation so far.
On the 30th of April 2014, six days after polling took place, Pramila Rani Brahma, an MLA from the ruling Bodoland Political Front (BPF) party, and a former Agriculture Minister of Assam, made a statement that the BPF would find it hard to win in these Lok Sabha elections, as the Muslims of BTAD had not voted for their candidate. For her part, she has denied this and stated to the Telegraph that she was misinterpreted, and said there should be a CBI probe in the incident.