Assam ethnic cauldron boils over (3)

Assam’s ethnic cauldron boils over

Bodo v/s Nuslim settler claims 55 lives

Prashun Bhaumik | Guwahati |

The riots between Bodos and Muslim settlers have their roots in ambivalent attitudes to the Assam Accord of 1985, that was supposed to have brought the curtains down on the anti-foreigner stir.

By Wasbir Hussain

Assam’s murderous ethnic ‘wars’ come visiting again and again. The latest, between Bodo tribes-people and Muslim settlers, began October 3 and engulfed two northern districts-Udalguri and Darrang-over the next few days. The toll: 55 dead, 24 of them in at least four instances of police firing. An estimated 3 lakh people, belonging to the two clashing communities as well as others caught in the crossfire, were uprooted from their homes. At the time of writing, 40,000 people are still living in 34 makeshift relief camps in Udalguri district and another 24,000 are lodged in 24 such camps in the nearby Darrang district. The majority of displaced persons have returned to what is left of their homes, but normal life is hit hard by a trust deficit on both sides.

Now, there are two versions as to what triggered the latest bout of rioting, but both centre round one man, Rakesh Swargiary, a youth from Mohanpur village in Udalguri district. Mohanpur is a village comprising a mix of Bodos and Muslim settlers who live in their respective clusters. “Muslims in the village have said that on the day of Eid (October 2), Rakesh and five of his companions descended on the Muslim cluster and forcibly took away chickens and other edibles. They said he repeated the act the following day,” a top police officer, who has been camping in the area, said. However according to the police Rakesh had not gone there the second time.

“The reality is that on October 3, some Muslims from the village, angry over Rakesh’s action the previous day, were lying in wait for him. When he appeared in the area before dawn, after completing a night patrol as part of a local initiative to keep guard on the village, he was gagged and dragged away.” His companions raised the alarm, and at least one of them, who approached the Muslim cluster to look for Rakesh, was attacked. Rakesh himself was knifed. He was, however, rescued by the police. By then, some houses belonging to Muslims were set ablaze. Within an hour, around 10,000 Muslims emerged from their homes. The battle had begun. Rakesh was treated for his wounds at a hospital and has since returned to Mohanpur. By then, enough blood had spilled.

Viewed dispassionately, it is a simple incident of crime. But this is Assam’s ethnic cauldron. Between 1993 and 1996, Bodos and Muslim settlers clashed freely and violently, killing nearly 300 and making 3 lakh or more homeless. The two communities that co-habit vast swathes of western and northern Assam are actually engaged in a long drawn turf war or fight for lebensraum (living space). In fact, the government has a hand in providing a handle for the clash between the two communities.

To understand this, one has to take a look at the following landmark: 20 February 1993.  The first ever agreement with the homeland-seeking Bodos was signed on that day between New Delhi and the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the apex student group representing the community. The agreement brought the Bodos a 40-member Bodoland Autono-mous Council (BAC) with a good deal of powers that made the Bodos euphoric.

The hitch, however, was that the agreement had not demarcated the boundary of the Autonomous Council. The government came up with the formula that villages with a 50 per cent Bodo population would come under the Council. This ill thought out plan was enough to lead a section of Bodo miscreants to launch a virtual ethnic cleansing to oust the settlers. Their aim: to alter the demography of villages where the Bodos were in a minority. Beginning 12 October 1993, Bodos clashed with the Muslim settlers and this battle continued intermittently until 1996 (Bodos clashed with Adivasi Santhals in the same region in 1998 and later). That the agreement of February 1993 was to be scrapped later and a new deal signed in 2003 with a different set of Bodo groups is another but highly relevant factor in the current context.

If the genesis of the conflict can be largely attributed to a government flaw, the twists to the latest round of violence smack of political brinkmanship. Take a look at the positions taken by various parties and groups: for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the violence was one between Bodos and ‘Bangladeshi migrants’, aided by jehadi groups; for the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the protagonist of the six-year-long anti-foreigner agitation (1979-1985), it was an attack on the Bodos by ‘Bangladeshi migrants’, backed by fundamentalists and anti-India groups; the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the state’s main opposition party, too, spoke on similar lines. But the ruling Congress and its Bodo ally, the Bodo People’s Front (BPF)-the party that is running the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (formed after the second Bodo Accord of 2003)-blamed the separatist National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) for fanning the riots and targeting the Muslim settlers.

Said Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam government spokesman and health minister: “The NDFB was trying to launch a virtual ethnic cleansing to rid the villages in the area of Muslim settlers. Rebels of the group even provided cover fire to mobs to help them torch Muslim settlements.” Sarma’s claim has been corroborated by Assam Police inspector general Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, who said NDFB rebels provided cover fire from universal machine guns (UMG) to let a mob attack some Muslim houses at Aminpara village in Udalguri district on October 5. The NDFB – formed in 1986 to push for an independent Bodo homeland and has been on a ceasefire with the government since March 2005-has denied the charges. “The NDFB is tolerant to all communities, including Muslims. The charges against us are totally baseless,” NDFB spokesman S Sanjarang said in a statement. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi has upped the ante saying, “We are investigating reports that some NDFB men are involved. If the charges come true, we may even review our ceasefire with the group.”

One would not like to give the NDFB a clean chit, but there are several things that are puzzling. Would the NDFB engage in such a pogrom when it has only recently set the process of peace talks with New Delhi rolling after being on ceasefire mode for more than three years? Would the NDFB, whose topmost leader, chairman Ranjan Daimary alias DR Nabla, is said to be based in Bangladesh, launch an attack on migrant Muslim settlers? Answers are hard to find, but the murky politics behind this blame game cannot be missed.

Joining chief minister Tarun Gogoi and health minister Sarma in blaming the NDFB for escalating the scale of the violence was the chief of the autonomous Bodoland Territo-rial Council (BTC) Hagrama Mohilary. Now, who is Mohilary? He was the chief of the now disbanded Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), which had been an arch rival of the NDFB.

The two rebel groups had earlier engaged in bitter inter-necine battles. It was with the BLT that the Centre signed the new Bodo Accord in 2003 that brought the community three new districts and an exclusive annual budgetary allocation of Rs 100 crore.

What is the fear or what is the politics here? It is actually quite simple. Mohilary and his colleagues in the Bodo Council are aware that if the NDFB is to clinch a peace deal with New Delhi in the coming days, they will lay a claim to the same politico-administrative space in the Bodo heartland that they are now occupying. It will be a tough concession to make for a group headed by Mohilary which tasted the trappings of power just five years ago.

There are actually several layers to the conflict between the Bodos and the Muslim settlers. A section of the media sought to describe the latest clash as one between Bodos and ‘Bangladeshi migrants’. If that had been so, it would have meant that it was a clash between Indians and Bangladeshis on Indian soil. The authorities, if that was the case, would have had two tasks in hand: to quell the riots and round up the Bangladeshi migrants and throw them out of our territory. That was not the case. The rioting in Udalguri and Darrang was between Bodos and Muslim settlers who trace their origins to erstwhile East Bengal, then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The key question to ask is whether these Muslim settlers had migrated to India (Assam in this case) after 25 March 1971, the cut-off date set in the Assam Accord of 1985 to detect and expel illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

It is possible that some of the Muslim settlers who clashed with the Bodos in the latest orgy of violence entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 1971. One would expect such people to be detected and expelled. But what about those settlers who had been living here after migrating (from wherever) before the cut-off date? Unless the signatories of the Assam Accord, that had brought the curtains down on the anti-foreigner stir, like the AASU and the government, take a clear position on the status of the Muslim settlers on the basis of the agreed cut-off date, matters are bound to remain volatile. The attitude of key players in Assam not to make a distinction between Muslim settlers who had migrated here before 1971 and those who have come after 1971 has complicated matters further. The identity question and the politics of citizenship have made political parties and individual politicians win or lose elections in Assam. And it is this ticklish and unresolved citizenship question that has kept this state of 26 million people on the boil.