Assam: A Method in the Madness
By Wasbir Hussain
Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati
A riot, clearly a battle over living space, between ethnic Bodo tribes-people and Muslim settlers, cohabiting for decades in western Assam, has left 57 confirmed dead, six of them in police firing, and more than 400,000 displaced from their homes in a week-long rampage, beginning July 21, 2012.
The clashes in the districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri, the first two, strongholds of the Bodos, took place in a near-systematic manner with reports of a section of attackers using firearms to first force people to flee and then set about torching their homes. Many, of course, fled in the rising atmosphere of tension, fearing for their lives. The final toll of people dead or injured will emerge only after some time, once order has been fully restored, though violence appears to have halted, at present.
That there has been a method in the madness is apparent. This is the sixth major spell of rioting in the Bodo belt of western Assam since 1993, and the fourth involving Bodos and Muslim settlers whose origins can be traced to East Bengal (now Bangladesh); the remaining two were between Bodos and Adivasi (tribal) Santhals who also have a sizeable presence in the area. The first clashes between the Bodos and the Muslim settlers took place in October 1993, leaving some 50 dead. This happened a little over six months after the failed Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) Accord of February 20, 1993, between the Government and agitating Bodo leaders. The Accord was a non-starter because it stipulated that all villages with a 50 per cent Bodo population would come under the jurisdiction of a newly created Bodo Council. This flawed clause was enough to lead a section of people in the area to target Muslim settlers and the Adivasis, where their majorities were slim. After all, Bodo minority villages could turn into Bodo majority villages if the other communities could be ousted. The cause of the clashes, then, was clear.
In the four major riots between 1993 and 1998, an estimated 400 people have been killed, including Bodos, Muslim settlers and Adivasis. Eventually, the BAC Accord had to be scrapped because the boundary question of the newly created Bodo Autonomous Council could never be resolved. In June 1996, a new force emerged in Assam’s Bodo heartland. It was a militant group called the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), and its objective was to achieve a separate Bodoland State within the country, but outside Assam. The BLT, to get noticed, stepped up its offensive, and became known across India when it attacked the Delhi-bound Brahmaputra Mail on December 30, 1996, killing 34 passengers. Several major marauding attacks later, the Government opened channels of communication with the BLT, and the two sides began talking peace. The result was a new Bodo agreement in 2003, called the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord. This time, a boundary was fixed, two new Districts, Chirang and Baksa, were created and a 40-member elective Council was granted to the region and its people. The BLT was disbanded and its chief, Hagrama Mahilary, became the Council’s interim head. Former Bodo militants formed a political party, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which has since remained in power, having won two Council polls already.
In nearly a decade that the new Bodo Council has been in operation, there have been complaints from non-Bodo groups about insecurity and discrimination. The latest bout of violence had its genesis in an incident on July 6, 2012, when three motor-cycle borne miscreants killed two people, both Muslim settlers, at Musalmanpara near Bhowraguri in Kokrajhar District. Now, a letter written by a local Congress leader Y.L. Karna to the Assam Pradesh Congress president, with a copy to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, has surfaced where Karna mentions the July 6 incident and cautions that communal passions were running high in the area. This incident activated several minority organizations, who renewed their demand that the territorial demarcation of the BTC be abolished. The Asom Mia Parishad, an organization of Muslim settlers, called a 12-hour strike that included a highway blockade, while the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) staged a demonstration in front of Raj Bhawan in Guwahati. Another group, the Non-Bodo Suraksha Samity (non-Bodo Protection Committee) also took up agitational programmes. All these groups alleged that attacks on non-Bodos had increased after the creation of the new Bodo Council in 2003.
On July 20, 2012, bodies of four Bodo tribes-people were found in the Joypur Namapara locality in Kokrajhar. The latest round of riots had begun, and at a time when several Bodo organizations, not content with the Autonomous Territorial Council arrangement, had intensified or renewed their demand for a separate Bodo State.
A turf war is evidently going on in western Assam between the Bodos, the Muslim settlers and, in certain pockets, the Adivasis. Matters have, of course, been made worse by disturbing political voices that have emerged over the past weeks. Bodo Council chief Hagrama Mahilary, whose party, the BPF, is an ally of the ruling Congress in the State, has claimed that armed Bangladeshis from across the border had come in and incited the violence. His deputy at the Council, Kampa Borgoyari, went a step further to state, on television, that, “it is not a case of Bodos killing Muslims, it is a case of Muslims killing the Bodos”, a remark that made fellow panelists to shout him down, asking him not to communalize the issue. Then, there is Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) and President of one of Assam’s major opposition parties, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), who declared that armed men in olive green jungle fatigues went about killing Muslim settlers. On his part, Congress veteran and Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, asserted that “politically motivated forces” behind the riots could be trying to tarnish his image. Clearly, divergent political formations in the State have sought to interpret the present violence from narrow partisan perspectives.
Crucially, this latest bout of violence has raised a question mark on the preparedness of both the State and the Centre to deal with such flare ups. Chief Minister Gogoi openly blamed the Centre on two counts — for the long time taken by Central Security Forces (SFs) to reach the affected area and for the earlier withdrawal of Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) from Assam. “We had 140-150 companies (of paramilitary forces) but they (Centre) reduced it to 96. I was telling the Government of India don’t reduce, don’t reduce. If we had adequate forces, we could have tackled the situation faster,” Gogoi fumed at a News Conference on July 27, 2012. According to assessments by the security establishment in Assam, the State needs around 126 to 130 companies to maintain basic law and order but, on July 21, when the riots began, Assam had only 96 companies. Of these, ten companies were dedicated to duties along the Assam-Nagaland border. State authorities insist that this left them short of 40 paramilitary companies when the riots began.
The response of the Army has also been questioned. State authorities requisitioned Army help to quell the riots on July 23, 2012, but troops were actually deployed on the ground a long two days later, though there were two Army units nearby. Army authorities had apparently sought a formal letter from the State Government, indicating they were not ready to act simply on the request from the local District Magistrates. The State Government eventually had Chief Secretary N. K. Das write to the Union Home and Defence Secretaries. The matter reached Defence Minister A. K. Antony, and only after his clearance did the Army deploy in the riot-torn area.
None of this, however, explains the Assam Administration’s own failure to respond in time – and, indeed, preemptively, given significant warnings and antecedent events that local authorities could not have been unaware of. Gogoi’s harping on the Centre’s tardiness sits ill within both the country’s federal structure, and the broad insistence of the States that law and order remain firmly in the State list. After decades of dealing with insurgency and ethnic-communal strife, moreover, Assam cannot pretend that it lacks the capacities to deal with a local conflagration; and if it does so, this can only be a further measure of the failure of governance and dereliction on the part of successive regimes in the State.
These questions aside, the aftermath of the rioting in Assam has led to one of India’s largest humanitarian crises. Reaching relief to more than 400,000 men, women and children living in nearly 300 ill-equipped relief camps is a task of gigantic proportions, compounded further by the fact that the operation is not being carried out in a systematic manner. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited the area on July 28, 2012, was quick to announce an aid package of INR 3.0 billion, including provisions for the rebuilding of housing under the Indira Awas Yojana. While the gesture is positive, implementation holds the key. It remains to be seen whether the Assam Government can ensure that the aid is disbursed to the victims of all affected communities in an impartial manner. If local politicians come to call the shots, aid distribution would most certainly be influenced by ethnic-communal faultlines.
The present crisis and the task of rebuilding the affected areas are among Chief Minister Gogoi’s biggest challenges in the 12 continuous years that he has been in power in Assam. The people of Assam will also wait for Prime Minister Singh to fulfill his promise of getting to the truth about the cause of the riots through an enquiry.
With the insurgencies in Assam largely on the downswing, and peace talks with most militant groups – including a major faction of the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) – a measure of peace had been restored in the State after decades of persistent strife. Unfortunately, it appears that this relative peace has contributed to a degree of complacency, both in the State and among Central authorities and Forces, and this has been reflected in the failure to act effectively, both preventively and in response, to the widespread rioting in the Bodo areas. The regions of Western Assam are an ethnic minefield, and such failures of governance can only drive a deeper wedge between the communities in the State, further polarizing politics, with untold future costs.