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Assam in turmoil

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 25, 2012

    Nearly four years after violent clashes between the indigenous Bodo community and the immigrant minority Muslim land settlers rocked Assam’s Darrang and Udalguri districts in 2008, violence has once again flared up on similar lines in Assam. In October 2008, violence over issues of land took 55 lives and injured 111 while forcing 200, 000 people to take shelter in 82 relief camps. The proximate cause of the 2008 violence was the incident of alleged violence meted out to a Bodo youth, Rakesh Swargiary, by Muslim minority youth. The news of this attack spread like wildfire amongst the Bodo community resulting in widespread violence between the two communities. The Bodo community was already on the edge after two Bodo youths were killed in Rowta, Udalguri in August 2008 after they had refused to take part in a bandh called by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU).

    The scene today is a repeat of the past. Violence erupted on July 20 when four Bodos were allegedly hacked to death in a Muslim dominated area in Kokrajhar district. The violence quickly spread to neighbouring Dhubri district after a bandh was called by the AAMSU in the Bodo Territorial Area districts thereafter. Consequently, 32 people have been killed so far and 100, 000 people have fled to relief camps in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri districts forcing the state government to issue a shoot at sight order to quell the violence. As in 2008, the army has been called in and has staged flag marches in Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Chirang and Bongaigaon districts. Overall, 400 villages have been targeted with arson and violence. Train services between the Northeast and the rest of India have been halted as the affected districts in Assam are the only existing land link between Assam and the other states of India.

    The cause of this violence is rising tensions between the Bodos and the immigrant Muslim communities over issues of land. In the past five years, Muslim immigrants have migrated in large numbers from Dhubri to Kokrajhar district especially its Gosaigaon sub-division. This has created enormous pressures on agriculture land, one of the vital means of livelihood for indigenous communities. The failure of the state to protect people’s land from illegal occupation is one of the primary reasons for overwhelming insecurity over land holdings. In fact, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration and a covert move to legalize it had been first been noticed in Mangaldoi in Darrang district in a Lok Sabha by-election in 1978 when around 45, 000 illegal migrants’ names were found on the voter’s list. The first strike against this was kick started on June 8, 1979 resulting in the massive All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) led ‘Assam Agitation’ against illegal Bangladeshi migration from 1979 to 1985. During that agitation, violence against Muslim immigrants continued, with the 1983 Nellie massacre being the worst with over 2000 Muslim migrants massacred in a single day. Districts like Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Darrang, etc, had also witnessed violence during the Assam Agitation over illegal migration.

    While it is too early to blame either side of the ethnic divide for the ongoing violence in Assam, the growing fear of the indigenous Bodo community of being swamped by illegal Bangladeshi migrants has to be taken seriously. The issue is further fuelled by the existence of Bodo armed groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Moreover, there is a general suspicion in Assam that most of the local political parties depend on the votes of these illegal migrants for their hold on power. This is a political paradox at its most extreme form as it creates the largest disincentive (or perhaps motivation) not to do anything at the most representative level in Assam on an issue that affects the society which is ironically represented in power structures by these very political parties. Hence, there is a sense of growing helplessness and cynicism amongst the local population on the credibility of local political party discourses on tackling illegal migration from Bangladesh.

    A porous border, continued illegal immigration, nexus between Bangladesh-based terror outfits and extra regional forces with local militant groups, and arms trafficking across the border creates a situation of distrust, anxiety and insecurity in volatile districts like Kokrajhar, Darrang, Dhubri, etc. But policy makers often tend to ignore the harsh realities of an ethnically volatile region and adopt an ad hoc strategy without a deeper understanding of the social and political contradictions existing on the ground. Even after 27 years of the signing of the Assam Accord, the fence along the India-Bangladesh border has not been completed. Both the Central and state governments have failed to check the flow of illegal migrants, upgrade the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC), arrest arms traffickers, and deal with armed movements. Unless the social and political impact of land loss on ethnic communities of Assam due to unabated migration from Bangladesh is checked, Assam will continue to remain vulnerable to ethnic clashes, armed violence and communal tensions in the near future.