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Assam and Aftermath: Reality Check

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • December 10, 2007

    The street violence that gripped Assam’s main city Guwahati on November 24 will not easily fade from public memory. Trouble brewed when a peaceful protest rally organized by the All Assam Adivasi Students’ Association (AAASA),demanding scheduled tribe status for the adivasi community, turned violent leading to chaos and disorder. Some of the younger adivasi protestors went on a rampage between heavily populated areas of Beltola Chariali and Beltola Survey destroying vehicles and shops on the way. Consequently, due to police apathy and inability to react quickly to the outbreak of violence, locals took “law and order” into their hands and attacked the protestors. In the violence that ensued, nearly 200 adivasis were injured and one was killed.

    Three essential points emerge from the incident. First, that 4,000-5,000 protestors armed with bows and arrows marched on the street was reason enough for creating fear and intimidation amongst the civilian population residing in the area. Second, that the mob could turn violent was not unforeseen. Indeed, the Ganesh Guri, Beltola and Basistha areas are heavily crowded areas with a mixed cluster of population. Some are migrants from rural Assam where there exists discrimination against the adivasi tea workers. It is predictable that they would be prone to violent acts at the slightest provocation from the adivasis. Third, for the state administrative officials to argue that since the AAASA had taken permission only for a public meeting and not for a protest march, they were unable to predict the events that followed is an unreasonable explanation. It is impossible for nearly 5, 000 armed people to cover a distance of six to seven kilometers and reach the heavily fortified Dispur area of the state secretariat without being noticed. Not only that, the protestors attacked the vehicle of Independent Member of State Legislative Assembly, Tara Prasad Das and his wife, raising real time tactical questions about the training, morale and capability of the state police to ensure law and order.

    Predictably, the incident has got extremely politicized with national, regional and local parties joining the fray of accusations and counter accusations. With Panchayat elections around the corner, the incident has taken a political hue. The Opposition parties in the state have demanded the resignation of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress Government. Rumours are afloat that the Asom Gana Parishad, one of the main opposition parties, might have engineered the violence in order to deviate the peoples’ attention from the recent Saikia Commission Report indicting many of its party members of corruption. The political “spin off” of the violence is clearly visible with Shibu Soren, leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, visiting Guwahati to take stock of the situation as most of the adivasis belong to Jharkhand.

    It is indeed worrisome that the strained social fabric and uneasy peace is spreading to other areas inhabited by tea garden workers. On November 28, large-scale violence broke out in the adjoining district of Sonitpur during a bandh called by the Chaotali Students’ Union (CSU). Since the bandh invoked a meager response from the locals, bandh supporters entered Tezpur town and forcefully tried to block roads and attacked business establishments and shops. Locals, on their part, very similar in pattern to the November 24 Beltola incidents retaliated violently. This resulted in thousands of nearby tea-garden workers rushing to the town with bows and arrows to add support to the CSU. These mobs managed to destroy the Rangapara police station and dispersed only after the army and the Central Reserve Police Force personnel were rushed to the area.

    The prompt response by civil society organizations and public outpouring of support for victims of the November 24 violence is perhaps the only saving grace for Assam. The Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi acknowledged this fact in a press conference on December 1 at Guwahati. Moreover, prominent publication groups like Anwesha, without taking sides, openly condemned the violence. The local media showed high maturity while reporting the incidents by not engaging in “hyperbole journalism”. Prominent Assamese public personalities like Dr Amalendu Guha, Dr Hiren Gohain, Harekrishna Deka, and Prof Hiren Dutta had cautioned the local media against highlighting incidents that could aggravate the already tense situation.

    The question however remains: how to prevent such violent incidents in the future? The answer lies at both the sociological and strategic level. Sociologically, as long as discrimination exists at the social, economic and political level, marginalized people will resort to “violent and non-violent” means to express their grievances. The root causes of their deprivation and resultant grievances must be realistically addressed. Strategically, and as an immediate response, the Assam state police needs to be better trained and equipped, motivated and better paid if at all an efficient and prompt pre-emptive action is to be activated to thwart similar acts of internal violence in the future.