The killing of close to 70 Adivasis and Muslims by Bodo militants brings out clearly that the problem is very much where it was in 2012, when about the same number had died in the ethnic riots. Unless the state government and the Centre send in forces immediately, it’s a reasonable surmise that the death toll will go up because two-and-a-half years ago, the disturbances continued for well over a week. Union home minister Rajnath Singh has ordered an offensive against the Bodo militants and Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi too has said there will be stern action. However, in 2012 the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, did visit Kokrajhar, the scene of the killings, but later events have shown that did not materialise into much.
What is the genesis of the problem? Arguably the earliest settlers in the present-day North-East, the Bodos, a scheduled tribe, form the region’s largest tribal group with an estimated 1.5 million people. They are scattered across Assam and some adjoining states, but the bulk of the Bodos live in the districts in the jurisdiction of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The first Bodo-Muslim clash took place as early as in 1952. In the carnage of 1994, more than 100 died and hundreds became homeless, with many still living in relief camps. Three factors were mainly responsible for the clashes: Struggle for control over land, vote-bank politics and demographic fears. The Bodos were a majority in the BTC area until the Muslims began trickling in from the 1990s as farm hands and construction workers. In less than two decades, the Muslims came to outnumber the Bodos in certain pockets of Kokrajhar district. Post-independence, migration was encouraged ostensibly to power a ‘green revolution’ but the underlying reason was vote-bank politics; the migrants ensured votes without seeking much in return except being allowed to stay on. Fears of a demographic invasion from Bangladesh gripped Assam in 1979, triggering an anti-foreigner agitation that led to March 25, 1971, being set as the cut-off date for detecting and deporting aliens.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Lok Sabha election campaigns in Assam had said illegal migrants must be prepared to leave India. But in the past seven months since he has come to power, not much movement has been seen on this. The problem this time has been compounded by the fact that apart from the Muslims, the Adivasis had also been the subject of attack. The central government, which has a minister for North-East affairs, must now look at this aspect without losing time. This will have a spin-off for West Bengal, where the migration issue often touches a political chord.