This has been Assam’s season of unending horror which began with a ferry mishap in lower Assam, followed by a devastating flood (it’s the first surge, three more are yet to come), the Guwahati molestation shame and now the riots in the Bodo areas.
Sayeda Hameed’s Beautiful Country, Stories from Another India brims with hope and challenge, how quietly and with commitment, people and independent organisations in Assam and elsewhere in India are filling the gaps created by lack of governance and overcoming suffering and brutality. But as we watch the unraveling bloodshed in Assam, the fear, anger and hatred that is overwhelming parts of the state, as some four lakh people become refugees in their own land, we must ask — are these struggles for hope and change in vain?
There are many interconnected reasons for the current situation. A feeling of deprivation and unfulfilled grievance has become more acute. A sullen peace has prevailed with occasional outbursts of anger.
Across the country, many are asking: how did this round of violence in the state erupt so suddenly? Some are blaming Bangladesh for it. But the truth is that in the media, and elsewhere, many issues unconnected to the current reality have clouded basic concerns. This is not to say that illegal migration of Bangladeshis into Assam, the North-east and other parts of the country is not a problem. It is. But that is not what is at stake here.
Many of those who have been affected are old settlers and residents, including Muslims, non-Muslims (including Hindus and non-Bodo tribes) and Bodos. To speak naively of Bodo-Muslim riots is to miss a basic point — the Bodos, thanks to the 2003 peace accord, hold political power and a majority of the seats in the Bodoland Territorial Council that governs the four districts of the Bodoland Territorial Administered Area in western Assam.
Yet, demographically, the non-Bodos are in a majority. The Bodos, among the oldest inhabitants of the Assam Valley, have a partnership with the ruling Congress in the state through the Bodoland Peoples Progressive Party (BPPP). Despite their political muscle, the Bodos have suffered from a sense of deprivation for years. Since 1987, when the All-Assam Bodo Students’ Union gave the call for a separate state to be carved out of Assam, the political dimensions of this complex ethnic cauldron have defied any solution. Although one faction of the Bodo leadership, led by Hagrama Basumatry of the Bodoland Tigers Force, showed astuteness by forging the 2003 accord with the Assam and central governments, it did not bring enduring peace. The rival National Democratic Front for Bodoland (NDFB) led by Ranjan Daimary, who was holed up in Bangladesh, led a spree of killings, bombings and kidnappings before Daimary was handed over to Indian authorities along with leaders of other ‘underground’ Assam groups, by Dhaka in 2009. The NDFB too is divided into armed pro- and anti-talk groups, making an already volatile situation even worse.
The pattern of violence every few years appears to be similar, underlining the fragility both of peace and the social fabric: a single incident triggers a counter-reaction which then spirals into a frenzy of death and destruction and the violence has worsened with the extensive use of firearms.
At this juncture, four things need to be done for lasting peace:
* Disarm the factions and those carrying illegal weapons and use existing laws against them and their patrons, on either side. It is no good threatening to do so and then failing to act. It sharpens the sense of immunity and impunity that such groups and individuals enjoy. For too long, the state and central governments have either tacitly or willingly approved a policy of appeasing these armed groups;
* Ensure the safe return of the displaced to their homes, quick rehabilitation and compensation as well as medical assistance (the fact that thousands of displaced persons still languish in relief camps in Kokrajhar nearly two decades after the ethnic riots of the 1990s is frustratingly disappointing). Matters have not been helped by the fact that this is both the Ramzan month and the sowing season. It was the sowing season too in 2008 when riots erupted in Darrang and elsewhere in central Assam. The farmers that I met in relief camps then said the same things as those housed in camps today say: “We need to go back to sow, otherwise we won’t have a harvest. How will we then survive?” They feel like captives in the camps, far from their fields and homes, huddled in a mess of tents, wood fires for cooking and poor toilet and health facilities;
* Ensure adequate psychiatric counselling;
* The fourth is the most difficult and yet the most important: rebuild trust — this can only happen step by step, village by village only through a slow, painful process of dialogue and understanding. Quick fix solutions won’t work. Youth leaders, respected former officials, scholars and responsible civil society leaders will have to lead the dialogue, reducing the drumbeats of hate and fear, initiating steps to build trust, a sense of equality and ownership among all groups. The politicians can’t be part of this now, but would need to be associated later.
Will this happen? It may not. But try we must.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Centre for North East Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia. He is a specialist on the North-east.
The views expressed by the author are personal