One year has passed since the monsoon of 2012, which witnessed, in Assam, the country’s largest displacement caused by ethnic and communal mass violence after the Partition riots of 1947-48. Half a million people were uprooted from their villages because their homes were looted and set ablaze, or simply for fear of their lives. It is extraordinary how easily the rest of the country has forgotten the carnage and the mass suffering it engendered. Part of the reason for this national amnesia is that this violence scarred India’s distant north-eastern frontiers, and the survivors were either indigenous Bodo tribals or Bengali Muslims.
The puzzle of Assam’s endemic cycles of violence is that — unlike the more familiar national paradigm of mass violence inflicted by people of dominant castes and faiths against minorities and disadvantaged castes — Assam’s bloody conflicts often rage between various oppressed minorities. Each embattled impoverished minority is burdened by legitimate anxieties, but the fulfilment of the defensible claims of one seems to make impossible the resolution of the just grievances of the other.
Last monsoon, a series of local skirmishes and murders grew into a raging inferno, which rapidly engulfed several districts of Lower Assam: Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang. The homes and fields of Bengali Muslims, who lived in enclaves surrounded by Bodo majority settlements, were torched and their livestock and belongings looted. In areas where Bodos were in a minority, they faced identical arson and looting by the majority Bengali Muslim population. Fear swept both populations, and the terrified people fled their homes, desperately traversing flooded rivers and kilometres of forests to reach areas where their respective communities were in the majority.
Both fugitive populations took refuge in the grounds of schools and colleges. Unlike in Gujarat a decade earlier, the state government assumed charge of all (over 1,000) relief camps, housing five lakh people. People slept under plastic sheets on bare ground for several months, surviving on the rough frugal diet supplied by the government. The facilities in these camps were primitive, but to the credit of the state, there were no epidemics. Schooling was disrupted, both of the refugee children and youth, but also of students of the educational institutions where most camps were located.
The state government disbanded the camps in a few months, forcing people to return to their homes. But the hatred and fear has not abated, and in many villages, people now live in makeshift camps outside their villages, still finding safety in numbers. A further problem is that the state government agreed to pay a modest compensation for houses that were damaged only to those affected persons who had valid records of agricultural land. This was obviously a ploy to target Bengali Muslims widely believed to be illegal encroachers. But this was a patently unjust policy, because a large number of legal residents were landless, tenants or artisans who owned no land. The situation was aggravated by the open call for the economic boycott of Bengali Muslims, and posters came up announcing a fine on Bodo people who employed them. This unofficial boycott is still in force, and deepens further the fractures between the two communities. In my many visits to Assam in the past year, I found scores of dispirited young Bengali Muslim men sitting idle in the makeshift camps, unable to restart life because of the boycott, compounded by fear and compensation denial. The government could have mitigated the situation by opening large-scale public works under the MGNREGA, but has not done so.
On the other hand, the requirement of land records for compensation unintentionally disqualified many Bodos as well, who also did not have a legal title to their agricultural land. Thus the state government recently took the decision to give an ad hoc grant of Rs. 50,000 to those without land records, but this will only temporarily mitigate their suffering.
There is no move to initiate reconciliation between the bitterly estranged communities. Small but significant fringes of both are radicalised. Both the RSS and Jamiat Islami are active among the affected populations. There is also fear and sullen anger among the third large minority in the Bodo region, the Adivasi descendants of tea garden workers brought into Assam as tea garden labour centuries back.
Moreover, there is no significant political initiative to address the legitimate fears of the disaffected communities. There has been enormous land alienation of the Bodos inhabiting the plains, and they understandably fear the submergence of their culture. On the other hand, demographers confirm that 90% of the Bengali Muslims in Assam are legal residents, and yet they are stigmatised and persecuted as ‘foreigners’. There has been no serious attempt to identify the small ‘illegal’ population and thereby restore the dignity and security of equal legal citizenship to the rest; or to effectively seal the borders to prevent further migration of economic refugees from Bangladesh.
The region is dangerously rife with militant identity-based politics, open trade in illegal arms, state policies that tacitly encourage violence, and runaway corruption. In this smouldering political and social cauldron, peace is chronically fragile. I still found hope in that although the majority of student groups representing both communities remain restive, they do not believe in violence. Also, economic compulsions have led to small ruptures in boycott, as some Bodos employ Bengali Muslims as farm workers, tenants or house builders. Our call from Aman Biradari for Bodo and Bengali Muslim youth to work together for peace and reconciliation found an encouraging response. I see young people slowly recognising that the politics of hate and difference can lead only to a precipice. I find despite continuing rage, hurt and distrust, despite unresolved disputes, a longing for peace with dignity. Even as the rest of the country has already forgotten the carnage.
Harsh Mander is convenor of Aman Biradari
The views expressed by the author are personal