The Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), National Liberation Front of Twipra (NLFT) and the People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK) are minor players in the Northeast scarred by insurgency for almost as long as India’s Independence. But the notice they served on Hindi speakers and Bengalis has underlined the racism prevalent in Assam.
On January 2, the KLO, NLFT and the newly-formed PDCK ordered Hindi speakers and Bengalis to quit Assam, Tripura and parts of West Bengal or “face dire consequences”. Bengalis are 67% of the population of Tripura, once a tribal kingdom, and almost 34% of Assam’s population. Though Bengalis dominate West Bengal, the state comes in because the map of Kamatapur — the self-rule homeland KLO wants — straddles western half of Assam and northern half of West Bengal.
The region has fewer Hindi speakers, but rebel groups believe they can draw the attention of the “Hindi belt-dominated” Indian political machinery by killing settlers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other north, central and western Indian states.
Unlike the ‘mainland’, polarisation in seven contiguous Northeastern states is not driven by caste. Religion is a factor in certain parts of the region, mainly Assam, but it is not as obvious as ethnicity and the language spoken by the two largest “non-local” groups — Bengalis and settlers from Bihar westwards clubbed together as Hindi speakers.
Much before the outlawed Ulfa, in the early 2000s, made it fashionable for myriad militant outfits to identify Hindi speakers as representatives of “colonial New Delhi”, Bengalis were the prime targets of communal attacks. The fear of “outsiders” — both settlers from mainland India and refugees from Bangladesh — taking over land and resources of indigenous communities dictated the xenophobia that political parties capitalised on. The post-Independence lethargy in preventing non-locals from settling in the British-demarcated tribal blocks and belts of the region heightened this fear.
But the allegedly pro-Hindi belt BJP, which rules New Delhi and Assam, has given the rebels a new reason to reinvent themselves as fighters for the rights of the communities they represent. The party’s move to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring countries, primarily Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh, angered several political parties and NGOs. The rebels seem to have harvested this anger. Hindi speakers and Bengali Hindus are believed to have voted for the BJP to power in Assam, thus displaying their increasing clout in “importing” a party primarily of outsiders, and so targeting these groups sends the right message.
In his book India Against Itself: Assam and the politics of Nationality, Sanjib Baruah underlined how the issue of official language led to conflicts between the Assamese and Bengalis in 1960-61. The Assam Agitation of 1979-85 too began on a similar note, but gravitated towards “Bangladeshis” with religious overtones.
But racism in the Northeast is not only directed against non-locals who are called “dkhars” (Meghalaya), “mayangs” (Manipur), “vais” (Mizoram) and “bohiragata” (Assam). Various ethnic groups have been at loggerheads for ages, and a trivial incident is enough to spark violence such as the Garo-Karbi clashes of 2011 and the Karbi-Dimasa conflict of 2005. Extremist groups had controlled these clashes.
The governments concerned now have the responsibility to ensure the KLO, NLFT and PDCK do not let their rejuvenation plan translate into communal bloodbath.