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Assam, an Indian tragedy

Images of young men, smiling, staring, and clicking photos of the 15-yr-old while she was being thrashed, reflects intolerance, writes Sanjoy Hazarika.

india Updated: Nov 30, 2007 21:19 IST

As Assam lurches through a cycle of hatred, violence, suspicion and ethnic division, with the state government an impotent observer despite its talk of action and ministers scurrying from one press conference to another, the question that needs to be asked is not just how did this happen or what can be done, but also what it means in the larger context of Assam’s complex social milieu and India’s policies.

For one, it shatters the dying myth of a ‘tolerant’ society in Assam, a myth that died many years ago in Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland with their random bursts of ethnic cleansing, at times directed against plains dwellers, at other times against fellow tribespeople. There is not just one monolithic society. The North-east has no less than 220 distinct ethnic groups, with a number like the Monpas and Nagas, Mizos, Garos and Khasis having kin in neighbouring countries — whether it is Tibet of Myanmar or Bangladesh.

A state like Assam is home to no less than 20 ethnic groups, large and small, many of which function as exclusive entities, without a role for those outside of the specific ethnic group. These groups are in different stages of economic growth and political mobilisation.

What needs emphasis is that while the core of traditional social structures and practices remains intact, these traditions are being challenged by more radical voices, especially among younger leaders in these ethnic groups, particularly among the tea community. This is a coalition of tribes, whose forebears were forcibly transported to Assam to work on British tea plantations. Many died in the course of those journeys, as they were moved from the dry highlands of Chotanagpur and today’s Jharkhand to the humid plains of Assam.

It is one of the largest organised forced migrations in pre-Independent India and one of the most shameful. Their numbers are large — not less than 20 lakh these days, critical to the future of most governments. They live largely on plantations, in a world apart, where they live in free housing (called lines), their food is subsidised and their salaries protected. But their conditions remain poor with high levels of substance abuse, especially alcohol, lack of savings and very low levels of education and overall health.

They are slow to react angrily but have conducted violent assaults against tea managers and others. Most recently, when pro-Ulfa supporters blocked highways in Upper Assam last May, forcing near-starvation conditions in the nearby estates, they scattered the protesters, armed with bows and arrows and heavy sticks. In many of these incidents, there has been heavy use of raw country liquor by the crowds.

The images of the ongoing confrontations in Assam hark back to another era, with bows and arrows as well as spears and lathis being brandished. Last Saturday’s initial outburst by the protesters who were demanding ST status exploded against stunned and unprepared residents, car and shop owners as well as students. For nearly two hours, the adivasis, some of whom who were in Guwahati or a big city for the first time, ran riot, unchecked by the police, many of whom were on security duty at the International Tea Convention.

It was after this mayhem that the organised retribution began: residents with assistance from local thugs broke up the rioters into smaller groups, beat them senseless and, in one horrific episode, stripped a young girl and chased her before an elderly man, shamed and outraged by the incident, gave her his shirt and protection. But the images of the young men, smiling, staring, and clicking photos with their cellphones while this child of 15 was being thrashed and brutalised, is an ugly example of the intolerance and lumpenisation that pent up angers fuelled by growing unemployment and poor governance (Assam’s jobless numbers are about 30 lakh or one-tenth of the population, according to a top economist here) have pushed a state, once known both for peace and composite culture, to the brink.

What was a saving grace has been the scores of men and women saved by local people, who pulled them into their homes away from the mobs, of auto-rickshaw drivers who drove the injured to hospital. And I know of one case when a scooter driver gave a young woman and her child every rupee he had after taking them to a safe locality. But these stories of silent bravery and humanity were forgotten, once the tragic footage of the young girl was shown in the media.

The state government has offered compensation to the injured adivasis. But that’s created a sense of resentment. There has been none for those whose shops, vehicles and other property were destroyed, who were injured and harmed.

At one time, Congress leaders held sway over the tea tribes, as they are known in Assam. But the years have seen their power base rapidly eroded. The BJP has made inroads into the region. But two groups which have emerged as strident and powerful are the All Assam Adivasi Students Association, which had organised the ill-fated demonstration, largely located on the North Bank; the other is the All Tea Tribal Students Association, which is based in Upper Assam, in the plantations of Dibrugarh and Jorhat. They are among those leading the current movement, which have changed course suddenly from seeking a Constitutional demand to pure revenge against the ubiquitous ‘other’.

What is incomprehensible is why the State government and the district administrations have been reluctant to declare Section 144 — which disallows the gathering of more than four persons — and take tough measures, including tear gas, water cannons (of course, the latter may not be available) and known methods of crowd dispersal.

But beyond the immediate, the situation is tailormade for groups like the Ulfa to reach out to those most radicalised and angered by recent events as well as the trends of the past years in the tea community. This is what should be of deep, immediate and long-term worry for the state and central governments as well as all those who have the interest of Assam and the region at heart.

Such possible mobilisation and recruitment of tea garden youth — many uneducated but still with high expectations of achievements — into the ranks of armed groups can turn Assam into an absolute nightmare. Should this happen, bows and arrows can be transformed into modern killing weapons. Those who are Assamese and not from the tea tribes would need to constantly look over their shoulders to see if they are safe; an atmosphere of fear and terror would prevail, which no amount of police or army presence can stop.

This is as dangerous a portend as what security analysts and media pundits keep shouting from the rooftops about: Islamic radicalisation in the soft underbelly of Assam, the borders with Bangladesh.

The danger can be reduced, if not solved. For one, the central government needs to shed its head-in-the-sand attitude about not extending ST status to the tea tribes in Assam and order a fresh look at the issue. Constitutions and communities cannot be locked in time warps. The adivasis, Mundas, Santhals, Oraons and other groups of Assam still maintain the oral and musical traditions of the past, though they may live on tea estates. Their relocation was a horrible historic injustice.

New Delhi has an opportunity to redeem the past by giving them a recognition that is their due. The state government needs to go beyond mere lip service if it is serious about seeking ST status for this group; it needs to stop bracketing them as tea tribes (the category does not exist) and define them as the tribal groups they are in the land of their ancestors. Surely, this can be done if the Meenas of Rajasthan can remain an ST group when many of them have moved out of their traditional areas, discarded their customary garb and are powerful in government service.

Sanjoy Hazarika is Managing Trustee, Centre for North East Studies and Policy

Barkha Dutt’s column, Third Eye, will return next week