Often in Assam, someone goes missing only to be found later in a ditch or behind a bush in some secluded place — dead and mutilated. The sequence refuses to end.
For, the stage has been set, used, dismantled and rebuilt for violence between the locals, especially the plains tribal people, and Bengali (read: Bangladeshi) Muslim migrants in the state.
The latest, but not the last, were the Bodo-migrant riots in western Assam last year and the Rabha-migrant clashes in south-western Assam’s Goalpara since February this year.
One of the factors that triggered ethnic cleansing in the tribal belts is the policy that a village has to have a 50% tribal population to be included in a council specific to that tribe.
But that is only the local power game. The big picture: Together, the plains tribes and Muslim migrants are deciding factors in more than 80 of the state’s 126 assembly constituencies and 10 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. It makes sense to keep them at each other’s throat.
Assam has a long history of migration and conflicts for physical control over natural resources, from the earliest Tibeto-Burmans — Bodos and Rabhas fall in this group — to the alleged Bangladeshis. But the conflicts were never on a scale that the state witnessed since 1979.
For nearly 35 years now, the focus has been on two sets of migrants the British relocated — adivasis from central India to work in tea plantations and Muslims from Bengal to work the huge tracts of uncultivated fertile land.
The adivasis have had conflicts with indigenous groups over their demand for the ST status, but they are not perceived to be as much of a demographic threat as the Muslims — a major ‘vote bank’ allegedly enjoying political backing even after Bangladesh was created in 1971.
The British, however, foresaw the possibility of the settlers outnumbering small indigenous groups and carved out tribal blocks and belts that were out of bounds for migrants.
But administrative laxity since independence saw large tracts being taken over — six districts subsequently becoming Muslim majority. For instance, Dhubri district in western Assam bordering Bangladesh clocked a Muslim population of 74.29% in 2001.
Various tribunals set up to detect foreigners who came in on or after March 25, 1971 — the cut-off date for detecting foreigners set by the Assam Accord of 1985 — reveal that only a handful of the migrants were deported while about 97% went missing.
JC Bhuyan, a former census official, said Muslims in Assam should have been 52 lakh in 1991 — census wasn’t carried out in 1981 due to the 1979-1985 stir against illegal migrants — assuming a 45% growth rate since 1971.
But it stood at 63.72 lakh, although the 39.2 lakh Muslim population in 1971 grew at 28.43%. Where did the others come from and where did they go?
The All Assam Students’ Union, which spearheaded the agitation, raised the question with a war cry: “The existence of khilonjia (indigenous people) is at stake.”
The rulers of various regimes knew the answers, but didn’t bother. Even after the Bodoland clashes that left 97 people dead, all chief minister Tarun Gogoi said was: “Immigration and the resultant pressure on land are together the two most important reasons behind many conflicts.”
Nilim Dutta of the Guwahati-based Strategic Research and Analysis Organisation, however, said Bangladeshis were conjured up as the diabolic “other” conspiring to “overwhelm the natives”, insisting that the bulk of immigration was before 1971.
He wrote Assam was never a religiously or ethnically homogeneous entity and never would be. But that realisation will take a long time to dawn on the people losing their home and hearth. And Bengali Muslims aren’t the only victims of the strife.