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Assamese don't want jobs at cost of Bihari blood

Despite the image of Assam being unsafe for outsiders, there are scores of Assamese families giving shelter to their Bihari brethren in their own homes.

india Updated: Nov 28, 2003 19:48 IST
Syed Zarir Hussain (Indo-Asian News Service)
Syed Zarir Hussain (Indo-Asian News Service)

Assam, a state that has been on the boil for the last two decades due to ethnic tension and insurgency, is up in flames once again, this time with Hindi-speaking people being mowed down in an orgy of violence in the past nine days.

It all started on November 9 when some local youths in Assam prevented a group of candidates from Bihar - one of India's poorest states from where people have sought jobs in other states - from taking recruitment tests for Group III and IV jobs in the railways on the ground that Biharis were denying jobs to local youth.

Groups of Bihari youths retaliated three days later by attacking trains bound for Assam, injuring 50 people. The events that followed were a string of attacks on Hindi-speaking settlers from Bihar residing in Assam that claimed 44 lives.

The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) called for a 24-hour general strike on November 17 to protest the attacks on Assamese train passengers in Bihar, besides demanding 100 per cent job reservations for lower grade posts at the railways - a demand accepted by one and all.

But soon, the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a rebel group fighting for an independent homeland in Assam, hijacked AASU's chorus for job reservations.

The ULFA seized the opportunity to make its presence felt by asking Hindi-speaking settlers to leave the state immediately and threatened attacks. And soon there was mayhem with unarmed and innocent Biharis being killed at will.

Of the 44 Biharis killed, only nine died in mob attacks, while the remaining were mowed down by the ULFA.

It is estimated that there could be anything between 70,000 to 100,000 Biharis in Assam, most of whom have been settled in the state for generations.

Most Biharis in Assam run businesses or are engaged as labourers in the construction sector. ULFA's attacks on Biharis is being widely condemned by the common Assamese as many of those killed or attacked were more Assamese than Bihari - speaking the local language and living like any other Assamese in this state of 26 million people.

Many believe the ULFA had been marginalized over the years and was looking for an opportunity to ride back to prominence.

The ULFA seems to have thought it best to capitalise on public sentiment on the job reservation issue - a strategy that really boomeranged with little or no support from the Assamese community.

The killing of Biharis is not going to solve the unemployment problem - those killed were in no way taking away jobs of the locals. Contrary to ULFA's thinking that forcing Biharis to flee the state would open up jobs for local Assamese, the move could prove counterproductive.

As cobblers, barbers, laundry owners, porters and rickshaw pullers, Biharis have been serving the locals. In fact, not too many Assamese would like to take up these professions as the locals here are either not skilled for such jobs orsimply shy away from picking up a barber or a cobbler's vocation.

So the ongoing violence should not be seen as a general hate campaign against Biharis; it is a classic rebel attempt to take advantage of local sentiments.

Despite the image of Assam being unsafe for outsiders, there is a silver lining amidst the dark clouds. As the turmoil rages, there are scores of Assamese families giving shelter to their Bihari brethren in their own homes.

It is time for the Assamese community to ensure that the image of their land is not sullied. Or else outside investments will fail to come and even tourism, one of the flourishing industries of the region, would suffer a setback.

It is time for sanity and restraint.

First Published: Nov 28, 2003 19:48 IST