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Demographic threat fuelling Assam fire

In the land of guns, primitive weapons have staged a comeback to spark off one of the worst communal riots in recent times, reports Rahul Karmakar.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2008 18:57 IST
Rahul Karmakar

Q: Why is Assam on communal fire?

A: In the land of guns, primitive weapons have staged a comeback to spark off one of the worst communal riots in recent times. The immediate trigger for the clashes between indigenous Bodo tribal people and migrants across north-central Assam was a Gauhati High Court observation in July that “Bangladeshis have become kingmakers” in the ethnically volatile State. On August 14, the first of these riots took place.

Q: Is this a new phenomenon, or are there old sores?

A: Political scientists and conflict researchers say the threat of a demographic invasion from Bangladesh underscored by the Assam Agitation of 1979 was the genesis. A bid by tribal militants to create a homogenous Bodoland state added fuel to the fire. “Other than the tribal agenda, the simmering conflict is a result of gradual realization that the indigenous peoples would be marginalized in their own backyard,” says Nonigopal Mahanta of Gauhati University’s Peace and Conflict Studies Centre. “The silent invasion of the migrants pushed the indigenous groups into the interiors, creating immense land pressure.”

Q: How is Assam Agitation of 1979 connected to these riots?

A: The bulk of the killings have been in Darrang district, which was at the centre of the Assam Agitation. In 1978, Mangaldoi MP Hiralal Patowary died, necessitating a by-election. Mangaldoi constituency straddles Darrang district. During the process of election, it was observed that the electorate had grown abnormally. The All Assam Students Union demanded postponement of polls until the doubtful voters were struck of the electoral rolls. The signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 ushered in a period of lull thereafter. But the Bodoland movement took a vicious turn in the mid-1990s as Bodos clashed with Adivasis and Muslim settlers. Some 1.5 lakh people have since been living in relief camps. Adivasis, incidentally, were seen as outsiders dumped on the indigenous people by the British.

Q: Why is the fear of demographic invasion so acute?

A: In 2003, the statehood movement culminated in the Bodoland Territorial Council comprising four districts – Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, the last two adjoining Darrang district. However, the fear of Muslim migrants pulverizing the indigenous tribal people grew stronger. “We have to accept the demographic reality,” says social activist Anjali Daimary. The reality, as Mahanta puts it, has in fact effected a shifting of alliance. “Yesterday’s enemies have become friends today,” he says. Bodos have thus sided with Adivasis in the battle between “earlier settlers” and “migrants” (read Bangladeshis). Darrang is one of eight districts – out of 27 in Assam – where migrant Muslims have outnumbered the indigenous peoples while they are almost at par in seven others. They are also a deciding factor in 52 of Assam’s 126 Assembly constituencies, prompting the court to label them kingmakers. Assam now has a Muslim population of over 40 per cent.

Q: Is there a solution in sight?

A: Mahanta fears the worst in the coming days. “These are fertile grounds for the jihadi elements, particularly a string of home-grown Islamic outfits,” he says, maintaining the time has come for the indigenous peoples to come to a compromise. Or the fire would keep spreading.