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It was waiting to happen

Assam has a history of sectarian violence. Then why didn't the government act swiftly?

india Updated: Jul 26, 2012 21:06 IST
Hindustan Times

Indian politicians and administrators would do well to remember philosopher George Santayana's warning: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". If they had understood his words and remembered the warnings of the British rulers of the dangers of the socio-political-economic impact of the influx of immigrants into Assam and taken concrete action, then we probably would not have seen repeated sectarian violence in the state, which shares a 262-kilometre border with Bangladesh. The recent incident, which broke out in Kokrajhar on July 20 and then spread to three other districts, flared up because the government did not read the early signals of violence but also failed to draw on experiences of similar violence in the state, the worst being the Nellie massacre of 1983 that left 3,000 people dead.

If we turn back the clock a little more, the warnings of what could be the impact of the continuous flow of immigrants are clear: in 1931, SC Mullan, Census Superintendent of Assam, wrote: "Probably the most important event in the province during the last 25 years — an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and to destroy more surely than did the Burmese invaders of 1829, the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation — has been the invasion of a vast horde of land hungry Bengali immigrants; mostly Muslims, from the districts of Eastern Bengal…" However, some experts feel that the Kokrajhar riots were triggered by a clash between "homegrown" Muslims (and not fresh immigrants) and Bodos, the original inhabitants of the area.

In Kokrajhar, the Bodo heartland, such attacks and counter-attacks are regular even as the migrants have become stronger and more assertive over the years, especially with the formation of the Assam United Democratic Front under Maulana Baharuddin Ajmal. Along with this political assertion, a contest for land has erupted. With the Bodos moving away from land-related jobs, land is often given to Muslim workers on lease. But the relationship between the Bodo landowners and Muslim farmers is often not cordial and tensions erupt, leading to clashes. Every time, a clash happens, it is not only a security and political problem: there is displacement and this in future can lead to socio-economic problems not only in the region but also on a national scale. What must be considered as the criminal neglect of duty by the state is that in spite of knowing that Assam is a tinderbox and has a history of sectarian violence, the government took all warnings lightly and security was not put in place as swiftly as it should have been the moment there was the first sign of tension. It also shows a lack of coordination in security-related matters between the state and the Centre, even though both are ruled by the Congress.

First Published: Jul 26, 2012 20:57 IST