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Much of the violence brewing just under the surface of normality in India and erupting suddenly, like in Assam, stems from our deeply hierarchical social structure and a lack of faith in the system, say experts. Suprateek Chatterjee and Sanjib Kr Baruah report.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2012 15:34 IST
Suprateek Chatterjee and Sanjib Kr Baruah
Suprateek Chatterjee and Sanjib Kr Baruah
Hindustan Times

With his healthy tan and muscular build, Mohammad Islam (not his real name), 26, appears perfectly normal on the surface. But his bloodshot eyes and nervous energy hint at an inner turmoil.

"I have had enough," says Islam, a daily wage labourer, sitting in a relief camp just outside Kokrajhar town in western Assam.

A month ago, Islam's village was one of 13 burned down, by a group of suspected Bodos. This is the second time this has happened to Islam. In 1993, Amtenga, a village near the Indo-Bhutan border where he lived, was similarly set alight, again by suspected Bodos. His family lost everything but the clothes on their backs.

Islam is among the multitudes who have been displaced in the latest wave of violence between Bodos and Muslims that has engulfed three districts of western Assam since July 20. The number of people displaced is slightly contentious. The official estimate is 4.8 lakh people, but this could be an overestimate, say some relief workers, who did not wish to be identified. But even they say the figure is in lakhs. As of yesterday, the conflict's death toll was at least 88, according to official estimates.

The strife between Bodos and Muslims, who some are describing as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, began in the mid-1970s over resources such as land and jobs as well as over identity. The latest conflict rapidly acquired a religious and political hue, and the anger has spread beyond Assam. On August 11, all the way in Mumbai's Azad Maidan, a protest against the violence in Assam itself turned violent, leading to two deaths and 65 injuries.

A hugely diverse and still largely poor country, India has many fault lines and potential sources of conflict. Some conflicts between groups are over resources, others arise from people feeling they are victims of injustice, yet others arise when those in power suppress challenges to the status quo, say experts.

Instead of being peacefully resolved through dialogue and accommodation, many such conflicts turn violent in the context of India's deeply hierarchical society and a widespread lack of faith in public institutions and the law, they say.

"India is probably the most hierarchical nation on earth," says Peter van der Veer, an anthropologist based in Göttingen, Germany, who has studied Indian society and religion for more than two decades.

"This explains the nature of violence in India, which is mostly directed at lower castes, such as Dalits and adivasis, and towards religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians."

This hierarchy extends across several categories, of caste, gender, class and age, say sociologists.

"A hierarchical system always has an oppressor and an oppressee," says Vaishali Kolhe, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

"In a society that is so diverse, everyone is subject to a value system defined by culture, social norms and geographical location. People must follow a code of conduct. If they break it, they are likely to be oppressed, sometimes violently."

The violence inherent in India's social structure could explain why the data doesn't fully capture the magnitude.

It shows that the hierarchical system is very much in place, says van der Veer.

"Traditionally, our society had a medieval sort of peace," says Dipankar Gupta, Delhi-based sociologist, wryly.

"Those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy knew their place and the victorious kept them at bay with the threat of violence."

Moreover, the data accounts only for reported cases that involve bodily harm, yet non-physical actions of subjugation, humiliation and ill-treatment are also forms of violence, say clinical psychologists.

Repeated failures by the state to enforce the rule of law also means that people avoid seeking institutional mechanisms to resolve conflicts.

"When you don't have faith in public institutions, you become prone to violent behaviour," says Vijay Raghavan, chairperson of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences' Centre for Criminology and Justice.

Says Gupta, who has studied riots across three decades: "Riots and communal violence almost always take place because of inadequate enforcement of the law and often even in connivance with it."

Some of the repressive aspects of our institutions come from the colonial state, which has also influenced our collective psyche, says Yasmin Saikia, a professor of historical, philosophical and religious studies at Arizona State University in the US.

"The colonised always mimic the colonisers. One sees this in the histories of all colonised nations across the world," she says.

"A mentality of coercion enforced with violence seemingly worked for our colonisers. It's a mentality we seem to have inherited and cultivated."

Economic growth over the past two decades has also led to rapid urbanisation, opening yet another Pandora's box of conflicts.

"With urbanisation comes a sense of anonymity and an individualistic approach to life, which has been universally observed to lead to a rise in crime," says Tata Institute's Vijay Raghavan.

But Gupta argues that the crime that comes with rapid economic development is just a complication of more fundamental structural violence.

"Put any society through such rapid change and the results would be similar," he says.

The data for the past two decades shows that while India's GDP has risen nearly ten-fold, its crime rate has remained more or less the same.

In Assam, say experts, one of the main catalysts of violence is the politics of identity, of "us" and "them", as Saikia puts it. Its victims, such as Islam, see no choice but to deal with their circumstances in their own way.

"I won't take it a third time," says Islam, raising a clenched fist. "I will not move an inch from here. I will kill here and die here."

A tale of two identities
Laily Begum, Muslim
Laily Begum doesn't know that the area in which she lived for more than three decades is called Bishdoba, ‘a poisoned wetland' in Assamese. She and 1,200 others in this area of western Assam's Kokrajhar district do have an inkling why men, suspected Bodos, made her birthplace resemble a bishdoba on July 24 — because their leaders, affiliated to the All Bodoland Minority Students' Union, have told them.

But Laily won't discuss why they torched their village, went on a killing spree and drove them to a relief camp. “It won't bring my husband back from the dead,” she said.

Laily grew up with tales of how Bodo militants had rendered thousands of migrant Bengali Muslims homeless in 1993 and 1994 in a bid to create a homogeneous tribal homeland. She heard elders and clerics say that they need no longer fear because the Bodos had got what they wanted — a 2003 accord that created the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). It did not end the violence — as fratricide between Bodo groups took centre stage. But non-Bodos in the council's four districts — Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri — were largely untouched.

This time, the violence came suddenly. "We are told their people killed our boys and our boys retaliated," said Laily.

"But we have no reason to suspect our Bodo neighbours hate us."

Leela Brahma, Bodo
Laily could very well have spoken for Leela Brahma, a Bodo who fled her Borjhora village in Dhubri district following a retaliatory attack by Muslims. Leela, 33, was luckier to have lost none of her family members but is no less traumatised by the month-long violence.

"I came here (a relief camp in Kokrajhar town) on July 25," she says. "Those people destroyed everything we had, and they said they did it because our people were victimising theirs elsewhere," said Leela. "Here, we hear it is the other way round. I don't know who's right, but I guess it is wiser to be with our own."

Unwittingly, Leela echoed the alleged agenda of the BTC administrators led by its chief executive member Hagrama Mohilary, who before taking over reins of the council had spearheaded a violent rebellion for close to 10 years. The BTC boundary is loosely demarcated, and one of the criteria for including any village within the council was that at least half its residents should be Bodos.

"Granting tribe- or community-specific homogenous homelands is a dangerous trend. Apart from Bodoland, Assam has numerous tribal councils that for the sake of homogeneity promote ethnic cleansing," said Noni Gopal Mahanta, head of Gauhati University's Institute of Conflict Studies.
Rahul Karmakar

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