South Asia is really going to the dog. Or so it appears these days. Just when we thought that we had seen enough of a pogrom directed by the Rakhine extremists and Burmese authorities against the Rohingyas of Arakan state of Burma (Myanmar), we are forced to witness yet another massacre of Bengali Muslims in the state of Assam.
Assam, located next to Bangladesh on the north-east corner of India, has a long history of recurring violence targeting minority Bengali-speakers. In 1983, the Nellie massacre, during Indira Gandhi’s ruling in India, was carried out with crude weapons in a matter of a few hours, and left some 5,000 people dead. The killers didn’t even spare young babies.
At the heart of Assam’s troubles is a debate over the “infiltration” by outsiders, which has led to ethnic tension between the state’s so-called indigenous population and the Bangla-speaking people who have settled there for generations. Overlooked in this debate is the fact that all these territories were once part of British India with people – both Assamese and Bengali – living on either side of today’s border that separates Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan/ East Bengal) from the state of Assam in India. The Assamese were mostly illiterate people and as a result, many Indians, mostly from the province of Bengal, were brought in to work as engineers, doctors, administrators, clerks, railway workers and other government related jobs. Many of the Bangla-speaking farmers were also brought in to boost rice production in the area, especially around the chars (river islands). Having lived there for generations, these so-called migrants are as Indian (in today’s parlance) as the ethnic Assamese or the tribes-people in the state.
Unfortunately, the ensuing change in demography, rivalry for land, dwindling natural resources and livelihood, and intensified competition for political power between the ruling party and the separatists has added a deadly force to the issue of who has a right to Assam. It is all about xenophobia. Successive Congress governments have used Assamese/Bengali Muslims as little more than a vote bank without recognizing their rights.
After the Nellie massacre and 1983 elections, India’s federal government tried to placate local sentiments by signing an accord with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in 1985 which was leading the pogrom against the Bangla-speaking settlers there. The hard-line Assamese, however, later described the 1985 accord as a “betrayal” and decided to wage an armed campaign against India to secede from India.
Twenty nine years after the Nellie massacre, a group of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) is now negotiating with Delhi, asking for more concrete protection for indigenous populations against what they falsely describe as “relentless illegal migration from across the border”.
The Bangla-speaking people in Assam have also become more assertive these days with the formation of the Assam United Democratic Front under a charismatic leader which seeks to protect the rights of minorities and their periodic ousting from settlements through violence. In 2011, it emerged as the main opposition to Assam’s ruling Congress party, winning three times the number of seats won by regional Assamese parties and the Hindu nationalist BJP, which promotes Hindutva.
It is this emerging political prowess of the Bengali people in Assam, which is being exploited as a boogeyman by the ruling Congress party and the Hindu extremists, to promote or be indifferent to periodic rioting that engulfs the region. Four years ago, the Indian Army had to be called in to stop blood-letting. More than 100 Bengali Muslims were killed in one such raid at Bansbari, a makeshift camp for displaced Muslims, in 1993.
The latest pogrom has affected four districts of western Assam, where the Bengalis (mostly Muslims) are pitted against tribes-people such as the Bodos, Rabhas and Garos. In Kokrajhar, the Bodo heartland, Muslims are regularly attacked by Bodo separatist rebels and this periodically erupts into full-scale riots. This latest conflict has left about 40 dead (all Bengali-speaking Muslims) and displaced tens of thousands.
As noted by Indian political commentator Aijaz Zaka Syed, “As usual, Muslims were caught in the deadly games of the Congress and assorted separatist groups. Our Hindutva benefactors added fuel to the fire by raising the specter of invasion by Bangladeshi Muslims. The same drama is being re-enacted today with consequences that could be even deadlier. Yet, unlike in the past, this conflict isn’t communal or religious in nature. It’s an economic struggle for the land and dwindling natural resources.”
In this latest pogrom, entire villages have been burnt down while the state administration remains curiously clueless and indifferent. Delhi insists Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi is “monitoring the situation” and doing everything possible to restore peace. “This is little comfort to the community, though, which increasingly lives in fear, worrying the worst may be yet to come. Gogoi is yet to visit the affected areas. Not even a flying, whirlwind tour for the cloistered satrap,” writes Syed.
If the local Assamese administration and the federal Indian government are serious about the well-being of Assamese/Bengali Muslims as well as other communities living in Assam, they should take steps to cool down this simmering volcano that erupts from time to time. Lasting peace in Assam cannot happen when xenophobia is promoted. Period.
By Dr Habib Siddiqui
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