Millennium Post

Land is at the heart of clashes

From the first week of July, Assam has seen widespread clashes between the Bodo tribals and the Bengali Muslims living in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts in southern Assam. At its core it is a fight for land. The land hunger of the Bengali Muslims leads them to grab land by encroaching on reserve forests and wild life sanctuaries. The Bodos resent and resist this and try to dislodge them. Such an attempt at evicting Muslims from a plot of land they had occupied triggered the present violence. In fact non-Bodos allege that the Bodos are determined to drive out all non-Bodos from the Bodoland Territorial Council territory.

A cross section of eminent citizens at Guwahati – businessmen, theatre personalities and literateurs – this writer talked to were of the view that the ultimate aim of the Bodos was to achieve a separate ‘Bodoland’ by driving out all non-Bodos. This time the target has been the Muslims, but they apprehend that in future other sections of non-Bodo people like the Bengalis, the Assamese and the Santhals will also be targeted. Bodo-Muslims clashes have taken place earlier also. The first recorded one was in 1952. Then in 1993 and 1994 and again in 2008. There have been inter-tribal clashes between the Bodos and Santhals also. In 1998, there were widespread clashes, with the Santhals at the receiving end. Thousands of Santhals had to flee their hearths and homes and take shelter in relief camps.

The Assam government set up a one-man inquiry commission headed by Justice Shafiqul Haque to go into the causes of the violence. In an informal conversation Justice Haque had told this writer at that time that, given the mixed population pattern of the area concerned and the mutual distrust and animosity between different communities, it would be difficult to prevent a recurrence of such clashes. This time the first clash was reported on 6 July. Allegedly, two Muslims boys were beaten up by ‘unknown assailants’ at a village under Dotoma police station. But large-scale violence erupted on 19 July at Magurbari when a non-Bodo mob reportedly attacked the Bodos. After that, violence and counter-violence spread rapidly to three districts – Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri. Villages were burnt, with attackers on both sides using firearms as well.

Judging by the intensity, rapidity and spread of the clashes, it is obvious that a riot-like situation was building up over a long time and the police and the administration of Assam were blissfully unaware of the developments. The state intelligence failed to alert the administration in time. Tarun Gogoi’s government was taken completely by surprise, in spite of the fact that stray acts of violence on the Muslims were being reported for quite some time. At Udalguri, a Bodo area, some Muslim houses were burnt a couple of months ago. But this time the situation took a serious turn with armed Bodo outfits taking part in the violence. Police reports suggest they are well-armed. Now, with the induction of over 18 companies of central para-military forces and the staging of a flag march by over a thousand army personnel and imposition of curfew in the disturbed areas and shoot-at-sight order to prevent rioting, the situation is slowly returning to normal.

The Bodos are talking of ‘boatloads’ of Bangladeshis coming to attack them. The BJP is fanning this propaganda of Bangladeshi involvement for obvious reasons. A section of the print and electronic media has also lapped up the story of Bangladeshi attack. But union home secretary R K Singh, who visited the area, pooh-poohed the canard of Bangladeshi involvement. He was categorical in stating that no Bangladeshis were involved in the clashes. The CPI(M) has squarely blamed the ‘Congress-led’ Assam government for its failure to take timely action after the very first incident on 6 July. There is a widespread misconception outside Assam that the Bengali Muslims are all Bangladeshi nationals and therefore illegal infiltrators. The fact of the matter is that the forefathers of these Muslims migrated from east Bengal, east Pakistan and later from Bangladesh and settled in Assam decades ago. They are all Indian citizens. According to the Indo-Bangladesh agreement, all persons coming to Assam from Bangladesh after 25 March 1971 [the day Bangladesh declared independence] will be treated as illegal immigrants and deported.

The migration of Muslim farmers from the then east Bengal started in the 3rd quarter of the 19th century when the British rulers actively encouraged them to come and settle in Assam.

The province was sparsely populated, there were vast stretches of fertile farmland and the Muslim farmers were hard-working. They produced golden harvests of paddy and other crops. Initially, there was no hostility to the migrants from the Assamese people. Things started to change from the 1930s because of two reasons. First, the indigenous population of Assam had also increased and they needed land. The second reason was that the indigenous Assamese feared that the continuous flow of Muslims from east Bengal was leading to demographic changes and someday they, the sons of the soil, would be outnumbered by the new settlers. Now the presence of the descendants of the former migrants is being resented by the Bodo tribals also.

 In retrospect, Justice Haque has proved prophetic. No police or para-military forces, nor even the army, can ensure permanent peace unless the different communities living side by side for ages realise that they cannot ‘cleanse’ the area of others, that they have to learn to live together and bury the hatchet, to use a cliché.  This is, however, easier said than done. Sober elements from all communities will have to put their heads together and take up the challenge of peace. (IPA)
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