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Long standing acrimony

Sometimes historical context can illuminate why a certain event is happening in the present. In July 2012, violence in the Indian state of Assam broke out with riots between indigenous Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims most of whom were erroneously assumed to be immigrants. The first incident was reported to have taken place on July 20, 2012. As of August 8, 2012, 77 people had died and over 400,000 people were taking shelter in 270 relief camps, after being displaced from almost 400 villages. Eleven people have been reported missing. Erstwhile Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the relief camps in Kokrajhar and called the recent violence a blot on the face of India. India’s then Home Minister P. Chidambaram visited the State to review the security situation and the relief and rehabilitation measures being taken. Former Election Commissioner HS Brahma said that of the 27 districts in Assam, 11 of them will be shown to have a Muslim majority when the 2011 census figures are published. Manmohan Singh was criticised for not dealing with the flood of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The problem which was not tackled then remains unresolved even now. Far from the theatre of the high voltage drama in Bihar and the glare of glitzy prime-time news, a cauldron of ethnic tension is simmering in Assam. This time yet again on the volatile issue of immigrants from Bangladesh residing in the state of Assam. In the last three days, just about every nook and cranny of the state has seen vociferous protests, led by the by now rather militant All Assam Students Association (AASU). The catalyst was a notification sent to the State administration by the Centre early this week, announcing its decision to allow all Bangladeshi Hindus living in Assam who sought shelter before December 31, 2014, “due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” in their country to stay. In other words depending on who you want to believe either the floodgates of Valhalla have been opened or a non-issue has been made into one. Opinion remains divided whether this was an internal security faux pas of an epic scale or not. While the notification applies to all Hindu immigrants including those from Pakistan, staying anywhere in India, in Assam it takes on a different hue and dimension altogether.

Once again an examination of Assam’s troubled history yields significant clues as to why this is so. In the early 1980s, students’ organisations led by AASU had spearheaded a six-year-long agitation on the issue of undocumented migrants. The prevailing paranoia was that the migrants were taking away domestically available jobs and were also contributing to crime. The protests grew violent and eventually led to the deaths of many agitators. The Rajiv Gandhi government ended up signing the Assam Accord with AASU leaders in 1985, which put an end to the agitation – even though many of its clauses are yet to be implemented 30 years later. To say that the accord was a band-aid or a quick fix is appropriate because it addressed the symptom rather than the deep-rooted fault line which was emerging in society. The memory of that agitation was revived when hundreds of AASU members came out on the streets on September 9 with placards and slogans demanding immediate implementation of the Accord and expulsion of all undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants. To say that such a demand is practically impossible to implement is an understatement. What added fuel to the raging fire was current Governor PB Acharya’s tactless and inopportune statement that there is “nothing sacrosanct about the Assam Accord”. If there ever was gasoline poured on a forest fire this qualifies as a good example of that. The next day, on the evening of September 10, they hit the streets again, in processions with torch lights. Twenty-six organisations representing ethnic Assamese have joined AASU in the protests, which show no sign of abating. Once again there is no singular narrative at play here. If facts are anything to go by according to Assam-based experts, they are living in an impoverished state. Moreover, organisations representing the community of Displaced Bengali Hindus (DBH), there are anywhere between 75 lakhs of them in Assam, out of a total of 3.5 <g data-gr-id="43">crores</g> said to be scattered across India. Most of them say that religious persecution in Bangladesh makes it impossible for them to go back. This is an issue which will need the calmest of touches to handle it.

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