Assam has recently been in the headlines, for all the wrong reasons. The latest being the news of violence from Kokrajhar, Chirang, Bongaigaon and Dhubri districts, where more than 50 people have died and 250,000 rendered homeless.
This is not the first incident of violence in what are now called the Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD), administered by the non-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) formed in 2003. In 1996, conflict erupted between Bodos and Santhals, an indigenous tribal community residing in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. Nearly 80 people died in ethnic clashes, over 100,000 were left homeless as their houses were burnt and another 250,000 fled to temporary camps. In 1998, 14 Santhals were killed by Bodos in Kokrajhar district after two Bodos were killed and around 100 houses burnt by Santhals. 50 people died and some 300,000 moved to refugee camps. Within a span of two years, nearly 5.5 lakh people were living in camps. The Bodo-Santhal conflict again resurfaced in 2004, displacing another 37,000 people.
In 1993, 50 people were left dead after violent clashes between Bodos and non-Bodo people (supported by ULFA) in the Kokrajhar and Bongaigon districts of Assam. In 1994, there were numerous clashes in Kokrajhar and Barpeta districts between Bodo militants and Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers, mostly Bangladeshi immigrants. In July 1994, armed Bodo militants opened fire at Bangladeshi immigrants at the Bansbari relief camp, killing at least 71 people and leaving over 100 injured. The massacre at the Bansbari relief camp prompted more than 54,000 people, mostly Muslims, to flee their villages for cities such as Guwahati and Barpeta. In October 2008, violence between Bodos and Muslims claimed 56 lives. It was caused by the killing of a Bodo youth by a Muslim. Since then, there have been sporadic clashes, including in May this year, provoked by demands, on one side, for exclusion of non-Bodo majority villages from Bodoland (many non-Bodo majority areas have been included in the BTC to provide territorial contiguity) and, on the other side, for full statehood for Bodoland.
During the recent violence, BTC chief Hagrama Mahilary alleged that the complete violence was being instigated by infiltrators from Bangladesh. Denied by the union home secretary, this allegation has got a lot of traction in the media, mainly for political reasons. The continued influx of people from Bangladesh, however, is a harsh reality which has exacerbated the conflict in Assam for many decades now. Illegal Bangladeshi immigration has to stop. If that happens, the communal nature of conflict will also subside. But it is not only about Bangladeshis. There is as much resentment against Nepalese immigrants, Bihari labourers, ‘Asomiyas’ or against other ‘outsiders’ from India.
Identity is a major marker in the Northeast. Each dominant group uses identity, often disguised as a demand to protect its culture and traditions, to assert its own brand of chauvinism. Laws such as the Inner Line Permit (ILP) have helped sustain this chauvinism. Under the provisions of the British-era law — Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873 — the ILP system is already in place in Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Manipur, which never had the ILP since independence, recently saw an unanimous resolution by the state assembly to impose ILPs to prevent ‘outsiders’ (which includes Indians) from working or settling there. Similar demands have been raised in Meghalaya which already has a work-permit and a three-tier identity scheme in place to stop ‘outsiders’.
This assertion of distinctive tribal identities and claims of exclusive ethnic territories is dangerous for India’s future. Constitutional provisions for protection of tribals under the Fifth and Sixth schedule have not resolved this dilemma. Instead of narrowing differences, these laws have created bigger chasms among groups. How do we balance the need for development and modernisation with the need to preserve ethnic traditions and culture? How do we integrate the various regions of the Northeast to the rest of India while addressing the genuine needs of various communities residing there?
There are no easy answers to these questions. While we await enlightened political leadership that can tackle such tricky questions, the least the Indian state can do is establish the Rule of Law. Prevention of violence and establishment of public order doesn’t have to await answers to these complex questions. The government is duty bound to ensure safety and security of its citizens. There can be no excuses for that failure.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review