Simmering State

The threat of further violence looms over Assam

Activists of Asom Jatiyotabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) at an anti-migrant rally in Guwahati in September. STRDEL / AFP/ GETY IMAGES
01 November, 2012

THE VIOLENCE IN THE WESTERN ASSAM DISTRICTS involving indigenous Bodo tribespeople and Muslims of East Bengali origin, which peaked in July-August this year, has abated. In the weeks that rioting gripped the state, over 100 people were killed and nearly 200,000 people displaced from their homes. After initial stray incidents escalated into more widespread violence, the Assam government called in the army, which restored some semblance of calm to the region. Many survivors, however, remain in ill-equipped camps, unsure when they can safely return to their homes and lives.

While the state may have been spared major eruptions of violence since mid-September, sneak attacks continue. Amidst incidents of Bodo rebels attacking Muslims trying to return to their villages, leader of a faction of the Bodo rebel group National Democratic Front of Bodoland, Gobinda Basumatary declared that displaced Muslims would have to “prove beyond doubt” their Indian citizenship before they would be allowed to return to their homes.

Worryingly, following the western Assam incidents, the anti-migrant movement is spreading to other parts of Assam, as well as some neighbouring states. In Nagaland, the Naga Council and the Naga Hoho, both powerful local groups made up of local intelligentsia and tribal elders, have called for expulsion of all “migrants” from Nagaland. Nativist groups in neighbouring Meghalaya and Manipur have also called for the immediate detection and expulsion of “foreigners” (read: illegal migrants).

“It looks like a repeat of the early 1980s when the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam spread to other states in the Northeast and led to a lot of turmoil,” says Samir Das, a professor of political science who has authored books on Assam’s nativist movements.

In 1979, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) started a mass agitation to pressurise the government to detect migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal who had illegally entered Assam and acquired voting rights, delete their names from electoral rolls, and deport them. The movement started during a by-election at Mangaldoi and soon spread all over Assam. For six years, it paralysed the state and led to large-scale violence, in which thousands died in riots and police firings. Most of the riot victims were Bengali-speaking Muslims, while those killed in police firings were mostly ethnic Assamese and tribespeople involved in the agitation. Similar rioting against migrants was seen in the neighbouring states of Meghalaya and Tripura.

Like in the 1980s, the current campaign to detect and deport “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh is being led by student-youth groups like the All Assam Students Union, Asam Jatiyotabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, Khasi Students Union and the Naga Students Federation, who claim to represent indigenous populations. In Assam, many of the protesting groups organised human chains at prominent locations across the state to drive home their message: “foreigners”, leave Assam and go.

“The mobilisation is largely peaceful so far but there is much passion in it. The younger generation who have only heard of the mass movement of the 1980s are quite enthusiastic,” Das said. The movement of the ’80s had begun peacefully. But passions ran out of control, and the riots that erupted from them led to more than 4000 deaths in Assam alone. This year, with parts of the state already having suffered outbreaks of violence, there may be reason to fear what the present movements could spiral into, both in Assam and neighbouring states.

In tribal areas, like the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Council, the anger against the Muslims of East Bengali origin veers mostly around alienation of tribal lands, with Bodo groups claiming that migrants illegally occupy and take over land demarcated for Bodos.

Elsewhere, the angst is over the growing numbers of Muslims and the resultant political clout they are seen likely to enjoy. Muslims account for more than 35 percent of Assam’s population. Most of them are of East Bengali origin, with roots in what is now Bangladesh, and a very small percentage of them are “khilonjias” (indigenous Assamese Muslims). Assamese and tribal activists insist the issue is not one of religion, but one between settlers who have entered and lodged themselves into the state illegally, and natives who are likely to become foreigners in their own land.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi added fuel to the fierce debate on illegal migration that occupies centre-stage of the state’s contentious politics when he told TV host Karan Thapar that Muslims are multiplying fast in Assam because of their large families; he added that these were not new migrants but descendants of Muslims who had migrated in the last century.

Gogoi upset both Muslims and Assamese regional groups with his observation.

“How can he say there is no fresh infiltration from Bangladesh? It is happening all the time and local media carry stories of illegal migrants being caught by police all the time. But for each one caught, there are many more who melt away,” says Phanindra Barman, a college principal who supports the anti-migrant movement.

Muslims, meanwhile, are upset because Gogoi attributed their “large families” to a “lack of education”.

What Gogoi’s statement drew from was something his party, the Congress, has long been accused of: protecting illegal migrants from across the border to build up vote-banks. But what must now worry Gogoi and his colleagues is the possible radicalisation of the Muslims of East Bengali origin as a result of the recent violence.

Muslim settlers in the early 20th century, who gave up Bengali language and culture and adopted Assamese language and culture, were dubbed Na-Asamiyas (Neo-Assamese) by the Assamese elites and welcomed to Assam. Their acceptance of Assamese language led to a sharp boost in the numbers of Assamese speakers in the 1951 Census and helped the ethnic Assamese consolidate their position in the state in the aftermath of India’s linguistic reorganisation.

But as the migration from East Pakistan continued unabated and many districts slowly moved towards Muslim majorities, the Congress-led Assam administration grew concerned about the state’s changing demography, and pushed for anti-infiltration measures. In 1964, the Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP) Act was introduced. Under the PIP scheme, an Assam Border Police was formed, which pushed a large number of migrant Muslims back into East Pakistan. But with the onset of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, tens of thousands of Bengali Hindus and Muslims fled from East Pakistan into neighbouring Indian states, such as Assam, to escape Pakistani military atrocities. With the Indian government throwing open the border to refugees from East Pakistan, the momentum of detection and deportation of migrants was lost.

This influx was part of the motivation for the ‘anti-foreigner’ agitation that began in 1979 and lasted till 1985. The worst carnage was reported from Nellie during the contentious elections of 1983—between 2,000 and 3,000 people were massacred on a single day in February that year.

Bodo separatist rebels have regularly attacked Bengali Muslims—as well as other non-Bodo minorities—since 1992, when the Centre refused to give in to their aggressive demands for a Bodo majority state. Hundreds have been killed since. The worst of the violence, reported in 1996-97, led to the displacement of a quarter of a million people. The violence and aftermath of July-August this year is reminiscent of those years.

The rising tensions over the years have been accompanied by pronounced shifts in the politics of the region. The once ruling Asom Gana Parishad failed to reach double figures in the 2011 state polls, which the Congress swept. The leading opposition party in Assam with 17 law-makers—far ahead of the BJP, with four—is the All India United Democratic Front, led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal. “By all indications, Ajmal’s clout is growing amongst Muslims and his party is sure to do well in the next elections,” said western Assam’s Muslim leader Athar Ali. His next pronouncement was ominous, indicative of how people see politics and bloodshed as shaping and feeding off each other in the state. “The more the violence against us, the better it is for Ajmal and his party,” Ali said.

What is worrying is that the rising threat against Muslim identity could also lead to a rise in Muslim militancy. The Assam police has reported that some armed groups like the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) played a role in the retaliatory violence in western Assam this time. Militancy in the region is also likely to be affected by events in Bangladesh— if the Awami League loses the 2014 Bangladesh parliament elections and the BNP comes to power with support from Islamist parties like the Jamait-e-Islami, there may be support forthcoming from Dhaka for Assam-based Muslim militancy. Even if government agencies don’t support these groups, they may find takers amongst radical Muslim groups operating in Bangladesh.

With nativist movements likely to gather more strength across the Northeastern states in the coming years, there is a risk of the region being plunged into turmoil. Ethnic militias taking each other on could lead to nightmarish scenarios like those in Bosnia or Lebanon. And if the Assam government fails to quell the pitch of nativist mobilisation and violence by vigilante groups, the Congress’s influence in the state they have run since 2001 will take a serious beating.