Guwahati: The riots in Assam are not about religion. It is not about Hindus and Muslims killing each other over temples or mosques. These riots are about rightful possession of land and identity and, most importantly livelihood.
But, like everything else in Assam, this is a multi-layered issue. Trouble started on July 19, when Ratul Ahmad and Abdul Siddique Shaikh, two prominent Muslim student leaders, were attacked by unidentified men in Kokrajhar. The next evening, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) cadres were lynched by a furious mob in the Muslim-dominated Joypur village in Kokrajhar.
What followed from July 21 to 26 is best described as a pogrom, leading to the largest intra-state exodus in the history of independent India.
The unparalleled scale of displacement of 485,921 people, by the state government’s own admission, has not only taken people aback, but elicited a host of dark, sinister conspiracy conjectures. After all, the 2002 Gujarat riots accounted for only 250,000 refugees. The Kandhmahal attacks of 2008 threw 25,000 out of their homes and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi saw 50,000 on the roads.
Speaking to Gulf News, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said, “The main reasons for large number of refugees are because of false alarm. Bad news disseminates faster these days thanks to the news-hungry media and other communication devices. In the past the riots have claimed many more lives, but there were fewer refugees since there were few ways to monger bad news.”
Bodo leaders claim that the fight is between indigenous people and migrants who may have sneaked in from Bangladesh and settled on government land. To furnish their claims, the Bodo leadership is now preparing a dossier that they will submit to the Home Ministry.
The document talks of encroachment of government land in the Bodo districts, where 78,000 hectares have been encroached out of a total of 250,000 hectares of land in the Bodo areas.
According to Hagrama Mohillary, the reclusive chief of the Bodo Territorial Council, “the riots are all about the fight against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. We have no fight with our original Muslim brothers. It’s not a fight between Bodos and Muslims. It is a foreigner’s issue”.
“Many more Muslims from Bangladesh who were living here illegally without any documents have settled in the camps. Now they can all say their documents got burnt in the riots and claim to be Indians,” added Mohillary, trying to dispel the impression that Kokrajhar witnessed communal clashes.
These fears were further compounded by the perception in Bodo areas that illegal migration from Bangladesh will relegate the Bodos to a minority status in their own land. The Bodos at present constitute 29 per cent of the population, followed by the Rajbonshis (15 per cent), Bengalis immigrants (12 to 13 per cent), and Santhals (six per cent).
The ‘perception’ of massive illegal migration has generated a fear psychosis among the Bodo community that their ancestral lands will be illegally taken away by the migrants. The lack of any reliable data on the number of people coming in from Bangladesh into Assam aggravates this situation.
The inclusion of illegal migrant names in the voters’ list is viewed as a deliberate ploy by some outside force to empower an outside group vis-à-vis the Bodos, so that the latter lose their sense of distinct indigenous identity. This has created a siege mentality among them.
Also the existence of armed groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (anti-talk faction), the Bisra Commando Force representing the Santhals, etc, further contributes to a situation of violence.
These riots were simply avoidable had the government paid a little more attention to people at the grass roots, is what driver Babu Singh said, on the way from the airport. The chief minister described Assam as “a volcano that frequently erupts due to ethnic unrest”.
“The CM has remarked that this is a volcano, but it is not a new one. It was always active, but the state government chose to look away,” said Monisha Behal of Northeast Network, an NGO working on such issues.
“In 1993, a large scale massacre occurred when 50 migrants were killed in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. In 1994, 100 migrants were killed in similar violence in the Bodo areas. In 1996, another minority community in the Bodo areas, the Santhals, were targeted by Bodos leading to the death of 200 people and displacement of thousands. In 2008, in an exact replica of the present violence, Bodos-minority community violence killed 100 people and displaced nearly 200,000,” Monisha said.
But the state government completely failed to read what’s coming and, most importantly, the reaction from the government after the incidents were lacklustre, where it thought it would get out by blaming it on the Union government and the army for the late response.