Assam Clashes: From Humanitarian Crisis to Ethnic Pluralism

Prasenjit Biswas*

The perpetual fear in the eyes of 126 years old Jagat Basumatary and his wife Malati Basumatary in a camp 70 kms away from their home located at Bengtoli village of Chirang district tells it all. Jagat Basumatary’s appeal for peace and tranquility in the midst of attack and counter-attack raises a concern for mutual respect and bond between Bodos and Bengali Muslims. The apparent difference of identity between an immigrant Bengali Muslim and a Bodo indigenous person gets dissolved in the remarkable story of Parbotjhora subdivisional area of Kokrajhar where both the sides resisted any attempt to disturb peace. So also goes the example of Kukurmari village at Chirang district where both the communites stood guard at each other’s doors.

Assam map

Assam map

Among the most dastardly attacks on human dignity and persona is the one in which Sumana Basumatary, a woman in her late thirties had to leave her house at Salkocha-Bansbari at Kokrajhar district with two of her minor children leaving behind her husband Chubja Basumatary, suffering from typhoid and immobile. Sumana recounted the horror tale of watching her house burn with her husband inside. The whole household, paddy-stack and the animals reared were reduced to ashes. In another incident of retaliation four members of the family of motor mechanic Manowar Hussein were subjected to brutal attack. Reportedly four members of his family, namely, Manowar Hussein, his wife Bachibon Bibi, son Muktar Hussein and three months old daughter Rukchana Khatun were abducted. Bachbon Bibi was allegedly raped and murdered. The same fate was meted out to Manowar Hussein and their three months old daughter, while the son Muktar Hussein sustained injuries. All the four of them were thrown into Gaurang river from the bridge over Ganga talkies in Kokrajhar town. The surviving son Muktar Hussein could recount the horror tale to the rescuers, who could rescue him from the river in a badly bruised state. The whole story came out in vernacular media. In another such pathological incident, the dead body of a deaf and dumb person was found floating on the river Champaboti at Khagrabari of Bongaigaon district. The dead man was identified as Samsul Hoque by his family members, who went missing after some armed men attacked their home and village at Khagrabari.

Photo: samaylive.com

Photo: samaylive.com

The spate of hatred and mistrust led to a huge exit and displacement of a massive population of about 4 Lakhs from their villages spread across three Bodoland territorial autonomous districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa and its adjoining Dhubri district. Almost 400 villages belonging to both Bodo and Muslim communities are vacated. The condition of the relief camps has been such that there is widespread food poisoning, viral fever and dysentery resulting into at least thirteen reported deaths including six infants. Apart from total absence of a sense of human security, the poor hygienic conditions in the camps only tell the apathy of the both local and the state government.

Photo courtesy: Jagaran.com

Photo courtesy: Jagaran.com

Much after the initial spate of riots, on 1st of August, there are incidents of arson and burning down of homes at Majorgaon in Chirang district, where rioters burnt down seven houses belonging to victims of the minority community. Once again there is a planned flare up in Chirang district. In another similar incident, houses at Churaguri village near Bijni township of Chirang district are again set on fire by an armed mob in presence of Police and security officials. Already 40 houses of the same village are burnt down on 24th July and on 2nd august, rest of the houses are all burnt down. The whole action is carried out apparently keeping in view that the Muslim inhabitants should not return and reclaim their households. The whole incident happened when some of the affected people were returning from Matilal Nehru relief camp at Bijni to their households at Majorgaon near Bijni town. On the assurances from the government; they thought they can safely return now. They were astounded to see the presence of some people in fatigue, reminding them of the trauma that they already suffered. Soon after, the remaining seven houses were gutted in presence of police. Many of the Bodo inhabitants are still refusing to go back to their homes, as they fear retribution and retaliation. Out of the 43 camps in Bijni and Kajalgaon subdivision, there are still over a lakh of minority Muslim population. A contradictory pattern emerges in these camps. As Bodo inhabitants are going back to those villages which are not affected by violence but from which people took shelter out of apprehension, the minority population from 29 villages of Chirang district worst affected by arson and killing are still not out of the trauma of what they have gone through.

Photo: Outlook.com

Photo: Outlook.com

The worst affected areas where sizeable number of deaths occurred are Gosaigaon subdivision and in and around Kokrajhar town. A large number of villages dominated by minority population were burnt down. The villagers were forewarned by the neighbours to leave for safe shelter and as they left homes, the homes were easily burnt down. Such villages include Duramari, Moujabari, Hekaipara, West Tabuchar, Namapara, Nayapara, Kalapani, Bamungaon etc. in Kokrajhar, from where large number of people came to safe shelters. A few who were left to take care of abandoned homes were also killed by armed gangs.In Gosaigaon area, villages such as Ballamguri, Hacaharabari, Palasguri, Malguri etc, are burnt down. Large scale arson continued in these villages for a week since 19th July, despite some presence of security forces. In two other districts of Chirang and Baxa, villages are burnt down in a similar fashion. Some of the worst affected villages of Chirang district include Bechborbari, Nathurbari and Mothapur in Bijni subdivision ; Ulubari and Pakriguri in Kajalgaon subdivision.

Photo: Thehindu.com

Photo: Thehindu.com

The account of such rioting and displacement brings to mind the existing public discourse of immigrant versus indigenous conflict. What is very peculiar in this situation is the claim made by some of the indigenous pressure groups that most of the displaced Muslim Bengali minorities are not genuine Indian citizens. As the homes of these people are burnt down, it is quite possible now to turn them into Bangladeshis. As their return to homes is becoming more and more insecure, what is needed to be done is not merely a packaged rehabilitation, but saving the camp dwellers from this test of citizenship to which they are sure to fail, owing to burning down of their last shred of papers.

Although the immediate context of the entire rioting is now known as killing and counter-killing between Bodo and minority Muslim groups, yet a look at demographic situation would be worth. In four BTAD districts out of a total population of 31,55, 359, Bodo and other plain tribes are only 10,50,627. But in terms of land holdings, Bodos have higher access and ownership to land as their land rights were safeguarded by chapter X of the Assam Land and revenue regulation Act,1886. So the picture that emerges is that the effective right to livelihood and hold over land by the Bodos is in no way threatened by the presence of Bengali Muslims, Asomiya and other plain non-tribal communities.

Photo: Thehindu.com

Photo: Thehindu.com

The absurd question is, can anyone reverse this demographic picture overnight by ethnic cleansing and displacement?

Photo: thenational.ae

Photo: thenational.ae

The Bodoland territorial Council accord signed between GOI and leaders of Bodo liberation Tigers (BLT) in its clause 4.3 allowed the non-tribals to hold onto their existing holdings; while both the Bodo and non-Bodo people, in general, could buy and sell land after due legal formalities. The argument that land held by Bodos will be bought over by crafty Muslims does not hold much water, as the indigenous Bodos continue to depend on their farmland and homestead economy. As a matter of fact, the Bodos allow share-cropping on their land by Muslim peasantry, which is a culture of shared livelihood that no amount of violence can erase. In a nutshell, Bodos do enjoy full political power in the Bodoland autonomous area, while Non-Bodos enjoy other economic, social and cultural rights. Measures of protective discrimination under sixth schedule of the Constitution are working well for Bodos and other tribal communities. Therefore, there is no effective endangerment and emasculation of the rights of indigenous population in the whole of Bodoland as some make it out to be. Ethnic violence is only a symptom of breakdown of ethnic inter-relationship in an ethnically plural society of Bodoland, within which every community is actually secured and protected with their due constitutional rights. The contributions made by Muslim Bengali citizenry to the indigenous economy and society and to the growth and sustenance of Asomiya as state language of Assam cannot be shelved under the carpet by any deviant categorization. The shared space of life between Bodos and Muslim Bengalis also cannot be destroyed by violence alone, as the life-force generated by such camaraderie is far stronger than any disruptive attempt. The rhetorical difference between Bengali Muslims and Bodos is only a hypothetical ploy to experiment with various contingencies of political power sustained by an engineered trauma and insecurity, which needs to be dealt using law. It is also not yet too late to realize that peace and tranquillity between ethnic minorities in a ethnically plural Bodoland is the only way to ensure social justice and economic progress.

Photo: ibtimes.com

Photo: ibtimes.com

 

* The writer is Professor at the Department of Philosophy in the North Eastern Hills University, Shillong, Meghalaya and Director, Research, Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), Silchar, Assam.

 

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