Assam: Heal thy injuries in/ of Bodoland

Dr. Prasenjit Biswas*

In the fragmented imagination of a homeland in ethnic territories of Assam, comparatively later migrants are perceived and portrayed as a demographic threat. The issue is whether a majoritarian ethnic ownership over land and territory need to portray the presence of migrants as necessarily illegal. The issue keeps the ethnic pots boiling much after there is a cut-off criterion is drawn out in Assam Accord, 1985 as well as in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord, 2003. Both these accords emphasized on the protection and preservation of Assam’s indigenous communities against any endangerment; demographic, loss of land to ‘outsiders’ and ‘foreigners’ and above all, assured political power to the governing elites of the indigenous communities. Such Statist concession made middle class Assamese and Bodo Indigenous nationalism aim at a greater share over power and resources by way of protective discrimination and by going to the extent of denial of legitimate package of rights of others. Such significant others include immediate neighbours: Santhals and Minority Bengali Muslims both clubbed as illegitimate migrants in indigenous land, who have to face a continuous othering in the domains of politics, culture and even in employment.

Photo: samaylive.com

Photo: samaylive.com

The logic advanced for the illegitimacy of immigrants’ rights extends from their being latecomers to attribution of conscious demographic invasion by them to a paradoxical exclusivist claim over certain powers and resources with its corresponding denial to any claims-making by the ethnically different and the immigrants only produce irreconcilable fragmentation. Right now three out of four Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts and its adjoining minority dominated Dhubri district are in a state of bloodletting, communal killings and massive displacement of population. Vulnerable segments of both the Bodo and the Bengali Muslim communities are physically and emotionally brutalized, many are internally displaced and many see no hope of ending ethnic hatred and competitive barbs of aggression and victimization. Apparently conflicting members of both the sides are now caught on the point of no return and as long as they cannot return to their homes, the fear of the other could be given a xenophobic hall-of-mirror effect. The fear that indigenous Bodos are outnumbered and endangered cannot be pathologized without keeping the vulnerable indigenous masses in camps. Similarly, for keeping the Bengali Muslims in a pathological state, recurrent incidents of violence would completely demoralize and uproot them from whatever little legitimacy they enjoyed in the shared lived space with Bodos.

Magnification of such fear among the displaced by demonizing them as untrusworthy and treacherous will create a further divisive and communally charged politics and culture of survivorship. Drawing a thick line between survivors of Bodoland clashes with ineffective political and economic rights is an extra-Constitutional means , which is supposed to serve unrestrained group rights. Such a feeling is expressed by some Bodo leaders when they say those who live in Bodoland must accept the leadership of the Bodos, an exercise of dominant identity-based leadership. Indeed such a leadership has been accepted by all the non-Bodos with some amount of reservation. The bone of contention between the Bodo leadership and the Bengali Muslim leadership in presenting the number of camp dwellers assumed a shrill denial of the proportion of displacement by calling it an attempt to rehabilitate those who are not genuine victims from Bodoland area.

If victims lose genuine-ity just because they are displaced and are living in camps in adjoining places such as Dhubri, Bilasipara or Bongaigaon, isn’t the ethnic hatred marring the way of restoration of justice, honour and peace for the victims? Denial of the rights of the internally displaced Bengali Muslim populace in terms of the right to return by targeting them by selective armed violence is totally unacceptable by any human rights standards. The core value of shared citizenship, then, stands completely negated.

Photo: Thehindu.com

Photo: Thehindu.com

Some amount of counter-violence from the victims in such a troubled situation can fuel greater violence and displacement. Indeed varying degrees of such counter-violence, starting from mob killing of four gun wielding Bodo attackers to burning down of Bodo homes in areas dominated by Muslim Bengalis certainly alienated a large scetion of Bodos from Bengali Muslims. Further, such counter-violence created a great opportunity for ex-militants to wield their might, whom the government so far could not tackle with its local police and central paramilitary forces. Such targeted unrestrained attacks on Muslim Bengalis have gone much beyond retribution and retaliation now. Holding on illegal deposit of arms to target victims is another trait of ethnic supremacy apart from legitimate hold over power and resources. BTAD conflict shows the uncanny power of holding small arms and their use in securing advantage in an unequal hit back campaign against the immigrants.

Obviously winners take it all. If land is major concern then occupying land vacated by Muslim villagers and the use of arms in displacing them reveal high profile pecuniary interest of land grab. While one is concerned about saving the tribal land and probably would like to see full land rights under Sixth Schedule be restituted to Bodos, can one agree with the perverse and diabolic designs of land grab by displacing a victim of violence under the pretext of securing land rights for the indigenous? One of the Assam legislative assembly members alleged that demolition work is going on in those plots where burnt down houses of immigrants stand. Are we going to see high-rises in those waving paddy fields, which ironically this year would only reap the harvest of ethnic clashes and no rice of togetherness for Bodos and immigrants.

When does affirmation of group rights under protective discrimination become a license to deny neighbour’s basic human rights, especially in creating adverse conditions of loss of dignity and infliction of humiliation? Group rights based on territoriality, descent and origin cannot form a basis of denial of citizenship rights of the riot displaced vulnerable population of a certain ethnic and religious origin, just because they are not us.

Photo: thenational.ae

Photo: thenational.ae

From the point of view of the displaced victim, the Other is the aggressor and if the victim could be dubbed as an encroacher, it makes them soft targets without any claim to justice and rights even when their rights are flagrantly violated. Those who uphold rights of indigenous groups cannot be disrespectful of the right to life and dignity of even the non-citizen. The question of greater privilege enjoyed by immigrants does not arise as such a situation is completely counter-intuitive with some exception of some prosperous individuals from non-indigenous social groups. Although none of the displaced victims from both Bodo indigenous and immigrant community dare to think of any comparative post-riot advantage to follow from such differential treatment, yet the misconception of a forced eviction of the immigrant is growing in the name of ensuring land rights to Bodos.

By adopting a language-game of difference and othering in the discourse of indigenous rights, greater the offensive against the Other, the greater is the use of mendacity: as if one is experimenting with the possibility of greater victimization going beyond camps, deportation and other non-humanitarian and yet legal means- as if a ranging lawlessness is instituted within the apparatus of the law, as if violence is the law. In such a situation justice for the violated is never an issue, the only issue is Lebensraum for an ethnic homeland. More seriously, is the political and cultural imagination of a separate Bodoland fitting into the notion of a unified Assam? Or Assam’s unequal, asymmetric and uneven ethnic plurality needs to reduce itself to enclaves of ghettoized homogeneity, xenophobia and sameness of identity? Can’t the identity be plural and deterritorialized and can’t it accept an outside political and cultural space that is different from itself? There could be two specific reasons for not accepting such a doctrinaire pluralism: one that the majority, if there is any, is yet not ready to accept that there are others and two, Others are unacceptable because they would demand their legitimate share from what one thinks as one’s sole privilege. Such is the blind, almost bordering on hatred campaign against those who have been there for three generations in today’s Bodo areas. When the constitutional means are available to ensure protective discrimination in terms of full political power with the Bodo community, where is the fear?

Photo courtesy: Jagaran.com

Photo courtesy: Jagaran.com

So, Indian Muslims are termed as Bangladeshis with a motive to undermine them. Let a single person killed be proven as a Bangladeshi. Non-Indigenous people in Bodoland are not Bangladeshis, as they have not migrated there after constitution of BTAD. The BTAD was constituted and Bodo leadership accepted the presence of this segment of people and they got also elected by their votes in assembly and parliament. One can understand the apparent rage that was generated after killing of four Bodo ex-cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, erstwhile Bodo armed outfit. Isn’t it possible to understand each other’s agony and pain without taking resort to hatred and violence?

What could be achievements of killing innocent victims? Can we break away from a process of ethnic co-existence and reciprocity just because there are few cases of violence? Can we sacrifice the sense of belonging together? Drawing a line between genuine Indian citizens and illegal immigrants became a provocation to such breakdown of ethnic relations. It is the job of the State, to uphold the rule of law and prevent any attempt to assume due process of law in one’s hand. Quite like the Gujarat riots of 2002, the state machinery is still not able to intervene effectively in terms of restoring confidence in the displaced people. The irresponsible and mindless acts of violence against defenceless indigenous and migrants propelled by violence-countre-violence vicious cycle can only turn Bodoland into a disturbed area and there’s no gainsaying that human security will be its worst fall out.

* The writer is Director, Research, Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), Silchar, Assam.

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