Although Assam has disappeared from the front pages of national newspapers, large populations still live in makeshift, underserved camps, racked by memory, fear and uncertainty, with little prospect of an early return to their homelands. Legitimate anxieties of land and identity have acquired an urgent grammar of violence and hate, and irreconcilable divisions have grown further between estranged communities.
During my journey to relief camps in Dhubri, Chirang and Kokrajhar, housed in the classrooms and courtyards of schools, I found that government had ensured basic food rations and primary healthcare services. For the rest, people mainly had to fend for themselves. There was no bedding, no mosquito nets, toilets were scant and choked, and there was little water for drinking and bathing. People who had fled their burning villages or rampaging mobs had few clothes or utensils. Children were the worst hit. There were no child care services, or temporary schooling. Everywhere i found a longing to return home.
The stories we heard in both Bodo and Bengali Muslim camps were disturbingly similar, of neighbours turning into murderous mobs, of torched and ransacked homes, of looted livestock, and of fearful flight. Many escaped only in fear, even though their settlements were not attacked, and in these villages, men return to guard their homes and fields, leaving the women and children in camps.
There are legitimate anxieties and grievances on both sides of the dispute. Udoyon Misra writes eloquently of the ‘ever so heavy’ burdens of history of indigenous Assamese peoples like the Bodos, of ‘land, immigration, demographic change and identity’. He describes massive land alienation of the Bodo plains tribal people who were shifting cultivators with few land records, by industrious and aggressive Bengali Muslim immigrant cultivators.
Successive governments in both the state and the Centre have failed to effectively seal borders, and to identify and repatriate illegal immigrants. The Bodos worry also about being culturally swamped in their traditional homelands, not just by Bengali Muslims but also other communities such as the caste Hindu Assamese, Koch-rajbanshis, Santhals and Bengali Hindus.
The Bodo accord of 1993, which belatedly gave administrative autonomy to the Bodo people in their traditional homelands in which they already were reduced to a minority, unfortunately also created an incentive for driving out people of other communities and ethnicities. The first attacks by armed Bodo militants on Bengali Muslims occurred in 1993 itself, and these have recurred sporadically against also Santhal adivasis, who are descendants of tea garden workers who migrated centuries back. Clashes occurred in 1994, 1996, 1998 and 1999. Around one and a half lakh people displaced by these clashes – both Bengali Muslim and Santhal – continue to live in camps up to the present day, an entire generation of forgotten internal refugees with no home. The government took no decisive steps to help these refugees return to their homelands.
This remains a festering wound on the psyche of the Bengali Muslim, as also the fact that not a single person has been persecuted for the gruesome slaughter mounted in Nellie in 1983. They complain that all Bengali Muslims are tainted as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, whereas demographers confirm that only a small fraction of the immigrants are actually illegal settlers who slipped into the state after the agreed cut-off date of 1973. Many have learnt Assamese, and wish to be accepted as legitimate Assamese citizens.
This already fraught environment, of legitimate competing anxieties and grievances of diverse communities, has deteriorated sharply because of the implicit legitimisation of violence as a means to resolve these competing claims. People sympathetic to the concern of Bodos and other indigenous tribal communities suggest that the violence to which they have resorted in recent decades is unfortunate but understandable. This is rendered more dangerous because of the easy availability of sophisticated arms among the surrendered Bodo militants, who were never effectively disarmed.
On the other hand, apologists for the Bengali Muslim violence justify it as being ‘only retaliatory’. This is slippery ethical territory, because the same argument was used to justify the post-Godhra massacre, as well as the slaughter of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. There is disturbing evidence of growing radicalisation of a small section of the Assamese Bengali Muslim, of a kind which was remarkably absent among the victims of the Gujarat violence. The latter have remained unshakably committed to the democratic, legal and non-violent resolution of their grievances, despite the brutal slaughter and systematic subversion of justice and reconciliation by the leadership thereafter.
There are wide demands today that only those Bengali Muslims in relief camps should be allowed to return home who can first prove their legal status. The acceptance of this demand would further incentivise the mass violence which resulted in their displacement in the first place. There isno doubt that the rights of indigenous communities to their land, forests and culture need to be defended, and illegal immigration effectively blocked.
But there should be no compromise, even by implication, with violence as a means to achieve these demands. People in both new and old camps must first be res-tored to their homelands unconditionally, and assisted in rebuilding their houses and livelihoods. Only then should a just and caring state intervene to ensure that the legitimate concerns of both indigenous people and settlers are met, by processes which are lawful, humane and non-violent.
The writer is a social activist.
First published in the Times of India and is available here: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Violence-in-Assam-has-subsided-but-anxieties-of-land-and-identity-are-still-haunting-the-people/articleshow/16855324.cms