Adivasis in Assam: Extermination without a camp

By Suroj Gogoi and Prasenjit Biswas

Adivasis, fled from homes. Photo by the Hindu

Adivasis, fled from homes. Photo by the Hindu

Repeated genocides in Assam and justification and rationalization of the same can be seen as the severest form of crime against humanity that one can imagine. It is the most reprehensible form of hatred that is committed and perpetually pushed under the carpet. Located in the foothills of Bhutan, the villages where 81 or so Adivasi persons were exterminated in the recent killings by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction) is no less than a genocide. Apparently the motive for such killing is attributed to Adivasi villagers helping the army and police in busting camps of Bodo militants. Seemingly they turn out to be the easy targets for insurgent firepower.

The adivasis, therefore, remain in a state of being exterminated. If camps mark the predicament of a modern fragmented society, one might say that the Adivasis are permanently thrown into shelters and camps as internally displaced. An estimated 2.75 lakh people of Adivasi origin are settled in about 250 camps across Udalguri and Chirang. They are decamped before the act of being camped and by the very act of remaining in the state of being camped they are rightless and defenseless. Herein we find a sense of perennial othering which subverts any democratic attempt to empower them with right and dignity. They are othered in a state of displacement and pushed form their settlements to an uncertain destiny. This continual displacement completes the fate of marginality. The process marks an inner othering of the marginalized that actualizes fragmentation of mainstream social identities of Assam.

Identities at struggle

Demands for autonomous council in the name of a tribe or community, claims for ST status and more importantly, exclusion of others from such constitutional benefits remained as the prime motivating force for exclusivist struggles of both armed and democratic kind. Among such marginalized ethnic groups, the Bodos have been in the forefront is carving out a Bodoland Territorial Council comprising of four districts of Assam, namely, Baksa, Chirang, Kokrajhar and Udalguri. Repeated mass killings, enforced displacement of minorities in Bodoland areas have been a constant feature of civil and political life. Chronicles of targeting the Adivasis comprising of migrant and indentured labourers from Chhotanagpur plateau have been written on the corpses of the innocent since 1993. After an apparent truce since formation of BTC under the leadership of Hagrama Mohilary, the same politics of minority bashing returned in Bodoland, much to the dismay of the political leadership. A host of non-state actors belonging to various frontal organizational and espousing the Bodo cause have been raising the pitch for a separate Bodoland that evidently resulted in ethnic cleansing one after the other. The democratic voices within Bodo ethnic formations such as student and literary bodies, human rights groups and other civil society bodies are seen helpless before the might of the smoking gun wielded by the non-state actors.

The grim situation for democratic forces in Bodoland not only prevailed within competitive electoral politics but it also engulfed the social and cultural life of multi-community, multi-linguistic Bodoland area. A regimen of suspicion, repressed anger and a pathologically divisive drawing of internal boundaries marred the very sanctity of living a life and participating in common economic and trading activities. Centuries old migrant labourers settled in and around tea garden areas of Northern bank of Brahmaputra are the worst victims of this deterioration of law and order and debasement of values of a common social life. They have been otherized just as Muslims have been, labelling them as outsiders in Bodoland. The main motive for such a denial of access to shared lived space only proves the point that Bodoland is only for a certain community.

The Assam Accord

The Assam accord of 1985 provided an immediate context for an assertion of Bodo identity, as they were not represented adequately in the new formation of Axom Gana Parishad that ruled Assam for two terms between 1985-89 and 1996-2001. The dominant caste Hindu segments of Axomiya nationality apparently marginalized the tribal and the indigenous segments that included a powerful minority such as Bodos. Often separatist and often by throwing up the claim of being indigenous in Assam, the Bodos not only gave rise to contestation against dominant caste Hindu Axomiyas, but it carried the seeds of an exclusivist homeland demand in the form of ‘divide Assam fifty-fifty’. It was not clear whether the fifty percent territory that they demanded would include other Non-Bodo communities such as tea tribes, Adivasis, Muslims and even Axomiya speaking people.

A family moves to a safer place after ethnic clashes in Tenganala village, in Sonitpur district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam December 24, 2014. Photo: ENCA

A family moves to a safer place after ethnic clashes in Tenganala village, in Sonitpur district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam December 24, 2014. Photo: ENCA

Another significant dimension of the Assam accord has been a rhetorical and confessional politics of self-preservation that directed its anger against the spate of migration from Bangladesh. The ubiquitous Bangladeshi became a convenient label for targeting the linguistic minorities by denying them their linguistic, cultural and economic rights. Invariably such a denial took the form of linguistic aggression as well as a chauvinistic rejection of their claims of recognition. The historic Assam Accord that ended the Assam agitation gave way to multiple ethnic and linguistic conflicts in which the marginalized communities were often pitted against one another. Apart from a go all Bangladeshi infiltrator, Adivasis became a soft target and the chain of victimization included inter-tribal and inter-ethnic clashes. Overall, this turned out to be a larger process of fragmentation of Axomiya nationality into sub-national and susb-sub-national identities. The Assam Movement that largely mobilised the common people on the common grounds of understanding for the removal of the ‘illegal migrants’ ended up with a vicious cycle of violence between the self and the other.

It is not only the militants who carry such visible forms of violence of killing women and children, violence to these people at the margins are carried out in everyday life by oversensitization and is legitimated by the ‘son of the soil’ theorists. An academic and intellectual legitimation to Othering resulted in a distinct self and other after the Assam movement whereby the ordinary people were instructed and imparted with a sense of immediate othering. They were told to fear the other and hate them in their everyday life. The regional political parties and the insurgents mobilized this very psyche to garner support and take the movement away from any democratic imagination. Those ruptures are felt even today very strongly.

 Ethnic identities in North-east have become non-negotiable in the proximity of near group formations in a manner so much so that the presence of other is seen as depriving the self. Bodoland is a classic example of ethnocracy where peace building is a metaphor to delayed violence. Between autonomy and insurgency, the idea of Bodoland managed to create thousands of internally displaced people and silently observe hundreds die. The recent attack by NDFB (Songbijit faction) on the Adivasis opens up new possibilities of violence and also new victims for violence.

The overall situation can be characterized as ‘a state of exception’ that uses political violence on the marginalized segments to leave them as remainders, or, camp dwellers, in a state of permanent displacement. The example of Lakhmi Oraon, a braveheart brutalized during an Adivasi protest rally in 2007 onward to repeated mass killing leave the Adivasis in an enhanced state of exclusion and endangerment. As a social group, their existential condition can be described as a state of exterminated and seized bodies.

Suraj Gogoi is a Research Scholar at Delhi School of Economics, Department of Sociology and Prasenjit Biswas teaches Philosophy at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong and works as a human rights defender with Barak Human Rights Committee (BHRPC), Assam.

 The piece was first published in Kafila and available at http://kafila.org/2015/02/11/adivasis-in-assam-extermination-without-a-camp-suraj-gogoi-and-prasenjit-biswas/

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