Often enough in much of Assam, all that it takes to set alight the sub-surface nodes of volatility is a mere spark. Now, an ethnic-communal spectre looms over the western parts of the State once again. Confronting each other are violent elements among the Bodos and Muslims. Gang violence that started in Kokrajhar spread to more districts including Chirang, Dhubri and Bongaigaon, claiming some 40 lives. The rioting and torching has triggered an exodus. Over 1,70,000 people belonging to both the affected communities, as well as others, in the four districts have taken shelter in relief camps. The trigger was the firing on two student leaders of the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union and the All Assam Minority Students’ Union in Kokrajhar. Thereupon, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers cadres were killed; that led to further attacks and counter-attacks. With the Bodos’ nationalistic assertion forming the historical backdrop to the tensions, aggressive elements from the two communities have clashed sporadically. The confrontation has been labelled ‘ethnic,’ but economic and even educational anxieties are as much at work as the desire to preserve socio-cultural and ethnic identities. Insecurities relating to land, forest rights and a shrinking job market have created a combustible mix.
The immediate task is to contain the violence and tackle the serious humanitarian crisis. Those who have had to abandon home and hearth should be enabled to return. Transport links with the rest of the country need to be restored; thousands of passengers remain stranded in railway and bus stations. Talks between the adversary organisations should be quickly facilitated. The administration failed to react quickly after the first signs of trouble on July 19. Considering that there was a build-up of tensions over the past few months, vulnerable areas ought to have been identified and adequate forces deployed. It has been pointed out that in many of the places overrun by violence, the security forces were not visible at all. The deployment of the Army seems to have come too late in the day. The mapping of stress-spots on the basis of adequate intelligence inputs should be a priority at least from now. The long-term goal, obviously, is to re-envision Assam as a place where ascriptive identities do not disrupt civic relationships. The state needs to keep working on achieving the right balance of development activity. The key to this will be restoration of mutual trust. This should be based primarily on systematic measures to address fears over loss of ownership and right to land, and concerns over denial of access to resources, development, and means of livelihood.