Political mobilisation along ethnic lines has played a dominant role in reinforcing group differences in Assam, with blatant disregard for the present realities of its demography
For the people of Assam, the last few weeks have brought misery upon misery. No sooner had they begun to recover from the floods, than came the riots that have rendered thousands homeless in the Boro Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD). The violence has not only renewed the debate on autonomy arrangements in Assam, but also revived the settler-immigrant theme at an inopportune time for the administration. Both issues — autonomy and immigration — have the potential for encouraging healthy, non-violent debates but given the charged atmosphere, there is little hope of creating a middle ground that can nurture dialogue.
The violence has already been framed as one between the Boro community and Muslims, described as ‘settlers’ in public discourse in Assam. This tendency to conflate conflicts into easily identifiable ethnic constituencies is simplistic, leaving little scope for either understanding or intervention. The rioting began after the killing of four former cadres of the disbanded Boro Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) by irate people in a predominantly Muslim village. The local media reported that there were few police or security agencies on the ground when the violence first broke out. Many therefore hold the State government responsible for the failure to prevent the spread of violence to other districts.
While there is some merit to this, it would be erroneous to leave matters at this. Far too many deaths have been attributed to ethnic conflict in Assam over the past decade. Every case of rioting and violence between communities in the State has drawn neighbours into histories that cannot be disentangled from one another, to the extent that even acts of rebuilding and resumption of life are a sign of the violence that has preceded it. To complicate matters further, there is little or no discussion on how ethnic categories come into play in violent events and why conflicts continue to persist with such alarming regularity in Assam. That only gives more vigour to those who claim that demographic changes have had an adverse impact on social relations.
There is little doubt that Assam’s long, complicated history of settlement and demographic change continues to play a dominant part in political mobilisation in the region. This mobilisation is bound by tropes of identity, reified by group differences, bureaucratic distancing of the state from the people and the eventual centralisation of power. The post-colonial State has also held itself up as a neutral entity, claiming to uphold the rights of all citizens while simultaneously encouraging an incremental approach to demands for autonomy among the Boros and other groups who live in western Assam. This has predictably led to a polarisation of opinion on the rights of the people of the region and over those who have a right to call western Assam their home. While Boro intellectuals and activists point towards their community losing out in the historical march of capital and settlers, it is important to keep in mind that the demographic changes are a reality that cannot be wished away. Non-Boro communities have often expressed fear of the consequences of government demands that Boro leaders prove their majority in the BTAD areas. This, they argue, is the precursor for attempts at creating majorities through acts of violence. In the impasse, the absence of a framework for dialogue that allows for accommodation of differences is sorely missed.
Issue of autonomy
The other issue that the violence has thrown up has to do with the bestowing of autonomy to certain communities in the State. The autonomous councils in Assam have been seen as institutional mechanisms for the extension of self-rule for indigenous communities. Their colonial genealogy notwithstanding, the councils have been the focus of group mobilisation, where different communities had come together to demand more powers to control local administration. Such movements evolved out of the demand for Udayachal — an area that covers parts of present-day BTAD — and then some that began just after independence. Born from a genuine need for autonomy from a caste-Hindu Assamese dominated administration, the Udayachal movement and also the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC)-led movement of the 1980s and 1990s were genuine attempts to bring together a plural political constituency. However, from the time of their negotiations with the Indian state, these pluralistic coalitions have begun to echo a majoritarian rhetoric.
For the government, it is as though the granting of autonomous councils is a way out of the contentious civic politics that prevail in Assam. The BTAD is an example of how principles of autonomy for indigenous communities can go wrong when the political guarantees of security — both political and fiscal — are missing from the political vocabulary of those who seek, as well as those who grant autonomy. On the face of it, autonomous districts like the BTAD survive because they are useful tools for diffusing dissent against the state, policed as they are by sections of the dominant elite of indigenous communities, who in turn owe their wealth and power to developmental packages that trickle down from Dispur.
Failure is political
Political scientists like Sanjib Baruah have questioned the effectiveness of such cosmetic forms of autonomy, especially as they have failed to provide any creative modes of dialogue between different communities in the State. They have made it easy for conservative opinion in Assam to denigrate demands for autonomy by pointing to the violence within these movements.
However, such opinions make for lazy, sociologically reckless attempts at political analysis. It is not as if autonomous councils, including the BTAD, are inherently built up to be ethnic pressure chambers. The realities of mixed villages in the area are a poignant reminder that the failure is political. Neither is it true that different communities are unable to live alongside one another. Since the tragic events in the BTAD, local media have brought to light several stories about the cooperation between different communities in the area. In reinforcing the polarisation between advocates for autonomy and agents of a centralising state, one risks abolishing the possibility of a neutral and non-violent position that can broker a settlement between all communities in BTAD, including Muslims, Boros, Koch Rajbongshi, Adivasi, Nepali and Assamese. One needs to recall that the BTAD is a tragic site of failed interventions, which are more dangerous than neglected conflicts, since the momentary media-induced platform is capable of amplifying grievances that could well have been settled amicably. In the rush to provide sound bites to the cameras, most political parties and commentators have only served to enhance the lack of a coherent dialogue on resource and power sharing between different communities in the autonomous councils.
This silence is not simply the mark left by the trauma of inter-ethnic conflicts in Assam. It is also the persistence of doubts and loyalties of those who hear, and the mistrust that divides collectives of speakers and listeners. Under such circumstances, one can only reflect on the early days of the Udayachal movement (in the 1960s and 1970s), when its intellectuals and activists were capable of drawing other communities into a non-violent, progressive struggle for the devolution of power over resources to indigenous groups in the Brahmaputra Valley. They were aware that even though colonial authorities did not invent ethnic categories, it was in the course of interacting with these authorities that identities became ossified. Hence, the elders of the Udayachal movement and also the Boro movement that came later raised universal issues of justice for all the marginalised people of the valley. Such a voice would act as a salve on new and old wounds today. For, if the political community in India (and in Assam) were unable to nurture such debates, it would have to live with the fact that it has condoned the normalisation of internal displacement and violence against indigenous communities and minorities alike.
(Sanjay Barbora teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.)