More than the multiple demands for Statehood in Assam, it is the insistence on closed, ethnically homogenous and exclusive units that gives cause for concern

It has been almost a year since western Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) witnessed unprecedented violence that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. Since then, there has been a predictable report from the Central Bureau of Investigation pointing to the role of various political entrepreneurs in the clashes and shedding scant light on the layers of complicity between the State and various non-State actors in fomenting trouble. The recent verdict on the formation of the state of Telangana has already led to agitation for separate states in Assam, Bodoland being but one of many competing claims over common territory. One has to remember that ever since India’s independence, questions of belonging, claims to land, resources and political demands for autonomy have been part of an incendiary amalgam that has resulted in thousands of deaths and many more displaced in the State of Assam. These debates are likely to sharpen, now that both Central and State administrations are trying to bully autonomy-seeking activists into tempering their demands for separate homelands.

Historians and linguists mapped people, places and pasts into this area in a manner that lends itself to contestations and conflicts in Assam. This mapping has rested on a finite set of beliefs and ideas that appear with predictable frequency. Hence, indentured workers and immigrant peasant communities were invested with a particular narrative of movement and identity that they find difficult to shake off even now. For all practical purposes, BTAD — like other parts of northeast India — is peopled by two kinds of communities: (a) those who claim a pre-colonial presence and (b) those who came during the colonial period.

Entrapment, resource capture

The demand for Bodoland is actually the culmination of almost 60 years of political mobilisation among the various indigenous tribes in the plains of Assam. The bases of these demands have their roots in the colonial moment of contact between a predominantly European administration and local communities. It is through this 19th century encounter that the political, social and economic structures of the region were to be transformed radically. Among the more salient causes is the fact that the land and forest-based rural economy has been irretrievably transformed. Extrapolating from historical and political scholarship on the region, Belgian scholars Nel Vandekerckhove and Bert Suykens term this process as one of “tribal entrapment,” wherein 19th century colonial policies were responsible for sequestering forests from indigenous tribal groups in the Brahmaputra valley. Between the expanding tea plantations and tightly secured forests, land use rules in the Brahmaputra valley became unfavourable for indigenous communities. This continues to add rancour to political debates and claims for ethnic homelands.

These demands are also an extension of the acrimonious debates of the early 20th century where Assamese nationalists raised the issue of immigration from Bengal and the Gangetic plains, much to the dismay of their counterparts in the mainland. In the 1950s and 1960s, tribal leaders had to remind caste-Hindu Assamese politicians about the need to redistribute power and administrative control to ensure the development of their communities. The idea of losing control over land and the markets — both of which evoked radical nationalist sentiments among the Assamese-speaking political class in the 20th century — had similar echoes among educated tribal leaders, who then looked upon Dispur as the source of their problems. The idea, therefore, of setting up the mirror image of the State — with a secretariat, legislative assembly and university — is a very strong impulse and a rite of passage for leaders in Haflong, Kokrajhar and Diphu that cannot be wished away. However, it is the insistence on closed, ethnically homogenous units that is cause for concern and unfortunately, the homeland demands seem to play right into the script that insists on extreme forms of exclusion. This obfuscates the fact that most homeland demands have actually grown out of coalitions and alliances of disparate groups who felt short-changed by the status quo.

Confronting autonomy

There is a popular belief that Assam, unlike many of its northeastern neighbours, is a multi-ethnic State, where composite identities and cultures are a norm. While this might be a comforting salve in times of conflict, the manner in which communitarian demands have taken on ethnic tones proves otherwise. Since the 1990s, various governments — including the ones led by the Asom Gana Parishad — have cynically created toothless, autonomous councils for every community with a pre-colonial claim to belonging in the Brahmaputra valley. Political scientist Sanjib Baruah likens these councils to the Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa and in a sense, he is not far off the mark. Assam’s autonomous arrangements are far more tragic though. While every community can aspire to demand a council, perhaps even an autonomous state if its numbers are right, the two largest groups within Assam — Bengali-speaking Muslims and Adivasis — will forever remain outside the ethnic homeland arrangements, since their presence can be clearly dated to the colonial period. Hence, the insiders versus outsider tensions assume serious consequences for all in the State.

Every time there is talk of extending the powers of an autonomous council, other communities, especially those who can never claim a council of their own, are quick to protest. They fear that their land and livelihoods will be lost, that they will be left without a political voice and that they will forever live under the shadow of fear and violence. This suits political entrepreneurs from every community since it reflects the empirical realities of forced displacement from villages and farms that have taken place in almost every district for the last decade. Land, whether as an asset to be acquired or one to be lost, remains the most frequently cited cause for concern for all communities in the State. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that one of the most contentious matters for non-Bodo communities in BTAD is the transfer of the department of land and revenue from Dispur to Kokrajhar.

One is not sure if this means an end to land alienation for indigenous communities and their equally beleaguered neighbours. Agriculture has become just another means of livelihood among many for people of rural Assam, especially in the autonomous areas such as BTAD. For six days a week, rows of cycles are parked outside the enormous gates of Samdrup Jhonkar that borders Bhutan and Baksa district in western Assam. They belong to daily wage earners from the Assam side of the border, who throng out at 5 p.m. every day and return home to villages where dreams of political justice have been subsumed by the crassness of new economic realities.

Unless Assam’s political entrepreneurs are able to comprehend the weight of this transformation of the State’s politics and economy, one is afraid that the cynicism displayed in last year’s violence will reappear. If so, the much-needed efforts to foster dialogue and non-violent debates on the politics of belonging, claims to land and resources and demands for autonomy, will suffer a tremendous setback. On the government’s part, it would be more judicious to initiate dialogue with activists, rather than set them on a path of confrontation that might lead to more violence in the near future.

(Sanjay Barbora is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus. E-mail: xonzoi.barbora@gmail.com)

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