Opinion » Lead

Updated: July 31, 2012 13:16 IST

Identity of a recurring conflict

Sanjay Barbora
Comment (12)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

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.

No discussion

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.)

More In: Lead | Opinion

This article is a typical example of an English speaking elite's
exploitation of the common man's owe to advance his/her own narrow
academic agenda. What else explains filling a newspaper, supposedly a
layman's daily feed of news & opinion, with a sea of academic jargon?
Whom is the author targeting? Petty self-seeking scholarship at its
arrogant best.

from:  Rajkamal Goswami
Posted on: Aug 2, 2012 at 02:00 IST

Nothing wrong with the article.Except that the author chooses to completely shy away from the topic of the illegal immigration from Bangladesh and its impact on the resources of Assam.

from:  kunal
Posted on: Aug 1, 2012 at 17:25 IST

I am surprised that many of the persons having absolutely no knowledge of the region are commenting about the marginalisation of Assamese society, and influx of the so called Bangladeshi migrants being the root cause of this problem. I wonder what would one say about Karbi-Dimasa conflict of 2005-06 and who these great commentators would blame. Being an Assamese, one can immediately identify this piece with the kind of politics played by Assamese political elite to grant fake autonomies in the state of Assam, which is the heart and the crux of this conflict. I also thank Mr Tapas for making an interesting point about lust for dominance. This is an excellent piece. Pseudo-nationalistic sentiments will never solve any problems in India.

from:  Anupam C
Posted on: Aug 1, 2012 at 12:16 IST

I am not agree with Tapas Mandal. Who told you that there is only 18% Boro in BTAD.Have you statistical report ? This northern bank of Brahmaputra is under Tribal Belt and Block and it is almost occupied by illegal migrants of Muslim Bangladeshi. According to statistical report, there is 1 lakh Muslim people in Kokrajhar District but according to B.Azmal there is 6 lakh Muslim people in Kokrajhar. From where 5 lakh people come from ? They come from Bangladeshi that means illegal migrants. Every census thousands of illegal migrants entered in census record and called them as D-votter.
Home Minister P. Chitambram also gave news statement that there are migrants in Assam.
I fear about future of Assam

from:  Bichitra Narzary
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 23:17 IST

Why all this dithering and time wasting debates?
There is only one main reason for this violence. There has been a large influx of migrants from Bangladesh into Assam. This has affected adversely the demography and resources of the state. India cannot afford to be scared of affecting Bangladeshi or Muslim sentiments in resolving this issue by repatriating them. This is not a religious issue but an issue about migrants in an already crowded piece of land.

from:  vipul dave
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 15:18 IST

The author doesn't utter a word on the marginalisation of Assamese that is the root cause of all agitations in Asom. Sad to see such articles in the Hindu.

from:  Arun Murthy
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 13:59 IST

Its really sad why the Assamese political class / intellectual class find it or rather fail to understand the root disease of all this conflicts. Why they do not accept that the main cause as large scale migration from Bangladesh. Next Ten years majority Assamese speaking will be minority in their own land. More and more districts of Assam are now Muslim majority , census report shows. Stop beating the bushes and come to the point.

from:  Kushal Pathak
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 12:14 IST

Lust for dominance is at the core of conflict. The autonomous BTAD area
comprises only 18% of Bodo people, but given free hand to dominate other
fractions of people like Rava, Bengalis and Muslims there.Violence thus
transpires the shortcut to achieve that goal for Bodos. Secondly,the
tribes hailing from Jharkhand, rajbanshis and the Karbis can not be
given the SC/ST status so that a sense of social equity prevails among

from:  Tapas Mandal
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 09:09 IST

I wonder what the point of this article is. Author kept beating around bush talking about 'debates' but failed to mention the elephant in the room- immigration of people from Bangladesh combined with higher unsustainable population increase. Author says "it is important to keep in mind that the demographic changes are a reality that cannot be wished away."- Really? So the natives of the land just keep quiet and allow becoming minorities in their OWN land?

from:  Maurya
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 08:49 IST

Not clear what the solution is. Just sitting and talking is going to get nowhere. It is easier to fight and win, the groups involved are likely to think.

from:  ashok
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 07:24 IST

There is no end to splitting of India into bits and pieces. Independent India was created by the British on religious lines. Then the map of India was rearranged according to the linguistic criteria. Then the bigger states were split into smaller states with the same language. Then the states were split along the ethnic lines in the north-east India. Now there is demand for spliting these small states claiming autonomy of indegenous people. All these spliting and creation of very small states adds to the financial burden of India to the enchantment of the politicians to create their hegemony in confined areas. Next diviion of the states may be according to religion and caste. Even the Indians from one state to another are called immigrants! Only in India there is chekposts and inspections at the borders of states while the restrictions at borders of countries are minimized in Europe and North America. Indian politicians are using the same divide and rule policy of the British Raj.

from:  Davis K. Thanjan
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 03:07 IST

Who would want to bell the cat, especially when the stakes are so high,
that once could lose an entire vote bank. Which means Lots and lots of

from:  Vignesh
Posted on: Jul 31, 2012 at 01:44 IST
Show all comments
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor



Recent Article in Lead

A file photo of Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel.

Gujarat: a tale of two cities

The Gujarat Chief Minister’s attempt to distinguish herself from her predecessor by making women’s issues a priority hardly gets around the deep discrimination that Muslims in the State face in the form of communalism and a lack of housing. »