Assam’s tragedy

How partisan policies and a bitterly divided people keep the State in an endless cycle of violence.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:13 pm IST

Published - August 25, 2012 04:34 pm IST - Chennai

Almost an everyday sight. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Almost an everyday sight. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The current tornado of targeted mass violence in Assam is only the latest in a series of several storms of violence which have convulsed the state over the last three decades. Each wave of blood-letting has further deepened fractures between various religious and ethnic groups. It is important to recall this troubled history if we are to find ways forward to lasting peace and calm for the diverse religious and ethnic communities which inhabit the fertile river valleys and low hills of this beautiful State.

The beginning

The foundations of ferocious ethnic and religious hostility in the state were laid in the anti-‘foreigners’ agitation which racked the state from 1979 to 1985. The demand of the agitators was for the State to detect and deport ‘foreigners’, or Bangladeshi immigrants. Migrations from Bangladesh occurred from the early 20th century, partly the result of conscious colonial state policy, mainly of peasants and landless workers, drawn to Assam by land hunger and unemployment.

The Tewary Commission appointed by the State government to enquire into the violence during the agitation reports of diverse groups attacking each other in every district in Assam except Cachar and North Cachar Hills. Baruah in his definitive account of the agitation recounts that violent attacks against Bengali Muslim settlers in Assam, regardless of their vintage, rose after 1979. The most gruesome communal violence in those years, and indeed since Independence anywhere in India, occurred in 14 villages of Nellie.

The Centre for Equity Studies studied this largely forgotten massacre and its aftermath. The author Surabhi Chopra recounts from official records: “On the morning of 18th February 1983, thousands of people surrounded the Nellie area and attacked Bengali Muslim residents... The attackers were armed with machetes and other weapons. They systematically set fire to people’s huts. As residents fled their burning homes, they were hacked to death. Roads to the Nellie area were blocked and the Muslim villages surrounded, so people could not go to Jagiroad police station while violence was unfolding. Unofficial estimates say that the massacre orphaned 371 children and left over 2000 people dead.”

One remarkable feature of this massacre is that not a single person responsible for the violence has been prosecuted or punished. The Assam Accord signed between the Indian government and the leaders of the movement in 1985 included a clause to review criminal offences, except heinous offences. But, as Surabhi Chopra notes: “In practice, what the accord was interpreted to mandate was a full amnesty to all persons charged with crimes, even of murder and rape, during the mass communal violence.” She notes further that “Only one, fairly junior police person faced disciplinary measures. Survivors received minimal compensation.”

This laid a dangerous precedent in Assam of State-sanctioned, officially brokered immunity for people charged with heinous hate mass crimes. This was further nurtured by a policy of enabling, even incentivising ethnic cleansing. The militant agitation of indigenous Bodo tribal people from 1987 was originally not targeted against the East Bengali Muslims: it saw them as allies in a fight against the dominant caste-Hindu Asamiya people. The situation changed drastically in 1993 when the government signed the Bodo Accord, which created an autonomous Bodoland within Assam, but laid down that only settlements with populations of more than 50 per cent Bodo people would be included in Bodoland. The die was thus cast by state policy itself for violent ethnic cleansing.

Former militants organised themselves to drive out the settlers. In 1993 itself, Bengali Muslims were killed and their homes looted and burnt. The terrified survivors fled into camps that were to be their homes for years. Attacks were then mounted against the Santhal descendants of tea garden workers in 1996, and at its peak, around three lakh people were displaced by the violence. In 1997, some returned, but were freshly evicted after new clashes in 1997. In 2000, the Muslims were forced to vacate the official camps, but again were subject to attacks. They set up their own camps by encroaching on government or private land, where they continue until today.

In no man's land

After visits to these camps, I wrote in 2007 about these ‘nowhere people’ who had lived for a generation in relief camps in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, and the State has done nothing to assist them to return to their homelands. I found them surviving on erratic supplies of rice rations for registered camp dwellers for 10 days a month, without child-care centres, health centres or schools, unable to return to their lands and homes, boycotted from seeking work, and attacked if they strayed back to indigenous habitations.

I noted then: “Assam has near-fatally imploded with the politics of competing persecutions, as oppressed groups arm and organise themselves to violently drive away other wretched and deprived people, in pursuit of dangerous, impossible (and unconstitutional) aspirations of ethnically cleansed homelands. Their plight is aggravated by bankrupt and opportunistic politics and State policy, and equivocal rationalisations by civilian observers. In battles between indigenous inhabitants and settlers, many of the region’s poorest people are living out their lives in fear, confined to camps, people who no one wants and who have nowhere to go.”

I added: “The Assam government indifferently says it can do nothing for the people in camps, who must return to their homes from where they were expelled. The displaced people plead that to return is to only live daily in the shadow of fear of the assured next attack, by a people determined to reclaim their ‘homeland’ from the settlers, spurred by the Bodo Accord which recklessly incentivised such ‘cleansing’.”

That next attack has occurred, this sombre monsoon of 2012, and four lakh more people are exiled to pitiless camps. The cauldron of ethnic and religious hatred continues to boil, spurred by a bitterly divided people, and State policies which assure official immunity to perpetrators of mass violence, and incentives for ethnic cleansing.

There seems no end yet to the tragedy of Assam.

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