Understanding The Violence In Assam, Beyond The Flawed Logic Of ‘Bangladeshi Infiltrators’

Posted on May 9, 2014 in Politics, Specials

By Rahul Maganti:

At a time when the country is going for the elections to elect the 16th Lok Sabha which is being tipped as a fight between communal and secular forces by the media and some political parties alike, in the north-east, there have been practical implications of such a debate, unfortunately with a negative connotation. This May 1st and 2nd, there was an attempt of ethnic cleansing of the Bengali Muslims by militants, suspected to be perpetrated by the ruling Bodo-elite from the National Democratic Front, Bodoland which is part of the Congress led Govt. ruling Assam for the past 13 years. The attacks on the minority community of Muslims by militants of another minority community of Bodo’s cannot be seen in isolation. To put this in perspective, the July, 2012 riots in Assam where 4,00,000 people were displaced and 77 killed was also a result of the show of strength and assertion of political power of the Bodo’s over the non-Bodo’s, especially the Bengali speaking Muslims, who were alleged infiltrators from Bangladesh, but for a fact that majority of them have settled there even before India got independence.

Picture credits: Archiving the Bodo Conflict in Assam
Picture credits: Archiving the Bodo Conflict in Assam

The Bodo’s are a minority with 26% of the total population, but the 2003 agreement signed between the Congress (then in power) and the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) who left arms to join politics as Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), made them a dominant force to reckon with. Incidentally, the agreement which would influence the rest of the population was signed without the presence of the Non-Bodo majority population. This agreement gave the Bodo elites significant power to assert their identity through politics of violence, and the Govt. headed by the Congress often turned a blind eye on terms of political advantage. The Bodoland Territorial Council administers four districts of Assam – Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang — which are together known as the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts. As per the accord, the aim of the Bodoland Territorial Council is to “fulfill economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos”. Very often, this was felt to be a gross violation of equality and democratic rights by the 76% non-Bodo majority. Thus, as a matter of asserting their power by the ruling Bodo elite and the opposition and resistance offered by the non-Bodo community, political or otherwise, violence erupted.

The latest violence is a clear manifestation of the political polarization across the country. The BPF has nominated Chandan Brahma for the Kokrajhar constituency, for which the elections were held on the 24th April. The Non-Bodo community which want to end the political assertion by the Bodo’s put up their own candidate Naba Kumar Saraniya, as an independent candidate. The media statement given by Pramila Rani Brahma, former Minister in the Assam Government and present BPF MLA from the Kokrajhar East constituency, that Bengali speaking Muslims have not voted for the BPF candidate but voted for the Independent propped up by Non-Bodo front, is the starting point for the crisis. After the first leash of violence, when three people were killed in Baksa district, the violence escalated to other BTAD districts, where 33 people were killed and many others displaced.

The infiltration angle to the whole debate only added fuel to fire with BJP’s Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi differentiating between refugees and infiltrators on the basis of religion and hurling threats to the Bangladeshi immigrants, comfortably forgetting the fact that there might be economic immigrants too and not just religious ones. The perceived understanding that the Bengali speaking Muslim immigrants are infiltrators is a major reason for many a problems in the BTAD in particular and Assam in general, they are often looked down upon as second grade citizens. The politics played by Narendra Modi and the BJP, which clearly stated in their manifesto that “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here” and the speeches made by Modi which have been trying to say that Muslims ‘infiltrate’ into India from Bangladesh as part of Vote-bank politics and only to grab jobs from Indians as quoted from his Bankura speech – “those who were India’s sons, who love India, who celebrate Durgashtami, and speak Bengali, they should be treated in exactly the same way as the sons of India” grossly violate the basic principles that the international community follows with regard to refugees and asylum — All people who seek refuge should be treated equally. No tests of religion or ethnicity, or even politics, should be applied. India’s current refugee policy, governed by the Foreigners Act (1946) does not even use the term “refugee”. Moreover, India is not a signatory of the UN 1951 refugee convention or its 1967 protocol. This failure to define its stand on immigrants allowed the 1990’s shameful Operation Pushback, which was the rallying cry of the Sangh Parivar to deport poor Bangladeshi immigrants. It is also what allows Modi to threaten Bangladeshi migrants now. However, in 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that refugees could not be forcefully deported because of article 21 of the Constitution ensuring protections of life and personal liberty.

So, the whole episode along with the previous 2012 July violence in the North-East, cannot be viewed in isolation, but can only be termed as the increasing intolerance towards the minority community, especially Muslims in the context of the Saffron Hindutva brigade running a violent campaign across the country powered by the Corporates to capture the power in the Centre and to make India a pure ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The ethnic cleansing of such a minority community on the basis of a conspiracy theory of ‘infiltration’ is on the cards. Many individuals and organizations like Ram Puniyani of the All India Secular Forum have started online petitions to demand justice for the victims through a time-bound judicial inquiry and also a formation of Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the poll violence. Another genuine demand was to revisit the BATD Accord and to amend it in the presence of the other non-Bodo community members.