THE fall out of the Kokrajhar riots has become evident in the mass exodus and fear psychosis that has plagued the people of north eastern origin in cities like Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad. Newspaper reports state that over 2.5 lakh people started a homeward journey after rumours spread about retaliatory violence in the wake of the month long Kokrajhar riots. More than 4.5 lakh people fled their villages as a result of the rioting in Kokrajhar. Of these, there are estimates that more than 2.86 people remain in refugee camps in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri districts. The scale of the displacement, of both north easterners and Muslims living in Assam has ensured that the Bodoland issue can no longer be treated merely as an assertion of the rights of one ethnic group. Rather, the debate surrounding it has come to question the cultural pluralism that has characterised the independent Indian nation since its inception. It has also pitted a linguistic and ethnic minority against a religious minority group, thus consolidating the power of the ruling classes and religious fundamentalists.
AND BODOLAND POLITICS
In his statement on August 8, 2012, the BJP Rajya Sabha MP, Balbir Punj stated in parliament that “this [the Kokrajhar riots] is not a communal conflict, but a conflict between Indians and foreigners”. In a similar vein L K Advani stated in the Lok Sabha that “this is not a Hindu-Muslim issue, even though there may be some truth in the matter. The main issue is who is an Indian and who is a foreigner. The government must decide this and also deport the Bangaldeshis”. Thus Tarun Vijay, a part of the BJP’s delegation to Kokrajhar, writes in the Organiser (August 13, 2012) that this “is time for Hindu society to ponder over their decline and why the foreigners have gained so much of power to attack them in their own land”. This appropriation of the Bodos into the Hindu fold is not surprising and is being used to legitimise the intervention of fundamentalist groups in order to expand their social and political basis amongst tribal elites. The vulnerability of the Bodoland politics to such appropriation is evident in the public utterances of the leaders of the Bodoland Territories Autonomous Districts (BTAD). They have often been quoted as saying that they have been “invaded by the Bangladeshis” and routed from their own homes. They have further asserted that they would not allow the Muslim refugees to return to their homes unless they have verified their “citizenship”. Such an assertion has only fed into the myth of the foreign invasion that has been repeatedly used by the RSS to expand its influence.
It has also deflected attention from the historical processes that have led to the present riots. As the report of the visit by a team from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) states the present conflict is not a result of the infiltration from Bangladesh, but is a conflict between resident Bengali Muslims. While the Bodo-Muslim conflict has received much attention in recent years its main cause seems to lie in the larger problematic relationship between Bodos and the dominant Assamese caste Hindu society. As the pamphlet A Brief History of the Boro People (published by the National Democratic Front of Boroland) explains, the assimilation of Bodo converts into Assamese speaking Hindus has had a manifold negative impact on the Bodo people. It has resulted in the breaking up of the Bodo society into several castes and also led to a changing demographic profile where the Bodos became a minority much before the settlement of migrants from East Bengal in the late 19th century. The settlement of non-Bodos (Muslims as well as plains tribes) also resulted in the out migration of Bodos who started a movement to protect their own land rights through the formation of a Tribal League in the 1920s. It is ironical that this league, in which the Bodos were dominant, extended support to the Muslim League which formed a coalition with the Congress in 1940. This itself indicated that the Bodos were willing to have a united front with the minorities in order to protect their own political autonomy and rights. This gave birth to the Bodoland movement and militant Bodo organisations like the liberation army which got disbanded after the formation of the BTAD in 2003. These erstwhile militant forces form the basis of the Bodo political elite which exploits the rural workers in the region, in some cases even leading to practices of extortion. In the process it has also made convenient political alliances and uses question of ‘foreigners’ to justify their drive to cleanse the areas of non-Bodos.
USING THE ‘FOREIGNER’ TO
The Assam government’s response to this political situation has been based on its need to maintain its alliance with the Bodoland political elites as well as the Bengali Muslims. In response to the outcry to deport ‘Bangladeshis” the chief minister of the state has blamed a ‘foreign hand’ for the current spate of violence. In support of this claim, the central government has blamed elements in Pakistan for tampering with social media sites for spreading rumours in order to start an exodus of people from the north east from urban centres like Bangalore and Pune. In giving primacy to this as the main cause of conflict, the government played into the hands of the communal elements who are trying to exploit the situation. This is particularly evident from the actions of the Sangh Parivar which has actively started propagating that people from the north east are their ‘brothers and sisters’ and that they would protect them and see them safely back to their homes. The branches of the RSS have also been active in the relief camps inhabited by the Bodos and are using the occasion to organise them in order to expand their political influence.
At another level, the foreign hand argument also deflects attention from the government’s inability to provide relief and ensure an atmosphere where victims can return to their homes without any insecurity. As the NCM report states, most Bodos who were affected in the riots have returned home, while the Muslims continue to stay in the camps. The conditions of these camps are abysmal with no electricity and water logging. Hardly any food and clothes were available and the victims were largely left to fend for themselves, without assistance from even the local police. In the recommendations, the NCM particularly noted that the police was complacent largely because the Bodos were armed and controlled the area. They have also been instrumental in hounding the victims in almost all camps visited by the Commission. This biased attitude has received no attention from the state government. It is thus clear, the Gogoi government has been quick to score a political point by blaming the ‘foreign hand’ but has failed to meet its basic responsibility of maintaining peace and ensuring the basic facilities for the victims.
Given this situation, it is important to intensify its efforts towards the political resolution of the conflict by going beyond Bodo identity politics. A strong united front between the Muslim and Bodo peasantry needs to be forged to facilitate the settlement of the legitimate rights of both social groups. It is also essential to ensure that all victims have access to basic facilities and are duly rehabilitated in their homes. The government and its police have to be made accountable for this purpose. The revision of the citizens registers, on agreed lines and amendment of citizenship laws if necessary, has to be undertaken to stop the profiling and vilification of Muslim settlers ‘illegal Bangladeshis’. Only this will ensure that Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists do not spread their tentacles within these regions. It will also combat the efforts of the ruling classes to create ethnic and religious divides within and outside Bodoland for their narrow political ends.