Rahul Mathur from Assam
THE largest and the oldest plain tribe in Assam with a rich cultural history the Bodos have found themselves at war for survival from time to time. Their leaders would say it is about rights, not alone claim over land and local resources.
“It is not land issue alone. It is deprivation on several fronts. Our areas remain underdeveloped,” All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) president Pramod Boro told Firstpost from Kokrajhar over telephone. “With the Assamese and Bengali population we have led a fairly peaceful life. In1996, we had an ethnic clash with the Adivasis. But I believe that it was a third force that ignited the fire between the Santhals and the Bodos,” Boro said.
The conflict involves Bangladeshi infiltrators
There has been large scale influx of illegal migrants to the Bodo districts. The local population is now at the risk of turning into a minority. The increasing population increases pressure on common economic resources too, they maintain. “Bangladeshis are filling Assam every day.This is not a secret…They would no longer be a minority. They would be majority very soon. Bangladeshis are a real threat.” Kameswar Brahma, president, Bodo Sahitya Sabha (BSS), agrees. When there would be pressure from external population, temperature will simmer, he said.
Anjali Daimary, convenor, Bodo National Conference, said, “In the 80s and 90s the Muslim population was so less. Today the indigenous population is facing a threat. People now say we are just a 20 per cent of the population.” Boro pointed out that new non-Bodo organisations coming out in BTAD areas were a matter of concern. “These non-Bodo organisations are working against the interest of the Bodos and also the non-Bodos. They are instigating a sense of insecurity among the non-Bodo population inBodo areas,” the ABSU chief said.
Brahma blamed the mess in the Bodo areas directly on the Central government. “The Centre has failed to provide rights to the Bodos and Santhals. Even though we have the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) it is more orless toothless,” Brahma told Firstpost. “The state government is also neglecting the Bodo areas. Had the BTC got full administrative and police power the present situation would not have escalated to this extent. Lack of executive power to the body worsened the situation,” he said, addinglack of opportunity and years of neglect have put the Bodos in a state of distress.”
Both called for short and long term policies to end the recurring violence. “There is an urgent need to review the entire internal security scenario in our areas. The entire law and order situation needs an evaluation and reorganisation to instil confidence among people,” Boro said.
Fruits of living in denial over Bangladesh influx
One of the red herrings being tossed around in the context of the ongoing riots in Assam is that the Muslims who attacked the Bodo tribals and drove them out of their homes are in fact Indians, and that it breaks their bleeding riotous hearts to be branded Bangladeshi settlers.
As perverse as that may sound, that claim isn’t an elaborate justification for the riots as typical ‘boys will be boys’ conduct. But it does represent another effort to draw the curtain on the foundational problem that underlies both the latest riots and the simmering tensions in Assam andelsewhere in the North East: the problem of unchecked infiltration of Bangladeshis into India.
Precise estimates of the number of illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators in India are hard to come by but conservative official estimates put it at over 20 million. But every attempt to raise it as a matter of concern, and to point to the security and other social perils that they come laden with havebeen met with cussed unwillingness to face the facts.
Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha, who served in the region and served as Assam Governor following his retirement, knows what it means to raise the red flag of warning. In 1998, as Governor, he sent a report to President KR Narayanan, in which he warned of a grave danger to India’ssecurity from the influx of illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh.
In that report, Sinha had pointed out that even as far back as 1947, Pakistan wanted Assam incorporated in East Pakistan (as the eastern province that subsequently became Bangladesh was known). Only the opposition of regional leaders thwarted that transfer, but the matterrankled with Pakistani leaders who equated it as a dispute nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known to have claimed that Pakistan had “very good claims” over Assam and some districts adjacent to East Pakistan.
Sinha’s report noted that even the father of the Bangladeshi revolution, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom India helped to liberate Bangladesh in1971, had expressed a covetous desire for Assam, given its forest and mineral resources. “No matter how friendly our relations withBangladesh,” Sinha had warned, “we can ill-afford to ignore the dangers inherent in a demographic invasion from that country.”For his efforts, Sinha was pilloried by the Congress and the CPM and accused of stoking communal tension. Some 22 Congress MPs wrote to the President asking for Sinha’s recall.
Sinha’s concern all along, as a military strategist, was that the whole of India’s north-eastern region was connected to the rest of India by a “chicken neck corder” which, if cut off, would effectively isolate the region. He feared that the influx of illegal infiltrators was turning lower Assam districts– particularly Dhubri and Goalpara – into a Muslim-majority region, and that it would be only a matter of time before they demanded merger with Bangladesh as part of a ‘Greater Bangladesh project’. “The loss of lower Assam will sever the entire land mass of the northeast from the rest of India and the rich natural resources of that region will be lost to the natin,” Sinha had observed. In the decade and more since then, the plot has played out exactly as Sinha has predicted, and has been borne out by Census statistics over time, but most political parties have been blind to the security and social threats arising therefrom.
The irony is that the Indian Muslims in Assam, for all their religious affinity with the illegal Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators, lose just as much from the influx as the other native people of Assam. The illegal infiltrators compete for the same manual work – as rickshaw pullers and in theconstruction and other industries. And being somewhat more desperate for jobs, they are considered more industrious. And if they manage to procure illegal citizenship documents in the black market, as often happens, the illegal infiltrators even have access to work under the NREGA programme and services under the National Rural Health Mission.
Yet, political parties are reluctant to so much as have an honest conversation on this issue. On the other hand, the argument has been made that there may even be an acceptable level of illegal infiltration from Bangladesh on the ground that they add to the cheap labour pool in India. This argument is specious on at least two counts. For one, India isn’t exactly lackingin unskilled labour force, given the vast numbers that still live in abject poverty in both rural and urban areas. If it weren’t for rural employment guarantee schemes that have driven wage price inflation, there would still be an abundance of cheap labour. And now, illegal Bangladeshiinfiltrators have even begun to access these schemes and health services, driving up the cost of service delivery.
For another, even if it’s an overstatement that every illegal infiltrators is a potential security threat, the presence of millions of such infiltrators—who effectively remain off the radar of the official agencies—is a recipe for disaster.
Even if it is the case that the riots in Kokrajhar, which have since spread to other districts were not directly perpetrated by illegal infiltrators, their unchecked entry in the millions over time has played an undeniable role in sharpening religious and ethnic polarisation in Assam andother States in the northeastern region. To live in continued denial over this will only stoke the tensions even further.
Right now, the immediate need is for calm to be restored, but the longer a mature discussion on the underlying problem is delayed, the bigger and more serious will it get.