Why Assam is sitting on a volcano

By Swapan Dasgupta 

12 August 2012, 03:00 AM IST[1]

It is not going to be a happy Independence Day for the many lakhs (estimates range from 2.5 to four lakhs) of people in makeshift refugee camps in the Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts of Assam. The state, chief minister Tarun Gogoi has ominously proclaimed, is “living on a volcano”, with the possibility of sectarian violence being aggravated by a bewildering array of armed groups linked to one or another ethnic group. Overwhelmed by incomprehension, the otherwise prickly liberal intelligentsia and editorial classes have turned away their gaze after mouthing the familiar platitudes about the need to preserve peace. Considering the magnitude of the explosion and compelling evidence of administrative lethargy, even the by-now mandatory demand for the CM’s resignation has not been mouthed with any measure of conviction.

Driving this squeamishness is the fear of taking sides. Rather than probe the specificities of the situation in the north bank of the Brahmaputra, the custodians of the national conscience have retreated behind a curtain of moral equivalence-the compassionate equivalent of the plague-on-both-houses approach. There have been lots of assertions about what the troubles were not: they weren’t ‘communal’, they weren’t triggered by forces from across the Bangladesh border, and they weren’t state-sponsored. Was it, therefore, a bout of monsoon madness that affected Assam? If not, what was it?

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It is not that the answers are unknown. Nevertheless, it is a truth that dare not speak its name. The story of the July 2012 riots has escaped narration on the national stage because the story-line suggests inconvenient villains and incorrect heroes.

Leaving aside the competitive haggling over which community suffered the most and who struck first, what was witnessed in Assam was a general uprising of an exasperated Bodo community against an unending wave of marginalisation and loss. Equally, it was provoked by the growing belligerence of a settler community (known in many quarters as Bangladeshi Muslims and whose citizenship is contested) that now perceives itself as the dominant group in at least 11 of the 27 districts of Assam and its insistence that the special powers of the Bodo Territorial Council to prevent land alienation be scrapped. On display were two different forms of aggression. The Bodo violence was born of desperation, while the aggression of the settlers was driven by anticipation of a new conquest.

It is not unfair to suggest that it is the Bodo wall that has prevented the entire north bank of the Brahmaputra from being overwhelmed by creeping settler colonisation-a process that began in the early decades of the previous century and continues relentlessly to this day. For the Bodos, one of the earliest inhabitants of Assam, the issue is not merely a question of habitat. It is twinned with larger questions of language and identity. The community, which makes up a nominal 5% of the state’s population, has been caught in a pincer movement. First, there are the physical encroachments of land-hungry Bangladeshi Muslims who are already dominant in neighbouring Dhubri and who have established squatter’s rights over communal lands in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts. Second, there are the cultural threats to the Bodo language and identity from the caste Assamese.

It is true that Bodo leaders increased their community’s isolation by failing to strike strategic alliances with indigenous non-Bodo communities such as the adivasis and Koch-Rajbonshis. Giving these communities a stake in the Bodo areas would have given the resistance to settler colonisation a greater strategic depth. It may even have encouraged the Assamese to see Bodos as an ally in a common ‘anti-foreigner’ struggle.

However, this short-sightedness cannot distract from the fact that Bodos have a right to feel aggrieved by the indifference to their plight in both Dispur and Delhi. Today, the tragic predicament of the Bodos is being wished away by invoking the cruel but inexorable logic of history. In the process, what is being overlooked is that the colonisers are more than economic migrants. They are fast-developing independent ambitions that may well go beyond the purview of both state and national politics. Allowing the Bodo wall to be breached may well have grave implications for the political geography of India. 

 

 

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