Chinks in the Armour

By Suhas Chakma[1]

The recent Bodo-Muslim conflict in Assam has exposed the yawning security gap and lack of coordination while peace remains the elusive Rosetta stone. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who has been in power for the third consecutive term, has seen some of the worst communal clashes in the state. The conflict between Karbis and Dimasas during September-October 2005 caused the displacement of 43,132 persons in Karbi Anglong district. In March-May 2009, conflict between the Dimasas and Nagas in the North Cachar (NC) Hills district saw around 11,737 victims being relocated.

Again, the clashes between Garos and Rabhas along the Assam-Meghalaya border in January 2011 displaced over 5 0,000 persons. Earlier, communal clashes in BTAD areas – between Bodos and Muslims in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts in October 1993 – displaced around 18,000 people. Again, 2,62,682 people were relocated during the  May 1996 conflict between the Bodos and Adivasis in Bongaigaon district. Even in September 1998, clashes between Bodos and Adivasis in Bongaigaon district saw 3,14,342 people losing their home and hearth. More than half of the people displaced are yet to be rehabilitated – thereby further accentuating the conflicts. Since the riots did not affect the mainstream Assamese or Hindu Bengali population, Gogoi was safe, and, in fact, won the elections for the third consecutive term in 2011 hands down.

The latest conflict that started on July 19, 2012, could have been prevented as portends were very clear. It is a case of total security failure. On July 6, 2012, two persons belonging to a Muslim religious group were killed at Anthihara under Dotma police station in Kokrajhar district by unidentified persons. On July 19, two student leaders belonging to the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU) and All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) were shot at near Kokrajhar by unidentified persons. To ‘avenge’ these killings, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) members were killed on July 20. These killings triggered a spate of attacks and counter-attacks across Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa districts under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas as well as in Dhubri district, which is outside the purview of BTC. The above incidents prove that the security agencies failed in their job.

The Gogoi ministry has also painted a very poor picture as far as containing these riots are concerned. Whenever tension simmers in our national capital, security in the Walled City areas are beefed up.  The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act provides for identification and notification of the sensitive areas. As the Congress government in the state failed, India’s largest humanitarian crisis of the decade saw the death of 53 persons and displacement of over 3,92,000 people, according to the official figures released recently. The role of Army and paramilitary forces has been the most despicable. The less said about it the better. While the Assam government failed to mobilise paramilitary forces within the state, the Army top brass was waiting to get the nod from the babus in the ministry of defence. This is despite the fact that the districts affected are notified as ‘disturbed areas’ under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958. It is shameful that such a huge communal riot broke out in the BTAD area despite two big units of the Army being stationed at Rangiya and Goalpara.

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The Army has been deployed to aid the civil administration in the state and operate under the banner of Unified Command. Therefore, there was no reason to seek permission from the ministry of defence. The Unified Command in Assam has been caught sleeping. When Army operations in the state was in full swing under the Unified Command, there have been several instances of alleged molestation and encounter killings. There seems no solution to the problem in the near future. The BTC was created under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution but land rights of the Bodos in conformity with other Sixth Schedule areas, where sale or transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals is prohibited, has not been ensured.

The British had enacted Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908 to protect the land rights of the Adivasis but Assam failed to do that in the 21st century. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord itself failed to bring the National Democratic Front of Bodoland to the negotiating table. The BLT who signed the agreement and rechristened themselves as the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) (presently administering the BTAD) has been a partner of the Congress-led coalition government in Assam for the past six years but their role remains doubtful. Though Bangladesh handed over Ranjan Daimary, head of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in May 2010, New Delhi failed to hold dialogue with the terror outfit.

The central government appears to be emboldened by the state government’s political considerations and does not appear to be willing to bring even the peace process with all the Bodo groups to a logical conclusion. Sadly, it is not only the media, but even the civil society groups of mainland India have preferred to keep mum. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Home Minister P Chidambaram and UPA president Sonia Gandhi visited some of the relief camps in the BTAD area but the conditions of the displaced persons, sheltered in 270 relief camps with no basic facilities such as adequate food, medicines, doctors, drinking water, clothes, sanitation and hygiene, remains deplorable.

What the Prime Minister did was to declare a package of Rs 300 crore without spelling out the details. India is a country which has seen the worst of communal riots. Sadly, our policymakers and the powers that be continue with ad hoc policies on humanitarian response and rehabilitation of displaced person. This ad hocism allows the state to practice discriminatory policies. While New Delhi is building 50,000 houses for Sri Lankan Tamils at the cost of Rs 4.95 lakh per house, Assam announced Rs 20,000 as the cost per house.

When the state itself follows such inherently discriminatory practices and the court upholds the same as done by the Gauhati High Court in the PIL No 6/2011 with respect to rehabilitation of the Garos and Rabhas, there cannot be any durable solution. Against such a backdrop, riots will continue to break out in Assam. And such mayhem has broken out because illegal migrants are flooding the BTAD areas, or, for that matter, Assam, which is again putting a pressure on the state’s land and its natural resources. Till a sustainable solution is conceived, Assam will continue to bleed.

 


[1] The writer is director, Asian Centre for Human Rights, Seven Sisters Post 11 August, 2012 http://sevensisterspost.com/chinks-in-the-armour/#

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