Behind Assam's ethnic violence

By the time this article appears in print, the number of people displaced by the ethnic violence in Assam since July 20 will probably have crossed the 5-lakh mark, making this the largest internal migration in India, comparable to the cross-border influx during Partition or the Bangladesh War. Thousands of people from the Northeast who migrated to mainland cities, especially Bangalore, but also to Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune, are fleeing in panic to their "home" states.

However, returning home isn’t returning to safety, witness the killings on the trains carrying migrants, and the horrific conditions in refugee camps in Kokrajhar and elsewhere in Assam, where epidemics related to contaminated water and appalling sanitation conditions are breaking out amidst a total absence of healthcare, aggravating one of India’s worst humanitarian crises.

This great panic migration was triggered by rumours of impending attacks conveyed through bulk SMSs and emails based on fake or morphed images calculated to provoke. Some of these depict Muslims being targeted in Burma or by people presumed to be from India’s Northeast because of their physical features, stereotyped as "chinky" or "Mongoloid" in a racist manner.

The purveyors of these SMSs are cynically capitalising on widespread ignorance in mainland India about the ethnic and linguistic differences between Bodos and Mizos, Khasis and Assamese, and Meiteis and Nagas (themselves divided into a dozen tribes). The motive is to brand certain groups as enemies-to instigate physical attacks on them.
Equally pernicious are attempts to establish false equations, e.g. between Hyderabad (Sindh,) with Hyderabad (Deccan) to demonise Indian Muslims. A mass mailing accuses Congress-ruled Andhra of permitting "Muslims to celebrate Pakistan’s 65th independence day" in the second Hyderabad, and bringing ignominy to India via "Congress cowards" and "Pakistani agents". (The Hindu, Aug 20)

India’s home secretary RK Singh has named Pakistan as the main source of these bulk mailings, and Home Minister Sushikumar Shinde has urged his Pakistani counterpart Rehman Malik to act against the miscreants. Some Islamist extremists in Pakistan could well be behind this disinformation campaign, hyperbolically termed "cyber-war" or "psy-jihad". But according to Indian security agencies, a large majority of the 240-odd suspect websites/pages are based in India.

More important, mails such as the one quoted above suggest the involvement of Hindutva groups out to malign Muslims. This is borne out by the inflammatory statements being issued daily by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (and their student-union associate Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) on Assam’s ethnic clashes, with the Indian state looking on passively. Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj admits to the ABVP’s involvement.

At work here, to deadly effect, is the manufacture of rumour and panic by using easily accessible modern means of communication and tools such as Photoshop, which can be manipulated even by amateurs to morph pictures and pass them off as real. This speaks to the grave danger of abuse of these technologies.

The worst culprits here are probably not the social media websites, accessed by a relatively small minority, but SMSs which can be widely disseminated, as the recent examples of the Anna Hazare and Ramdev movements so dramatically demonstrated.

There are reports that the RSS has "instructed" its cadres to use "the ethnic strife in Assam and the threats to people from the Northeast" to partisan ends. Logically, these objectives include expanding the RSS’s relatively small base in the Northeast and promoting communal polarisation in India. In the past, the RSS showed itself adept as using whisper campaigns, rumour and disinformation to provoke communal violence.

During the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, for instance, the Sangh Parivar floated rumours of Hindus being massacred by Sikhs on trains coming from Punjab-to instigate "preemptive" attacks on innocent Sikhs. Actually, no dead bodies of Hindus were found. In 1991-92, BJP Chief Minister Madanlal Khurana launched a whisper campaign alleging that illegal Bangladeshi migrants were about to attack Hindus, and expelled hundreds of Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims from Delhi.

In the present case, the concerned state governments abjectly failed to protect Northeastern migrants against chauvinist, communal and racist attacks. Instead, to their shame, they organised specially chartered trains so people would leave cities like Bangalore en masse.

The engineering of this forced mass migration showed that the authorities willingly abdicated their responsibility towards vulnerable citizens. It also showed that Indian citizens don’t trust the government to defend their life and limb against hate crimes.

People from the Northeast have every reason to distrust state governments such as Karnataka’s, which is ruled by the BJP, and where the RSS is on a rampage. Recently, many people from the Northeast became victims of racist attacks and sexual harassment in Bangalore, against which the state refused to protect them. One of them, Richard Loitam from Manipur, was reportedly killed by his hostel-mates. Instead of interrogating them, the police grilled his Manipuri friends.

However, what about the violence in Assam, which the state government has still not brought fully under control? The death toll in the Bodo-Muslim clashes in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) of Kokrajhar, Bongaingaon and Chirang, and in the adjoining Dhubri district, has crossed 70 amidst massive displacement and insecurity.

There is very little clarity about the proximate causes of the conflict, barring a tussle over an attempt by some Muslims to permanently occupy a plot of land near Kokrajhar for Eid prayers. The national media has not bothered to report in depth on the situation and the humanitarian crisis. Reportedly, none of Assam’s numerous TV channels has an Outdoor Broadcasting (OB) van. Nor have the national channels sent one to BTAD.

This speaks of colossal callousness within the national mainstream towards a region that every government and every national party claims belongs irrevocably to India, even more integrally and organically than Jammu and Kashmir.
Few in mainland India comprehend the absurdity of claiming such territorial ownership when they exhort the Northeast’s people to become "confident citizens" of the nation while minimising the injustices, violence and bloodshed heaped upon them, not least through draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives impunity for outright murder of anyone merely suspected of intention to infringe a routine prohibitory order.

This monumental incomprehension has not prevented commentators and self-appointed experts-many of whom lack even nominal acquaintance with the Northeastern region-from attributing the BTAD clashes to the supposedly "increasing influx" of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and the Bodos’ fears of being swamped under it in their own "homeland".

The standard theology runs thus. Muslims from Bangladesh, often termed "infiltrators", as distinct from Bengali-speaking Hindu "migrants" or "refugees" who cross the border illegally, are pouring into Assam just as they did in the early 20th century. They are illegally grabbing the Bodos’ land and changing the region’s demography. The resultant resentment is at the root of the recent clashes.

According to extreme versions of the theology, such as the Sangh Parivar’s, the Muslim migration is driven by communal motives: creation of a "Greater Bangladesh" or a conspiracy to spread radical Islamicism. This is the "default" or knee-jerk position of the BJP, which sees everything through a narrow, parochial Islamophobic prism. Even benign versions too attribute the violence to rising illegal migration of Muslims from "dirt-poor" Bangladesh and the tensions this is causing in BTAD.

However, this militates against several material facts. For one, Bangladesh has recently recorded higher human development indices than India, thus weakening the "push factor" for migration to one of India’s poorer pockets. For another, better border fencing has reduced the influx of very poor Bangladeshis to a trickle.

For a third, Kokrajhar’s Muslim population only increased from 17 to 20 percent of the total between 1971 and 2001. This is hardly alarming. The provisional 2011 census figures, which don’t contain a religion-wise break-up, put the decadal growth in the district’s entire population at a mere 5.2 percent, compared to 14.5 percent in 1991-2001 (and 16.9 percent for Assam in 2001-2011).

Considering that the Bodos have a political monopoly over BTAD and therefore no motive to move out, this relative decrease can only be explained by out-migration of non-Bodos, including Bengali-speaking Muslims. What’s under way in BTAD is competition between two production systems: the Bodos’s subsistence single-crop economy and the Muslims’ hard-work-based commercially-oriented multi-crop economy. This is allowing the Muslims to buy land.
Another source of conflict is over political representation in the larger Western Assam region, where the Muslims have made gains using fair democratic instruments. The Bodos succeeded in driving Muslims out-in 1992-92, 1996 and 2010, but failed this time around. The Bodos form only 20 percent of BTAD’s population and don’t enjoy social-economic hegemony.
In the last analysis, the culprit

here is the Centre’s misguided policy of creating "homelands" for tribals in pockets of the Northeast even when they are a small proportion of their population. Rectifying this approach demands a broad vision for the region as a whole, and great sensitivity to it. This is missing.