There’s almost a general sense of indifference to the human crisis in the north-east where over 1,50,000 people have been rendered homeless, 40 killed and some 2,00,000 passengers stranded following ethnic clashes in Assam. Even a week after clashes broke out, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is also a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam, is yet to visit the State. Cases of arson have also been reported even as 13 columns of the Army have been deployed, indefinite curfew and shoot-at-sight orders imposed.
The State government has set up some 120 relief camps. But the exodus of people continues: about 10,000 people having escaped to neighbouring West Bengal. The conflagration is primarily between the ethnic Bodos community and minority Bangladeshi immigrant Muslim settlers, who migrated from former East Pakistan.
Reportedly, violence broke out when two immigrant Muslim student leaders were shot and injured, leading to retaliation on Bodo groups. However, this angst stems from simmering resentment, with the two groups seeking to control land in the area. For instance, Kokrajhar and Chirang which predominantly comprised Bodos a decade back, today is facing dwindling local population following immigration. At the core of Assam's problem is a debate over the "infiltration" by immigrants, which has triggered ethnic tension between the State's indigenous people and Bengali migrants. The changing demography, loss of land and livelihood, and intensified competition for political power has been a potent combination leading to an aggressive debate on who has the first right in Assam.
While the migrant Muslims claim to be existing in the State from the British colonial era, brought in to boost agricultural output, the argument is rejected by locals, claiming that the immigrants are actually poor farmers from Bangladesh, who have entered the State through the porous riverine border.
The Assam situation has a familiar storyline to Goa, where electoral battles have reportedly been won in the past by manipulating immigrant vote banks. Violence prompted by such sentiments were triggered during the controversial election in February 1983 where some 3,000 lives were lost after ethnic people backed by tribal groups opposed the elections on the ground that the electoral list comprised illegal immigrants. In 1985, an accord was signed with the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the campaign against immigrants. The accord promised to disenfranchise migrants who immigrated after 1966 for a period of 10 years, after which they would be included in electoral rolls. But, the campaigners termed it as "betrayal" and therefore began the armed campaign against India. Twenty years down the line, a faction of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) is negotiating with Delhi, asking for more concrete protection for indigenous populations against what they describe as "relentless illegal migration from across the border."
While on the other hand, immigrants have regrouped to assert themselves under the Assam United Democratic Front, which seeks minority rights and safety over their frequent eviction from settlement areas, locals feel threatened seeing an increasingly number of MLAs from their group on the State Assembly, to such an extent that last year it emerged as the main opposition to the Assam's ruling Congress, winning three times the number of seats won by regional Assamese parties and the BJP.
In the current conflagration, the BJP has attributed the unrest to the illegal immigration from Bangladesh, urging the government to seal the border with neighbouring country. However, it must be admitted that the persistent conflagration in Assam has its genesis in the British colonial mentality, where actually the seeds of violence were planted. For the moment however the State government must employ everything at its command to bring peace in the region. This is a must.