India

India: Violence in Assam - Battle for the Bodo heartland

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By Bibhu Prasad Routray, Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi

The recent week-long ethnic violence, principally between the Bodo tribals and the Muslim settlers, in two northern districts of Assam - Darang and Udalguri, claimed at least 55 lives and left over 100 persons injured. The serial clashes also affected other non-Bodo populations like the Rajbongshi, Assamese, Nepali and Bengali communities in these two districts. More than 2,500 houses were either torched or damaged in the clashes in 54 villages. Almost 150,000 people were displaced and have since been settled in the 97 relief camps set up by the government.

Clashes between the Bodos and Muslim settlers started in Udalguri district on 3 October in the Bhalukmari and Mohanbari villages, following rumours that a Bodo youth had gone missing. Though the youth was later traced and found to be safe, people of either community went on a rampage, setting ablaze houses belonging to those of the other community. The killing of a Muslim youth, Abdul Jabbar, within the premises of the Deputy Commissioner's Office in Udalguri, further precipitated the already charged situation and the violence that ensued, progressed unabated until 9 October.

I. LAND, PEOPLE & POLITICS: AN INTRODUCTION

The Bodos are the largest plains' tribe in Assam, settled primarily along the northern bank of the Brahmaputra River. They once held sway over Assam, only to be scattered and submerged in later times. Since the early 1990s, the Bodos have organised themselves into insurgent as well as pressure groups, to assert their rights, which have substantially impinged upon the territorial rights of the other communities in Assam.

Bodos are the largest plains' tribe in Assam, settled primarily along the northern bank of the Brahmaputra River. They once held sway over Assam, only to be scattered and submerged in later times. Since the early 1990s, the Bodos have organised themselves into insurgent as well as pressure groups, to assert their rights, which have substantially impinged upon the territorial rights of the other communities in Assam. The Bodo Accord of 1993, which attempted to bring to an end, years of arson, violence and instability, sought to identify areas where the Bodo population exceeded 50 per cent as 'Bodo Areas', to be brought under the direct administration of the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC). An unintended consequence of this provision has been the recurring organised ethnic cleansing in areas where the Bodos do not yet constitute 50 per cent of the population. The failure and subsequent collapse of the BAC notwithstanding, Bodo leaders, drawn either from political or community-based organisations or insurgent factions, have participated in these movements. Their targets sometimes were the adivasis (tribals from outside Assam, brought to work in the tea plantations) and sometimes, the Muslims (Bangladeshi or otherwise). Between 1996 and 1999, several deaths were reported and large internal displacement of the population occurred due to prolonged ethnic clashes between the Bodos and Santhals.

According to the 2001 Census of India, 31 per cent of Assam's population is Muslim. It is however, not clear, how much of the total Muslim population in the State is constituted by Muslim migrants from East Pakistan or Bangladesh. Estimates regarding illegal migrants from Bangladesh range from a few thousand to several millions. This constant flow of primarily economic migrants has been the source of frequent turmoil in Assam. The Assam Agitation of 1979 to 1985, which culminated in the Assam Accord of 1985, principally focussed on the detection and deportation of these migrants. However, successive governments in Assam failed miserably on this front and only a few thousand were deported. The issue of illegal migration, thus, continues to be an issue of concern for the people of Assam. This region has witnessed, at regular intervals, agitations on the issue, spearheaded by various organisations demanding the identification and deportation of these migrants.