Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ethnic Clashes in Assam: State Faces Serious Humanitarian Crisis, Policy of Appeasement

The ethnic clashes in Assam which spread from one district to another in the State, has gradually been engulfing the State in a fatal embrace and isolating it from the rest of the country. The battle is for limited resources, including jobs. Thus, when a group gains power through violence, it cannot be expected to serve the interests of other communities, especially the ones it was fighting in the first place. For the past few years an atmosphere had been building up for the present violence, with former Bodo militants cornering benefits, including those under government schemes, at the cost of the rest of the communities.

Animosity Between Bodos and Rising Muslims
The toll of those killed in ethnic and communal clashes, fuelled by animosity between Bodos and the rising population of Muslims who settled on tribal land, now stands at 40. The killings have led to one of the largest ever exoduses in Assam's recent history, with officials saying 1.7 lakh people from 400 villages in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri districts are now homeless and sheltered in 128 camps that dot the conflict zone.

In addition, a lot of people from Garubhata, Nepalpara, and Nangalbari villages in Chirang have become victim of the ongoing ethnic violence. However, the deployment of the Army has brought improvement in the situation.

Panic-stricken villagers are fleeing to relief camps or wherever their ethnic or religious group is in a majority using all modes of transport: from horse-drawn carts and hand-pulled rickshaws to bicycles, motorcycles and trucks. Hundreds were trekking through monsoon-drenched forests to escape armed militia from either side.

Not just Muslims, since July 23, more than 20,000 people from Bodo villages, too, have left their homes and set off on foot or carts for the 20-odd relief camps in and around Kokrajhar. Not less than 10,000 Bodos from Bilasipara area alone hit the road in search of shelter in relief camps. Trucks have become scarce as migration has increased. People are using various modes of transportation to reach Dhubri. More than 250 horse-drawn carts and 2,500 bicycles have left for Dhubri. Approximately 35 Muslim villages have become virtually empty now.

The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) resumed its train services partially which were paralyzed because of the ethnic clashes. More than 26 trains were cancelled and 37 regulated by NFR due to security reasons.

Failure of State and Federal Governments’ Machinery
The failure of both the state and federal governments, however, goes back further. The area is governed by the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District Council, which was formed in 2003 as a tool to end the Bodo tribal militancy that had been on since the eighties. The Bodos had long been working — often using violence — to oust what they called illegal immigrant (Muslim) settlers, as well as some other groups from Assam itself.

Given the utterly callous handling by the Government of the volatile situation, it is only fair that Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi be made to pay for his mistakes. But his defiant statements in recent times only point to his refusal to take responsibility. Yet, this is not the first time that the Gogoi government has failed to respond to a grave law and order challenge.

Swift action by law enforcement agencies could have calmed the situation. Instead, a security vacuum was allowed to fester, leading to retaliatory attacks that led to the death of four Bodo men. The killings expectedly sparked a series of attacks and counter-attacks but still the Congress-led government did nothing. This was despite local groups such as the All-Bodo Students Union reportedly pleading with it to deploy forces in areas that they had identified as vulnerable.

Confronting each other are violent elements among the Bodos and Muslims. Gang violence that started in Kokrajhar spread to more districts including Chirang, Dhubri and Bongaigaon, claiming some 40 lives. The rioting and torching has triggered an exodus. More than 1,70,000 people belonging to both the affected communities, as well as others, in the four districts have taken shelter in relief camps. The trigger was the firing on two student leaders of the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union and the All Assam Minority Students’ Union in Kokrajhar. Thereupon, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers cadres were killed; that led to further attacks and counter-attacks. With the Bodos’ nationalistic assertion forming the historical backdrop to the tensions, aggressive elements from the two communities have clashed sporadically.

The ongoing violence in the Bodoland area, however, not only reiterates the governance deficit in Assam but also points to the dangerous game of vote-bank politics that the Congress has been playing for decades across the country. At the crux of this week's riots is the unchecked immigration of Bengali-Muslim workers from Bangladesh who now form a sizeable minority in the region (and are a captive vote-bank for the Congress). This has caused much displeasure within the Bodo community that does not appreciate having to share scarce resources and opportunities with the aliens.

Demand of Situation
It is believed that appeasement is a solution often required to put down a crisis at hand. But then it has to be followed by more permanent measures. West Assam never really moved toward economic consolidation after the peace bought 11 years ago. The North-East is a territory inhabited by fractious tribes, many of which have yet to feel fully integrated with the country.

Remember, the country is yet to recover from the shock of the Guwahati molestation case wherein a teenaged girl was sexually assaulted by a mob in full public view in the heart of the Assamese capital. During that incident, the local police was conspicuously late in arriving at the crime scene.

The immediate job is to contain the violence and tackle the serious humanitarian crisis. Those who have had to abandon home and hearth should be enabled to return. Transport links with the rest of the country need to be restored; thousands of passengers remain stranded in railway and bus stations. Talks between the adversary organizations should be quickly facilitated.

It is a fact that the state administration failed to react quickly after the first signs of trouble on July 19. Considering that there was a build-up of tensions over the past few months, vulnerable areas ought to have been identified and adequate forces deployed. It has been pointed out that in many of the places overrun by violence, the security forces were not visible at all. The deployment of the Army seems to have come too late in the day. The mapping of stress-spots on the basis of adequate intelligence inputs should be a priority at least from now.

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