By Anil Bhat
As India’s 66th Independence Day was celebrated under massive security arrangements, parts of Assam reeled under the consequences of a demographic shift that challenges that very independence.
A book titled Assam Terrorism and the Demographic Challenge (Centre for Land Warfare Studies-Knowledge World), written by me and published in 2009, assumes greater relevance in the light of the recent riots in Kokrajhar. It dwells on how the demographic pattern of at least eight districts in Assam got adversely altered over two decades of terrosrism by United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), when its leaders were hiding in Bangladesh.
Decades of illegal migration from erstwhile East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, into Assam eventually led to the bloody anti-foreigner agitation in 1983, in which at least 2,000 people were hacked to death in a place called Nellie, a few hours from Guwahati. Those killed were Muslims, accused to be illegal migrants and occupants of land that belonged to Lalung tribals.
The agitation culminated in the Assam Accord signed by the central govt and representatives of All Assam Students Union (AASU), which was largely an economic package. The Illegal Migration Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act enacted by the ruling Cong in 1983, replacing the Foreigner’s Act of 1946, was clearly driven by political agenda of vote bank. It virtually regularized illegal migrants from Bangladesh who migrated into India up to March, 1971 and even beyond. Peace was bought through a financial package on one hand, and status-quo prevailed in terms of accepting Bangladeshis who migrated before March, 1971 as Indian citizens on the other. The vote bank was saved. Constitutionality of such an accord between a students union and central govt was never questioned.
This Act made it almost impossible for a Bangladeshi migrant to be deported from Assam. Under the Act, the onus of establishing nationality rested not on the illegal migrant, not on the government,but on an individual who had to pay a fee to lodge a complaint to a stipulated jurisdiction. It took 22 years for the Supreme Court to repeal IMDT Act as un-constitutional in 2005.
Initiated by AASU, the agitation produced a political party called Asom Gana Pratishad (AGP), and an armed wing called United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which by late 1980s had penetrated all departments of the State Government and developed into a deadly menace, extorting money and killing with impunity. In late November 1990, when President’s Rule was promulgated and Army launched against it, its boss, Paresh Barua and close cohorts fled to Bangladesh, thereby betraying that very cause. As I had assessed in early 1992, Barua and gang soon came into the strong grip of Pakistan ’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) detachment in Bangladesh. The ULFA escapees not only became conduits for ISI to enter India ’s North East (NE) region to establish contacts with other violent groups there, but also became its great assets for anti-India activities. ULFA became an effective tool of ISI for pursuing its aim of inducting and settling illegal Bangladeshi migrants in various parts into Assam, raising new madarassas and controlling old ones and trying to convert ethnic Assamese Muslims to fundamentalism, creating communal tension, circulating fake Indian currency, trafficking arms and narcotics, sabotaging installations-particularly rail and oil- and public services, assassinations and massacres and generally spreading terror. Whenever ULFA felt the heat of Army operations, its oft-repeated ploy was to cry out for cease fire and negotiation, only to get respite and reorganize itself.
Bodoland comprises the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), which include parts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Chirang and Udalguri disitricts. Administered by the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), this territory came into existence since 10 February 2003, when the BTC Accord was signed between the the Assam government, the Union government and the Bodo Liberation Tigers on. Recognized as a plains tribe in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Udalguri and Kokrajhar are considered the centre of Bodoland with Kokrajhar selected as its capital. Involved in rice cultivation, tea plantation, pig and poultry farming, and silkworm rearing, weaving is part of Bodo culture. no Bodo courtyard is complete without a loom and Bodo girls learn to weave from a young age. Many families rear their own silkworms, the cocoons of which are then spun into silk. Assam’s superior ‘mooga’ silk sarees are famous and expensive as they are intricately woven.
According to news reports, the recent July-August 2012 riots between Bodos and non-Bodos/non-Assamese in Kokrajhar, being referred to as “Bagladeshis/Mians from Bangladesh” and its neighbouring districts have left 77 killed and about 378,045 people rendered homeless. This being an official figure, no one knows how many more people have taken shelter in the safe zones. Out of the displaced, 266,700 are Muslims and 111,345 are Bodos. They are in 235 relief camps spread across four districts of the state. Of the 235 camps, 99 camps are for Bodo residents and 136 camps are for Muslim residents. Dhubri district, has 90 relief camps, Kokrajhar has 71, Chirang has 62 and Bongaigaon has 12. School and college summer-breaks have been extended. According to news reports and visuals from networks, many of these camps are a living hell. Till some days ago, there were reportedly only 117 doctors available for almost 4,00,ooo displaced people in these camps, where at least 8000 children were reported
to be sick.
With very little or no water, very few toilets and nothing more than only rice to eat, there seems scant hope of any improvement in the health and hygene.
However, news reports following the visit of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde to some of the relief camps on 13 August quote Mrs Gandhi as saying that she asked the refugees whether they were facing any problem in the camp or had any complaints but they replied they had none. : “The refugees said that they were receiving rations regularly. Only two children were unwell and the doctors will attend to them,” she is further quoted to have said. Does this mean that by the time she visited facilities had been provided? Or was she conveniently shown only those camps which being closer to urban centres are much better equipped? Because the disparity in the earlier reports and visuals and those following her visit is very wide.
A senior journalist based in Guwahati, working for a national daily, who visited Korajhar soon after the riots erupted reflected general concern when he remarked while speaking to me: “If Bodos, considered quite fierce, have been targeted, what will be the plight of non Bodos/ Assamese…. No one wants to go back to their villages…..‘Bodoland is our birth right’ is the slogan written on bus stops and walls of buildings”.
It is also reported that the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) youth have made it clear that they do not want the Bengali Muslims/ “miyans/Bangladeshis” back in their districts. Direct warnings conveyed to them are that they may return at their own peril. Older slogans from student organisations like the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) are ‘No Bodoland, No Rest….Divide Assam, 50-50’.
The Bodo movement and the demand for Bodoland was all because of dispossession of tribal land by non-Bodos, mostly Bengali and Assamese settlers. The demand also included recognition of their language and culture. In 1988 that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland was formed for the purpose of launching a guerilla war against New Delhi.
Pramod Boro, President of All Bodo StudentsU, quoted in media said: “It is very clear. A genuine Indian citizen has every right to stay where they want to. But out of the people in the camps are also illegal migrants. They have taken advantage of the situation, of the weakness in law,”
During a discussion with me on 13 August, former Rajya Sabha MP, Urkhao Gwra Brahma began by informing: “On the night of 21 July 2012, Muslims burnt the Brahma Ashram at Paraugura, near Kokrajhar and destroyed school property. On 22 July, they burnt the entire village Besorekhona, under Gosaighat sub-division” He then elaborated:….It is a political move from other than Bodo community….Muslims are the main community there who claim that Bodos have lost majority….Encroachers including non-Bodo people and an organisation calling itself Ana (non) Bodo Suraksha Samiti have also been recommending for scrapping the BTAD.
On Ana Boro Suraksha Samity (ABSS) comments on Bodos being involved in ethnic cleansing, Mr. Brahma said: “The ABSS leaders say that BTC comprises of 80 per cent non-Bodos and 20 per cent Bodos. If this was true, how can a population of 20 per cent strength cleanse 80 per cent of the non-Bodos? “Bodoland is a neglected region with an area of 7,000 square kms. Development of this region is equally important as in other parts of the country.” While there were similar disturbances in 2008, 25 years after the Nellie carnage, on the period till the July-August 2012 riots began, he said: “The ruling party and law and order agencies remained silent….Tribal people are not prepared to accept non-tribals laying claim on their lands….Rehabilitation must only be done after thorough investigation of their background/status”.
In an article by Election Commissioner of India, Harishankar Brahma, titled How to Share Assam, published in a national daily on 28July 2012, he writes: “…the clashes were not wholly unexpected. The question that is generally asked is: why did it take a few decades to occur in the first place? Assam has been virtually sitting on a huge tinderbox. He further states: “ It has been alleged by knowledgeable persons that out of the 27 districts in Assam, 11 of them are going to be Muslim majority districts once the 2011 census figures, religion-wise, are published by the census authorities.The present ethnic clashes between the two communities can be directly attributed to the aforementioned facts of illegal migration into Assam. Since 1971, it has been noticed that to a large extent, government land in the char areas and lands earmarked as grazing grounds have been systematically appropriated by illegal migrants, in collusion with the district and local administrations. Today, most of the districts along the Indo-Bangladesh border are devoid of government lands or large grazing grounds, which were once an asset to the local communities and farmers. The systematic grabbing of government lands and the steady encroachment of denuded forest areas by illegal immigrants and non-indigenous communities have created serious differences among the local indigenous populations.”
The large gathering at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan to agitate against killing of Muslims in Assam and Burma can very likely be attributed to Pak ISI, which has strong links with Mumbai’s underworld cemented by Dawood Ibrahim in 1993, prior to the Mumbai blasts. The fact that concerted rumour-mongering caused panic in other states a day or so later, leading to large numbers of Assamese and other Northeastern communities people catching trains to head homewards only increases the possibility of ISI’s involvement through its network in India. As such, the possibility of the rumours affecting more Indian states also cannot be ruled out. Politicians must cut across party lines to step out along with those enjoying credibility, to reach out to the Northeastern communities people to assure them and ensure implementation of their safety and other related necessary actions.
What is ironic is that both the Centre and Assam Government led by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi now enthusiastically negotiating with the so-called pro-talks faction of ULFA, whose members actively catalysed and greatly boosted the process of illegal migration by Bangladeshis and also got them settled in many areas by terrorising / massacring Assamese and non Assamese-speaking communities during the two decades of Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s rule till, they were ousted by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League which came back to power with a massive electoral mandate.