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The killing fields of Assam and a modern day Nero

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-05-2014 Livemint

Two years after an ethnic clash left more than a hundred people dead and an estimated 4.5 lakh displaced, western Assam is on the boil once again. Earlier this month, suspected Bodo extremists killed 44 Muslim villagers. Thousands of others have fled their homes in panic once again.

The recurrence of violence in the region even before the wounds of 2012 had fully healed points to deep-rooted tensions among people of different ethnicities cohabiting in the region, and exposes the inherent instability of the special administrative regime governing the region since 2003. In that year, the centre, the state government and militants from the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) group signed a peace accord to establish the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), an autonomous council comprising four districts, headquartered in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar. A political party launched by the former militants, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), has ruled BTAD since then, and shares power in an alliance with the Congress party at the state level.

The Bodos are the largest plains tribe of Assam, and share a history of loss and discrimination with other tribals of the state. While the peace accord addressed their alienation, and helped the former BLT militants consolidate their position as the most effective spokespersons of the tribe, it drove a wedge between the Bodos and non-Bodos living in the region. The non-Bodos include Assamese-speaking non-tribals, Bengali-speakers (Hindus and Muslims), smaller tribes, and ethnic groups such as the Koch Rajbongshis who have long been demanding tribal status.

Despite constituting roughly 70% of BTAD’s population, the non-Bodos were marginalized in the new administrative set-up. In trying to appease one minority group, the state ignored the interests of other communities, sowing the seeds of future conflicts. If the original sin of the flawed peace accord was not egregious in itself, the state compounded the problems by failing to fully disarm surrendered militants or to effectively tame other Bodo extremist groups. As a result, the cycle of extortion against non-Bodos remained unbroken, driving further resentment against an accord which belied initial hopes of peace.

When a high-profile non-Bodo candidate, Naba Saraniya declared his candidature for the prestigious Kokrajhar seat and was able to secure the support of influential leaders from non-Bodo communities, it created a major flutter. To add to the BPF’s woes, one of their own men revolted against the party to stand as an independent even as other high-profile Bodo candidates joined the fray. As Guwahati-based political scientist Bhasker Pegu pointed out in the online edition of this newspaper, the fear of losing in Kokrajhar, which has historically elected Bodo lawmakers made the BPF leadership jittery. BPF leaders complained publicly about Muslims voting against them in large numbers on polling day, and the attacks on Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers followed a few days later. There are fears of another bloodbath in western Assam after 16 May if Saraniya indeed wins the election in Kokrajhar.

While a large section of non-Bodos in BTAD are resentful of the BPF leadership, it is the increasingly aggressive Bengali-speaking Muslim community which has been the most vocal in its opposition to the BPF, and has borne the brunt of the attacks from extremists sympathetic to the Bodo cause. The fact that they are late settlers in Assam, and that some of them have migrated illegally, makes them sitting ducks in a backlash.

If the flawed Bodo peace accord has created new fault lines in the region, the failure to solve the problem of illegal immigration has perpetuated old suspicions and bitterness in the region. On both counts, the Tarun Gogoi-led state government has been a colossal failure. Gogoi has failed to rein in his alliance partners in the BPF, some of whom have been implicated in the 2012 violence. He has also never seriously attempted to find a rational solution to the problem of illegal immigration, allowing tensions to simmer. Like a modern-day Nero, Gogoi has watched the delicate social fabric of the region torn asunder by extremists.

Can the state government balance the interests of groups in Assam? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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