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Violence in Assam has deep roots.

Kolkata: The fresh outbreak of communal violence in the Chirang, Baksa and Kokrajhar districts of Assam leading to the death of 35 people, is only the latest phase of inevitable chain of violence that initially erupted in July 2012.

Like everything else in Assam, violence is a multi-layered issue. It is a bitter cocktail of ethnic and religious issues, about rightful possession of land and linguistic identities, and mostly importantly, livelihood that have troubled this region for decades.

Political parties trapped in the compulsion of vote bank politics, neglected and at times derailed the peace and reconciliation process between groups, thus providing the context to the continuing violence.

Intra-state exodus

What started in July 2012 is best described as a pogrom, leading to the largest intra-state exodus in the history of independent India. The unparalleled scale of displacement of 485,921 people, by state government's own admission has not only shocked sections of society, but elicited a host of dark, sinister conspiracy conjectures. After all, the Gujarat riots accounted for only 250,000 refugees. The Kandhmahal attacks of 2008 threw 25,000 out of their homes and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi saw 50,000 on the roads.

Though riots were suppressed after political manoeuvring, arm twisting and casual promises of development by the state and central government, anger continued to simmer, as Muslims and Bodos, Assam's biggest tribal group, continued to live in perpetual fear of each other, in areas where they are in minority.

The communal violence has its genesis in the Bodo sentiment of feeling demographically and economically marginalised in their homeland amid the perceived rapid growth of the Muslim population in the region. While the Scheduled Tribes (ST) consisting mostly of ethnic Bodos are about a third of the population in these districts, they have actually become a minority, contributing to deep insecurity.

The migrants say they are mostly descended from East Bengali Muslims brought to Assam by the British to boost agricultural output by taming the "Chars" (river islands) -- and that they are as Indian as the ethnic Assamese or the tribes people in the state.

Porous riverine border

But the "others" do not accept that argument and groups representing them contend that poorer peasants from Bangladesh are increasingly flooding Assam, taking advantage of a porous riverine border.

While the initial targets were Assamese-speakers, soon Bengali-speaking Muslims were targeted. The indifferent attitude of successive Assam and Central governments towards verifying the Bodo claim that these were illegal migrants from Bangladesh aggravated tensions. It is the blind eye towards successive riots in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2008 that sparked the unprecedented rioting and the consequent humanitarian disaster of 2012.

Polls provide trigger

The general elections that concluded on April 24 in the Bodoland Territorial Council Districts (BTCD) have not helped either, as once again it brought to centre-stage the Bodoland issue in the state. The polls were held amid recurring violence, firings, physical assault, destruction of property, and intimidation of political workers and voters.

Reports suggest that more than 100 illegal hi-tech weapons have been seized in these troubled districts in the run-up to elections. This easy presence of arms, coupled with the Muslims' belief that the Bodos will rely on violence to drive them out of the region, added to the fear factor.

Politicians, especially in a bid to garner maximum support in this hard-fought election, have certainly not helped. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised the All-Bodo Students' Union that it will "re-examine" the demand for a separate state of Bodoland.

Heightened rhetoric

The BJP's attempt to foreground the Hindu identity has exacerbated the cleavages and the heightened rhetoric against illegal immigration only fanned tensions.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of a separate state, perching on the old promise that the government will protect the interests of the minorities in the region.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:May 5, 2014
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