Typically, the mention of Assam leads to an image of serene green landscape with people of multiple ethnicities accommodating each other under a broad understanding of mutual co-existence. But, of late, Assam has been in the news for all wrong reasons – the moral degradation of urban youth and community indifference as reflected by the infamous Guwahati molestation; and now ethnic violence between indigenous Bodos community and predominantly Muslim migrant settlers of erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The official death toll so far is 77 and over 400,000 people have reportedly been displaced from almost 400 villages.
The migrants say, and this is true to a significant extent, that they are descendent of the families who migrated from East Bengal in late 19th / early 20th century to chase a future away from abject poverty – and that it was tacitly encouraged by British rulers to boost agricultural productivity in riverine areas of western and central Assam. These were rich, fertile tracts of land but prone to relentless flood of the mighty Brahmaputra; and were sparsely populated owing to difficult living conditions. As descendents of settlers who migrated from one location (East Bengal) to another part (Assam) of undivided India, these communities vehemently argue that they as Indian as the ethnic Assamese or the tribal communities of the state.
It is also important to note that the migrant settlers, by their sheer struggle for livelihood, had made huge contribution to agricultural productivity and economic output of Assam; and continue to do so till today. Almost all of the earlier settlers had even adopted Assamese as their ‘official language’ and declared them as Assamese in successive decadal census surveys. They also offered crucial support to the majority Assamese community in their ‘language movements’ of Sixties and early Seventies.
As another inevitable outcome, the migrant settlers had also started influencing demographic profile of the State – apparently owing to high fertility rates and widespread polygamy (which is sanctioned under Muslim law) resulting in large family sizes of the migrant settlers. But interest groups representing original residents of Assam argue that the demographic shift (i.e. increased Muslim population) is primarily due to refugee inflow from erstwhile East Pakistan, and subsequent extra-legal migration of extreme poor from Bangladesh in search of livelihoods. There is some truth in this argument; and migration across the border does get recognized mutedly in Bangladesh. But ground realties there point to migration across their western boarder to West Bengal and mainland India – especially since economic return of such migration to Delhi or Mumbai is much higher than in Assam or rest of North East.
Changing demographic profile in Assam had started impacting political dynamics from late Seventies onwards – when Muslim voters could influence contour and to an extent the policy of Assam government, while bureaucracy was largely controlled by upper caste Assamese elite. The historic ‘Assam Movement’ of Eighties was in fact the political response of this segment of Assamese society to retain their political and administrative authority – and its economic / rent-seeking benefits. This historic movement however became controversial owing to inapt and corrupt leadership – and had resulted in frequent incidents of violence, including notorious Nellie massacre of 1983 which claimed lives of around 2000 people (official figures; unofficial estimates are much higher). The inherent upper caste chauvinism of Assam movement was also the genesis of other indigenous communities demand for devolution of political authority along ethnic lines.
Bodos, the dominant indigenous tribal community were at the fore front of this demand for devolution and creation of a separate state Bodoland. They now have an autonomous administrative unit, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) constituted under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The mission is to accomplish economic and human development of communities in the area; encourage socio-culture, ethnic identity and linguistic aspiration of Bodos; and ensure preservation of land rights of indigenous communities. But even after a decade, accomplishments on these objectives are uneven.
Most contentious of all these are issue of land-ownership – and this is at the heart of current ethnic tension in Assam. The growth of Muslim population in some districts under BTC area has increased competition for land-rights – something very sensitive even for the descendent of migrant settlers who primarily came in search of land ownership. And the indigenous communities such as Bodos are resentful at their traditional ownership of land, which they controlled over generations. Also raising population put pressure on forest land, which were denuded with patronage of Muslim politicians and complicity of corrupt officials. This in-turn strained livelihood space for the people from Bodo community who traditionally lived in harmony with the forest. (The issue of forest degradation is obviously important beyond this parochial cycle violence; and needs to be addressed in its entirety from ecological sustainability perspectives).
Politicians from all hues are obviously fishing for their vested interest – right from spreading canard of Muslim majority in one-third of Assam’s district to retaliation by Muslims against the supposed perpetrators of current round of violence; and sanity has been lost in the mids of these cacophony. The urgent need of the hour is ensure peace and security; relief and rehabilitation of the displaced; but also strict and exemplary State action against violence. The next step would be to look beyond high-decible political noise; and address key development and governance issues, especially on the issue equitable land-management for citizens of the country – irrespective of their tribe or religion.
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