The past month has witnessed Assam riots occupying the central position in the discourse of political circles, media and intellectuals not to mention the average Indian. Media carried reports and pictures of the horrible carnage that was being played out. The fact that Kokrajhar was a vital linking point between North East and the rest of India further intensified the scenario. Thus we need to understand what the underlying principle behind this debate is. Such debates often seem to end in the “illegal immigrants” rhetoric or at times Hindu versus Muslim (which is very much a misnomer).
Let us start with the Hindu-Muslim discourse. We must understand that Bodos are a tribal society where people have converted to Hinduism and further To Christianity over a period of time. Bodos are a holistic pluralistic society and not one colorful banner of Hindu unity as many perceive it to be.Infact the intra war between BLT and NDFB in the early 1990’s had a stronger religious contention to it.Thus there was no Bodo waging a war to save Hinduism.
The Assamese Muslim society like everywhere else is not holistic monolithic structure either. It has its own divisions between miyas,goalporais,khilonjias etc.In India whenever riots have traditionally targeted Muslims the situation in the whole state has remained tensed. For eg whenever riots occur in UP, the Muslim society of the whole state is cautious. No such situation was played out. The Khilonjias in the state elsewhere were neither harassed nor were they tensed either.This very fact speaks out that they themselves knew this was not a Hindu Muslim conflict as media and a section of communalists on both sides of the social media have played it out to be.It is essentially a conflict between two groups which has been further intensified by governance defaults.
This brings us to the question of governance mismanagement and the larger question of illegal immigration. As much as secularists and government would like to debunk the theory illegal immigration did occur in Assam for a long time. It started with Sir Sadullah brining people from the Mymensigh districts to work in the rice fields of Nagaon. And this trend has continued since then. Anyone who debunks this perhaps fails to understand that migration is a human phenomenon. With poverty rung large on the face of Bangladesh it is only natural that its citizens would be forced to look elsewhere. It has happened in Mexico, it has happened in Somalia so why not Assam. It is a simple question of human existence. And anyone who visits the Indo-Bangladesh border will understand how easy it is to cross the border. Thus those who believe that no illegal immigration can occur, are indeed wrong. Historical evidences sociological perspectives are enough to substantiate that migration has occurred and will indeed continue to occur even without bringing the demographics to question.
Coming to the question of demographics and the so called rise of Muslims in the 11 districts which has rung the caution bells for many.A fundamental question is that is Muslim population rising wrong?The answer is no.But then this population rise has to be read in concurrence with fertility rates, IMR and MMR rates. And when these data are compared then indeed a mismatch is found. The answer is migration. People have migrated to these districts. Now the question we have to ask next is that are there so many people in Assam that migration have occurred at such rapid rates .The answer to this lies in the char areas. These small islands on the river Brahmaputra are an enigma of their own. Some lie with India some with Bangladesh and some are not very sure where their nationalities lie. In many cases their plight is comparable with the plight of the people in the enclaves of the Cooch Behar region.
A section of intelligentsia has argued that the migration and flow of people that occur into Assam have flown into these areas. In many ways this is a correct assessment. Since the char areas are regularly hit by the fury of the Brahmaputra Rivers. That they will migrate to the plains of Assam is only understandable. However Sanjoy Hazarika has successfully shown in his classic work “Rites of Passage” that while there has been a steady inflow of people from the Chars to the mainland yet the Chars are not devoid of people either .Thus without doubt migrations has indeed occurred or continue to occur. What has perhaps changed since the 1990’s is the degree in which this migration has occurred.
Yet the root cause of these riots is not migration it is the balant failure of governance. Once BTAD was declared government failed to address the concerns of the non Bodo people living in these areas. The highhandness of the officials in the BTAD councils only complicated matters. For years now intellectuals in Assam with deep sociological understanding had been warning of a impending crisis in Assam in the subaltern level. These riots are a manifestation of that warning in totality.
Smaller states and autonomous councils have not proved to be a solution anywhere in this country. In NE this has held true all the more. Inspite of being smaller states with high human development index on a few parameters the states have not been able to develop on other scales. The aspirations of the people have remained unfulfilled. As many have argued what is needed in NE today is not territorial sovereignty as many tribes seek out but non territorial sovereignty and regions. While this would seek to fulfill the aspirations of the tribes which have hitherto lived in the fringes it would also cease to become a question which is locked in the debate of further state reorganization. Today declaring one more state would create a volatile scenario for the country. Thus the aspirations of the people have to be addressed in a new manner.
Coming to the question of migrants we must understand the economic resources like land water etc are the moot cause of conflict between communities. They often take the cry of religion caste or language but that is merely a rallying war cry. In reality it is fight between two groups to control resources. One of the prime vital resources in land. Encroachment of land especially those like the ones that have happened in and around Kaziranga National Park must be banned. The government must admit that refugees are a problem and plans must be made to settle them in a cohesive manner. Politics, in the name of these citizens -whether doubtful or established -must be stopped. There is no doubt that the rise of Badruddin Ajmal and his AIUDF in the history of Assam politics is a reflection of this trend. This party cannot call itself a “Muslim” party since it has no support whatsoever among the Muslims of Upper Assam. At best it can be called to cater to the aspirations of a certain section of people. At one point of time an MLA of this party had infact demanded a separate state in Assam based on religious lines. What was unfortunate that it even found acceptance among a section of the youth of this region. Such events bring back the pain of partition to our mind. Hence politics in the name of these certain section of people must be stopped.
Towards this the first step the government must take is updating the NRC roll. Inspite of opposition from all sides the government must go ahead and take this step. Secondly the concepts of D voters must be wiped out. The foreigner detection tribunal in Assam is nothing but a joke and the ground realties of today are such that it’s of no use today. Hence it must be immediately scrapped. Further there must be a discussion on whether we can keep 1971 as the cutoff mark. Is it really possible to identify and deport back people? Historically it has never been possible anywhere else in the world; at best it can give us flashes of the horrors of Neyllie massacre.
The thinking in this matter has to be forward looking as well. The UN has predicted that by 2020 a large number of people in the world will be environmental refugees. There is no doubt that a large number of people in low lying Bangladesh will be rendered homeless in the coming years due to rising sea level. And there is little doubt that they will move towards India. Thus it is in India’s own strategic interest that it helps Bangladesh mitigate the effects of climate change and help it in tackling it.
Politicians’ ,student organizations cutting across party lines must sit down and admit illegal immigration has still persisted as a problem. New approach is required to tackle it. This approach has to be holistic and must encompass development as the fundamental principle. The NE requires a new vision and a new approach to stop it from burning once more.