The Bodoland (Assam) Violence and the Politics of Explanation by Bonojit Hussain
EVEN though tensions were apparently simmering for many months prior to the outbreak of the violence in the month of July 2012 in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) area, but the immediate trigger was the killing of two Muslim youths, who were shot dead by unidentified gunmen on 6 July. The needle of suspicion pointed to the former cadres of the disbanded Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). In retaliation, four former cadres of Bodo Liberation Tigers were hacked to death by a mob in the Muslim dominated village of Joypur near Kokrajhar town. What unfolded after that was the worst humanitarian crisis to have hit Assam in decades.
During the crisis that unfolded in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) and the adjoining Dhubri and Bongaigaon districts, Assam witnessed the tragedy of nearly 500,000 people belonging to the Bodo and Muslim communities being forced to take shelter in 273 temporary refugee camps. These people will stand internally displaced, scarred and traumatized for months to come, if not years. An estimated 97 people have lost their lives and around 500 villages were burnt down. The magnitude of this human tragedy is overwhelming considering the short span of one month in which it occurred.
There was an immediate need for a united humanitarian call to stop the killings and the violence on the part of community leaders and the administration, but the failure to do so created an atmosphere of extreme polarization, with leaders of both the Bodo and the Muslim communities hurling allegations and counter-allegations at each other. To make matters worse, leaders of the Bodo community, large sections of mainstream Assamese society, and a section of the media and the political class took it upon themselves to allege and prove that the responsibility for this human tragedy lies squarely on ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’ (often used as a shorthand for Muslims of Bengali origin in Assam) and that the undifferentiated Muslim masses inhabiting western Assam are ‘Bangladeshis’.
A whole range of clichés like ‘influx of foreigners’, ‘loss of culture’, and ‘demographic invasion’ were deployed to driven home the point that what was unfolding was no ethnic clash but rather a last ditch reaction against the ‘genuine’ fear of the Bodos of being swamped by illegal Bangladeshi foreigners in their own ‘homeland’.
While there is little doubt that migration from Bangladesh into Assam has continued after 1971, the claims of getting swamped by the unabated influx of ‘illegal’ migrants runs contrary to the fact that both Assam and Bodoland area has shown decreasing trends of population growth in the last few decades as against the all India growth rate of population. It is the rhetoric of ‘illegal’ migrants flooding the region that seemed have aggravated the recent violence, backed largely by what appears to be paranoia about the perceived growing numbers of Muslims in the area, all of whom are assumed to be ‘illegal’ migrants.
This article will reassert the fact that huge numbers of people from erstwhile East Bengal had migrated and settled before 1947 in the area affected by the recent violence. The article will also attempt to demystify the claims that the root cause of political violence in the BTAD area is illegal immigration from Bangladesh by looking at patterns of population growth in the past few decades in the BTAD area. Finally, it will try to understand the current violence by looking into the recurring history of political violence and riots in the Bodo heartland.
Polarization was escalated by irresponsible statements by constitutional authorities and leaders of community organizations. The Election Commissioner of India, Harishankar Brahma, himself a Bodo, made an overzealous attempt to prove that illegal Bangladeshis were behind the violence. He also claimed that migration of Bengali Muslims into Assam started during the late 1960s and early 1970s.[i] It is in this context, especially when a constitutional authority like the Election Commissioner of India presents a distorted picture of the country’s official demographic records, that certain well documented historical facts like that a large number of peasants from erstwhile East Bengal migrated and settled in Assam in the early decades of the 20th century need to be reiterated.
Hypothetically, if we take the entire population of 33 lakh in Assam in 1901 to be ‘indigenous’, and we apply the all-India rate of population increase of 74.82 per cent between 1901 and 1941, the population of Assam in 1941 should have been 57.69 lakh instead of 67 lakh. That means approximately 9.31 lakh people had migrated into Assam in this period. Applying the same all-India rate of population increase during this period, the Muslim population in 1941 should have been 8.8 lakh, instead of the 16.9 lakh it actually was.[ii] From this, it can be inferred that the increase was due to the settling of migrants in the state and that the majority of these Muslim peasant migrants who settled in Assam during this period were East Bengali Muslim peasants.
It is worth mentioning that East Bengali Muslim peasants first settled in undivided Goalpara district (which included Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Chirang and Dhubri till the 1980s), before they spanned out to other parts of lower and central Assam. The decadal growth of population in Goalpara district had shot up by 30 per cent as early as 1901-1911 compared to 1.4 per cent in 1881-1891 and two per cent in 1891-1901. In 1921-1931, the decadal growth of population of Goalpara had dropped to 15.8 per cent due to the fact that ‘most of the suitable waste land in the district had already been occupied by immigrants who poured into the district in 1901-1921, and that the main stream of immigrants had found a larger scope for settling in Kamrup and Nagaon districts. During 1921 to 1931 Barpeta subdivision of Kamrup district saw an enormous 69 per cent increase in population.’[iii] But between 1901 and 1931, 4.98 lakh East Bengali Muslim peasants are recorded in Goalpara district alone.[iv]
One needs to remember that there had been an irreversible demographic change in Assam during the colonial period because of this stream of migration from East Bengal which was encouraged by the colonial state. If one is to believe the assertions of the Election Commissioner, then the question that immediately arises is – where are the descendants of the lakhs of East Bengali Muslim peasants who settled in this area before Partition?
It has also been claimed by various people, including the BTAD leadership that the Bangladeshi population in Kokrajhar district – where the violence erupted first and which is also the political seat of power in BTAD – has increased by leaps and bounds in the last decades. Contrary to popular perception, even a cursory glance at the census data gives a different picture. Even though the growth of population between 1971 and 1991 in Kokrajhar district was 76%, there has been no alarming increase of the Muslim population in many decades. In 1971, the Muslim population in Kokrajhar (then a subdivision of undivided Goalpara district) stood at 17 per cent, with no census being conducted in 1981. It stood at 19.3 per cent in 1991 and, in 2001, it stood at 20.4 per cent.
However, the fact that the population growth in Kokrajhar district was 76% between 1971 and 1991 calls for a digression in this discussion. We should perhaps remember that the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and its implication on Assam in terms of cross border movement of people, coupled with the fact that no census was conducted in 1981, makes it exceedingly difficult to ascertain the details of demographic shift that took place. But Susanta Krishna Dass’s detailed and statistically convincing study on immigration and demographic transformation of Assam between 1891 and 1981 provides certain clues[v]. Dass summarises his finding as thus:
- Since 1951, the rate of increase of Assam’s population has been much higher than that of the country as a whole or of any state or province. But unlike in other states, this heavy increase has been due to (a) an acceleration of the natural rate of increase; (b) influx of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan; and (c) heavier migration of Indians from rest of the country.
- That while it was mainly the Bengali Muslims, motivated by economic as well as political factors, who migrated to Assam between 1891 and 1947, such migration as has taken place since 1947 to 1981, almost entirely due to political reasons, has been predominantly of Bengali Hindus.
Who is a Bangladeshi/East Pakistani is further complicated by how the Partition of 1947 unfolded. While in the western border with (West) Pakistan where cross border movement of people had almost ended by late 1950’s owing to the “Phantasm of Passport”[vi] and streamlining of the visa regime; the eastern theatre of the partition continued to remain an open ended process until the closing decades of 20th century for obvious geo-political reasons as well as due to the “historically determined linkages”.[vii] Here Sanjib Baruah’s argument is significant to note, he argues that, “(t)he official rejection of the two-nation theory means that Indian law cannot distinguish between Hindu and Muslim arrivals from Pakistan or Bangladesh except in the context of the immediate post-Partition years … (t)he international legal principle says that a person has the right to return to his or her “country of origin”. While Indian law does not recognise such a right of return, politically speaking, post-Partition India has never been in a position to close its doors to Hindus coming in from East Pakistan/Bangladesh. What this has meant is that the state has had to take the same attitude towards everyone else crossing the border since its secular ideology inhibits keeping the doors open to one set of immigrants and shutting them to another.”[viii]
I have mentioned in the beginning of this article that ‘Illegal Bangladeshi Migrant’ is used as shorthand for Muslims of Bengali origin in Assam. But it is also worthwhile to mention that Indian media, polity and a section of civil society believes that Hindus from Bangladesh or from Pakistan have an implicit right to return to ‘India’ (something which Sanjib Baruah also mentions); a glaring example is how Indian media and a section of civil society has reacted to the recent spate of violence against Hindus in Pakistan and the ensuing exodus across border (not that Hindus should continue to suffer and be brutalized as they are in Pakistan). It is this double standard of the ‘popular’ that allows the branding of all Bengali Muslims in Assam as infiltrators while evading discussion on the intricacies of how the PARTITION unfolded in the East.
Coming back to Kokrajhar from aforementioned digression in the discussion; even though the religion-wise census figures for 2011 are not yet available, provisional results from the 2011 Census show that the decadal growth rate of population between 2001-2011 for Kokrajhar district is 5.19 per cent, interestingly, marking a decline of nine per cent as compared to the decadal growth rate of 14.49 per cent between 1991 to 2001. (The decadal growth rate for Assam between 1991 to 2001 was 18.92 per cent and 16.93 per cent between 2001-2011.)
There can only be two plausible reasons for this nine per cent decline in population growth in 2001-2011. One possibility, though highly unlikely, is that the population growth rate has remained more or less the same as it was between 1991 and 2001, but the death rate has shot up by 9 per cent. The other possibility, which seems more plausible, is that there has been a considerable out-migration from Kokrajhar, especially after the formation of the BTAD in 2003.
Since the Bodos (who constitute 20 per cent of the population in the BTAD area) hold a monopoly over political power in the area, it is unlikely that there has been any significant out-migration of the Bodo population from Kokrajhar district. The Koch Rajbangsis, who constitute roughly 17 per cent of the total population of the BTAD, have been campaigning for and demanding a separate homeland (Kamtapur) which territorially overlaps the BTAD, thus making it unlikely that they would out-migrate, abdicating their political claims over the territory. In all probability, the out-migration involves other non-Bodo communities, including Muslims.
By now it should be clear that simplistic propositions like ‘Bangladeshi illegal migrants are the root cause of the violence’, prevents us from understanding the complex reality of the situation.
While trying to delve into the possible reasons behind the current violence, it might be pertinent to note that it is not the first of its kind in the Bodoland area. The violence that was witnessed in the wake of the Bodo movement since 1987 was largely in terms of political assassinations, abductions and bomb blasts in public places. However, there is a significant shift in the nature of violence since 1994, when for the first time non-Bodo communities were identified and targeted. Throughout the 1990s, people belonging to non-Bodo communities like Nepalis, Hindu Bengalis, Muslims of Bengali descent and Adivasis were targeted by armed Bodo groups.
The shift in the nature of violence targeting communities occurred in the context of the collapse of the Bodo Accord (20 February 1993) which mandated the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). The 1993 Bodo Accord was signed between the government and the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU)/Bodo Peoples’ Action Committee (BPAC) combined. The accord mandated the Assam Legislative Assembly to ‘form a Bodoland Autonomous Council within the state of Assam comprising contiguous geographical areas between river Sankosh and Mazbat/River Pasnoi.’[ix]
The territorial demarcation of the BAC was left open ended, subject to the fulfilment of the requirement outlined in the accord that ‘[t]he land records authority of the state will scrutinize the list of villages furnished by ABSU/BPAC having 50 per cent and more of tribal population, which shall be included in the BAC. For the purpose of providing contiguous area, even villages having less than 50 per cent population shall be included.’[x]
But to form a contiguous Bodo homeland actually required the inclusion of 515 villages with less than 50 per cent Bodo population, which finally became a bone of contention between the state of Assam and the ABSU/BPAC leadership. Further, there were also disagreements about the exclusion of a 10 kilometre stretch of international border with Bhutan, and the Srirampur toll gate on the Assam-West Bengal border.[xi] The ABSU/BPAC rejected the unilateral demarcation of the BAC territory by the Assam government which excluded the above contentious areas of 515 villages, resulting in the collapse of the BAC.
Even though the BAC lacked constitutional protection and was completely dependent on the Assam government in financial matters and other transferred subjects and departments, it bolstered the imagination of a territorially contiguous ethnic homeland among the Bodos. The collapse of the BAC over issues of demography, territory, boundaries and the inclusion/exclusion of villages with majority Bodo/non-Bodo population eventually led to a more aggressive claim for a homeland that would include and protect all the Bodos. The Bodo armed groups confronted this bind with an understanding that the territory had ‘to be cleared from its intruders. And as the Assamese and central government were unwilling to take up this task, they were bound to do it themselves.’[xii] This confrontation can be seen as escalating into a large-scale mass violence against non-Bodos within the boundaries of the imagined homeland of the Bodos, and more so within the ‘contentious areas’ of the BAC discord.
In early 1994, 50 Muslims of Bengali descent were killed in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. Soon after, in July 1994, members of the same community were massacred in the northern part of Barpeta district in which at least a few hundred were killed, though one estimate put the death toll at 1000.[xiii] On 9 October 1995, eight Hindu Bengalis were gunned down in Darrang district; a few days later on 15 October, eight people, mostly Nepalis, were killed in Nalbari district. However, this pattern of violence amplified with the Bodo-Adivasi clash of 1996 in Kokrajhar district. This round of violence resulted in 200 Adivasis being killed and forced 250,000 people to take shelter in relief camps, and as of 2007 more than 54,700 people, almost all Adivasis, were still living in relief camps.[xiv] In the wake of these sustained attacks on the ‘others’ that pose a hindrance to the realization of a homeland, the Bodoland movement began to be questioned for indulging in what could be seen as a process of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Less than a decade after the collapse of the BAC, the Bodoland Territorial Council was created by a tripartite agreement between Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT which was in ceasefire since 2000), the Assam and the central government. Unlike the BAC, the BTC has constitutional protection under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution and has definite territorial demarcation. However, a point to note here is that the BTC was created by glossing over the contentious issues regarding demography and territory which had led to the failure of the BAC adventurism. Even while talks about the formation of the BTC were in process, the non-Bodo population, represented by an apex body of such population under the banner of Sanmilita Janagoshtiya Sangram Samiti (SJSS), had opposed the idea on the grounds of the demographic reality of the proposed area and suggested that the recommendations laid out by the three member Expert Committee led by Bhupinder Singh should be the basis of Bodo autonomy.[xv]
Keeping in mind the aspirations of the Bodos, the committee proposed two things, one at the state level and another for the regional level. At the regional level, it proposed a three-tier structure of self-government, two of them territorial, at the village and village cluster levels, and a coordinating body above the two. All three bodies were to have demarcated but interpenetrating powers. At the state level, the commission proposed a second chamber for the legislature, a sort of house of ethnicities, with definite powers, including veto over the lower chamber in certain matters, to ensure self-rule and the cultural and social autonomy of the various ethnicities.
The Bodo population in the BTAD[xvi] area is around 20 per cent of the total population. The overall Scheduled Tribe (ST) population of the area is 28 per cent. This makes the Bodos the single largest ST population in the said area. The rest are non-tribals of various ethnic mix. Whereas the political representation in the BTC provides for the reservation of 30 STs to the council of 46, five open for all communities, five for non-tribal communities and six to be nominated by the Governor of Assam from the unrepresented communities, the percentage of political representation does not logically correspond to the actual demographic strength of the Bodos. This uneven distribution of powers has only helped deepen the sense of insecurity and mistrust among the non-Bodo population of the area.
Tensions between the Bodos and non-Bodos have been further heightened by two developments since 2011. First, the emergence of the All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) as the largest opposition party in the state assembly, a party that claims to represent the interest of Muslims in Assam and has called for the dissolution of BTC, adding to the skepticism of the Bodo leadership about the growing influence of AIDUF in the BTAD area. Second, the formation of non-Bodo organizations like the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU) and Ana-Bodo Suraksha Samiti (Non-Bodo Protection Committee) who seek to safeguard their rights and interests in the BTAD area.
Although Bodos now have a well demarcated homeland which is constitutionally protected, the fact that they constitute only around 20 per cent of the population has only consolidated the perceived fear that they can be swamped by ‘others’ in their ‘own homeland’.
Rather than raise the bogey of ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ and putting forth formulaic xenophobic explanations, the recent violence in BTAD needs to be understood in the context of the politics and the quest for an exclusive and geographically well demarcated ethnic homeland. It is this quest for a territorially contiguous homeland in a complex and demographical diverse reality which lies at the heart of repeated communitarian violence in the Bodoland area.
Bonojit Hussain is a Delhi based researcher and Fellow, Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternative (ARENA)
[i] H. Brahma, ‘How to Share Assam?’, The Indian Express, 28 July 2012.
[ii] Calculated from the data provided in the Government of Assam. Assam State Gazetteer, Volume I, Guwahati, 1999.
[iii] Government of Assam. Assam State Gazetteer, Volume I, Guwahati, 1999.
[v] Susanta Krishna Dass, ‘Immigration and Demographic Transformation of Assam, 1891 – 1981’, economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 15, No. 19, 1980
[vi] For a detailed discussion see Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali zamindar, ‘The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia’, Penguin Books, Delhi, 2008
[vii] For a detailed discussion see Ranabir Samaddar, ‘The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal’, Dhaka University Press, Dhaka, 1999
[viii] Sanjib Baruah, ‘Why Maps Can’t Redraw the Truth’, Outlook Magazine, New Delhi, 24thSeptember 2012.
[ix] Memorandum of settlement, Bodo Accord. Annexure I, in Anuradha Dutta, and Urmimala Sengupta, Disturbing Silence: A Look into Conflict Profile of BTAD. Akansha Publishing House, New Delhi, 2011.
[xi] All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), ‘Bodoland Movement 1986-2001: A Dream and Reality’.Saraighat Offset Press, Guwahati, 2001.
[xii] Former National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) cadres quoted in Nel Vandekerchove, ‘We Are Sons of soil: The Endless Battle over Indigenous Homelands in Assam, India’, Critical Asian Studies, Vol -41, No – 4, 2001
[xiii] Monirul Hussain, ‘Ethnicity, Communalism and State: Barpeta Massacre’, Economic and Political weekly, Vol – 30, No- 20, 1995.
[xiv] Monirul Hussain and Pradip Phanjoubam, ‘A Status Report on Displacement in Assam and Manipur’, MCRG, Kolkata, 2007.
[xv] The three member Expert Committee under Dr. Bhupinder Singh was constituted in 1991 and the Committee submitted its report in March 1992.
[xvi] BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts) refers to the four newly carved out districts administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
(Note: A shorter version of this article was published in SEMINAR No – 640, December, 2012.