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04 September 2012

Searching for Peace in Assam

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By Syed Ali Mujtaba

We were all sitting in our homes relaxed when a part of India was burning. But then the flames started spreading in other parts of the country, we woke up to the reality, northeast is a problematic area of the country.

The Assam riots had begun as a clash between the natives and the settlers in the lower Assam valley. It went on to become a clash between natives and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Ultimately it got blown out of proportion and took a communal turn between the tribal and the Muslims.

As long as the battle between natives and the settlers or illegal immigrants was going on, we relaxed and gulped the pulp feed on 24x7 news channels at our TV sets. However, when the problem started sending heat waves across India, forcing the northeastern people to flee back to their native places, we started blaming the social media. The euphoria of Arab spring withered away, as we suddenly started feeling the heat of social media and its repercussions near us. 

In this cacophony we left the main issue and the focus shifted to those spreading the canard. We started demanding the rumor mongers to justice. Without acting the devils advocate, and condemning the rumor mills in strongest term, the entire Assam citizenship debate needs to be put in perspective to understand the problem and think about its solutions.

In 1970, when 90, 000 Bangladeshi refugees were sheltered in India, purged by the Pakistani army, this became the prime reason for going to war with Pakistan. Humanitarian reasons were cited as ground for the liberation of Bangladesh. The country rejoiced at the heroic victory over Pakistan and Indira Gandhi was hailed as the liberator, a messiah of the Bengali speaking Muslims.

However, this created another problem that of illegal migrants to India from Bangladesh. These were actually economic migrants who moved on looking for living space and livelihood. They melted with the earlier settlers and slowly their numbers started swelling.

It led to the agitation by All Assam Students Union. The agitation was contained by the signing of the Assam accord and the formation of the political party AGP. After coming to power, the AGP left the problem in the lurch, and from time to time, it exploded like a time bomb.

The origin of the problem of illegal settlers in Assam owes to the creation of Bangladesh but there was no mechanism put in place to solve this problem. It would be naïve to expect Bangladesh to take back the illegal settlers. Blaming them would also no solve the solution.
It was 90,000 Bengali refugees that warranted action from the Indian state, now, when five lakh refugees are sheltering in Assam camps, in one of India’s biggest internal exodus, no one is talking about solving this niggling problem. How long will this problem go on and how many more times Assam will burn again, no one really knows. 

What appears that like many other problems facing the northeast, India is not serious about solving this problem as well? Instead of giving a serious thought to address such issues, India seems to be running away from them?

The problem of Nagaland is a classic case. Even six decades India still has not been able to address this issue. Fifteen years of deadly silence the peace talks between Nagaland negotiators and government’s interlocutors has yielded no tangible results.

Same is the case of Manipur where the tactical divide and rule game has put a lid on the twin issue; the liberation movement and the Naga population living in the Manipur areas demanding greater Nagaligm.

As long as guns remain silent at whatever price, every thing seems to be fine but the question is how long can we hold on issues like this?

The problem of Bodoland too falls in the same category. Bodo’s were demanding an independent state of Bodoland since March 2, 1987. The armed struggle which they waged for the fulfillment of their demand made the government to yield to the creation of autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003. 

However, it gave birth to another problem that is the current issue of debate, the native verses settlers. The Bodos are only 29 per cent of the population but were given the powers for development and other matters in the BTC. This was disliked by the 69 percent non-Bodo people. This includes Bengali speaking Muslims who are settled in those areas from a long time. The non-Bodo people feel deprived and are opposed the formation of the BTC.

The Bodos, on the other hand, want to increase their number in their area to become a majority and justify the creation of BTC. They have taken up the issue of native verses settlers and through violent methods want to cleanse the Bengali speaking Muslims whom they dub as illegal settlers from Bangladesh. The creation of the BTC thus has created enormous tension in that area. It instead of solving the problem has complicated it much further.

The recent conflict in Assam has a much wider connotation for the entire country. At its bottom lay the complex problem of “Assam’s citizenship" issue. A permanent solution based on economic consideration can only ease the tension on the ground. This has to be done in an amicable manner so that no party feels aggrieved. If we do not like such acts of violence to reoccur we have to look for long term peace and stability in Assam.

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a Journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com]

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