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05 May 2013

ASSAM: Warning signals

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Assam’s ethnic and communal cauldron is bubbling again. Violent clashes in Goalpara in Lower Assam between the police and a section of the public, who were protesting the killing of a man belonging to their community, resulted in the death of three protestors.

The murdered man, a Muslim shepherd, went missing last week and the discovery of his body sparked angry demands for better security for the Muslim community. While the death of the man provided the immediate spark for the conflagration, its roots lie in troubled relations between the indigenous Rabha Hasong community and Muslims. The Rabha Hasong believe that Muslims are ‘outsiders’ who have usurped their land and resources. Indeed Muslim migration to Goalpara has reduced the Rabha Hasong tribals to a minority.

In fact, Muslims constitute roughly 60 per cent of the population in this district. It was the issue of Muslim migration that triggered violence in the Bodo areas in July last year when tens of thousands of Muslims were driven out of their homes. Analysts are drawing parallels between the Bodos and the Rabhas and their anger with Muslim immigrants. This does not bode well for the safety and security of Muslims in Goalpara district. They could face ethnic cleansing in the coming weeks and months as did Muslims in Bodo areas last year.

The Assam government must take note of the repeated eruption of violence in Goalpara in recent months. These are signs that a larger conflagration lies in store for the restive district. Similar warning signals preceded the ethnic cleansing that erupted in the Bodo areas last year but these were not acted upon by the government. It must step up security in the area.

Studies have found that the existence of inter-community associations reduce the chances of communal violence erupting. Assam’s vibrant civil society must act quickly to set up such inter-community associations in Goalpara. Dialogue channels between respected leaders among the Muslims and Rabhas will enable the addressing of daily issues of conflict before they escalate.

The Rabhas are understandably insecure over threats that migrants pose to their identity and livelihood. While the granting of autonomous council will go some way in addressing their fears, the government must take concrete steps to address the root problem i.e. illegal immigration into Goalpara. It must crackdown on the network of touts, criminals, police and politicians that helps legalise illegal migrants into Assam through provision of identity cards.

(Courtesy: Deccan Herald)

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