A Bengali-speaking Muslim woman and her child in Goroimari relief camp in Assam.
Photo: P K Das and Kazu Ahmed
A Bengali-speaking Muslim woman and her child in Goroimari relief camp in Assam. Photo: P K Das and Kazu Ahmed

Violence in Kokrajhar

Uncontrolled immigration in Assam has not only angered locals, but also provided them an excuse to mistreat all immigrants: illegal, Muslims, Bangladeshis or otherwise.
A Bengali-speaking Muslim woman and her child in Goroimari relief camp in Assam.<br />Image: P K Das and Kazu Ahmed
A Bengali-speaking Muslim woman and her child in Goroimari relief camp in Assam.
Image: P K Das and Kazu Ahmed

The Bodo-inhabited Kokrajhar district in western Assam was tense from early July, when two Bengali-speaking Muslim men were found murdered. Two more were killed on 19 July. The next day, four former cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers were found dead in a Muslim-majority village in the district. No one knows who killed them, but anti-Muslim attacks spread quickly, killing over 60 people. Taking advantage of the situation, some fundamentalist forces turned it into propaganda against Bangladeshi immigrants. In the ensuing chaos, several villages inhabited by both the Bodo and Muslims were burnt down, and some 400,000 people are displaced to refugee camps in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri districts. And the killing, although now sporadic, continues, with three more casualties reported today.

Such ethnic conflicts are not new in the Bodo territory of Assam. In the 1990s, while signing an accord with the Bodo militant outfit to create the Bodo Autonomous Council, the Government of Assam excluded from the council over 1000 villages where the Bodo were not a majority. Efforts to 'create' Bodo majorities in those areas resulted in attacks on Bengali-speaking Muslims in 1993, on Bengali-speaking Hindus in 1995, and on ethnic Santhals in 1996. As a result, around 350,000 people were internally displaced and hundreds of people killed. 

Based on instances such as these, many conclude that Assam – indeed the whole of the Indian Northeast – is a land of 'terrorists' and perpetual conflicts. In 1958, on the pretext of that notion, the Government of India imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) on the Northeast. The Act, which is still in effect, gives extraordinary powers to the armed forces; for example, a junior commissioned officer may arrest a person on mere suspicion of planning a terrorist act. If the arrested person dies in army custody, he or she will be declared a 'terrorist' killed while on the run. Meanwhile, security personnel are protected from prosecution. In effect, the Act turns complex conflicts purely into an issue of law and order. In reality, however, issues of immigration, land and identity are behind the ethnic violence in the region.

Immigration from Bangladesh to Assam is not a recent phenomenon, and Bangladeshi Muslims are not the only immigrant population in Assam. The first wave of immigration began in mid-19th century after the British East India Company and the zamindars of Bengal signed the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793, which granted the feudal lords absolute proprietorship over their lands at a fixed tax rate. Soon afterwards, hundreds of peasants rendered landless and impoverished in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, and other areas which were then part of the Bengal Presidency were brought to Assam to work as indentured labourers in tea gardens. The second wave of immigration began in 1891 when the British regime encouraged peasants in the erstwhile East Bengal to cultivate what they called the 'wasteland' in western Assam so that the Company could collect more revenue by getting the peasants to grow more food. 

The 'wasteland', however, was community-owned land that sustained the Bodo and Rabha tribes of that region. This immediately created friction between local tribes and the immigrant peasants. Moreover, the East Bengal peasantry was, by and large, Muslim. As a result, 90 percent of the immigrants to Assam were Muslims, adding a communal element to the dispute over tribal land. By the 1920s the immigrants had spread beyond western Assam to Nagaon and elsewhere in central Assam. Fearing that the state was becoming a Muslim-majority province, some leaders of the Indian freedom struggle soon began encouraging peasants from Bihar to migrate to Assam. Nepali migrants followed quietly. Before long, the immigrant population was divided along Hindu-Muslim lines.

According to the Census of India 2001, 2 million people have migrated to Assam since 1951. When the immigrants' natural population growth rate is also taken into account, the number of migrants rises to 4 million. Around 40 percent of them are Bengali-speaking Muslims, presumably of Bangladeshi origin, and the rest are Hindi- or Nepali- speaking Hindus, presumably from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP), and Nepal, respectively. Today, Muslims constitute nearly a third of Assam's population, where in 1951 they constituted 24.7 percent. The proportion is higher in districts bordering Bangladesh, such as the Bodo-inhabited territory where the recent violence occurred. The presence of such a large number of immigrants naturally puts pressure on land and employment opportunities. The immigrants take unskilled jobs that locals do not want, or for which locals demand shorter hours and higher wages than the immigrants do. In the long run, this immigration does present a threat to local people's identity. The threat, however, comes equally from all the immigrants to the region, and not exclusively from Bengali-speaking Muslims. 

Blame 'em
Though the threat to tribal identity comes from all immigrant communities, the focus remains on the Muslims, who are often referred to as 'illegal Bangladeshi immigrants' who were sent by Pakistani agencies to disturb the peace in India. This issue is so heavily politicised that, unlike killings of Muslim immigrants, the murders of many Biharis in Upper Assam in recent years has been widely condemned but their immigrant status ignored.

The influx of Hindus from present-day Bangladesh presents a similar case. In Tripura, for example, the tribal population fell from 37 percent in 1951 to 28 percent in 2001, but this has not produced the same anti-immigrant backlash as in areas with a largely Muslim immigrant population. Unlike their Muslim counterparts, Bangladeshi Hindus are treated as Indians as soon as they enter Tripura, even though most of them arrived after 1951. Furthermore, when the state land laws were changed in 1960 to recognise ownership only of privately-held lands, community-owned tribal lands automatically became state property, which the Tripura government then distributed to Hindu immigrants, whom it called refugees. Official records show that around 75,000 acres of land were used for this 'rehabilitation' purpose. Much more tribal land was either encroached upon by force, or confiscated over unpaid mortgages. This incited tribal unrest, which the political and communal parties then used – and still do – for their own vested interests.

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