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.
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.
The anti-Muslim reaction caused by the Kokrajhar incident is an example of this. We do not know who killed the four Bodo men, but news spread that Muslims were behind it. Illogically, all Muslims were then deemed immigrants. Then followed the familiar pattern of blaming the ruling party for not taking measures against immigration. One cannot deny that for two days both the state and the central government did nothing to stop the violence in Kokrajhar. While the ruling party is guilty of having used the immigrants as a vote bank, the opposition parties that also make this accusation have not taken any measures towards controlling immigration either. For example, when the Asom Gana Parishad (Assam People’s Association) – which emerged from the Assam Movement (1979-1985) against the immigrants – was in power in the 1990s, it took no serious steps against illegal immigration. Neither did the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which was in power in New Delhi at the time. Only 861 out of 3479 people identified as Bangladeshis were expelled during these years. It was far more convenient for the parties to take no action against illegal immigrants so that they could keep the issue alive and use it as political fodder. For instance, in 1983 when around 2000 people were killed near Nagaon, the victims were identified as Bangladeshis, but most of them were either indigenous Muslims or immigrants who had come to the region before the 1920s.
Uncontrolled immigration does pose a threat to tribal land and identity. But the high number of immigrants who have entered the Northeast could not have done so without corruption along the Indo-Bangladeshi border. In an interview, some immigrants confessed that for every entry into India or return to Bangladesh, they pay INR 400 to the Indian and Bangladeshi security forces. There are clear socio-economic factors that push these immigrants to bribe the security forces: most Bangladeshi and Bihari immigrants come to Assam, or the Northeast, to escape a feudal system back home which, in the absence of land reforms, confines them to landlessness, extremely low wages and perpetual poverty. The land laws in the Brahmaputra valley, however, allow them to own land if they can just bribe officials into first giving them fake birth certificates from the area, and then into granting them ownership of a patch of previously community-owned land. What adds insult to injury is that these formerly landless agricultural labourers now use their agricultural techniques to grow three crops in one season and so prosper. The locals feel as if they have not only lost their lands to the immigrants, but are now poorer as well – their culture favours shifting cultivation or a single-crop system.
As Assam, and the Northeast in general, struggles with issues that lead to ethnic conflicts, it is easy to take sides and make statements about the need to stop illegal immigration. Reforms, however, cannot be implemented as long as there is a vested interest in continuing the cycle of immigration and poverty. Trying to seal the border is not a viable solution – border security forces are highly susceptible to bribery, and 40 percent of the Indo-Bangladeshi border is riverine, meaning it cannot be patrolled easily or fenced. India needs a multi-pronged strategy to address the problems underlying Assam’s communal tensions. For a start, the land laws in the Northeast have to be reformed to prevent illegal encroachment. In the case of Bihar and UP, feudal laws have to be eradicated so that peasants have an opportunity to own land in their own state. As far as the Bangladeshi immigrants are concerned, the solution lies in integrated development of the Northeast and Bangladesh, creating a vested economic interest in peace.
~ Walter Fernandes is a researcher, and was founder-director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, from 2000 to early 2012.