By Yasmin Saikia
Aug 13, 2012
This year, Ramadan did not start in peace for many in Assam. On July 20th mass violence broke out between the Bodos and Muslims in Kokrajhar, Chirang, Bijni, Bongaigaonand Dhubri, in western Assam. The ethnic violence of the Bodos directed against the Muslims (following in the heels of the shameless act of molestation of a young teenage girl by Assamese men in Guwahati) has made international news. Even as I read the stories of the violence documented by well-known and established journalists and reporters from Assam I was shocked; I found it hard to belief that Assam, my homeland, has spiralled into an abyss of senseless sexual and ethnic violence.
In Assam two narratives run parallel; one is the inclusive philosophy of manabata or humanity/humanism and the other is an exclusionary rhetoric of bidexhi or outsiders/strangers. They are contradictory narratives but one does not excise the other. Because they operate in tandem the tentativeness of identity in Assam persists and overwhelms the place and people, at times. The first narrative of manabata or humanity expresses a spirit of accommodation and is represented in Assam’s blended culture encapsulated by the slogan of ‘xanmiholi’ allowing diverse religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups to find their location within the Assamese society. The other narrative of bidexhi speaks of Assamese fear, anxiety, and inhospitality toward outsiders. But how does the stranger become transformed into an enemy, an objectified Other, against whom violence is socially legitimized? The concept of legal (core) and illegal (disposable) groups that has taken root in Assam as a result of the careless use of the term bidexhi by politicians and public alike needs to be evaluated for understanding the transformation of ‘outsiders’ as enemy. The recent violence between the Bodos and Muslims should be placed within this conceptual map. Unfortunately, at the bottom of the pile lies the human person who has become ‘another self’— violent and violated in Assam. Who will stop this madness?
Assam’s history is a story of migrant communities who travelled from far and near and settled along the alluvial plains of the rich Brahmaputra valley to eke out a living. Movement and mobility are established phenomena worldwide, as people seek better lives. Migration to the Assam valley is within this story of the human search for a future. Multiple communities of settlers—Ahoms, Brahmins, Muslims, Rajasthanis, Punjabis, Bengalis, Manipuris, Nepalis, ‘tea tribes’, and many more groups of documented and undocumented people have made their home in Assam. The diverse people have made Assam what it is today, a blended and rich world of settled and settling communities.
In the thirteenth century when the Ahoms arrived in the Assam valley from across the distant hills and saw the golden paddy fields along the river Brahmaputra, they decided this would be their home. They wrested the place after bloody battles with opposing groups. The buranjis, the records of the history of the Assam kingdom, document these processes quite vividly and without hesitation tell of licit and illicit behaviour during war as well as about cunning and deception for dislodging existing communities and establishing the rule of the swargadeos (kings) of Assam. The swargadeos welcomed new groups into their polity and soon Brahmins, Muslims, Rajasthanis, and others from north India settled there, living alongside Manipuris, Kachari, Nagas and many other groups; together they constituted the Assamese. The Assamese became a rich and secure people and their culture was strengthened by the variety.
Post-independence Assam, the valley state in the region of the northeast, surrounded by several smaller hill states, forgot the lesson of history very quickly, it appears. One of my earliest childhood memories is of Assamese violence against the Bengalis in Guwahati. It was part of the language riots, I think now, but I cannot place it within a chronology because I was too young to remember when it had happened. I have a distinct memory, though, of frightened Bengali students desperately seeking shelter in our house in fear of their Assamese friends who wanted to kill them. They hid in our house for several days. Assamese violence against Bengali speakers was part of the political landscape of Assam until the late 1970s. In the 1980s, the rhetoric changed to “anti-Bangladeshi” and a religious flavour was introduced in the Assamese agitation led by the All Assam Students Union (ASSU). The demand of expulsion of the so-called illegal Bangladeshi immigrants became the motivating slogan of the Assamese public. In 1983, the village of Nellie in Nowgong district was attacked on the pretext that they were illegal Bangladeshis. Men, women and children were killed, raped and brutalized. Neither the Assam government nor Delhi ordered an inquiry into the Nellie violence. No research scholars have been allowed to study this incident, the perpetrators were never identified, and no one was held accountable. The irony is that the Assamese thought that the display of violence against poor and vulnerable groups of villagers living in their midst would enable them to claim an exclusive identity and, thereby, ensure community development. The absurdity of ethnic violence for community development was emulated by new aspirants to power from other communities.
In 1987, the Bodoland movement claiming exclusive right to the resources, territory, and economic investment in western Assam emerged in defiance of the Assamese. They claimed they were the victims of colonization by the Assamese hegemons. There was some truth in this claim. Bodos were underemployed in the public sector, the educational and infrastructure development in Bodo dominated areas were negligible, as a community they had no political representation, and were culturally sidelined by the Assamese. Although, numerically smaller than the Assamese, the Bodo activists realized they had to aim big and they demanded a ‘50-50’ share within Assam. Economic well-being and empowerment in the public sphere were their main goals. In 1993, a so-called Bodoland Accord creating the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) was drawn up. From the beginning the Accord was meant to fail! The Bodos were not given political or financial control, rather the Assam government’s land policy leading to large scale eviction of Bodo people from the forested areas stirred up new fears. The Bodos resorted to violence, once again. They attacked the marginal Santhal population living besides them because they alleged them to be government informers. The Muslim settler communities were also violently attacked because they were seen as land grabbers of tribal property. The Assamese had blazed the trail with anti-Bangladeshi violence. The Bodos mimicked them. In 1993, 1994, 1996, and 1998 the Bodos alternatively attacked the Santhals and the Muslims to make their point. The Bodos do not want to be neighbours of the Assamese, Santhals, or the Muslims. This is an extreme position, even more inexplicable than the Assamese fear of the bidexhi.
In 2003, a second tripartite accord was signed creating an autonomous self-governing body known as Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) within Assam. The BTC was given much wider power within the area defined as the autonomous Bodoland, but sovereign power still rests with the Assam government. Failure to create a separate state from Assam and continued economic marginalization has estranged the Bodos even further. In 2008, the Bengali Muslim population living on the edge of the so-called Bodoland was once again targeted with violence. On March 2, 2012, as a commemoration of 25 years of struggle, the All Bodo Students' Union held a mass meeting in Kamrup to breathe new life into their campaign. The July 20th violence reflects this mood of the new campaign. One should be concerned what lies ahead.
The history of the Bodo movement makes one ponder about the impact of routine violence in Assam against outsiders. The grievances of the different ethnic and sub-national groups, including the Bodos, for economic development are recognized by the Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi. This promise must be fulfilled. The larger problem lies elsewhere. The proliferation of fear and enemies, targeting marginal communities under the guise of terms like ‘Bangladeshi’, and treating neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh as suspect in local violence in Assam is a symptom of a malaise that needs careful analysis. Unless people in Assam - Assamese, Bodos, and all other groups learn to take responsibility of their actions and hold themselves accountable, blaming our neighbours will not cure the internal disorder that is slowly eroding our manabata (humanity).
Yasmin Saikia is professor of history, Hardt-Nickachos Chair of Peace Studies, at Arizona State University, US.)