HARSH MANDER | Oct 18, 2012, TNN

Although Assam has disappeared from the front pages of national
newspapers, large populations still live in makeshift, underserved
camps, racked by memory, fear and uncertainty, with little prospect of
an early return to their homelands. Legitimate anxieties of land and
identity have acquired an urgent grammar of violence and hate, and
irreconcilable divisions have grown further between estranged

During my journey to relief camps in Dhubri, Chirang and Kokrajhar,
housed in the classrooms and courtyards of schools, i found that
government had ensured basic food rations and primary healthcare
services. For the rest, people mainly had to fend for themselves.
There was no bedding, no mosquito nets, toilets were scant and choked,
and there was little water for drinking and bathing. People who had
fled their burning villages or rampaging mobs had few clothes or
utensils. Children were the worst hit. There were no child care
services, or temporary schooling. Everywhere i found a longing to
return home.

The stories we heard in both Bodo and Bengali Muslim camps were
disturbingly similar, of neighbours turning into murderous mobs, of
torched and ransacked homes, of looted livestock, and of fearful
flight. Many escaped only in fear, even though their settlements were
not attacked, and in these villages, men return to guard their homes
and fields, leaving the women and children in camps.

There are legitimate anxieties and grievances on both sides of the
dispute. Udoyon Misra writes eloquently of the ‘ever so heavy’ burdens
of history of indigenous Assamese peoples like the Bodos, of ‘land,
immigration, demographic change and identity’. He describes massive
land alienation of the Bodo plains tribal people who were shifting
cultivators with few land records, by industrious and aggressive
Bengali Muslim immigrant cultivators.

Successive governments in both the state and the Centre have failed to
effectively seal borders, and to identify and repatriate illegal
immigrants. The Bodos worry also about being culturally swamped in
their traditional homelands, not just by Bengali Muslims but also
other communities such as the caste Hindu Assamese, Koch-rajbanshis,
Santhals and Bengali Hindus.

The Bodo accord of 1993, which belatedly gave administrative autonomy
to the Bodo people in their traditional homelands in which they
already were reduced to a minority, unfortunately also created an
incentive for driving out people of other communities and ethnicities.
The first attacks by armed Bodo militants on Bengali Muslims occurred
in 1993 itself, and these have recurred sporadically against also
Santhal adivasis, who are descendants of tea garden workers who
migrated centuries back. Clashes occurred in 1994, 1996, 1998 and
1999. Around one and a half lakh people displaced by these clashes –
both Bengali Muslim and Santhal – continue to live in camps up to the
present day, an entire generation of forgotten internal refugees with
no home. The government took no decisive steps to help these refugees
return to their homelands.

This remains a festering wound on the psyche of the Bengali Muslim, as
also the fact that not a single person has been persecuted for the
gruesome slaughter mounted in Nellie in 1983. They complain that all
Bengali Muslims are tainted as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, whereas
demographers confirm that only a small fraction of the immigrants are
actually illegal settlers who slipped into the state after the agreed
cut-off date of 1973. Many have learnt Assamese, and wish to be
accepted as legitimate Assamese citizens.

This already fraught environment, of legitimate competing anxieties
and grievances of diverse communities, has deteriorated sharply
because of the implicit legitimisation of violence as a means to
resolve these competing claims. People sympathetic to the concern of
Bodos and other indigenous tribal communities suggest that the
violence to which they have resorted in recent decades is unfortunate
but understandable. This is rendered more dangerous because of the
easy availability of sophisticated arms among the surrendered Bodo
militants, who were never effectively disarmed.

On the other hand, apologists for the Bengali Muslim violence justify
it as being ‘only retaliatory’. This is slippery ethical territory,
because the same argument was used to justify the post-Godhra
massacre, as well as the slaughter of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s
assassination. There is disturbing evidence of growing radicalisation
of a small section of the Assamese Bengali Muslim, of a kind which was
remarkably absent among the victims of the Gujarat violence. The
latter have remained unshakably committed to the democratic, legal and
non-violent resolution of their grievances, despite the brutal
slaughter and systematic subversion of justice and reconciliation by
the leadership thereafter.

There are wide demands today that only those Bengali Muslims in relief
camps should be allowed to return home who can first prove their legal
status. The acceptance of this demand would further incentivise the
mass violence which resulted in their displacement in the first place.
There is no doubt that the rights of indigenous communities to their
land, forests and culture need to be defended, and illegal immigration
effectively blocked.

But there should be no compromise, even by implication, with violence
as a means to achieve these demands. People in both new and old camps
must first be res-tored to their homelands unconditionally, and
assisted in rebuilding their houses and livelihoods. Only then should
a just and caring state intervene to ensure that the legitimate
concerns of both indigenous people and settlers are met, by processes
which are lawful, humane and non-violent.

The writer is a social activist.