The recent Bodo-Muslim killings in the Kokrajhar and Chirang districts of western Assam have confirmed many in India that the Northeast is only a region of conflicts. It has also reopened the debate on the immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh. One cannot doubt that ethnic conflicts have been intrinsic to the Northeast.
For example in the 1980s the tribal-Bengali conflict in Shillong in Meghalaya displaced 25,000-35,000 persons. Some 1,700 persons were killed in the Tripura insurgency and 190,000 were displaced. In the 1990s in Manipur the Kuki-Paitei and Naga-Kuki conflicts resulted in 10,000 burnt houses, 2,000 dead and 50,000 displaced. Over 30,000 Reang tribals displaced by conflicts in Mizoram continue to live in refugee camps in Tripura. After 2000 ethnic conflicts in N. C. Hills and Karbi Anglong districts of Assam have displaced 100,000.
The Bodo area in western Assam experienced violence on three different occasions in the 1990s. In the accord signed on a Bodo Autonomous Council with the Bodo militant outfit, the Government of Assam refused to include more than 1,000 villages in the council on the plea that they did not have a Bodo majority. Efforts to “create a majority” resulted in attacks on Bengali Muslims in 1993, Bengali Hindus in1995 and Santhals in 1996. They displaced 350,000 persons. The July 2012 the conflict began when four Bodos were found dead in a Muslim majority area. None knows who killed them but emotions were roused and attacks began on Muslims in the region. Some fundamentalist forces turned this anti-Muslim action into propaganda against Bangladeshi immigrants. Several Bodo and Muslim villages were burnt down, some 50 persons were killed and 400,000 were pushed to the refugee camps.
Many will use this conflict as a proof that the Northeast is a land of perpetual conflicts and terrorism. The Government of India used this pretext in 1958 to impose the Armed Forces Special Powers Act on the region. The Act that continues to be in force 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 persons die in army custody they can be declared terrorists killed while escaping. The security persons cannot be prosecuted for it. That turns the conflicts into a purely law and order issue and ignores the real causes. In reality land, identity and immigration are the main issues.
Land has been an issue for nearly two centuries in the Bodo inhabited areas. Identity the second issue is symbolised by an anti-immigrant stand. However, immigration from Bangladesh is not recent and the Bangladeshi Muslims are not the only immigrants. A comparison between the 1951 and 2001 census figures shows an excess of 20 lakh immigrants in Assam compared with what the number would have been had the population growth kept to the national average. With natural growth the excess comes to 40 lakhs, around 40 percent of them Bengali speaking Muslims, presumably of Bangladeshi origin and the rest Hindi or Nepali speaking Hindus, presumably from Bihar-UP and Nepal. This big number of immigrants puts pressure on land and is a threat to the local people’s identity. Muslims are today nearly a third of Assam’s population against less than 20 percent at independence. Their proportion is higher in districts bordering Bangladesh like the Bodo inhabited territory where the recent disturbance occurred. The threat to identity comes equally from the Bihari and Nepali immigrants. They too encroach on land and do unskilled jobs that the local people either do not want to do or for which they demand shorter hours and higher wages than the immigrants do. Given their big number one can understand the threat that the local people feel to their land, jobs and identity.
Though the threat comes from all the communities, the issue has been politicised by focusing only on the Muslims and by referring to them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants sent by some Pakistani agencies to disturb peace in the country. In reality their immigration is not recent. It began from 1891 when the British regime encouraged the East Bengal peasants to cultivate what they called wasteland in western Assam. What the British regime called wasteland according to the colonial individual ownership based land laws was in fact community land that was the sustenance of the Bodo and Rabha tribes who formed the majority in that region. The threat to land thus began the Bodo-East Bengal peasant conflict. Most zamindars in East Bengal were Hindus while peasants were, by and large, Muslim. As a result, 90 percent of the immigrants were Muslim. That gave a communal bias to their immigration. By the 1920s the immigrants had spread to Nagaon and elsewhere in Central Assam. Some leaders of the freedom struggle, afraid that Assam was becoming a Muslim majority province encouraged peasants from Bihar to migrate to Assam. Nepali migrants followed quietly. It introduced a communal Hindu-Muslim division among the immigrants.
Immigration continues to be a political tool today with focus on the Bangladeshi Muslims. But many Biharis too have been killed in Upper Assam in recent years. Those who point fingers at the Bangladeshis ignore Hindus coming from Bangladesh. In Tripura the tribal proportion has declined from 58.1 percent in 1951 to 31 percent today, because of Bangladeshi Hindu influx. But they are treated as Indians as soon as they enter Tripura though most of them came after 1951, not at the Partition. The land laws were changed in 1960 to recognise only individually owned land. That turned tribal community owned land into State property which the Government took over and used to rehabilitate the immigrants but called them refugees. According to official files at least 80,000 acres were used for this purpose. Much more land was encroached upon through other means thus causing a greater threat to tribal land and identity. It resulted in tribal unrest.
It has happened again in Kokrajhar. One does not know who killed the four Bodos but the anti-Muslim reaction it caused soon turned anti-immigrant. The opposition blamed the ruling party for not taking measures against immigration. It is true that both the State and Central Governments did nothing for two days. The ruling party has also used the immigrants as a vote bank. But the opposition parties too have taken no measures against immigration. The Assam Movement 1979-1985 was against the Bangladeshi immigrants. The Asom Gana Parishad that emerged from the agitation was in power on two occasions in the 1990s. For some of those years the Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance was in power at the Centre. But neither the Centre nor the State government took any serious measure against the immigrants. Only around 1,000 alleged Bangladeshi immigrants were identified and deported. It was convenient for the parties to take no action against them in order to keep the issue alive and use the immigrants as political fodder.
Immigration is thus being misused to treat all Muslims as immigrants. For example, more than 5,000 persons killed in the Nelli massacre of August 1983 near Nagaon were presented as Bangladeshi but they were either indigenous Muslims or persons who had come to the region till the 1920s. So they cannot be called immigrants. One can also ask whether such a big number can enter India without corruption among the Indian and Bangladeshi security forces guarding the border. In interviews with some of them in 2004 we were told that for every entry into India or return to Bangladesh they had to pay Rs 400 to these forces. One has also to understand that most Bangladeshi and Bihari immigrants belong to a feudal system in which there have not been land reforms. Their poverty and low wages are the push factor. The pull factors are the land laws in the Brahmaputra valley that consider community land State property and availability of low paid unskilled jobs. It is easy for the immigrants to encroach on community land and bribe officials into giving them a patta and other documents such as a fake birth certificate. Fourthly, the population density in Bangladesh is more than 1,000 per sq. km against a little over 400 in Assam and lower in the remaining States of the region. Finally, most immigrants were landless agricultural labourers who knew agricultural techniques but did not own land. After encroaching on fertile land on the Brahmaputra valley, they use the techniques they are familiar with to grow three crops and prosper. That adds to the conflict since the local land losers feel that the encroachers prosper at their cost.
Given such causes of conflicts one cannot take sides between them but one has to find ways of stopping immigration though it is easier said than done because of a vested interest in their migration and poverty. The border security forces of both the countries can be bribed. Moreover, 40 percent of the Indo-Bangladesh border is riverine that is not easy to patrol or to fence. That also explains why 72 percent of Assam-Bangladesh trade is “illegal”. One needs a multi-pronged attack to overcome the problem. The land laws have to be changed to prevent encroachment. But the real solution lies in integrated development of the Northeast and Bangladesh in order to create an economic vested in peace with development.
A PDF version of the article may be downloaded here.
Dr Walter Fernandes, former Director of Indian Social Institute, New Delhi and of North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati (NESRC), is now a senior researcher at NESRC.
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