Thursday, August 9, 2012

Assam Muslim massacre linked to geopolitics, bigotry

The gory tale of slaughtering innocent Muslims in Assam is something India should be ashamed of as the world’s largest democracy. The death toll is surpassing hundred, according to the latest count, while more bodies are missing or being discovered.
The constant attack on Bangladesh as a source of illegal migration is not supported by facts either. According to the 2011 census, the population of Assam stands at 3,11,69,272, of which 1,59,54,927 are males and 1,52,14,345 females. The wolf crying about illegal migration is not supported by data that shows the decadal growth of the State’s population at 16.93 percent during 2001-2011, against 17.64 percent national average.
Two major phenomena explain the rioting more convincingly: Geopolitics and communalism. Geopolitically, western Assam, where the rioting is occurring, is crucial to the entire Northeast through which passes the only supply route to the whole region. Wedged between Bangladesh to the south and west, and China to the north, the region has no access to the sea closer than Calcutta, on the other side of the Shiliguri corridor, the utility of which is economically unprofitable for India as it entails 2000 km journey from Mizoram to the Calcutta seaport.

During the 1962 Indo-China war, a Chinese military advance of 80 miles or so managed to cut off Bhutan, part of West Bengal and all of North-East India. The area is constantly patrolled by the Indian Army, the Assam Rifles, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the West Bengal Police. 
Bangladesh and India having no free trade agreement, all land transportation between mainland India and its north-eastern states must use this circuitous corridor. Despite there being a major broad gauge railway line in addition to the old metre gauge line which connects the region with rest of India, national Highway 31 is the main conduit between Siliguri and Guwahati, Assam‘s capital.
From a communal standpoint, the instances of rioting increased in frequency since 1996 following the birth of the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) which demanded a separate state for the Bodos, within the territories of Assam. In the four major riots between 1993 and 1998, an estimated 400 people have been killed, including Bodos, Muslim settlers and Adivasis.
Communalism is a quintessential Indian epidemic that must not be condoned any more. The current rioting is the sixth major tragedy in the Bodo belt of western Assam since 1993, and the fourth involving the Bodos and the Muslim settlers from East Bengal (now Bangladesh); the other two being between Bodos and Adivasi (tribal) Santhals of the Burmese descant. Public policies being equally responsible for fomenting these riots, the geopolitical machinations are too evident to bypass attention. 
For instance, the first clashes between the Bodos and the Muslim settlers took place in October 1993, leaving some 50 dead, mostly Muslims. It happened within months of signing the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) Accord on February 20, 1993, between the Government and the rebellious Bodo leaders. 
The Accord stipulated that all villages with 50 per cent Bodo population would come under the jurisdiction of a newly created Bodo Council. This ‘conflict-provoking’ clause was enough to lead a section of the people to target Muslim settlers and the Adivasis in areas where Bodos were minority. Through violence, Bodo minority villagers strove to eject Muslim villagers to attain majority status in each village, leading to riots.
The BAC was replaced by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) that came into being after the signing of a Memorandum of Settlement on February 10, 2003. It was, in effect, a peace accord by which the BLTF laid down their weapons on December 6, 2003 under the leadership of Hagrama Mohilary, and, in return, Hagrama was sworn in as the Chief Executive Member (CEM) of BTC on December 7, 2003. 
Comprising 35% of Assam’s territory (27,700 km), the area under the BTC jurisdiction came to be known as Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), which spreads across four contiguous districts — Kokrajhar, Baska, Udalguri and Chirang. The areas housed only 29 per cent of the Bodo population at the time of the Accord‘s signing. 
There was another caveat: Although tribal lands are safeguarded by Chapter X of the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act of 1886 - which clearly mentions that the land ownership will be only at the hands of the tribal - this exclusivity over land of the tribal was scrapped in para 3 of the Sixth Schedule of the 2003 Memorandum of Settlement to facilitate land owning in the state by other settlers from different parts of India. It is in these localities where rioting has spread lately and Muslims are being slaughtered indiscriminately. There is even fear of an indigenous Muslim insurgency gaining foothold.
That is expected too. The 1983 Nellie Massacre claimed over 3,000 lives, mostly Muslims, after the All Assam Students Union (AASU) went on a rampage targeting minorities following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration to hold elections in the state despite AASU’s opposition. The AASU’s foremost demand at that time was that electoral rolls be cleansed of illegal immigrants.
In 2008, further clashes between Muslims and Bodos resulted in 55 deaths, most of them Muslims, alleged to have migrated illegally from Bangladesh. Each time, illegal immigration was used as a ruse to conduct ethnic cleansing. 
This time too, BJP has alleged that illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants were behind the ongoing violence in the Bodo Territorial Area District (BTAD). During a press conference in Guwahati last Thursday, BJP national general secretary and Assam in-charge, Vijay Goel, said, “The illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants are behind these riots. The indigenous minority people are not involved.” 
If riots in Assam are attributed to illegal migrants from Bangladesh, what can explain why Hindu-Muslim riots are recurring phenomena all over India. Bangladesh or Pakistan can not be blamed for India having 2000-odd castes, eight major religions and 15-odd languages spoken in various dialects in the 22 states and nine union territories; besides a substantial number of other tribes and sects. And, what explains why in 2002 more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed by Hindu mobs in Gujarat after a train fire killed 60 Hindus returning from a pilgrimage? 
The Gujarat riots left tens of thousands of people homeless after the rioters set fire to Muslim homes and businesses. The state government, run by the Hindu nationalist BJP, was accused of facilitating the attacks by looking other way round as the rampages went on. No convincing explanation can be offered either for the 1992 Bombay riot or the 2002 Godhra riot. Hence, blaming Bengali immigrants for the Assam riot is the worst form of communal bigotry. 
It’s time that the immigrant population of Assam be treated as equal as they’ve moved there since the Ahoms from Burma conquered the region in 1228 and ruled for six hundred years. Moreover, Bangladesh’s ties to Assam are more historic than that of mainland India. 
The first significant Bengali speaking migration to Assam followed the British conquest of Assam in 1826; due to the British recruitment of Bengali officials for Assam’s administration. In 1831, the Government of Bengal designated Bengali as Assam’s official language and, the services of Bengalis became indispensable in the government due to local teachers not being available to impart lessons in Bengali, which was Assam‘s medium of instruction. It was not until 1873 that the Assamese succeeded in persuading the British to recognize Assamese as a separate language. And, by the early 1900s, East Bengali (Muslim) migrant settlers already constituted twenty percent of the border district populations in Assam. Are they still settlers?
Finally, following India’s partition in 1947, the Indian and Pakistani governments established a two-year ‘grace period’ during which Hindus in Pakistan could settle in India and Indian Muslims could emigrate to Pakistan. 
Pakistanis who migrated to India during the grace period automatically became Indian citizens. That explains why Assam today has a substantial number of Hindu Bengalis too.
Ignoring those facts, communalism has gone unchecked all over India, and, Assam bore the main brunt of this chauvinism. In the 25 years since the Nellie massacre, the anger against illegal migrants from Bangladesh played out over and over again, often fanned by communal politicians.
The current rioting sprang from an incident of May 29 in Kokrajhar, whereupon the All-Bodoland Minority Students Union (ABMSU) had called for a shutdown following a declaration by the BTC that a part of forest land used as an idgah maidan was an illegal encroachment. The tension between the BTC and the ABMSU took an ugly turn on July 6 once a Muslim man was shot dead in the Muslim neighbourhood of Kokrajhar. Since when Muslims lost their right to pray in India or in any other country?
As expected, clashes between the two communities continued on and off since, spinning out of control on July 19 when a leader of the Assam Minority Student Union and another one from the ABMSU were shot by unidentified gunmen. Next morning, few miles from Kokrajhar, four former cadres of the disbanded Bodoland Liberation Tigers were hacked to death, sparking all out counter attacks and rioting.
Look at the spins the politicians are putting to this tragedy. A letter written after the July 6 incident by a local Congress leader, Y.L. Karna, to the Assam Pradesh Congress president - with a copy to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi - reveals Karna mentioned the July 6 incident and cautioned that communal passions were running high in the area. Yet, no one bothered to deploy troops in the vulnerable areas. Instead, Bodo Council chief Hagrama Mahilary has claimed that armed Bangladeshis from across the border had come in and incited the violence. His deputy at the Council, Kampa Borgoyari, went a step further to say, “it is not a case of Bodos killing Muslims, it is a case of Muslims killing the Bodos.”
Worst still, members of the security forces joined the orgy of Muslim massacre, according to reliable sources. 
Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) and President of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) said, ‘Armed men in olive green jungle fatigues went about killing Muslim settlers.’ 
A human rights group is reportedly referring these allegations to the International War Crime Tribunal.
BY :  M. Shahidul Islam.