Thursday, August 9, 2012

Once again Assam in deep communal turmoil

The fresh communal riot in India last week, this time in the eastern state of Assam left about 100 people killed. Four lakh people fled homes to take refuge in schools and other places. Houses were plundered and set on fire. The victims, as usual, were mostly Muslims. It is obvious that the communal disturbances in secular India have wounded the sentiment of the three neighbouring Muslim countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldives. Secularism in India is a fa├žade. In fact, communalism is deeply rooted in the cast-ridden Indian society. The massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, demolition of centuries old Babri Mosque, killing of Christians in central India still reminded the horrors of communal atrocity. Only months ago, Allahabad witnessed a communal riot.
Although the incidents took place close to the Sylhet border, there was no reprisal in Bangladesh. Here the people have religious tolerance and live in complete harmony with minority communities. Details of the situation of riot torn three or four districts of Assam were not known. Borders were sealed by security forces of both sides to check infiltration. Scanty report was given by international news agencies. Al Jazeera TV channel showed footage of a couple of refugee camps. Hundreds of men and women, young and old crammed in a village school in Kokrajhar district. The victims narrating their woes said their houses were looted before setting on fire. Hunger and fear stalked their faces. Absence of water and sanitary facilities may cause health hazards. An elderly inmate of the refugee camp told the TV crews that they came under sudden attack with lethal weapons, reasons not known to them. There was no police or paramilitary forces to protect them. International wire services reported that the riot was triggered by a group of Bodo ethnic community shooting down two student leaders of Muslim settlers in a long running dispute over access to land. 

The army and paramilitary troops in addition to state police remained deployed in Assam to fight a number of secessionist groups and Maoist insurgency that spread in and the adjoining states. The riot could be avoided with prompt action on the part of the government. Nothing would happen if the army personnel swung into action and stood in between the rioters. The carnage continued for three days before the army was asked to control the situation only after Muslim MPs of the state flew to Delhi and pleaded for it. JUD squarely blamed the federal home minister and state chief minister for not taking timely action and demanded their resignation.
In the blame game, the Congress accused the opposition BJP for inciting the Bodo community and its activists against the Muslim settlers. BJP had led the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and directly involved in Gujarat massacre in which about 2,000 Muslims were killed. Clearly, the administration had support behind the BJP actions. The daily Sentinel of Guwahati had quoted BJP’s central leader Sushma Sawaraj saying two years ago “if Bangladeshis staying in Assam illegally are to be deported, a movement like Assam agitation is needed, and if the youths of the state are ready for such agitation, BJP will extend its helping hand.”
How can the settlers be Bangladeshis? Assam with many resources had been a state of jungles with scarce population. Muslims, and not only Muslims but also Hindus had migrated from different parts before and after partition of India and settled in the state. They are holding national identity card and regularly take part or cast votes in elections to local bodies, state legislature and national parliament. Hindu settlers also came under attacks in occasional movement launched against non-Assamese – ‘Assam for Assamese’. ULFA was the pioneer of such movement.
It is hoped that India will take into consideration of the deep concern of the Muslims across the world as it has demonstrated the anxiety and concern for the plight of Tamils of Sri Lanka. In fact, New Delhi mounted pressure on Colombo for providing autonomy to the Tamil populated northern province of Jaffna. Tamils had supported and assisted the LTTE secessionist fighters in the decade long war that ended three years ago. India’s Tamil Nadu state government had even asked New Delhi for military action against Sri Lanka to secure the extraordinary rights for the Tamils. New Delhi has not stopped at that. Being a member of UN human rights body, it orchestrated drawing charges of violation of human rights against Sri Lanka.
BY :   Shamsuddin Ahmed.

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.

Mass graves for Myanmar's Rohingya

A recent journey to western Myanmar has revealed a provincial capital divided by hatred and thousands of its Muslim residents terrorised by what they say is a state-sponsored campaign to segregate the population along ethno-sectarian lines.

Decades-old tension between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state exploded with new ferocity in June, leaving at least 78 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

Exclusive reporting conducted last week in the highly restricted region suggests that the long-term fallout from recent violence could be even more damaging than the bloodshed.

The United Nations has estimated that 80,000 people are still displaced around the cities of Sittwe and Maungdaw, and international rights groups continue to denounce Myanmar for its role in the conflict.

As it stands, any thought of reconciliation between local Buddhists and Muslims appears a distant dream.

Many Rohingya have fled the polarised region, fearing revenge attacks and increasing discrimination. Their status has sparked international concern and disagreement.

Rights groups have condemned the violence. The Myanmar government has denied any wrongdoing, while neighbouring Bangladesh has rejected an influx of refugees and slashed access to aid.

For those Rohingya caught up in the dispute, the day-to-day situation is rapidly slipping from desperate to dire.

Social 'non-engagement'

In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, the scars of recent conflict were everywhere.

Burned homes, shops and entire markets dot the Buddhist-majority city of nearly 200,000 people. 

Traditionally Muslim neighbourhoods, such as Shwe Pyar, Nazi Konetan and Mawlike, were deserted, locked up, or living in deep secrecy.

Prominent mosques and buildings, many of which were burned in arson attacks during the violence, now bear signs from the municipality reading, "No one is allowed to enter". Locals told Al Jazeera the properties have been taken over by the state. In some areas of Sittwe, the devastation from the violence that peaked in June is comparable to Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar in 2008.

Most striking was the almost completely absence of the Rohingya population that once made up nearly one-third of the city's residents, and the largest portion of its working class.

The impact of that loss was obvious. The Rohingya who worked as the city's ever-present rickshaw drivers and porters at the jetty and markets are now gone. There are no signs of Muslims at the airport, the boat that shuttles ferry passengers to outlying islands, or even the local busses that run from Buthidaung to Maungdaw, two Rohingya-majority states.

Local Hindus, and residents who appear to be of Indian descent, have taken to applying bindis on their foreheads to avoid being mistaken for Rohingya.

A range of interviews found that Buddhist Rakhines had collectively decided to practice a policy of "non-engagement" with the Rohingya. In practical terms, this meant a ban on businesses, as well as controlling access to food, medicine, travel and communication.

According to local sources, Rohingya are no longer allowed to enter the city's largest market or to travel from town to town.

'Facing starvation'

Outside Sittwe, where the fleeing Rohingya had gathered, the situation was worse. The village of Bhumei, a few kilometres to the west, was overrun by thousands of refugees who said they were forced from the city, first by mobs, then by security troops.

By local accounts, this camp is the biggest of the camps that have sprung up to shelter the displaced city dwellers.

The refugees endured the current monsoon rains in mud-floored tents, living mostly on bags of rice provided by the UN's World Food Programme. There is no clinic, proper bathroom or clean water, as witnessed by Al Jazeera.

The camp is surrounded by all hours by security troops. Many wonder if the soldiers are there to protect them from attacks from the Rakhine, or keep them under guard.

"Many of the refugees who fled from inside the city are manual labourers and daily wagers. We are having great difficulties just surviving each day. We fear what will happen to us if we go back to the town. We can't go there yet. Those who risked going back to their homes and shops were prevented by authorities on security grounds," said U Shwe Maung, a Rohingya refugee in Bhumei.

"We are sharing food with each other. We are now facing starvation. Even though we are provided food by the WFP, that is not enough for such a huge number of people like this," he added.

The Rohingya now forced to live in the Bhumei camp appeared desperate. One woman was crying in the street with her rain-soaked children on her lap. She said they were sick and there was no clinic to look after them or food to eat.

"We want to go back to our homes if the officials provide security for us," said Mahmud Shiko, a Rohingya in Bhumei.

"The police told me I'd find nothing back there if I return, but I still want to go back."

Military accused

The wave of violence in June was sparked by the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men in a Rakhine village.

Both ethnic communities attacked rival villages and neighbourhoods in the days that followed, destroying and torching homes, businesses and holy sites, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released last week.

The HRW report denounced both sides for the cycle of reprisal attacks, estimating that the death toll was far higher than the Myanmar government total of 78.

HRW also blasted Myanmar's security forces, sent in by the government, for standing down while the Rakhine and Rohingya groups battled each other. As the attacks escalated and thousands of Rohingya rioted, the report said that police and paramilitary troops fired on Rohingya protesters.

In an outlying area, according to the report, soldiers shot at Rohingya villagers as they tried to escape and looted food and valuables from their emptied homes.

Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty International, described the violence as "primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingya specifically the targets and victims".

HRW says hundreds of men and boys were rounded up in mass arrests, their whereabouts still unknown. Informal Rohingya estimates put the number of missing and arrested in the thousands.

On the hushed streets of Sittwe and in the tent city outside Bhumei, Rohinyga speak of the brutality of the Rakhine and the Myanmar forces, and of the many loved ones still missing from the conflict.

Animosity abounds

The alleged victims are not the only combatants talking about the violence.

In a series of interviews with off-duty security officers at bars and restaurants in Sittwe, a picture emerged of what some Myanmar military and police think about the Rohingya.

An ethnic Rakhine soldier from the 352 Light Infantry Battalion claimed he and his comrades killed "300 Rohingya" from Myothugyi village near the area of Three Mile between Buthidaung and Maundaw townships on the night of June 8.

The soldier, whose name has been withheld, explained that the killings took place when hundreds of Muslims blocked and tried to overwhelm the truck carrying his unit. The victims were unaware the truck, a civilian vehicle used for road construction, was carrying soldiers.

"I put the butt of my gun here at [the right side of] my waist and shot down many Muslims while keeping my left hand on magazines so that I could quickly fill up my bullets," said the soldier, now stationed at a village outside Maungdaw.

"There were so many dead bodies that we even had to call in a bulldozer to make a mass grave."

Another ethnic Rakhine soldier boasted that he and his troops killed uncountable numbers of Rohingya in the village of Nyaung Chaung in the countryside around Maungdaw during the early June crackdown.

"We have even still kept this from our [commanding] officers," he said.

It was impossible to verify these claims. Even so, the uncaring nature of the statements shows the animosity that some who wield power have for the Rohingya.

Such anger is easily apparent on the streets.

An educated Rakhine woman, visiting Maungdaw from the US where she has lived for 20 years, spoke bitterly when asked if the human rights she enjoys should be granted to Rohingya to ease tension between the communities.

"Human rights are for human being only. Are Rohingya humans?" she told Al Jazeera.

"We are the house owners and they are the guests. When the guests attempt to drive out the homeowners, human rights are no longer meant for them."

Government 'solution'

The Myanmar government has strongly denied accusations of abuse from rights groups.

"The government has exercised maximum restraint in order to restore law and order in those particular places," read a statement released on Monday.

The government also denounced "attempts by some quarters to politicise and internationalise this situation as a religious issue", a sidelong reference to the criticism emerging from Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, over the assaults on Rohingya.

Then again, the government has, over the years, denied the entire existence of a "Rohingya problem", and even the Rohingya themselves.

Myanmar's formerly military government and its state-run media have strictly avoided the word "Rohingya", referring to the group instead as "Bengali Muslims", implying that the people are not indigenous and have migrated to Myanmar a fewl decades ago. The Myanmar immigration minister has repeatedly said that there are no Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Last month, in his meeting with a UN High Commissioner for Refugees delegation, President Thein Sein said refugee camps or deportation was the only answer for nearly the country estimate 800,000 to a million Rohingya Muslims.

"We will take responsibility for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas, who are not our ethnicity," he told UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres, according to the president's official website.

The former general said the "only solution" was to send the Rohingyas to refugee camps run by UNHCR.

"We will send them away if any third country would accept them. This is what we are thinking is the solution to the issue."

Uncertain future

The government, when it does discuss the issue, blames the resentment and fear that the Rakhine have for the Rohingya on a potential population explosion that would see the group seize power.

Outside its capital city, Rakhine state is nearly two-thirds Rohingya. The adjacent states of Maungdaw and Buthidaung are already majority Rohingya, according to official figures.

The population fears, possibly stemming from cultural stereotypes, are an issue that 72-year-old Rohingya elder Sayyad Abdullah can appreciate. He has four wives, 28 children and, in his words, "lots" of grandchildren.

Last week, authorities cited Abdullah's family and quoted him in press briefings about the so-called population explosion. Abdullah rejected any desire for an autonomous state and said he was open to government measure to curb Rohingya families to one wife and two children, but not at the expense of dignity.

"We just desire equal rights like the Rakhine and the Burmese, and we want nothing more than a normal life," he told Al Jazeera.

Other Rohingya leaders say the perception of their community is wrong, and racist. The majority are impoverished farmers and labourers, but some Rohingya hold university degrees and own many businesses in Sittwe and Yangon.

Thein Zaw and Kyaw Hla, who are now overseeing the distribution of food aid at the Bhumei refugee camp, belong to the wealthiest class of Sittwe. They claim their forefathers have lived in Rakhine state for 350 years.

As it stands, the vast majority of Rohingya are denied Myanmar citizenship, cannot own businesses, marry or relocate. The president's proposal to relegate the Rohingya population to UNHCR-run camps seems unsustainable and humiliating.

Whether this long-simmering dispute is founded in race, religion or population, matters little to the Rohingya stuck in camps such as Bhumei. Nor to the Rakhine who live in majority Rohingya areas and claim to live in constant fear of attack.

Some scholars, such as Myanmar expert Bertil Linter, claim the animosity between Rakhine and Rohingya began during the Second World War, when Buddhists backed the Japanese and Muslims the British. Other experts say the rift began centuries before.

In either case, unless the government or international bodies intervene, the violence and discrimination seem destined to continue.