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Fault Lines

Rage of ages


TURFED OUT: Villagers move to relief camps after ethnic violence in the Chirang district

The recent clashes in Assam are not an aberration. Old divides run deep in the North-East, as a long and tragic history of ethnic violence shows.

With a large number of tribal groups and sub-groups, India's North-East has always been regarded by many as an ethnic tinderbox of sorts. The current ethnic mayhem in Assam, which has lasted six days so far, and claimed 41 lives and displaced 1. 7 lakh people, is also being viewed by several experts from this perspective: that it was, sadly, just waiting to happen.

There's a long history of such violent clashes, say experts. Tribals have not just clashed among themselves but also with the state and with other non-tribal groups. And in each clash, the bone of contention has almost always been land.

Bhagat Oinam, associate professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, firmly subscribes to the ethnic tinderbox scenario and also points to how ethnic conflicts over land are difficult to erase from memory. "We all have been playing the ethnic card but what is deeply rooted, which is also very realistic, is that all these conflicts, be it in Assam or in Manipur, are based on land. Land doesn't multiply, but population does and when it comes to sharing a fixed amount of land, conflicts are bound to happen, " says Oinam.

He adds that these conflicts will continue as long as identity politics is an important part of life in the North-East. "It is very difficult to contain or put an end to these conflicts. An alternative could be to play counter politics - the politics of development. Can we think of Assam, or for that matter Manipur, as a larger development project beyond ethnic lines? It is easier said than done but there is no other alternative. "


A cursory listing of such clashes makes for grim reading. The Bodos, who form the largest tribal group in Assam, have clashed thrice with non-tribal Muslims and twice with tribal Adivasis over the last 60 years. In Assam alone, the Dimasas have clashed with Kukis and Karbis, and so have the Karbis with Kukis in the two 'hill districts' of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, while the Rabhas in Assam's Goalpara have clashed with Garos in Meghalaya. Elsewhere in the region, in Manipur, Nagas have clashed with Kukis and Kukis have fought Paiteis.

Nagas from Nagaland have violently fought with non-tribal Assamese in Assam while Tripura, which has seen itself transformed from a predominantly tribal state to a predominantly non-tribal one, has seen the birth of insurgents groups based on demography, and such tribal grouping have clashed with the state. Similarly, fierce inter-tribal rivalry in Meghalaya has also made it home to many militant groups, each fighting its own tribe's cause.

The two exceptions to this sordid pattern, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, both predominantly tribal states, may also face the threat of ethnic conflict in the near future.

In many cases, conflicts may have died out but the mistrust lingers, which may sow the seeds of future violence. In Assam, the genesis of the mistrust is seen to lie in the Bodos seeking a separate political identity. Their demands have ranged from autonomy to sovereignty. Their struggle dates back to the 1960s and their struggle for the recognition of Bodo as Assam's official language bore fruit in 1976.

But the Bodos' hard stance, to attain a separate identity, made other communities in Assam very apprehensive - especially of losing their lands. As the accord of 1993 failed, Bodos resumed their armed struggle for identity and great violence erupted. The merciless killing of Santhals in two back-to-back clashes in 1996 and 1998 saw over 300 people being killed and more than three lakh rendered homeless.


The last time Bodos clashed with Muslims was in 2008, but that was far from the state's heartland - in Udalaguri district, where the dominant Bodos are surrounded by areas mostly peopled by Muslims. The two major non-Bodo sections of the population that own land in the Bodo heartland are adivasis and Bengali-speaking Muslims. While the adivasis occupy the forest areas, the Bengali-speaking Muslims mainly live on the chars (riverine areas ) and on nearby lands.

Bodo leaders have often voiced anger over "the pressure" on land in the heartland from Muslims, who they say have mostly come from neighbouring Dhubri district. Dhubri borders Bangladesh and, in the 2011 census, registered the highest decadal growth of population in the entire state.

Oinam points out that migration is the one key factor that has been pushing up the pressure on land. Bodo leaders have gone one better though. They've gone beyond Dhubri and point to the unabated stream of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and finger this as the root cause of all trouble.

The state government, however, refuses to believe that the recent attacks by Bodos target illegal migrants. "The clash is plainly between two communities and not between citizens of two countries. The illegal migrant angle can be probed after the situation calms down, " a source said.

Others disagree, rather vehemently, like the All Assam Students Union, a prominent student organisation that has fought the influx from Bangladesh for more than three decades. Samujjal Bhattacharyya, AASU advisor, is rather blunt in his summation of the cause of this current crisis, "The international border should have been sealed long back. It is because it is still open that we are facing such a situation today. "

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