Not Just A Migrant Headache

Assam’s violence is not communal. It’s caused by the same old illegal hafta politics.

What happens in between Assam’s Richter-scaled riots is always more important than the blood-soaked riots themselves. What the rest of the country wakes up to – with a time lag and if it does actually wake up – is really the effects, the visible long tails of something that has scampered out of its cage much before we get to see the “tell-tale signs”.

The latest round of blood-letting between Bodos and migrant settlers in and around Assam’s Kokrajhar district, headquarters of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) administration, reportedly started on July 19 when four Bodos were killed. Migrants were suspected to be behind the murder and a reprisal in the form of targeted killings of migrants followed. The July 19 murders were preceded by two separate incidents of migrants being killed, the first one taking place on July 6 when “one Muslim man” was murdered and four others injured. But to make a cause-effect daisy chain out of Assam’s serial killings is to miss the point. And the point is again being missed as more than two lakh people scuttle to relief camps while killings, reprisals and counter-reprisals spread to the other districts of Dhubri, Chirang and Bongaigaon.

In the national psyche, it’s easy to pour Assam’s latest blood-letting display into a Gujarat 2002-type “communal riots” cookie-cutter. After all, there are Muslims cowering in relief shelters and Bodos (some 90 per cent who are of Hindu denomination, the rest being Christian and those practising Bathouism) seeking revenge. Replace the July 19 murders of four Bodos with “Godhra”, and you have a nice, set-piece thesis

But Assam’s riots – including the latest one – are not communal in character; not in the essential sense of religious targeting. Dubbing the attacks on Muslim migrants, mostly from Bangladesh, as attacks on Muslims is like people with high cholesterol citing cruelty against animals as the reason for giving up red meat. In the past, agitations against illegal migrants have expanded to include Assamese Muslims (and, indeed, all other “outsiders”). But this is not the case – yet – with the latest riots.

At stake here is the long-festering issue of territory and demographics. Assam, especially the Bodo-majority districts of Kokrajhar and Dhubri in the west lying in the thin “chicken-neck” zone bordering Bhutan, West Bengal and Bangladesh, is a cramped, resources-and-infrastructure-forsaken place. To celebrate cosmopolitanism and multi-culturalism here is a laughable luxury at par with expecting a hovel to throw open its doors to everyone for dinner.

And yet, over the last 50 years and more, politics has either facilitated or looked away from this pouring-in of migrants. It was only in 2005 that the Supreme Court made the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act defunct. Enacted in 1983 by Indira Gandhi, still weaning on the “1971 liberator of Bangladesh” image, the IMDT Act was really an anti-illegal migrant law that made identifying and taking action against a migrant who had crossed illegally into India pretty much impossible.

For starters, unlike in the rest of India, the Assam-specific IMDT Act put the onus of proving that someone is an illegal migrant or otherwise on the accuser. In Punjab, someone accused would have to show requisite documents that he’s an Indian citizen. In Assam, someone else would have to show requisite documents that he’s an illegal migrant. And the possession of a ration card (easily had if a political party was expecting your ‘protection/gratitude’ vote) was all that was required to destroy the accuser’s case.

Since 2005, the Foreigners Act – 1946, has been operational in Assam to deport illegal migrants. This shifts the onus of proving one’s Indian citizenship on the accused. But I can bet my best lower Gangetic plateau crops that the enthusiasm of those who form part of Assam’s political-hafta system to retain illegal migrants remains undiminished from 2005. A total of 61 migrants were deported out of the 7,622 illegal migrants detected between 2001 and October 2008 under the provisions of the Foreigners Act. (Under the IMDT Act, 54 illegal migrants out of 2,643 detected were deported between 2001 and July 2005.)

The latest outbreak of violence has reportedly snowballed from increasing demands of state-level political groups for an increased share in representation of migrants – under the tag of “non-Bodo” representation of course – in the Bodoland Territorial Council. Clause 5.2 of the 2003 Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord, signed by the (NDA) Government of India, the state government of Assam and the Bodo Liberation Tigers in February 2003 stated that “There shall be adequate representation for the non-tribal members in the Executive Council”.

It is over what the word “adequate” can be allowed to contain that the latest battle – that has already seen 200,000 people flee their homes and almost 50 dead – is being fought over. No one is saying that we now leave the migrants in the relief camps to their fate. No one is saying that the authorities don’t come down, and come down heavily, on everyone engaging and fanning this territorial war whose target is only soft targets.

All one is asking, even as the prime minister, a migrant absent resident of Assam, visits the region, is to remember not to forget what machinations go on at the local level when the Centre and the national media, finding “normalcy” having returned to Assam, look away with relief. For these are the very stretches of time that Assam doesn’t erupt into violence, but is busy preparing the ground for the next eruption.


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