It just needs a spark to stoke ethnic clashes in Assam and in the current violence, 21 people have lost their lives and thousands have been displaced after violent armed mobs torched their houses. Though the triggering point was the killing of some Muslim youths but the conflict is much deeper - and more than religion, land is the reason.
Though the violence was triggered after two students - Mohibul Islam of All Bodoland Minority Students' Union (ABMSU) and Abdul Siddique Sheikh of All Assam Minority Students' Union (AAMSU) – were critically injured in firing in Kokrajhar district but seeds were sown much before.
A massive rally was taken out on June 30, after the killing of a Muslim carpenter in Sapkata in the district, with demonstrators blaming the dominant Bodo tribals for the crime, according to The Times of India. Though the killers turned out to be members of an adivasi militant group but only a week later, two more Muslims were killed in the same district.
Following this, unidentified men killed four Bodo youths and this became the triggering point for the wave of violence since Friday night that is fast spreading to neighbouring districts despite massive police clampdown.
Sorrounded by West Bengal and Bhutan, Kokrajhar district has been a seat of not one but four ethnic clashes over the last six decades. The last clashes were reported from neighbouring Udalguri district in 2008 when at least 55 people were killed, dozens of them in police firing. The violence was triggered after a Bodo boy went missing. Though the boy was traced and found safe, but that was not enough to stop the Bodos to commit widespread acts of arson and killings and setting houses of Muslims on fire.
Though the conflict has in the recent past been given communal colour, apparently to justify attacks on Muslims by calling them Jihadis or extremists but the conflict stems from the territorial rights. One example to justify the point is that Muslims were blamed to hoist a Pakistani flag in the district, which later turned out to be a Eid flag (green in colour with crescent and a star).
The Bodos, according to a paper by Bibhu Prasad Routray, a research fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, have been losing sway and become more scattered in the process. Settled primarily along the northern bank of the Brahmaputra River, Bodos are believed to be the largest plains' tribe in Assam. “Since the early 1990s, the Bodos have organised themselves into insurgent as well as pressure groups, to assert their rights, which have substantially impinged upon the territorial rights of the other communities in Assam,” Mr Prasad writes.
In an attempt to bring peace to the area, marred by arson and violence, the Bodo Accord of 1993 was signed that sought to identify areas where the Bodo population exceeded 50 per cent as ‘Bodo Areas’, to be brought under the direct administration of the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC).
“An unintended consequence of this provision has been the recurring organised ethnic cleansing in areas where the Bodos do not yet constitute 50 per cent of the population,” Mr Prasad writes, adding, “Their targets sometimes were the adivasis (tribals from outside Assam, brought to work in the tea plantations) and sometimes, the Muslims (who migrated to Assam before Bangladesh was born or otherwise).”
31 percent of Assam population is Muslim, according to 2001 census but many a times concerns have been raised that illegal migrants from Bangladesh are making their way into these areas. “This constant flow of primarily economic migrants has been the source of frequent turmoil in Assam,” Mr Prasad adds.
Though the Assam Agitation of 1979-85 focussed on the deportation of these migrants, successive governments have failed to deport them. Pertinent to mention here is the fact that on the issue of illegal immigrants, these organisations have been trying their best to harass the citizens of the country.
Irrespective of their origin, all Bengali-speaking Muslims, who entered Indian territory before 1971 are bona fide citizens of the country, according to the Assam Accord. One argument that supports the fact that not many illegal migrants from Bangladesh have settled in Darrang and Udalguri districts is the marginal increase in Muslim population. “Muslims constituted 31.98 per cent of Darrang’s total population in 1991. In the 2001 Census, the percentage went up to 35,” informs Mr Prasad.
Bodos' demand has not only been limited to a separate political identity in the shape of autonomy or separate state but they have even asked for sovereignity. After the failing of 1993 Accord, they have turned more violent and have been found responsible for the killing of over 300 Santhals or adivasis in back-to-back clashes in 1996 and 1998.
Activists allege that the growth of BJP-RSS ideology in the region, which has started a campaign against Muslims in the name of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants has created a communal atmosphere. “This has led to the creation of fundamentalists on the other side as well,” Raj, an Assamese student, studying in Delhi, told this citizen journalist