HARD LIGHT : What We Refuse to Learn from Assam

'North East', 'Assam', 'illegal immigrants'. Keywords that have been 'trending' well since early August. Every news report, article, op-ed is peppered with a group of familiar terms whenever the North East issue is being addressed. Of course, 'North East issue' itself is one of these vague, generalized and therefore safe terms.

Like most content producers living off the web, I wanted to write about the situation in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri and Chirang. It was a hot topic, after all. Stories, reports and photos of the relief camps looked suitably bleak. There were lots of sad children, weeping women and lost, scarred men.

However, apart from Kokrajhar, capital of Bodoland and Dhubri, I was not familiar with the other names. So I set out to research a bit by looking up legal documents, archival news items and asking my friends in Guwahati about it. It seemed Bodos were forcing illegal Muslim immigrants to vacate their homes and flee to relief camps in a violent land-grabbing bid. In retaliation, there were similar acts of violence by Muslims on Bodos in some areas where the Bodos were outnumbered. These incidents were relatively lower in number, but just as devastating. I got ready to write a heart rending story on the suffering of women and children in the camps as the greatest victims of any riot. That's when the 'exodus' started … and I never got to writing it.

Train to Guwahati, August 17. Photo : ABP, more at https://bengali.yahoo.com/Train to Guwahati, August 17. Photo : ABP, more at http://bengali.yahoo.com/

Last night, I pored over the reports accumulated between August 12, when Mumbai's Azad Maidan was rocked by mob violence and September 7, when 41,101 people returned home from the relief camps in Assam. I realized it would be pointless to write yet another ineffectual, intellectual article calling for peace and praying for a better country. We already have cartloads of that stuff.

No opinions then, just a few inferences based entirely on reports, historical records, data and first-hand accounts from residents.

The government of India entered into the Bodoland Autonomous Council Act in 1993. Quoting the Preamble of the Act : Whereas it is expedient to provide for the establishment of a Bodoland Autonomous Council within the State of Assam with maximum autonomy within the framework of the Constitution comprising contiguous geographical areas between the river Sankosh and Mizhat/the river Pasnoi, for social, economic, educational, ethnic and cultural advancement of the Bodos residing therein.

The Act lives up to its promise of autonomy. This is no overnight agreement for grabbing quick Bodo votes in the next election. In 1886, the British government drew up the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act as a result of long standing disputes, realigning some districts between Nagaland and Assam, and defining who may be called a landholder. It's a painfully lengthy document granting ownership rights to anyone who has resided in and paid taxes for a piece of land for ten years at a stretch. It also provides for setting up the governing body of Bodoland. In 1950, the Indian government amended the Act by replacing 'provincial' with 'state', 'Crown' with 'government' etc. Thus the Act got automatically reinforced without a thorough survey of the current situation. 1971 saw an exodus of Bangladeshis pouring in from the newly freed country. Therefore, the Assam Shops and Establishments Act was penned to define trading and commercial ownership rights.  The Land Policy of 1989 revisited ownership/tenancy laws for both farm and waste lands. The Bodoland Peace Accord of 2003, coming in the wake of riots again, created the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) as a sort of autonomous sub-jurisdiction, further strengthening the idea of a country-within-a-country. It also meant the government of India could shrug off responsibilities more effectively.

Throughout this history of riots and land grabbing, governments (British, Indian, state), managed to maintain a distance. The 'North East issue' was supposed to be tackled by councils (such as the BTC) set up in each area. The councils, in their turn, let landless immigrants from other states and Bangladesh come in to supply labour, and then tried to reclaim the well-cultivated lands by driving out immigrant farmers.

Assam is not witnessing a clash between ethnic minorities (Bodo) and religious minorities (Muslims). It is a victim of studied government policies that blur the line between 'political asylum seeker', 'landless' and 'criminal infiltrator'. The Hindu exodus from Bangladesh sought political asylum, tried to save their lives. Landless laborers kept moving across international and national borders in search of work. And infiltrators with criminal aims took advantage of the confusion to get in, arrange land documents, and go about their shady business in peace.

That's why an infiltrator can turn up in Azad Maidan with a petrol bomb and the security of Indian citizenship supported by the correct set of papers. And that's why a hapless farmer family provides great photographs as 'refugee', since they have lived and worked in India for years without the muscle power and contacts to obtain land documents. Their story would perhaps have a happy ending if they manage to obtain voter ID cards from a local party. Perhaps, their story would end tragically amidst gunshots.

Assam is not a lonely skeleton hidden in the corner of the great Indian cupboard. It's another example of how governments remain in power and create vote banks. And each time we try to write a wise article on it, or shake our heads at the misery of people supposedly very different from us, we ensure that public apathy is as much to blame as corruption

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