Assam Riots: Musings over a Troubled Homeland
Joydeep Hazarika for BeyondHeadlines
Ever since the past one month when the riots broke out in the BTAD (Bodo Territorial Administrative Districts) areas between the Bodos and the illegal Bangladeshis, we have witnessed a rollercoaster round of events. First of all it was the shock of the riots being labeled as a communal riot when the truth was that it was an ethnic strife between aborigines and settlers. Then no sooner when the flames of riots started dipping, people from Assam and the rest of the Northeast began to be the targets of hate crimes. In this period, there have been arguments, counter arguments, filth being leveled on the system, obnoxious theories being propagated and above all hate manufactured against people of a particular region. And today after witnessing all this, we are standing at a threshold from where we find questioning ourselves, has India really accepted us?
Assam, which has witnessed decades of militancy, people's movements, ethnic strife, had to contend with this latest trouble of a showdown between two groups over the most important wealth that humans can hope to possess today, land. Illegal Bangladeshis did not burst on the scene all of a sudden. The process of settling Muslim peasants from the neighbouring Bengal province started way back when after the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 with the British, Assam lost her independence and became a part of British India. The settling of Muslim peasants in sparsely populated parts of southern Assam was seen by the British as a profitable means to bring the vast tracts of land under cultivation. The trend was followed on a more aggressive pattern by the Muslim League in the early 20th century when thousands of Bengali Muslims were settled as peasants in the state to boost its merger with the then proposed Pakistan. Though that dream never materialized, the process of influx of immigrants from the highly populated East Pakistan never stopped.
After the 1972 war, Bangladesh was born and with it also the influx of millions of Bengali Hindus, escaping the war persecutions, into Assam. They were rehabilitated in India as citizens and this proved to be a boon for all the erstwhile immigrants who still had no proper citizenship proofs. It was as if citizenship was being distributed among everybody as a succulent piece of cake. Everyone was up for its grab! When the 80s decade dawned in, a sleepy Assam woke up to the political storm of the Assam Movement which made the entire Assamese nation wake up to the dark reality of the numerical strengths of these migrants. Illegal immigration continued unabated through the porous Indo-Bangladesh borders and most of the highly impoverished Muslim peasants crossed over seeking livelihood over most of the state's land. Village after village of Bengali speaking Muslim settlers sprang up in different parts of Assam which naturally put the original people of the land in discomfort. With a people who spoke Assamese with a funny East Bengali accent, whose way of life was seemingly different than ours, and who bred more than all of the region's mosquitoes could ever hope for, the original populace of Assam realized that they were in the danger of becoming a minority in their own homeland.
The Bodo-Bangladeshi riots are not something that was unexpected. It really did not surprise any of the Assamese people as it was being expected from quite a long time. The commentators of the Assam Movement had long being saying that a clash between the original people and the settlers was inevitable and I fear the process has started. The embers of the fire refuse to die down and it has now spread to other districts as well. Now for all those keep crying their lungs out for the sake of the Muslim minorities post the Gujarat riots, it is really not our fault if almost all of the illegal Bangladeshis we are pitted against happen to be Muslims. Don't forget that Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country.
Now what is it that makes these illegal immigrants' positions so secured in Assam even if their nationality can be doubted as soon as they open their mouths to speak? Enter our willy and most beloved politicians. Voter ID cards, ration cards, bank accounts, you name it! They possess everything. Afterall they are the most lucrative vote bank any political party can hope to access. AN immigrants tribunal office is located in almost each district of Assam. Cases of suspected nationals have been lodged in them and they are eating away the dust over the files. If it is to be believed then about 3,00,000 such cases are waiting be examined in various parts of the state! Assam which has for most years after independence remained under the Congress party, saw millions of Bengali speaking Muslims roaming around showing off their ID cards while they kept on encroaching most of the government lands, forest areas and even areas which have fallen under the purview of Sattras (traditional Assamese Vaishnav monasteries). Working as manual labourers, household helps and small time traders and share croppers, they steadily walked themselves into the demographical framework of the state and the Congress repeatedly staged comebacks after comebacks in successive polls. But that was until the 80s when a group of students gave out the political war cry against the government which had been hoodwinking the people of the land for decades.
So much has been written about these riots stating facts and figuring while trying to differentiate the truth from the exaggerations that most intellectuals and media persons forgot as what do the original people of Assam really want? Long stories of laments were made about the people from both sides suffering in the refugee camps while their homes were charred to ashes. Assam which had already been in the news recently for the molestation case, now became a hotbed of communal commentary after Gujarat. But then the government was made to be a helpless spectator as people fled their homes and war cries rented the air of the affected areas. For those who are praying for peace, I say there is bad news. This does not stop here. The riots, tough dimmed down, are spreading to other areas, as the dent in the mentality of the Assamese people is too deep to be washed away so easily.
The dent has been further deepened by the reactions of the mainstream Indians to this incident. I remember social networking sites being flooded with all sorts of photos of massacres and disasters of people which were labeled as atrocities committed on Muslims in Assam and also on the Rohingya Muslims in neighbouring Myanmar. What was most appalling was that a majority of these photos had nothing to do with the Assam riots or with any Muslim in any part of the world. I remember getting into a hot argument over one such photo and then being warned of dire consequences for the Muslim blood spilled in Assam. Oh great! Was I one of those guys who prided over the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat? Am I one of those guys who want a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya? Seriously I need a break.
No sooner had I stopped fuming over such stupidity, that news of attacks on Assamese and other northeastern people in cities like Pune and Mumbai started coming in. Mass exodus followed and then the xenophobia started of a larger strike on Northeastern people post Eid. Even if they were propaganda coming in from Pakistan, they got circulated because some miscreant elements supported them. Then came the naked dance of hooliganism in the CST riot in Mumbai when a bunch of skull capped and kurta pyjama clad youths kicked and broke down the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial. Were these people really Indians? Such love for Muslim brotherhood, and such hatred for a sacred symbol of the Indian soldier? I felt my own countrymen had let me down. Then there were threats on people from the northeast made in cities like Pune and Bangalore. For once I feel ashamed that our people got so widely scared that they ran off in thousands leaving those cities without even for once thinking to stay back and prove themselves as the courageous and righteous ones. There has been report of one attack on a train bound for Assam at Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. Other than that, I seriously doubt if any genuine attacks were made on any person from the northeast anywhere in the country. There have been only threat reports. My friends and other people who have stayed back in their homes in these cities still share an uneasiness in the atmosphere but here I am musing over things a day after Eid and nothing has happened anywhere so far. I hope nothing happens anywhere because none of us honestly wants the Assam riots to become a pan Indian riot. That will be the worst nightmare coming true!
Now that all these dramatic episodes of riots, threatening and xenophobia have gone by in the past few weeks, I wonder aloud as to where do we stand today? Where do we as citizens of this country, as Assamese struggling to save their homelands from illegal immigrants stand today? Where do we stand when we have the risk of being ridiculed as Chinkies? Today we are also being branded as Muslim killers. Don't we have Muslims among our own race? Don't we love them as our own brethren? Don't we want to celebrate Eid and Bihu among ourselves? If you believe that we want to, inspite of our hatred for illegal immigrants, then please next time don't ask me as to why were Bangladeshis targeted in Assam? It has got nothing to do with their Muslimhood. It is solely because they are illegal immigrants and they are taking our home away from us. It has to be seen as a clash between Indians and non-Indians. This has to be understood by the mainland Indians, especially Muslims. We may not be Muslims, but we are your countrymen. We are also Indians. We need everybody's support to reclaim our homes. Afterall we don't want to suffer the fate of our Kashmiri Pandit brothers and sisters.
I cannot justify the violence that took place back home. I don't want any more violence to happen. We Assamese don't identify ourselves with these kinds of violence as they go against the peace loving core of our beings. I believe that there has to be a peaceful and practical solution to it. The political leaders have made mincemeat of the situation with their decades of deceit and treachery. Let us for this once put our heads together and think for the future ahead. Someone had once told me that we are staring at a phase of time where we are gradually watching history being created. We don't know if it is for the good or worse. Only time will tell that. But I am sure about one thing, and it is that we are the ones who are going to create it.
(Joydeep is a media professional from Assam, working in New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are personal.)