Sunday, July 29, 2012

Debate cause, not label, of Assam riots

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, as one part of Assam burned, some TV channels were engaged in an utterly grotesque exercise: trying to ascertain whether the clashes were ‘communal’ or ‘ethnic’. The deliberations also had a definite sub-text. In the hierarchy of repugnance, a ‘communal’ riot was unacceptable while an ‘ethnic’ conflict was somehow understandable. In the political context this meant that while the 2002 riots in Gujarat were beyond the pale, the cleansing of communities from Kokrajhar and Dhubri were an outcome of a skewed historical process and, therefore, less damning.
Why the killing of people on account of their religion should count as a greater offence than the murder and dispossession of communities on account of their ethnicity remains a mystery to me. If the Gujarat Government is to be put in the dock for its failure to prevent the deaths of nearly a thousand citizens, why should the Assam Government’s failure to prevent the dispossession of more than a lakh people be construed as a lesser offence?
Clearly, a debate centred on competitive culpability is unlike to get us anywhere. No one seriously suggests that Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi sat back in Guwahati and let slip the dogs of war. The astute Gogoi, who is well versed in the art of competitive politics — examine the deftness with which he deprived the BJP of its Bengali Hindu vote in the Barak Valley in the 2011 Assembly election — knows what is permissible in democratic politics and what is not. Without necessarily exonerating him of the charge of administrative laxity in responding to the brewing troubles in Kokrajhar district, my guess is that he failed to anticipate that a tiny spark could lead to a prairie fire. He may have been guilty of misjudgement and tardiness but he did not plan last week’s violence.
Judging from his aggressive response to attacks on him by a clutch of MPs, particularly his suggestion that the Central forces took their own sweet time to arrive in the affected areas, I think that Gogoi is only too aware that a substantial section of Assam isn’t viewing the recent troubles through the prism of compassion alone. At the risk of over-statement, I would say that the more Gogoi is attacked by ‘outsiders’, the greater will be his popularity among the indigenous Assamese. The resemblance between his situation and that of another Chief Minister may well invite attention.
Cruel as it may sound, the dominant perception in Assam is that Kokrajhar, Dhubri and the other districts of the undivided Goalpara region were living on the edge, and that this was an explosion waiting to happen. That it happened as a consequence of four Bodo activists being butchered in May was an incidental detail. If not yesterday, the troubles would have happened tomorrow.
The extent to which last week’s clashes were a consequence of unattended problems has been spelt out by Election Commissioner MS Brahma (writing in his personal capacity) in Indian Express. Brahma has argued that the “present ethnic clashes between the two communities can be directly attributed to… illegal immigration into Assam.” The illegal migrants from Bangladesh have put pressure on land, livelihood and opportunities. More important, they have contributed to a significant demographic change. Brahma writes that “It has been acknowledged… that out of the 27 districts in Assam, 11 of them are going to be Muslim majority districts once the 2011 Census figures are published…”
The past decade has also seen this demographic change manifesting itself in politics. Till 2006, the Congress owed its success to what was called the Ali-Coolie-Bengali alliance. However, the rise of the UMFA under Badruddin Ajmal has led to a large-scale exodus of Muslim voters from the Congress, to the extent that in the present Assembly UMFA has greater representation than the AGP and BJP. Ajmal, who represents the Muslim-majority Dhubri in the Lok Sabha has mounted a spirited campaign for the abolition of the Bodo Tribal Council that controls land transfers and ownership in most of Kokrajhar. His assertion is that Bodos constitute only 27 per cent of the BTC area. Ajmal’s estimate may be exaggerated but it suggests that even the heartland of the Bodos has witnessed a staggering demographic shift which is provoking tension. Indeed, there are reports that the present clashes may witness a transfer of population: Bangladeshi Muslims to Dhubri, and Bodos to Kokrajhar.
In 2011, as UMFA grew more belligerent, Gogoi altered the social coalition behind the Congress. He successfully undercut both the AGP and BJP, hitherto seen as the main representatives of the Assamese in the Brahmaputra Valley and the Bengali Hindus in the Barak Valley. However, while he secured their electoral backing, the Chief Minister is yet to act on the disquiet of those who switched their vote to the Congress. The demands of the Bodos in Kokrajhar mirror the demands made by the rest of the indigenous Assamese peoples in other parts of the State. The demand to do ‘something’ about the demographic invasion of Assam is all pervasive.
Unfortunately, so skewed is the public discourse in the metropolitan centres of India that illegal immigration has become a fear that dare not speak its name. No wonder Assam nurtures a profound sense of alienation.
We need to speak about the issues behind the clashes, and not fall back on facile debates on whether the disturbances were communal or ethnic..

No comments: