The Roots

For immigrants life is up in smoke once again. It’s commu nal violence—plain and simple. Or one may call  it ethnic violence. But it hardly alters the ground reality. Assam has been in the grip of ethnic animosity which is anything but endemic, for quite long. Not that it was the first time Kokrajhar went into flames. The tribals feel threatened by the steady increase in the number of Bangladeshi settlers who are virtually stateless and they have been in that state for generations. It was the Nellie massacre of 1982 when nearly 2500 people were killed over weeks and months of unchecked ‘ethnic violence’. Forced into economic desperation and grinding poverty they have been migrating to Assam in search of job and land since the early days of Raj. In truth in those days the most unfortunate and helpless would like to cross the border for a secure livelihood in that land of kala-azar as it was popularly or unpopularly known among the people of North Bengal.

Earlier they had to face the ordeal of anti-foreigners agitation by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). If today ULFA—the militant successor to AASU—is not that vocal against Bangladeshi ‘foreigners’ it is because they utilise Bangladesh as a rear and corridor to pursue their guerilla campaign against the Indian state.

It will be quite some time before the refugees, now living in camps, get back what they have lost—confidence in civil society and the government of the day. Uncertainty has all along been haunting them despite so many years of settlement. And Congress Party and Assam-based regional outfits as well use them as vote banks, they are being tossed as shuttle cock all the time.

No political party, left or right, has ever tried to make common cultural ground for the peoples with diverse religious and ethnic identities. These people primarily depend on their group or community identity to assert their rights while political parties fail to articulate broader aspirations cutting across religious and ethnic divides.

Basically it is the land question that causes violence—communal, caste, ethnic or otherwise. Even in the 21st century India continues to live at many levels and political parties have no idea as to how to address the problem of multi-cultural identities.

Not that minority issue is something unique in Indian polity. All countries are plagued by majority–minority antagonism. And ethnic cleansing started in Nazi Germany. Bosnian nightmare is only a recent phenomenon. How Tamil minority has been a victim of Sinhala chauvinism for decades before the final solution through the state-sponsored genocide is now history. Even in advanced democracies minorities are always discriminated against in every sphere of life. America, the land of opportunities, hardly open opportunities to its black minority, not to speak of Latino and Hispanic immigrants.

In Thailand animosty is between majority buddhists and minority muslims in some parts. And now neighbouring Burma, otherwise a peaceful country, is rocked by the worse kind of communal violence in its Rakhain state (Arakan) in recent weeks. Riot is between Rohingya muslims and Buddhists. Rohingyas are fleeing the ensuing violence enmasse to their border neighbour Bangladesh, only to be sent back and treated as unwanted ‘guests’ by the Bangladesh authorities. Already more than 100 muslims have been killed and property worth millions have been destroyed. There are around 10 percent muslims in Burma or what is now called Myanmar and about 20 percent in Yangon (or Rangoon).

Muslims in Myanmar are mainly migrants from India and Bangladesh. But unlike India, a kind of homogenisation has taken place there over the years as all muslims speak Burmese language. Muslim identity apart, they have a strong Burmese identity as well because all of them are publicly known by their Burmese names. The problem with the Rohingya muslims is something different as they are denied citizenship, almost an identical scenario in Assam where Bangladeshi immigrants are denied citizenship right though they periodically vote for this party or that. And in official census they are allegedly shown as Assamese, not Bengalis.

Rohingyas maintain that they have been inhabitants of Arakan for more than 100 years and yet they are not granted citizenship right. It is the basic issue that triggered the recent flare-up under the pretext of a buddhist girl being raped by three muslim boys.

Bangladeshi conservatives and fundamentalists who are intolerant to their own minority and ethnic communities, are facing the problem of Rohingyas who have nowhere else to go, but Bangladesh. Some half a million Rohingya muslims with Bangladeshi passports are reportedly working in Saudi Arabia on work permits. As democratic space in Burma is very narrow, if not symbolic, minorities, religious minorities like muslims and christians, find it difficult to articulate their aspirations democratically. In some big cities like Rangoon the Asian Muslim Network is organising interfaith dialogue between three principal religious communities in Burma—buddhists muslims and christians—as a measure to isolate communalists and restore peace and faith. No such attempt by any organisation, political or not-so political, against the backdrop of recent violence in Kokrajhar!

Not that quelling the riot by using paramilitary is enough to bring in lasting peace for the tribals-dominated Bodoland in Assam. Fear psychosis is all-pervasive and fear of being overwhelmed demographically continually creates tension and animosity which in turn fuels violence and destruction of property from time to time.

Vol. 45, No. 4, Aug 5-11, 2012