The Communal Crisis

The communal flare-up now ripping apart Assam’s Kokrajhar and Baska districts is not unlike a normal communal crisis. It has had a frustrating legacy left by history. At the time of writing the death toll in the continuing violence rose to 34. Caught between a passive administration and the uncertain future, things may get worse before they get better. The killing of Bengali-speaking Muslims, latest in a series of violent attacks, blamed on the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (S) that wants an ‘independent’ homeland for Bodos has a familiar ring—north-east is still an ethnic cauldron despite the Centre’s attempt, rather half-hearted attempt, to pacify the aggrieved by periodically announcing some sops and ‘apolitical accords’ that don’t really work in the field.

While Bodo militants say bulk of Bangladeshi settlers have crossed over illegally and are encouraged by political parties for creating vote banks to grab farm land, traditionally and historically belonging to the Bodo tribal community, settlers, however, maintain that they are no new-comers. The crisis is like an explosive that has the potential to create widespread wild-fire under a single spark.

Nobody wants to revisit the unpleasant historical episode that triggered migration from North Bengal to Assam which was described as a land of kala azar in the early days of British Raj. Migration to Assam’s uninhibited and sparsely populated areas has been going on for generations for jobs and livelihood since the days of East India Company. Of late the rate of migration has been accelerated while giving a new twist because of changed geo-political division, again for jobs and livelihood. Besides demography land is the basic issue that has created a situation of perennial conflict between tribals and non-tribals who happen to be Bengali-speaking Muslims in this case. In other words religion, if not language, is an added factor to aggravate the crisis influencing and polarising a wider section of population.

In almost all states tribals are being systematically alienated from land, be it Jharkhand, Orissa or Chattisgarh. Even Bangladesh has its own ethnic problem in the form of marginalisation of Chakmas who are being forced to leave their homeland by settlers from the plains.

That the on-going Assam violence has all the ingredients to start a full-fledged communal conflagration is admitted by Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Sindhe. But in the same vein the Union Minister downplayed the danger by attributing the recent riot to the decline of the militant group NDFB(S) that is believed to have lost cadres either through surrender or elimination during military operations. In reality the Centre has never tried to work out an amicable solution to the vexed question of land, alienation of land to be precise. They have been resorting to ad-hocism and piecemeal mechanism to buy peace since the days of late Rajiv Gandhi. It’s no longer a mere law and order problem—it has different social dimensions with international ramifications. Since the Nellie massacre in the 1980s this tribal–non-tribal conflict seems to be endemic and as years roll on the issue gets more complicated than ever before.

Even in 2012 there was widespread violence in lower Assam and hundreds of people arrived in adjoining Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, only to spend miserable days and nights in make-shift refugee camps. No doubt Assam government took them back after a few months but refugee camp is no answer to statelessness.

The saffron brigade now claims that as many as 20 million ‘Bangladeshi immigrants’ have settled in India, with all the domiciled identity proofs, mostly in Bengal and Assam, albeit there are no authentic official figures. The Bharatiya Janata Party blames it on Congress and Left for such huge cross-border migration as they benefit enormously from it in ballot boxes. True, departing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants has always been a part of BJP’s poll agenda but they would like to use it more as a rthtoric than actual action. And this time too Modi in his campaign in Bengal raised the issue, only to create a kind of fear-psychosis and fuel communal passion, hopefully to gain some votes in the border districts of Bengal.

That influx from across the border is a fact of life cannot be denied. But it is economic migration and host countries in many cases are not averse to such illegal migration because they too gain from a reserved army of cheap labour. Not that Bodos alone are talking tough about the ‘illegal infiltrations’ in the north-east. Nagas, Meiteis and Khasis too are vocal against them. The saffron party talks of packing off Bangladeshis when they are in opposition. But they did precious little when they were in power. Geo-political compulsion doesn’t make it that easy to expel such a huge population. In 2012 after the riot between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims, some 5 lakh Muslims were reportedly sheltered in relief camps.

This ethnic violence—or for that matter recurring communal violence—stands in the way of broader mass mobilisation against neo-liberal oppression that doesn’t distinguish between tribals and non-tribals, majority community people and minority community people. The left looks helpless before any kind of communal killings, they lack policies of purpose. Their naive attitude towards such sensitive issues, has made them irrelevant in a real crisis situation. Communal harmony cannot be achieved by issuing pious press statements. What is needed is mass organising on common issues against the common target. But the question remains : who will bell the cat?

Vol. 46, No. 45, May 18 -24, 2014