An Endemic Crisis

Ethnic unrest is basically a regional problem but it is one area where regional outfits do very little. They just lose themselves in the tide of market economy and go astray while avoiding to answer the unpleasant question of whom to serve. And the so-called mainstream parties, left and right alike, don’t offer any viable solution to the crisis as they are more interested in responding to spontaneity with some adhoc-ism which does not really work in the real world. Assam is being periodically rocked by ethnic violence, rather fratricidal violence in which the poor die. Assam apart, the entire North East is an ethnic caldron, boiling all the time, without any possibility of permanent peace in the immediate future. In a sense people, ethnic and non-ethnic as well, in this region, have forgotten to live in peace. In the recent flare-up in Assam’s Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts Bodo militants killed tribal inhabitants who originally migrated from Chotangapur plateau more than a century ago to work as coolies in tea gardens and clear jungles. More than one hundred years on, they are migrants still, having failed to get completely naturalised with the environment while maintaining their distinct tribal identity, notwithstanding the march of time.

The persons in power in the states concerned know where lies the roots of continuing ethnic conflict but they just ignore them allowing the situation to drift towards chaos and become explosive every now and then. It’s the land question that matters. In other words it is the peasant question which the parties in authority—or in opposition—refuse to radically resolve once and for all. Their piece-meal measures further complicate the already complicated land question because of rapid demographic change during the last four decades or so.

Despite too much hue and cry about the Constitution and ethnic rights guaranteed under the Constitution, most ethnic groups in the charged North East and elsewhere, do hardly take part in what they call the process of nation building. Market has failed to break cultural barriers and traditional beliefs that serve as bedrock of ethnic identity. As most ethnic insurgencies in the North East and other parts of the country are non-Marxist—in some cases they are anti-Marxist—in ideological orientation, their political goals are limited. And their scope to get focused beyond identity politics is also limited. Even then the authorities refuse to concede their basic demands in the first place. They are more interested in pursuing ‘rule of law’ and the result is more violence and bloodshed.

Not that ethnic movement, violent or non-so violent, is a straight line pheno-menon. After initial thrust and limited success they get splintered. The syndrome of split within a split is so rampant that the security establishments find it convenient to utilise one group against another to defeat the very purpose of ethnic assertion. Vested interests have many faces and ethnic card is one of them—communal polarisation is another. How many militant groups, ethnic or otherwise, are on the payroll of intelligence agencies is not known. It’s an old game practised by the British to contain revolutionary violence directed against them. And their successors in independent India have perfected the art beyond the perception of ordinary people. There is every reason to believe that what goes in the name of Bodo militancy is not that simple. It’s a complex matter as many stakeholders remain behind the curtain. In truth the entire North East panorama presents a complex pattern of political stalemate. Civilian rule in all those seven states, including Assam, doesn’t matter much. What matters is army rule and their brutal approach to any voice of dissent, peaceful or violent. Decline in civilian rule coupled with systematic curtailment of democratic space, over the years, is a source of continuing social conflict, rather than a symptom, affecting all communities, ethnic or non-ethnic.

Unlike India, China is not plagued by ethnic insurgences, albeit it is one country where a large number of ethnic groups are said to be getting assimilated, slowly but steadily, in the mainstream China, without losing their specific identity. Barring Muslim separatism in Western China, allegedly backed, at least morally by Turkey, no major ethnic upsurge is reported from any part of mainland China though Tibet is altogether a different issue. It’s an issue of national identity, not ethnic identity. It’s an issue of right to self-determination which is denied to the Tibetans. As for dozens of ethnic communities across China, Beijing’s policy of slow assimilation and accommodation through the scheme of autonomous council seems to be working well. In the Indian context these councils don’t work because of unequal development of productive forces and lack of political will at the level of policy-making. Under Indian dispensations, the marginalised get more marginalised, only to see strained relations among communities developing into civil strifes. For most ethnic groups present is uncertain, if not treacherous and future doesn’t exist. But they have already lost their past and sometimes their violent outbursts are actually an attempt to turn to the past, better to say to search wisdom in the past.

Government comes, Government goes. And the marginalised get further marginalised only to endanger whatever remains of integrity and stability in all these troubled spots. Helping smaller communities gain access to meaningful elementary education for sustainable livelihood is even more important than making dubious deals with some militant groups, many of them now-a-days work at cross-purposes, deviating from their original idea of ‘walking the same path’. There is a right to education in place. But the question is how to ensure proper implementation of this right for the vulnerable sections of society?

At the time of writing the death toll in the Sonitpur-Kokrajhar carnage and retationary violence by tribals had gone up to 78. And Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh talked more of the same—‘no talk with Bodo militant organisation responsible for mayhem and only punitive offensive will follow’.


Vol. 47, No. 26, Jan 4 - 10, 2015