The Identity Question

Genocide in Assam

Santosh Rana

[This article advances the proposition that equal rights and dignities for all communities and languages are essential for freedom from the legacy of the loathsome history of ethnic riots in Assam.]

When the people all over the world were engaged in Christmas festivities, a vast territory, from Kokrajhrar to Sontipur along the northern riverine tracts of the Brahmmaputra in Assam became drenched with the blood of the adivasis. About one hundred, half of them women and children, were killed, several thousands of houses were set ablaze and about one hundred thousands had to desert their homes. Some displaced persons have crossed the West Bengal-Assam border and took refuge in Alipurduar. The news media have described the victims of genocide as adivasis. In Assam, the category 'adivasi' means the tribes like Santal, Munda, Oraon, Ho etc, who migrated from the central Indian plateau regions including Jharkhand, and communities like Mahato, Bauri and Tanti etc. The history of their settlements in Assam is about one hundred and fifty years long. The plantation economy of Assam needed large numbers of workers, and in order to meet this need, these workers were brought to Assam as bonded labourers. Colonial rulers gave magisterial power to tea garden owners. If workers tried to flee the garden, garden owners punished them in various methods, among which there were capital punishments also. Besides this indescribable oppression, there were epidemics of malaria and kalazar. Workers braved all these obstacles and built up the vast tea plantation economy of Assam. As much as 70% of the tea output of India as a whole is produced in Assam, but those whose sweat and blood made it possible have remained in perpetual darkness. During the British period, the adivasis of the tea gardens were considered as scheduled tribes, but their opportunity of education was so small that they hardly got any chance to enlist themselves as such. After independence, educational opportunities somewhat expanded, but the government of Assam descheduled the adivasis. More than one committee appointed by the central government (Chanda Committee and Lakur Committee) recommended the scheduling of the adivasis, but the Assam Government disobeyed it. Their argument was that a scheduling of the adivasis of tea gardens would hamper the political balance of Assam. It must be understood that what the rulers of Assam were intending to preserve in the name of maintaining balance was the hegemony of the Assamese caste Hindus. Till 2014, the Assam government has not accepted the demand for scheduling of the adivasis. This is a peculiar situation, because although the adivasi communities like the Santals, Mundas, Oraons, Hos, Mahalis and Gonds are recognized as scheduled tribes all over India, they do not have this recognition only in Assam. The adivasis of Assam have made many struggles for this recognition. Finally in 2014, their demand was partially accepted by the Government of India. It has been decided to grant scheduled status to communities enlisted as such in Jharkhand or some other states. But this decision is yet to be implemented.

This non-recognition is inextricably linked with the ruthless exploitation of the adivasis as tea-garden workers. In the tea gardens of West Bengal, the state government has not yet declared any minimum wage. Similarly, the Assam government too has so far refrained from declaring any minimum wage in the tea gardens. Workers now get a daily wage of Rs 95 on the average, it is quite natural that they should suffer from starvation, semi-starvation and malnutrition. The super-profits acquired by the Tatas and other native and foreign owners rest on this super-exploitation. The super-profits are again inseparably linked with the identity suppression of the adivasis. If the adivasis get the opportunity of instruction through their mother tongues and get the scheduled status and the concomitant reservation benefits, one section among them would gradually move to other jobs, and in consequence, it would no longer be possible to employ them at less than minimum wages. Under the British rule, workers were kept in a state of bondage and exploited, and if they tried to flee, they were kept in a state of confinement. In Independent India, they were no longer bonded labourers, but the policy was so framed that they remained within the gardens. The intention was not to allow any advancement of their education and to prevent their switchover to other occupations. That is why the Assamese upper caste Hindu ruling class has pursued the policy of keeping them in a state of suppression. The Asom Sahitya Sabha has named them 'cha-patia' or 'tea-tribes'.

Other Identities
It may be assumed that adivasis working in tea gardens or their descendants constitute about 20% of the population of Assam. Other suppressed identities of Assam are Muslims and Assamese tribes. A small section of Muslims have been living in Assam for long and the people belonging to this section are Assamese-speaking. The larger section came to Assam from East Bengal after 1850 and particularly during 1900-1940. These Muslims are Bengali-speaking. But owing to the use of Assamese in official work, they now speak in both languages. Muslims constitute about 33% of the population of Assam. Assamese chauvinists often stigmatize them as 'foreigners' and launch genocidal attacks on them. In 1983, about four thousand Muslims were killed in one night in the infamous Nelli massacre. Ever since then, massacres; on a smaller scale have been taking place often. These Muslims are principally peasants and they live in the riverine tracts of the Brahmmaputra. This region is a flood-prone one, and floods are curses on one hand but blessings on the other. The alluvial soil deposited by floods adds to the fertility of the soil. Before the arrival of Muslim cultivators from East Bengal, there was no farming activity there. The British rulers, in order to make Assam self-sufficient in respect of food production, sent their men to various districts of East Bengal, including Mymensingha, who went to villages and exhorted peasants to come to Assam. Land-hungry peasants migrated to Assam in hordes and transformed the non-cultivable riverine tracts into a fertile agricultural region. If the adivasis working in tea gardens constitute one pillar of the present economy of Assam, another pillar must be the Muslim peasantry of the flood plains region. These two communities together constitute more than half of the population of Assam. The chauvinistic rule draws its sustenance from suppression of these people.

Among other identities there are the scheduled tribes of Assam itself. The scheduled tribes constitute 12.4% of the population. Bodos constitute the largest group among them, about 41% of the scheduled tribal population and 5.1% of the total population. Among the ST population Missings constitute 17.8%, Mikirs 10.7%, Rabhas 64%, Kacharis 7.1%, Lalunes 5.2% and Dimasas 3.4%. The Mikirs and Dimasas are together known as Korbis. The Bodos, Rabhas, Missings and Lalungs are known as plain tribes, while the Korbis and Kacharis are known as hill tribes. The reservation quotas of the two groups are also different. Owing to the discriminatory policies of the Assam government, the Bodos living in the hills are not recognized as STs and the Korbis living in the palins are also deprived of this recognition. Thus a large number of people has been excluded from the ST list. The tribes of Assam have long been struggling for their rights and dignity. They wanted a federal restructuring of Assam, so as to enable all the communities to enjoy dignity and equal rights. In 1967, Indira Gandhi put forward a proposal for federal restructuring of Assam. The chauvinist outfit AASU (All Assam Students' Union) opposed it tooth and nail and called a bandh. In 1974, the Bodo language movement was fired upon, killing 18 Bodos. Finally, the Assam government had to grant recognition to the Bodo language.

Frustrated in their attempts to suppress the Bodos, the Assamese ruling classes, in order to create divisions among the communities of Assam, fostered Bodo chauvinism. There had already taken place a class division among the Bodos, and the upper classes and one section of the middle classes raised the demand for bifurcation of Assam and creation of a separate state of Bodoland.

Bodoland Movement
As said earlier, Bodos constitute 42% of the tribal population and 5.1% of total population of Assam. The region that the Bodo chauvinists proposed as the territory of Bodoland inhabit apart from Bodos, Jahrkhandi-adivasis, Koch-Rajbanshis, Bengali-speaking Muslims and some Bengali-speaking Hindus. Instead of a democratic system that ensured equal rights to all communities, they sought to establish Bodo political hegemony in the region. They also received the support of the Indian State in it. Finally, the Bodo Autonomous Territory was formed with 21 blocks (5 from Kokrajhar, 4 from Bongaigaon, 2 from Barpeta, 5 from Nalban and 5 from Darang). Bodos constitute only 27% of the population of this territory, while the rest were Jharkhandi-adivasis, Koch-Rajbangsis, Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus. But 75% of the seats in the Bodo Autonomous Council are reserved for Bodos, which is patently very much undemocratic. A little more than one fourth of the population would exercise their rule over the rest—such a situation cannot be allowed to persist. The Lok Sabha polls of 2014 have shown that those who have exercised their rule through muscle power and power of guns represent only a minority. In the Kokrajhar constituency, Muslims, Santals, Koch-Rajbangsis, Bengali Hindus and one section of the tribes (Saraniya, Rabha etc) formed an alliance and defeated the candidate of the Bodo ruling clique. Furious at this, the Bodo chauvinists, immediately after the polls, engaged in large-scale rioting, but the people of other communities organized themselves somewhat and resisted. As a result, there has been a steady state in the Bodo Autonomous Territory, and dialogues have commenced regarding demoralization of the Autonomous Council.

Among the Bodos, there was always a sensible section that have opposed chauvinism and sought a democratic solution. But the Bodo chauvinists and terrorists silenced the leadership of this section by means of killing and terror. From the list prepared by Chran Narjari, leader of the Plain Tribes Council that the Bodo extremists killed 259 PTS leaders and activists during 1987-1992. After the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, democratic voices have begun to be raised again within the Bodos, and the Bodo chauvinist and terrorist leadership has begun to lose ground.

The genocide of December 2014 was perpetrated by the Sangbijit group of the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland). This very group committed a mass massacre in Kokrajhar in 2006 and killed about 400 Santals. About two hundred thousands of Santals displaced from their homes in consequence of that genocide are still living in refugee camps. The massacre of 2014 represents a desperate attempt on the part of the chauvinists and terrorists to recover their lost ground. Although this ethnic riot was directed principally at the tea-garden adivasis, some Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims were also killed.

Such genocides are examples of an ethnic cleansing campaign. There are many instances of such campaigns, masterminded by imperialists, in different countries of the world. Well, it is not yet clear which imperialist power backs the NDFB (Sangbijit Group), but the amount of money and weapons in their possession, along with the fact that they have set up camps in Maynamar and Thailand, seems to suggest that they are being aided by some imperialist power.

Yet, whoever the helper, the days of chauvinism, ethnic feuds and ethnic riots in Assam are now numbered. Democratic forces are developing within all the communities of Assam, including the caste Hindus. They are waking up to the truth that no single community is able to exercise hegemony in Assam. Dialogues have started among various communities for building up a federal-type Assam by recognizing equal dignity and right for all the communities and languages. At the same time, economic issues like wages and rations in tea gardens, right to 100 days’ work, flood control, health and medical facilities etc are coming to the fore and helping the people of different communities to unite. A major change has taken place among the Jharkhandi adivasis. They started their lives as bonded labourers during the British period. After independence, the trade unions were controlled by the Congress only. These unions were promoted by the owners, and they did not collect subscriptions from the workers. The owners- themselves deducted the union subscriptions at the time of wage payment and gave the money thus collected to the unions. No independent leadership or political force grew from within tea garden workers, and the gardens were reliable vote banks of the Congress. Now the situation has changed and a strong movement has emerged from within adivasi students and youths, a movement that is no longer confined to the demand for scheduled status. In recent times, the adivasi students have held large mass rallies for minimum wages and rations. Changes of such types are visible among all different communities of Assam. These movements, while bringing the suppressed communities closer to one another, are demonstrating the hollowness of chauvinism before the Assamese caste Hindus as well. It is within these movements that the future of Assam lies.

(Courtesy: Sramajibi Bhasa, January 2013)

Vol. 47, No. 38, Mar 29 - Apr 4, 2015