The ongoing spate of ethnic killings in Assam appears to be like the infamous Nellie massacre of the early 1980s. Although there is no comparison between the two in terms of scale and magnitude of loss of lives and property, there are similarities in their patterns and issues. Unlike the massacres at Nellie, Chaygaon and Gohpur in which nearly 5,000 people had lost lives and almost all the victims were migrant Muslim settlers, the casualties in the Bodoland Territorial Administered Districts (BTAD) — Kokrajhar, Baska, and Chirang barring Udalguri — involve both indigenous Bodos and migrant Bengali Muslim settlers. Like the former, however, the ethnic conflict in BTAD is rooted in conflict over land, fast-changing demographic profile, political competition, the ruling party’s vested interest in allowing illegal migration from Bangladesh in order to build up its votebank, lack of political representation of minority Muslim settlers, and their consequent perceived insecurities. The last two factors were much less pronounced in the case of the former, however.
No matter how much Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi insists there is nothing ethnic about the conflict in BTAD and that the situation is well within control, the ground realities cannot be wished away. The Bodos, who constitute the largest tribal community out of a total of 34 tribal communities in the state, have invoked ethnicity to legitimise their long-drawn struggle for autonomy, varying from separate statehood to outright sovereign status, since the early 1960s. The prolonged militant Bodo movement peaked during the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in internecine ethnic conflicts leading to largescale killings and human displacement. It was only in February 2003 that relative calm was established with the signing of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) Accord between the militant Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) on the one hand and the Centre and the state government on the other.
It is this accord that has now become a bone of contention between the Bodos and non-Bodos in the four districts of the BTAD, leading to simmering ethnic tensions which often flare up. While the Bodos, who feel they have been neglected, exploited and discriminated against for decades, look at this accord as a historic opportunity to fulfil their longstanding demands, the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samiti, a conglomerate of 18 non-Bodo organisations in the BTC area, strongly resents the fact that Bodos constitute a meagre 25 per cent of the total population in the BTC area and believe that this quarter of the population should not be given the right to rule over the other three-fourths. Migrant Muslim settlers also rue the fact that a number of villages with minority Bodo population were included in the BTAD to make it a contiguous area. The non-Bodos want such villages to be taken out of BTAD so that they do not feel insecure where they are clearly in the majority.
The changing demographics of the BTAD and the consequent land alienation is a well-established fact and a cause of genuine concern for the Bodos, who fear they may become a minority in their own state and in hitherto Bodo-dominated areas. However, the Bodos are mistaken that all Muslim settlers in the area are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. A majority are settled migrants born in the region after 1947. Of course, the slow but steady spurt in the number of Muslim settlers and the transfer of land into their hands is due to the inflow of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. However, the Bodo leadership must recognise that bonafide Indian Muslim settler citizens are not to blame.
The reason for this tension lies in the flawed BTC Accord. The act is clearly self-contradictory as it seeks to protect the land rights of the indigenous Bodos while allowing settler Muslims (both legal and illegal) to freely acquire land at the same time. According to the act, “the existing rights and privileges of any citizen in respect to his land at the date of the commencement of the Act” is retained. This makes sense as far as the land rights of the legally settled minority Muslims are concerned. The anomaly lies with the conjoining provision of the act, which does not “disallow any citizen from acquiring land either by way of inheritance, allotment, settlement or by any other way of transfer if such a citizen is otherwise eligible for such acquisition”.
Given the firmly rooted “network of complicity” in the Northeast, wherein members of the same ethnic community from across the border in Bangladesh are easily allowed to sneak in and are shown as members of the family on this side of the border, it doesn’t take much time to procure relevant documents like ration cards to establish Indian nationality. Taking advantage of the provisions in the BTC Act, such migrants are freely procuring land in the BTAD, which only adds to the woes of indigenous Bodos.
New Delhi needs to be proactive and make a strategic shift in its approach to the migration issue in the Northeast. It is time to legalise the unchecked inflow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh by issuing work permits and maintaining the National Population Register. This would not only bring much-needed transparency, but might also help assuage the grievances of the Bodos, bonafide Indian Muslims and guest workers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Singh, associate professor and chairperson, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, is the author of ‘Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas between Bangladesh and India’