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Ethnic conflict in India

by Praful Bidwai, 31 August 2012

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The News International, August 27, 2012

Praful Bidwai

The number of people displaced by ethnic violence in Assam since July 20 is about to cross the 5-lakh mark, making this India’s largest internal migration, comparable to the cross-border influx during Partition or the Bangladesh War. Thousands of people from the Northeast who migrated to mainland cities, especially Bangalore, have fled in panic to their home states.

However, returning home isn’t returning to safety, witness the killings on the trains carrying migrants, and the horrific conditions in refugee camps in Kokrajhar and elsewhere in Assam, where epidemics are breaking out amidst absence of sanitation and healthcare, aggravating the humanitarian crisis. This great panic migration was triggered by rumours of impending hate attacks conveyed through bulk SMSs and emails based on morphed images. Some of these depict Muslims being targeted in Burma or by people presumed to be from India’s Northeast because of their physical features, racially stereotyped as “Mongoloid”.

The purveyors of these SMSs are cynically capitalising on ignorance in mainland India about numerous different ethnic-linguistic groups like the Bodos and Mizos, Khasis and Assamese, and Meiteis and Nagas. The motive is to instigate physical attacks on them. Equally pernicious are attempts to establish false equations, eg between Hyderabad (Sindh) with Hyderabad (Deccan). A mass mailing accuses Congress-ruled Andhra of permitting “Muslims to celebrate Pakistan’s 65th independence day” in Hyderabad (Deccan) and bringing ignominy to India through ‘Pakistani agents’.

India’s home secretary RK Singh has named Pakistan as the main source of these mailings. Some Pakistani extremists could well be behind this SMS campaign, hyperbolically termed “cyber-war” or “psy-jihad”. But according to Indian security agencies, a large majority of the 300-odd suspect websites/pages are based in India. More important, mails such as that quoted above suggest the involvement of Hindutva groups. This is borne out by the inflammatory statements being issued daily by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party and their student-union associate Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad on Assam’s clashes, with the Indian state looking on passively. Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj admits to ABVP’s involvement.

At work here is the manufacture of panic by using easily accessible communication means and tools such as photoshop, which can be effortlessly manipulated to morph pictures and pass them off as real. The worst culprits here are probably not the social media websites, accessed by a relatively small minority, but SMSs which can be widely disseminated. Groups like the RSS are past-masters at using such whisper campaigns, rumour and disinformation to provoke communal violence. The Sangh is clearly trying to expand its relatively small base in the Northeast and promote communal-religious polarisation in India.

In the present case, the concerned state governments abjectly failed to protect Northeastern migrants against chauvinist and racist attacks. Instead, to their shame, they chartered trains so people would leave cities like Bangalore en masse. The engineering of this mass migration showed that the authorities willingly abdicated their responsibility towards vulnerable citizens. It also showed that many Indians don’t trust the government to defend their life and limb against hate crimes. People from the Northeast have every reason to distrust governments such as Karnataka’s, ruled by the BJP. The RSS is on a rampage there. Recently, many Northeastern people were targeted in racist attacks and sexual harassment in Bangalore, against which the state didn’t protect them.

However, what about the violence in Assam, which has still not been brought fully under control? The death toll in the Bodo-Muslim clashes in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) area of Kokrajhar, Bongaingaon and Chirang, and in the adjoining Dhubri district, is nearing 80 amidst massive displacement and insecurity. There is very little clarity about the proximate causes of the conflict, barring a tussle over an attempt by some Muslims to permanently occupy a plot of land near Kokrajhar for Eid prayers. The national media has not bothered to report in depth on the situation and the humanitarian crisis. Reportedly, none of Assam’s numerous TV channels has an OB (outdoor broadcasting) van.

This speaks of colossal callousness within the mainstream towards a region that every government and every national party claims belongs irrevocably to India, even more integrally and organically than Jammu and Kashmir. Few in mainland India comprehend the absurdity of claiming such territorial ownership when they exhort the Northeast’s people to become “confident citizens” of the nation while minimising the injustices, violence and bloodshed heaped upon them, not least through draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives impunity for outright murder of anyone merely suspected of intention to infringe a routine prohibitory order.

This monumental incomprehension has not prevented self-appointed experts – many of whom lack even nominal acquaintance with the Northeastern region – from attributing the BTAD clashes to the supposedly “increasing influx” of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and the Bodos’ fears of being swamped in their own “homeland”. The standard theology runs thus. Bangladeshi Muslims, often termed “infiltrators”, as distinct from Bengali-speaking Hindu “migrants” or “refugees” who cross the border illegally, are pouring into Assam just as they did in the early 20thcentury. They are illegally grabbing the Bodos’ land and changing BTAD’s demography, causing resentment and violent clashes.

According to extreme versions of the theology, such as the Sangh Parivar’s, the Muslim migration is driven by communal motives: creation of a “Greater Bangladesh” or a conspiracy to spread radical Islamicism. This is the BJP’s “default” or knee-jerk position, which sees everything through a narrow, parochial Islamophobic prism. Yet benign versions too attribute the violence to rising illegal migration of Muslims from “dirt-poor” Bangladesh and the tensions this is causing in BTAD. However, this militates against several material facts. For one, Bangladesh has recently recorded higher human development indices than India, thus weakening the “push factor” for migration to one of India’s poorer pockets. For another, better border fencing has reduced the influx of very poor Bangladeshis to a trickle.

For a third, Kokrajhar’s Muslim population only increased from 17 to 20 percent of the total between 1971 and 2001. This is hardly alarming. The provisional 2011 census figures, which don’t contain a religion-wise break-up, put the decadal growth in the district’s entire population at a mere 5.2 percent, compared to 14.5 percent in 1991-2001 (and 16.9 percent for Assam in 2001-2011). Considering that the Bodos have a political monopoly over BTAD and therefore no motive to move out, this relative decrease can only be explained by out-migration of non-Bodos, including Bengali-speaking Muslims. What’s under way in BTAD is competition between two production systems: the Bodos’s subsistence single-crop economy, and the Muslims’ hard-work-based commercially-oriented multi-crop economy. This is allowing the Muslims to buy land.

Another source of conflict is over political representation in the larger Western Assam region, where the Muslims have made gains using democratic instruments. The Bodos drove them out forcibly – in 1992, 1996 and 2010, but failed this time around. The Bodos form only 20 percent of BTAD’s population and don’t enjoy social-economic hegemony. In the last analysis, the culprit here is the Indian government’s misguided policy of creating “homelands” for tribals in the Northeast even when they are a small proportion of an area’s population. Rectifying this approach demands a broad vision, which is missing.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi.


The above article from The News International is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use