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Finding solution to Assam’s Bodo-Muslim problem

The heart of the problem in Kokrajhar is the ancient rivalry between the ancient Bodo tribes settled for ages on the northern banks of eastern Brahmaputra and the relatively recent arrival of Bengali-speaking (Muslims and Hindus) immigrants. The Bodos speak their own language. There have been cycles of violence between the Bodos and the Bengalis who have migrated over years from Bengal and because of their agricultural skills taken over the Bodo lands slowly. Since 1993, several efforts have been made to resolve tensions between them, but because of the incapacity and insensitivity of the Assam administration, it has not been able to find a permanent solution. In any case, the land is not infinite and the settlers belong to various ethnic minorities including Bangladeshis, Bengali Muslims, Assamese Muslims Santhals and Rajvanshis who have also been trickling from north Bengal.

Four agreements since 1993 failed to produce results. In a recent episode, nearly a hundred Bangladeshis lost their lives. Nearly a hundred thousand have become victims of violence and displacement on both sides. According to intelligence sources, Muslims are planning to retaliate against the Bodos. Since 1993, the Santhals, who share the land with the Bodos and come originally from Chhotanagpur in Bihar, are equally good agriculturists. In a sense, there is no religious dispute. A lot of efforts have been made to control the flow of immigration from Bangladesh but the vast maritime expanse of the Brahmaputra cannot be controlled. Because of recurrent floods every effort by the Central or Assam governments has failed to close the leakage. It has been suggested that the Bengali-speaking living in Assam should be registered once and for all so that newcomers from Bangladesh could be distinguished. But this looks like an impossible task.

The displaced Bangladeshis have been living for decades since 1993 in camps on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Despite many promises made by the Tarun Gogoi government failed to provide them with minimum facilities — public health, school education — and to settle them on land. Without land, they cannot lead decent lives. I visited the camps in 1995 and I found that the government of Assam had failed to provide minimum facilities. So, both the Bodos and Bangladeshi constantly complain about the lack of minimum attention by the state administration. They finally established Bodo Territorial Councils in the area. I was an MP when Assam enacted the Council Act. The trouble arises because there is a clear model pattern in settling the Bodos and Bengalis. It was urged that all those areas that lay in the heart of the Bodo land and had a clear majority of the Bodos should not be included and all fringe areas with non-Bodo holding should be kept outside. In my view, these fringe areas with non-Bodo majority have been the basis of lower Bodo proportion. This could control Bengali emigration into Bodo areas as well as identify the newcomers.

Another long-term solution is that multitribal areas in various parts of Assam as in the northeast should be placed in a Union Territory. The central government has to treat it more generously. The problem will not be resolved without a similar provision under a federal setup. Thirdly, throughout this territory the Bengali-speaking Muslims and the Bodos in Muslim areas have acquired firearms for their defense and they have to be disarmed. A new development has taken place in many Muslim areas in Kokrajhar. Hindu Bengalis are in a clear majority though their population is small. They do not make a common cause with the Bodos. Thus, Kokrajhar has a highly mixed population of Bodos, Santhals, Bengali -speaking Hindus and Muslims, and every group which forms a minority wants a share in administration. Bengalis and Bodos have a working combination but are unable to settle down in reconciliation.

Over the years, these groups have formed militant wings as the state has been unable to provide security. The question is who is the outsider in this small area? They speak different languages and cannot easily understand one another. The Assam government shows antipathy toward the Bodos. No government in Assam can be in full control unless diverse peoples in the state relearn the experience of the last 20 years. Today Bengali-speaking people of both communities have a political alliance between Bangladeshis and Muslims against the Bodos. It is strongly felt that the chief minister who comes from the eastern end of Assam and the prime minster who is from Delhi should develop a new model for the people of Bangladeshis origin of Assam. Happily there has been no recurrence of the Nellie violence that shook the conscience of the country in 1983.

Manmohan Singh should convene a conference of various religious, ethnic and linguistic groups in the state and work out an arrangement in consultation with all elements. The people of Assam cannot afford to speak to one another in the language of hate and horror.

— The writer is a senior Indian diplomat, prominent Muslim politician and an eminent columnist.
Email: [email protected]


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