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RAM JETHMALANI
ETHICS & POWER

Ram Jethmalani is a senior politician and eminent lawyer.

Assam’s tragedy has roots in history

The issue is of foreign infiltrators inundating the land that for centuries has belonged to the Assamese and tribals.

Riot-affected women at a relief camp in Kokrajhar district of Assam last week. PTI

ssam, the old Kamarupa, has a long and proud history of remarkable continuity, until its internal governance, demography and society were irreversibly dislocated by the imperial and colonial compulsions of the Raj. Powerful dynasties and clans, such as the Khen, Koch, Bhuyan and Ahoms were able to retain their power and kingdoms, in spite of internal feuds and frequent incursions by the Mughals and Burmese during the last four centuries.

The Burmese invaded Assam three times between 1817 and 1819, politically weakening the Ahom rulers of Assam, and bleeding and decimating the population. This set the stage for the British campaign against the Burmese whom they defeated, leading to the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1825. By 1839, Assam was completely annexed by the British, who included it as a part of the Bengal Presidency. The colonial government then established its monopoly over tea, in addition to the opium trade monopoly that it already held. Protests were suppressed by execution, and there was acute social unrest. In 1874, Assam was separated from the Bengal Presidency, and with Sylhet, it became a Chief Commissioner's Province, with its capital at Shillong.

Oil was discovered in 1889 at Digboi, and with this, colonialism received further stimulus to entrench itself in Assam. The tea, oil and coal-mining industries put increasing pressure on agriculture, placing peasants into hardship and starvation. From 1905 onwards, the demographic invasion from East Bengal had started for cheap labour, encouraged by the colonial government, and continues unabated even today, encouraged by subsequent governments, for different reasons.

It is recorded that between 1905 and 1921, the immigrant population from East Bengal increased four times over. Assam has had the highest rate of population growth in India since the beginning of this century. Between 1961 and 1971, the proportion of Assamese declined for the first time and that of Bengali speakers increased; between 1971 and 1981, 1.2 million migrants were added to a population of 14.6 million in 1971, and the number of registered voters increased inexplicably from 6.5 million in 1972 to 8.7 million in 1979. Clearly, the demographic invasion and its electoral returns, and the inevitable conflict for livelihoods, land and political power had begun.

The year 1979 saw Assam explode into a massive agitation against illegal immigration, with an agenda of compelling the government to identify and expel illegal immigrants and prevent new immigration. Though the agitation was mostly non-violent, there was also the dreadful Nellie massacre that left 3,000 dead after the controversial 1983 state elections. The agitation ended in 1985 following the Assam Accord that was signed by the agitation leaders and the Government of India. The agitation leaders formed a political party, Asom Gana Parishad, which came to power after the Assembly elections of 1985. But the simmering anger and discontent amongst Bodos, Rabhas, Tiwas, and other indigenous tribes, that the government was not preventing illegal migration from Bangladesh, was not extinguished.

Electoral politics and its lust for minority votes, in addition to the ongoing conflict for jobs and control over land in which Assamese, Bengalis and the tribals are caught, has deepened the fault lines. This is not a communal or Hindu Muslim issue, but an issue of foreign infiltrators who are inundating the land that for centuries has belonged to the Assamese and tribals.

We are informed that the latest violence in Assam was fuelled by the killing of four Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers in early July. On 20 July, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers men were killed in Kokrajhar. This resulted in Bodo retaliation against Bengali-speaking settlers, after which the ethnic clashes began, resulting in large scale violence and loss of life in Kokrajhar district, immeasurable destruction of public and private property, and a complete dislocation of public services. The ethnic violence has reportedly caused displacement of around 400,000 people.

Assam, its demographic invasion, and its ethnic, primarily Bodo cleansing, is no sudden development that has taken the state and Central governments by surprise. I am sure that the Prime Minister as an eminent Rajya Sabha member from Assam would have been in full knowledge of the ticking ethnic time bomb. His visit to Assam, his announcements of compensation are the cosmetic bit. But has he or his government seriously thought about a sustainable preventive and curative remedy? From their statements that I read, I can only conclude that the government continues to be in a state of perfect denial regarding the root cause of the conflict, namely, the uncontrolled illegal migration of Bangladeshis, that is nothing short of a demographic invasion of our country. I repeat, this is not a religious or minority issue, and no political party with national interest as paramount, should subvert it into one. It is purely an Indian versus foreign illegal migrant issue, and an issue of deliberate encouragement of continuous and unchecked waves of illegal immigrants from across the border, at the cost of the native inhabitants, presumably for the sake of electoral security, as against national security.

L.K. Advani, president of the BJP has stated the right words of caution that the root cause of the unfortunate violence was the large scale immigration from Bangladesh, and it was government's inaction that gave rise to insecurity and threat to the indigenous communities. "Today's situation has arisen firstly because of criminal delay in dealing with the situation when symptoms were already there. But introspection must lead to the identification of the root cause which is the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh of which serious note has been taken even by the Supreme Court... I don't attribute this issue to any communal or ethnic factors alone. They contribute in their own way. But the basic issue is the feeling that indigenous Assamese people have about being squeezed out and they are being deprived of rightful ownership of land by illegal immigration," he said.

Advani also questioned the Centre and Assam government regarding what action they had taken to detect and deport illegal immigrants even seven years after the Supreme Court had stuck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in July 2005. "Indigenous communities are losing control of their land while illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have embarked on a large-scale land grab policy," Advani observed. "This has also given rise to ethnic problems faced by the Bodos. They feel threatened that they would be marginalised in their own region and in their own lands." He added that "the problem of immigration is also leading to change in demography in the state, and a serious threat to the unity, integrity and security of India."

Advani sums up a solution that stands the test of international propriety, legal validity, and national security:

* Treat the Assam problem as an Indian versus foreigner issue, and not as a Hindu versus Muslim issue.

* Prepare an updated National Register of Citizens, by deleting the names of non-citizens from the voters' list in Assam.

* Uphold the non-violability of the tribal belts and blocks in Bodo areas.

* Save Assam to save India's unity and integrity in the Northeast.

A fence on the international border was supposed to have been built, but has not yet been completed. The Government of Assam and the Government of India continue to remain in a state of denial, and refuse to even discuss the root of the ethnic strife. Will mere statements and compensation packages of the Prime Minister find a lasting solution to the tragedy that has occurred and prevent it from being repeated again?

I leave the readers to judge and draw their own conclusions about the real intent of the government.

To be continued

 
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