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Assam violence rooted in land and identity

Rumor mongering must be replaced by land reforms

  • Walter Fernandes, S.J., Guwahati
  • India
  • August 17, 2012
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The clashes between Muslim immigrants and indigenous Bodo tribesmen in Assam have revived the debate on whether peace is possible in northeastern India and the controversy over “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.”
There have certainly been conflicts in northeastern India for decades. But they have to be situated in the context of threat to land and identity.
The Bodo area of western Assam where the recent conflict occurred had experienced violence on three occasions in the 1990s.
An accord signed between the Bodo militant outfit and the Assam government in 1993 created the Bodo Autonomous Council. However, it excluded more than 1,000 villages that had no Bodo majority.
Attempts to “create a majority” led to the attacks on Bengali Muslims in 1993, Bengali Hindus in1995, and Santal in 1996. They also displaced 350,000 persons.
The present conflict began with the killing of two Bengali-speaking Muslims in early July and two more on July 19.
On July 20, four former cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers that rules the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts were found dead in a Muslim-majority village in Kokrajhar district.
No one knows who killed them but rumours spread that Muslim had done it. Added to this was another rumour about an exceptional influx of Bangladeshis in recent months. The National Commission for Minorities that conducted an enquiry found the rumour unfounded.
However, the rumors led to anti-Muslim attacks that spread to neighbouring Chirang district.
Some fundamentalist forces turned the rumors into propaganda against Bangladeshi immigrants and claimed that all Muslims were illegal Bangladeshis.
Both Bodo and Muslim villages were burned down. Some 80 persons have been killed so far and 400,000 pushed to refugee camps.
Both sides have suffered. Of the 72 dead, 52 were Muslims and 22 Bodo. But rumours made the victims one-sided.
Others have used these rumours to present the Northeast as a region of perpetual conflicts. The Indian government used this pretext in 1958 to impose the Armed Forces Special Powers Act on the region that continues to be in force.
The act gives extraordinary powers to the armed forces. For example a junior commissioned officer may arrest a person on mere suspicion of planning a terrorist act. If the arrested persons die in army custody they can be declared terrorists killed while escaping. The security persons cannot be prosecuted for it.
That turns the conflicts into a purely law and order issue and ignores the real causes: land, identity and immigration.
Another rumor is that Pakistan pushes Bangladeshi immigrants to India to create unrest. However, immigration from Bangladesh is not recent and they are not the only immigrants.

The census shows that Assam had 2 million immigrants between 1951 and 2001.  With natural growth the excess comes to 4 million persons, around 40 percent of them Bengali-speaking Muslims, presumably of Bangladeshi origin.

The rest are Hindi- or Nepali-speaking Hindus, presumably from the northern Indian state of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. But rumor mongers present all the immigrants as recent, Bangladeshi and Muslims.

While the rumors are unfounded, one cannot deny that a big immigrant population is a threat to land and national identity.

Muslims are today nearly a third of Assam’s population against less than 24.7 percent in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent became independent. The Muslim proportion is higher in districts bordering Bangladesh like the Bodo inhabited territory.

However, the threat comes also from the immigrants from Bihar and Nepal. All of them encroach on land and do unskilled jobs that the local people either do not want to do or for which they demand shorter hours and higher wages than the immigrants do.

But the issue has been politicized by focusing only on the Muslims and by referring to them as illegal Bangladeshi.

Moreover, immigration from the present-day Bangladesh is not recent. From 1891 the British regime encouraged peasants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to cultivate what they called wasteland in western Assam.

The “wasteland” was in fact community land that was the sustenance of the Bodo and Rabha tribes who formed the majority in that region. Thus began the Bodo-East Bengal peasant conflict.

Most landlords in East Bengal during the British rule were Hindus and peasants were Muslim. As a result, 90 percent of the immigrants to Assam were Muslim. That gave a communal bias to their immigration.

By the 1920s the immigrants had spread to central Assam. Some leaders of the freedom struggle, afraid that Assam would become Muslim majority, encouraged peasants from Bihar to migrate to Assam. Nepali migrants followed. That introduced a Hindu-Muslim division among the immigrants. Many people of Bihar origin too have been killed in Assam in recent years.

While Muslims from Bangladesh migrated to Assam, Hindus from that country have come to Tripura, another state in the region.

Because of them, the tribal proportion in Tripura has declined from 58.1 percent in 1951 to 31 percent now. However, Tripura treats them as Indians as soon as they enter the state although most of them came after 1951, not at the Partition when the Indian subcontinent divided into India and Pakistan.

Only Muslims are called Bangladeshi. Tripura officially used 75,000 acres of tribal land for rehabilitation of the Hindus from Bangladesh. They occupied much more through money lending and other means. That threat to tribal land and identity resulted in tribal unrest in Tripura.

This was what happened in Kokhrajhar. One does not know who killed the four Bodos but the anti-Muslim reaction it caused turned anti-immigrant.

One agrees with the allegation of the opposition parties that the state and federal governments did nothing for two days after the violence began. Another allegation is that the ruling party uses the immigrants as a vote bank.

However, the opposition too has taken no steps against immigration.

The Assam Movement during 1979-1985 was against the Bangladeshi immigrants. The Asom Gana Parishad, a regional political party that emerged from the agitation, ruled the state twice in the 1990s.

For some of those years the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance was in power in New Delhi. But during those years only around 1,000 alleged Bangladeshis were identified and deported. It was convenient for the parties to keep the issue alive to use it as political fodder.

One can also ask whether such a big number of Bangladeshis can enter India without corruption in the forces guarding the border.

In interviews some immigrants said they had to pay the Indian and Bangladeshi forces 400 rupees for every entry into India or return to Bangladesh.

Moreover, most Bangladeshi and Bihari immigrants belong to a feudal system of lack of land reforms, high poverty and low wages. That pushes them to the Brahmaputra Valley where defective land laws that treat tribal community land as state property facilitate encroachment.

The immigrant encroachers bribe officials into giving them title deeds and other documents such as fake birth certificates. Immigration also balances the high density of over 1,000 people per sq. km in Bangladesh with a little over 400 in Assam and lower in other states in the region.

Finally, most immigrants were landless agricultural laborers who knew agricultural techniques but did not own land. They use these techniques in the Brahmaputra Valley to grow crops and prosper. The land losers feel that the encroachers prosper at their cost.


Given the causes of conflicts one cannot take sides between them.

Both migration and poverty have become vested interests. It is not easy to stop immigration because 40 percent of the Indo-Bangladesh border is riverine and difficult to patrol or to fence. That also explains why 72 percent of Assam-Bangladesh trade is “illegal.”

As a solution one needs a multi-pronged approach. The land laws have to be changed to prevent encroachment in the Northeast and to give land to the landless in states such as Bihar.


One can deal with Bangladesh only through an integrated development of the Northeast and Bangladesh to create an economy vested in peace with development.

Dr. Walter Fernandes, former director of the Indian Social Institute and the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati (NESRC), is now a senior researcher at NESRC. An earlier version of this article was published in the Himal South Asian
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