Peace hangs by a thread in ethnically-volatile Assam (News Analysis)

July 31st, 2012 - 6:37 pm ICT by IANS  

P. Chidambaram New Delhi/Guwahati, July 31 (IANS) The recent ethnic flare-up in Assam that killed 58 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people not only shook the governments in both the state and the centre but revived the debate on why peace is so fragile in the northeastern state that is home to complex multi-ethnic, religious and linguistic groups.

The fresh violence incidentally came days after Home Minister P. Chidambaram said at a press conference in Chandigarh that the northeast has been “more peaceful” than “the most peaceful” year 2011. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited the state over the weekend, described the riots as a “blot on the nation”.

The conflict that ripped through parts of Assam last week was triggered by the murder of four men of the Bodo community in a Muslim-dominated area of Kokrajhar district. The killings generated repeated cycles of violence that led to more deaths and forced more than 250,000 people, including women and children, in Bodo-dominated areas to live in refugee camps, again bringing on the edge the sensitive border state that was otherwise headed towards peace.

What is causing the state of beautiful landscapes and tea gardens to sit on a tinderbox?

“Politics of manipulation,” said Ajai Sahni, an author and expert on counter-terrorism.

Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, blamed politicians for not working out “permanent and inclusive” solutions to Assam’s problems, including the issues related to Bodos, the largest tribal group in the state’s plains.

“Political parties don’t want clarity on the issues in Assam. You solve one issue and leave the other hanging. You make settlement for one group and leave others unresolved,” Sahni told IANS, referring to the influx of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Illegal immigration is one of the burning issues confronting Assam.

The Bodos feel threatened that they are being robbed of their land and identity by wave after wave of Muslim immigrants coming in from Bangladesh.

As per the law, immigrants who crossed over from Bangladesh into India after 1971 are liable to be detected and deported. But there is no reliable data on the number of such people.

Assam is home to more than 30 million people, according to the 2011 census. The state’s population has witnessed a huge jump of nearly 17 percent in the last 10 years. Religious minority-dominated districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaon, Nagaon and Hailakandi have recorded growth rates of 20-24 percent during this period.

On the other hand, eastern Assam districts that do not share any international border registered around nine percent population growth.

Sahni said the government has left the issue of illegal immigrants deliberately unresolved because of “electoral politics” and fear of losing Muslim votes.

But, then, it’s not just a Bodo-Bangladeshi problem, said Ranee Narah, a Congress MP from the state.

“It is a misconception that the Assam issue is all about Hindu, Muslim confrontations,” Narah told IANS, stating that the recent bout was “politically motivated to malign the image of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and his government”.

Assam demography, she said, is too “complex” for any “immediate permanent solution”.

“The state and the central governments are tirelessly working to resolve all the issues and address to the grievances of all indigenous and ethnic groups. The process is on,” Narah said, ruling out any foreign hand in the fresh violence.

Sanjoy Hazarika, founder of the Centre for North East Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia and an expert on the northeast, said: “At the core of most of these confrontations is the problem of land-based identity.”

Each group in the “complex multi-ethnic state, which is India and Southeast Asia rolled into one, worries that they are losing to other”.

“Politicians have essentially failed to do the difficult work,” he told IANS.

A home ministry official said the trail of death and destruction in the state had “shaken the government” and that is why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a visit to Assam seeking to provide comfort to the affected and announcing a Rs.300 crore package for relief and rehabilitation.

Manmohan Singh, who represents the state in the Rajya Sabha, said the riots in Assam were “a blot on the nation” and declared that the government was working to solve all the problems.

A minister in the state told IANS the government was drawing up a proposal to form regional development councils across the state where every group will be represented and will have stakes in “peace and development”. “That is one of the initiatives but lot more needs to be done and we understand that,” the minister said, not wishing to be identified.

But Hazarika, a known expert on northeast issues, believes that all these are cosmetic treatments and issues at the core remain unaddressed.

Politicians have failed to build trust and impart a “sense of equality and ownership among all groups”, he said.

“Quick-fix solutions won’t work. You also have to disarm the factions and groups with illegal weapons,” Hazarika said.

Narah agreed. “Permanent peace will come only after permanent solutions. I am hopeful Assam will see a lasting peace soon. It is also true that we politicians have to give peace a chance.”

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