Kokrajhar and After: Challenges for Democracy

The violence that broke out in Assam’s Kokrajhar district in the latter half of July is acquiring murkier political overtones with every passing day. Had the state and central governments responded promptly, the violence could have been contained at a much earlier stage. But crucial time was lost as army intervention got delayed apparently on procedural grounds and violence was allowed to escalate. With the state found wanting in terms of administrative initiative and political will, fear and insecurity rapidly engulfed the lower Assam districts of Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang. In an unprecedented instance of mass exodus nearly half a million people were compelled to seek shelter in relief camps. Low-key violence still continues to be reported from the area, taking the resultant death toll beyond 80 even as more people are dying in relief camps because of extremely poor sanitation and insufficient medical care in these camps.

Unlike previous instances of ethnic violence in Assam, the Kokrajhar incidents have had repercussions far beyond the state. The BJP was quick to smell a political opportunity in the Assam violence, blaming it on ‘growing illegal immigration of Bangladeshi Muslims’ and the Congress tradition of ‘Muslim appeasement’ and ‘vote-bank politics’. Advani himself led the charge in the Lok Sabha and the BJP and RSS launched an aggressive propaganda blitzkrieg across the country against their pet theme of ‘infiltration by Bangladeshi Muslims’. Some Muslim organizations in Mumbai organized a protest demonstration leading to clashes with the police leaving two persons killed and at least fifty injured.

And then began a vicious rumour campaign predicting post-Eid attacks on students and workers from the North-East in different parts of India. Thousands of panic-stricken workers and students began rushing back to Assam and other North-Eastern states from cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune. As trains overcrowded with angry passengers returned to the North East, passing through the already tense and violence-affected areas of Kokrajhar and neighbouring districts, communal polarization was refuelled in the state with reports of fresh clashes and even passengers being thrown out of running trains. Once again we saw the cynical use of modern means of communication including the social networking sites on the internet and cellphone messages to stoke fear and prejudices all around.

Several real facts and legitimate concerns are thus being lumped together to construct a mega myth, spread fear psychosis and serve the politics of communal hate and sectarian fanaticism. There is a feverish propaganda that the native population of Assam is being systematically swamped by Bangladeshi Muslim ‘infiltrators’ overturning the delicate demographic balance in the state and making Assam vulnerable to the mythical project of a ‘Greater Bangladesh’. The bogey of ‘Bangladeshi infiltration’ is then tagged to the issue of ‘terrorism’, demonized all too often as ‘Islamic terrorism’ and now through the sinister rumour campaign the whole thing is being sought to be pitted against the sense of humiliation and harassment that students and workers from Assam and the entire North-East often have to undergo in many parts of India, not the least in the national capital.

The discrimination and harassment felt by the common people of the North-East, whether in their home states or in course of education- or work-related migration to elsewhere in the country, is rooted primarily in the overwhelmingly bureaucratic nature of the region’s integration with the narrowly perceived ‘Indian mainstream’, uneven development resulting in widespread unemployment and repressive measures like the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act throttling the democratic voice of the people. The theory of Bangladeshi infiltration taps into this real resentment and seeks to channelize it in a communal direction by portraying Bengali-speaking Muslims as the biggest internal threat to the North-East. While the Home Ministry has been quick to sugges an external (Pakistani) origin for the campaign of misinformation and hate, we can hardly afford to ignore the internal forces with a potential to promote the same. Some official sources have admitted that at least a substantial portion of the sms and online fear-campaign originated from Hindutva outfits.

The attacks on and exodus of workers and students from the metros has come as a jolt to growing corporate centres. In the recent past, there have been cases of actual attacks on students and workers from Bihar, Jharkhand and UP in Maharashtra by MNS/Shiv Sena goons – yet that never resulted in the kind of scare and exodus that has been witnessed in the wake of the sinister SMS campaign and rumour-mongering that is still going on. The exodus reflects the deep-seated insecurity that comes from facing racial profiling and prejudices that permeate the ‘mainstream’ even in normal times. That trend has been seen in numerous cases of sexual assaults on women from the North East in major cities, insensitive attitude of the authorities towards such cases and several highlighted cases discrimination towards students of these regions in metropolitan cities. In many cases, people are returning to the North East, not just because of the SMS scare, but because of pressure exerted by the landlords who are refusing to provide accommodation to them.

The hate campaign targeting the North East also underlines the widely prevalent racial profiling and ignorance of the specific identities and social conflicts of the North East. In the metropolises, the Muslim minorities and people of the North East alike bear the brunt of profiling and prejudice, whereby they are denied accommodation and subjected to intimidation and violence. Attempt to pit these vulnerable communities against each other must be firmly resisted.

Next only to Jammu and Kashmir, Assam has the second largest proportion of Muslims, roughly a third of the state’s population and there is a significant concentration of Muslims in districts bordering Bangladesh. But much of this concentration happened historically primarily over two phases of mass migration, first during the period of India-Pakistan partition and second during the emergence of Bangladesh. The Assam accord has fixed 1971 as the cut-off year to decide the legality of immigration and a few thousand people have already been deported to Bangladesh over the last two decades. Many Muslims who have taken shelter in the relief camps have lost all their papers in the recent violence and now the Assam government talks of rehabilitating only those who have valid papers. Riots cannot and must not be legitimized as a method of turning people into ‘foreign nationals’.

Census figures show that since 1971, the decadal growth rate of population in Assam has been lower than the all-India growth rate. This clearly refutes the theory of a large and continuing inflow of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, yet the RSS-BJP propaganda machinery is working overtime to scare the people with the threat of a lethal mix of cross-border infiltration and terrorism. This, the BJP hopes, could provide the cutting emotive edge of its coming Lok Sabha election campaign.

Within Assam, the BJP has so far failed to make any decisive inroad thanks to the strong influence of regional sentiment and identity issues. But with the progressive weakening of regional forces like the AGP, the BJP sees the current turbulence as a great opportunity to communalise the Assam situation and emerge as a key political force in the fragmented and yet traditionally Congress-dominated political arena of the North-East. It is ironical that the party which dubs every opposition to AFSPA as anti-national and seeks to crush every impulse of self-determination of ethnicities or tribal communities by aggressive politico-military means and thus stands in virulent opposition to the real interests and democratic aspirations of the people of the North-East, and which espouses a ‘cultural nationalist’ ideology that is deeply inimical to the identity and rights of the people of the North East and minorities alike, is now trying to project itself as the champion of the region and reap a communal harvest from the intricacies of the present situation. This dangerous communal gameplan must be defeated and communal forces must not be allowed to vitiate the atmosphere and endanger people’s unity and social harmony in any part of the country.

The guarantee of the security and rights of migrant workers and students in any part of the country is central to the notion of democratic national unity and rule of law, and no organization or government can be allowed to play with the lives and rights of the people. Over the years Assam has historically evolved as a melting pot of people of diverse linguistic and religious communities and ethnicities and a harmonious co-existence of the people in Assam is absolutely central to the strength and viability of the larger social mosaic that is India.

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