03/02/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Assam Adivasi Massacre: Untangling The Roots Of The Violence

STRDEL via Getty Images
An Indian villager mourns the death of a relative in Phulbari in Sonitpur district, some 250kms east of Guwahati on December 24, 2014, after heavily armed militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in rural Assam, pulling villagers from their homes and shooting them at point-blank range, witnesses said. Violence in the restive Indian state of Assam has killed 68 people including 12 children, authorities said, as separatist rebels dramatically intensified a long-running campaign in the tea-growing area. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Just about a week after the massacre of school children in Peshawar last December, more than 80 Adivasis were killed in Assam, allegedly by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) or NDFB (S). The day after, there were massive protests and retaliatory attacks on Bodos. By official count, the final death toll was 85 (including three Bodo deaths) and 70,000 plus people sought shelter in refugee camps.

The act was heinous - innocent lives were snatched away on a cold evening, when they were preparing for Christmas (most of the Adivasis were Christians). No matter what their cause, the militants' act should be condemned by all.

However, the news attracted relatively less attention in the national media, let alone globally. Recently, I watched a discussion on the topic on a leading English news channel. Apart from condemning the attack, the panelists and the host seemed clueless about the ground realities.

Often, there is a tendency to oversimplify such incidents in the media with headings such as "ethnic cleansing", "Hindus versus Muslims" or as in the recent case, "Bodos versus Adivasis". These are dangerously lopsided views and they tend to escalate the tension even further. On analysis we find that, among other factors, the root cause for the recent massacre was essentially the struggle for land between the original inhabitants and supposed encroachers.

The Bodos are the largest and oldest aboriginal tribe of Assam. They have carried on the struggle for the right to self-rule (to protect their tribal land and identity, as they proclaim) since the 1930s in the British rule. From the 1990s, the struggle became militant in nature, with the formation of the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF). Allegedly then, a major political party used the BLTF as a counterpoise to the regional political force, the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP).

Later, when the Congress came to power in Assam, the Centre and the state government signed an accord with the BLTF in 2003, and an autonomous council - the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) - was formed.

At present, the BTC has 46 executive members - 30 for Bodos, five for non-tribal communities, five open for all communities including Bodos, and six nominated by the Governor of Assam from the unrepresented communities of the BTC area. The leader of the militant group BLTF, Hagrama Mohilary, initiated a political party (Bodoland People's Front or BPF) and became the chief of the BTC. Soon enough, the BPF became an ally of the Congress in 2006, when Tarun Gogoi formed his government.

Per the accord, the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) was carved out by constituting four new contiguous districts from existing districts. Interestingly, however, the Bodos form only about 27% of the BTAD population, with Muslims constituting 30%; the remaining population consists of Adivasis and other communities. The non-Bodo majority of BTAD was never happy with the arrangement. Even at present, there are more than 10 writ petitions filed in the Guwahati High Court against this accord.

On the other hand, historically, the Adivasis are the Santhal, Bhil and Munda tribes of Central India. They were brought to Assam some 200 years ago by the British to work in the tea plantations, and have since assimilated completely into Assamese culture.

Since 2003, however, a new lot of Adivasis has been sneaking into the state through north Bengal and Bhutan, settling along the forests. According to government reports, the area encroached is more than 4000 hectares and there are more than 3000 settlers; the illegal settlement still continues. The Forest Department evicts them on and off, but they reappear in another part of the forest.

Sadly for the Adivasis who have settled in Assam for generations since the British rule, the Government cites them as being dislocated from their origins, and so refuses to recognise them as Scheduled Tribes - a Constitutional right which their brethren in other parts of the country enjoy.

Adding to that chaos, there is evidence that many Bangladeshis are settling illegally on tribal areas in BTAD. Back in 1998, the then Governor of Assam, S K Sinha sent a detailed report about this problem to the President, complete with facts and figures, but not much has been done so far.

According to the Governor's report, the enumeration of electors in Assam for 1994-1997 showed a 16.4% growth in population, whereas for India the average growth rate was 7%. Most border districts of Assam have an unexplained growth of population among the Muslim community. In fact, the community there has a growth rate higher than that in Bangladesh. Reportedly, a sizable population is missing from the Bangladeshi census. As per the 2011 census, out of the 27 districts in Assam, 11 have a Muslim majority. In the 2001 census, only six districts had Muslim majority then.

So it seems that the Bodo fight is for the protection of tribal land against illegal occupants, as well as the preservation of its unique identity. But this is only one part of the story.

While the BLTF surrendered and became part of the executive council of BTC, another militant group - the National Democratic Front of Bodoland or NDFB - continued with its violent struggle to secede from India and establish a sovereign Bodoland. In due course, NDFB split into three factions: NDFB (Progressive), NDFB (Ranjan Daimary) and NDFB (Songbijit). The first two factions are currently engaged in peace talks with the Centre, while the last is still involved in violent activities and is allegedly responsible for the recent massacre of the Adivasis.

The government had set a bad precedence when negotiating with the militant group BLTF. Now the sorry reality is that, once a militant outfit is cornered by the paramilitary forces, it agrees to talk with the government. And then, the same process gets repeated for yet another military faction. NDFB (Ranjan Daimary) with whom the government has promised to talk was responsible for the serial bomb blasts in Assam that killed more than 100 people in 2008.

Besides, all the sophisticated arms of the surrendered militants are still not confiscated. There is a huge cache of illegal weapons spread among the common people. This has created lawlessness in the society. Miscreants of different communities engage in illegal activities, including kidnapping and extortion, sometimes in the name of the militant groups.

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