27/12/2014 12:35 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Assam: The Anatomy Of Violence

Indian tribal people shout slogans and burn tires to block a national highway during a twelve-hour general strike in Biswanath Chariali in Indian northeastern state of Assam Friday Dec. 26, 2014. Hundreds of survivors of a brutal rebel attack by an indigenous separatist group called the National Democratic Front of Bodoland on Tuesday that killed at least 70 people in northeastern India sought shelter in a church and school while security forces imposed a curfew in a bid to contain the latest bout of ethnic violence. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Eighteen children shot dead including a five-month-old. More than seventy people have lost their lives in Assam this week when an armed ethnic militia fired indiscriminately on Adivasi civilians (also known as Tea Tribes).

The Songbijit faction, a splinter group of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) is suspected to have carried out this round of killing. The NDFB(S) claims to be fighting for a separate homeland for the Bodo tribals, one of the several indigenous tribes of this eastern Indian state bordering Bhutan.

In thirty years of armed insurrections in this stretch of Assam, hundreds have been killed, many more have gone missing and a few million have been displaced. Another few thousands will be forced out of their home this winter. The survivors have lost count of the dead and the government has no data of the number of victims.

The story of Bodoland (a homeland for Bodos) has been one of the most violent assertions of identity India has ever encountered. It started in the mid '80s and was followed up by an agreement with the government for an autonomous council and then a territorial council in 2003. Under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution this council secured educational, economic and linguistic aspirations, land rights and the socio-cultural and ethnic identity of Bodos.

While this could have resolved the demands of the armed groups and civil society, the problem deepened because the other ethnic groups inhabiting the area were not taken into consideration. Under the 6th Schedule, the Constitution does not grant reservation to just one community. The Bodos, however, extracted this from the government and reserved 75 per cent of the seats in the Territorial Council (headed by former militants), thus denying the area's other residents their legitimate rights, the Adivasis being one amongst them. They have also opposed granting the Adivasis 'Scheduled Tribe' status to keep them out of the council. (The Adivasis in other states have the status of a Scheduled Tribe)

When Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) was formed it claimed 35 per cent of Assam's land. The Bodos need another 15 per cent to raise the pitch for their long-standing demand of halving Assam, a demand that has been there since 1967. The Indian government has so far rejected their demand.

It is not just about land. It is also the population ratio. The Bodos are not a majority in Bodoland and to legitimise their demand for a separate state the self styled armed groups have repeatedly targeted the non-Bodo ethnicities driving them out of what they consider belongs only to them.

The late '90s witnessed the bloodiest phase, pushing Bodos, Adivasis and Bengali-speaking Muslims into hundreds of relief camps turning Bodoland into one of the high density areas of internally displaced people. The Bodos found their way back while the other ethnic groups continue to languish in makeshift camps or have left their home in search of livelihood and safety.

In 2012, the militant guns were trained on Bengali-speaking Muslims residing in Bodoland and months of rioting continued killing over a hundred people and displacing half a million.

The 2014 violence is only a work-in-progress in the ethnic cleansing of other communities from the area. In Assam, it has been the politics of ethnic identities and ethno-exclusivism that has resulted in such divisiveness. To add to the complexity of the situation, the government's policy of arbitrary appeasement has fuelled more and more groups to take up arms in the name of sub national assertions.

An ongoing "peace process" has obviously not worked and each time the armed groups step up violence, a dramatic military crackdown becomes inevitable. At the heart of this bloodletting though is demand for a separate state and the vicious cycle of terror economy and gun running. The absence of a policy to address such ethnic insurrections reinforces the problem.

In the smokescreen of violence what one loses sight, however, is the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding forever.

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