TROUBLE IN BODOLAND
For the last one month or so (July-August 2012) the area around Kokrajhar, the centre of the Bodo area of Assam has been riven by communal and ethnic fights between the indigenous Bodo tribesmen and Bangladeshi Muslim settlers, especially from the erstwhile district of Mymensingh , who have settled there in enormous numbers, procreated and brought over their kin, and thereby managed to change the demography of the region. To understand the problem some insight into the region and its background is necessary.
So where is Kokrajhar and who live there? Kokrajahar is district headquarters town in ‘Lower Assam’ (Namoni Akhom in Assamese). Near Kokrajhar the mighty river makes a wide leftwards right-angle turn, changing its flow from westwards to southwards before it enters Bangladesh just below Dhuburi. It is also close to the border with West Bengal’s Koch Bihar district. Its topography is like that of any river valley, plains sandwiched between the Bhutan Himalayas and the Garo Hills of Meghalaya. The plains are alluvial, very fertile, were heavily forested and were the abode of the Bodos, a Mongoloid tribal people, with names like Basumatary, Narzary, Mahilary etc, worshipping deities within the Hindu pantheon.
In 1937, after the first election held under British oversight, Assam got its first Chief Minister (then called ‘Premier’), Sir Syed Mohammed Sadullah, who decided to ‘Grow more’ by importing Bengali Muslim cultivators, mostly from the district of Mymensingh in East Bengal, just to the south-east of the present international border near Dhuburi. He pursued an active policy of settling them on unoccupied lands, especially the fertile char lands along the Brahmaputra, deforesting them and cultivating them. The Bodos did not seriously mind, because there was enough land and to spare. Only the British understood what was going on (not that they disapproved) and dubbed Sadullah’s ‘grow more’ as more of a ‘grow more Mohammedans’. But they did not go public on this and let things take their own course.
The influx meanwhile took the form of a steady stream and gradually began to change the demographic composition of the place. It also continued after Independence. The immigrants acted with great political sagacity and in every census returned their mother tongue as ‘Assamese’ though most could not speak a word of Assamese, using only the Mymensingh dialect of Bengali (so much so that these Muslims are still referred to as Mymensinghias, as opposed to ethnic Assamese Muslims called Goriyas, with whom the Assamese do not have any issue). As a result, the Assam Congress, the major political party in the State also did not mind. Not only were the immigrants a solid vote bank for the Congress; at the time there was tension between Assamese speakers (inhabiting the Brahmaputra valley) and Bengali speakers (inhabiting the Barak valley) in the state, and the linguistic status returned by the immigrants helped the Assamese who were the majority in the Congress.
By the 1970s the Muslim population in the state had swollen to such proportions as to render several districts Muslim-majority. Now the Assamese people sat up and took notice. The All-Assam Students’ Union, and later the Assam Gana Parishad, started the ‘anti-foreigners movement’ which culminated in the horrendous massacres of Gohpur and Nellie. Rajiv Gandhi’s government tried to manage it by enacting an extraordinary piece of legislation: the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act - IMDT law — until it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005.
In effect, the IMDT law formalised an Assam exception to India’s citizenship laws and gave legitimacy to the questionable citizenship practices prevalent in Assam. By the end of 2006 the Indian Supreme Court intervened once again; this time to nullify the pre-election notifications that had brought back the IMDT law by the back door. However, the most devastating judicial critique of citizenship practices in Assam so far is a July 2008 verdict of the Gauhati High Court. In a case involving as many as 61 people who had been found to be ‘foreigners’, the court said that most of them were able to avoid “proceedings against them as well as their deportation from India’ and that they have ‘incorporated their names in the voters’ lists on the basis of which they must have cast their votes”. One of them with a Pakistani passport even contested the State Assembly elections in 1996. Going further than any judicial opinion so far, the court said, ‘large number of Bangladeshis’ in the state now play ‘a major role in electing the representatives both to the Legislative Assembly and Parliament and consequently, in the decision-making process towards building the nation.’ Not mincing words, the court described their political influence as that of ‘kingmakers’.
That is where things stand now. And with things thus, riots of the type that the country has seen in Kokrajhar will be endemic. The indigenous inhabitants of Assam — an enormous pot-pourri of ethnic groups that are as varied as those in the whole of India, comprising Assamese caste Hindus (including the Assamized Bengali Hindus with names like Bhattacharjee and Chakrabarti), Ahoms, Assamese Goriya Muslims, Bengali Hindus of the Barak valley, and the large variety of plains tribals like Bodos, Miris, Rabhas, Cacharis, Lalungs, Mikirs, Dimasas, etc. — have realised that if the East Bengali immigrant Muslims continues to grow in political stature then one day they will demand an Anschluss with Bangladesh, and the result would be unmitigated disaster. They will therefore rebel — as they have rebelled in Kokrajhar.
As to the solution, things do not look hopeful primarily because of the reason that we Indians prefer to be politically correct and pretend everything is bhai-bhai. Behind this, of course, there is the solid realpolitik of vote banks, but there is also our innate reluctance to accept the truth and go for the solution. Unless the disease is diagnosed and accepted as such, no question of any cure can arise. The disease is what the Gauhati High Court had, without regard to political niceties, pointed out.
Let no one nurse the fond hope that this problem is going to go away if we, in our ‘secular’, ostrich-like fashion, wish it to go away. It is not a problem, it is a disease; and it will foster, spread, putrefy, until it is cured – or the patient is dead. And the cure lies in deportation, or at the very least disenfranchisement, of the immigrants. How this will be done is the next question. It will not be easy. But let’s not jump the gun — let’s accept the solution first – with disenfranchisement. Unless the truth is accepted, striving for the truth becomes impossible.
The judgment of the Gauhati High Court, in the case of Md. Abdul Hasim vs The Union Of India WP(C) No 1102 OF 2008 is very instructive. Those with a taste for law bay find it at http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1189769/