Time to learn from BTAD

There is a trust deficit between Assam's ethnic communities and Dispur. Add to that the new religious divide in the state, and it can only spell trouble for Assam. This is the third part of the series-defining occurrences that hogged the headlines this year

Guwahati, Dec. 28: The trouble in Kokrajhar and the Bodo Territorial Areas District (BTAD) hasn't ended; it's merely gone off the headlines for now. And it's not something the media or doomsayers are saying. It's the government's claim in its update on the situation.

Statistics, however, show that far from being over, the situation in Kokrajhar has merely plateaued: of the 4,85,921 inmates reported in relief camps at the peak of the trouble in July-August 2012, 32,625 still remain, waiting rehabilitation, waiting to go back home. The figures are dated December 25. The situation is simmering at best.

In Kokrajhar, the list of mistakes on the part of the ruling party, and thereby the government, is long: letting migrants (Bangladeshi, Indian, whoever) settle on tribal land, underestimating the anger of the farmer who feels edged out in his own home and letting people of one community throw to the winds all family planning efforts.

There's a bigger, Catch-22 dimension to this and this is how it works: the only way the government can placate the widespread demand for separate states, coming as it does from the Bodos, the Rabhas, the Karbis or the Misings, is through equally widespread decentralisation of power. The trouble is, this demand also comes from a basic distrust between ethnic groups and Dispur.

As a result of this, the state has seen creation of three autonomous district councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution over the past decades. The Bodoland Territorial Council, for instance, has legislative, administrative, executive and financial powers in 40 policy areas. Moreover, the clamour among various ethnic groups in the state for more autonomous councils shows no signs of a let-up.

Look at the number of sahitya sabhas we have in Assam now: one for just about every community in the state. There is an obvious upside to it, that every ethnic group in the state is now more aware of its identity, culture and language. The downside, though, tells a different tale, one of failure of the older, bigger sahitya sabhas, especially the Asam Sahitya Sabha, to evolve into an umbrella organisation that consciously helps protect, propagate and develop not just Assamese but languages of the smaller groups, be it the Bodos, the Karbis, the Misings, the Rabhas or any of the other ethnic groups we have.

Dispur's failure to protect ethnic groups and their land from migrants, be they from within India or outside, along with the failure of cultural and literary organisations of Assam to keep the cultural weave and weft of Assam intact, has created a deadly cocktail that has resulted in every ethnic group not just demanding a separate state but also deciding to take things into their own hands when it comes to keeping their land safe. This is the battlefield where the migrant has to operate in Assam, with or without voting rights.

Add to that the strong, belligerent stand a state such as Meghalaya takes against illegal migrants, and the message to the ethnic groups of Assam is clear ' be it through a separate state or an autonomous council, they have to look after their own interests; that there is a common ground between their political interests and culture and those of Assam and the Assamese.

As Kokrajhar and BTAD erupted in August, this is what a Mizo writer-intellectual had to say: "Thank God we aren't in a state such as Assam. We aren't safe with you," she said. "Remember two things: first, Kokrajhar is only a flash point, and second, that we are tribals and we know from ancient times what lands belong to us. No matter what statistics and what riot act you read to us, we will protect our lands as we know the boundaries that define them." And it does not help that the government of Assam, in a matter of days, declares a few thousand alleged illegal migrants thrown out of Arunachal Pradesh to be Indian citizens.

Kokrajhar is the result of the people of BTAD deciding to take matters into their own hands ' of not wanting to let happen to them what happened to the Assamese in Assam, and as they point out often, what has happened to the indigenous Tripuris in Tripura.

It is fine for P. Chidambaram to say, "We need to learn to live with each other", but it would be foolhardy to ignore the faultlines.

Assam stands divided like never before. If ethnic identity and existence is what blood is being shed over in the hills of the state, Assam's plains are badly polarised, between Hindus and Muslims. One should not be surprised that a Bajrang Dal strike is successful here or that one called by the All Assam Minority Students Union has effect in various parts, including Upper Assam.

Finally, religious organisations here are tied up with those outside the region. That is how the exodus of Northeast-origin people from the south happened. This is a never before situation.

The state and the country both need to ask a few basic questions here: Post Kokrajhar, how many organisations condemned the violence? Analyse and express anguish is one thing, but condemn? Not many among Assam's biggest organisations condemned the violence. Why did religious organisations, political and apolitical, immediately come to the forefront of what was just a fight for land?

The solution: Put country first and start work, in earnest, to sort out the foreign nationals issue. What is the outcome of it is a later thing but both the Centre and the government of Assam are guilty of not even starting the process, at least not in earnest.

As for reading the riot act, had that worked, more than 32,000 people wouldn't still be in relief camps.

Kokrajhar is a flashpoint. One hates to say this, and hopes and prays that one is wrong, but it just may not be the last. And Assam is changing forever.

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