ASSAM IN FLAMES
Jihad and Ethnic Conflict Heat Up India-Bangladesh Borderlands
by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report
The October 30 synchronized terrorist attacks in the northeastern India state of Assam left more than 70 dead and authorities wondering if the culprits were the state’s armed separatist movement or Islamist militants who infiltrated in from neighboring Bangladesh. The attacks came weeks after a wave of deadly clashes between Bangladeshi undocumented immigrants in Assam and the Bodo indigenous people—two historically marginalized groups that have been pitted against each other. While little noted by the world media, the situation in Assam grabbed national attention in India—with the Hindu nationalist BJP cast in the ironic role of defending the state’s tribal peoples. Journalist Nava Thakuria offers this exclusive report.
The influx of migrants from Bangladesh to Assam has been a matter of concern in Assamese society for a long time. The clashes that broke out in central Assam in October brought home the fears of the region’s indigenous people in the face of a growing number of undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants on their traditional lands.
The hostilities between the indigenous Bodo people and Bangladeshi settlers—primarily in Udalguri and Darrang districts and the overlapping Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD)—left over 50 dead and rendered 150,000 homeless. The violence also resulted in the torching of more than 500 houses belonging to both the communities.
India and Bangladesh have more than 4,000 kilometers of porous border. There are wild speculations regarding the number of Bangladeshis living in Assam and the rest of India’s Northeast. Some say it amounts to more than 16 million migrants.
In 1998, then-governor of Assam, Lt. Gen. (retired) SK Sinha, sent a report to New Delhi describing the volatile situation emerging in the state. He argued that if the demographic issue was not addressed, the Assamese culture would soon be extinct.
“As a result of the population movement from Bangladesh, the specter looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state. Their cultural survival will be in jeopardy, their political control will be weakened and their employment opportunities will be undermined. This silent and insidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of geostrategically vital district of Lower Assam (on the border of Bangladesh). The influx of these illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim-majority region. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made,” the governor elaborated.
The problem has persisted for a long time. India’s 1931 Census Report stated: “Probably the most important event during the last twenty five years, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and to destroy surely more than what Burmese invaders did in 1820, the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation, has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants mostly Muslim from the districts of East Bengal and in particular from Mymensingh.”
In fact, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistani nation, claimed Assam as a part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during the partition in 1947. He used the argument that the 1941 census in Assam (then Greater Assam) showed the population of Hindus was only 42%. However, this figure excluded the tribal peoples, who are neither Hindu nor Muslim, but followers of their own indigenous traditions.
The All Assam Students’ Union led a movement in ’80s demanding the deportation of undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants from Assam. The agitation that swept the entire state came to an end in 1985 after signing an accord with New Delhi. Known as the Assam Accord, it called for detection and deportation of Bangladeshis who arrived after March 25, 1971 (when the mass exodus from the war in Bangladesh began). But the government agency admits that only a few undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh were actually deported.
Initially the violence in Udalguri and Darrang was accepted as another communal clash of the kind recently seen in may places in India. A different dimension emerged when the local residents reported witnessing the hoisting of Pakistani flags in at least two places in affected areas on the eve of the violence. There were reports in Assam’s newspapers—which were picked up by national television—that some apparent settlers shouted pro-Pakistani slogans after hoisting the flags. The reports sparked an outcry across India.
While ruling Congress Party leaders initially denied that the Pakistani flags were raised, the right-opposition BJP seized on the issue. Former Assam MP and BJP national vice-president Bijoya Chakraborty termed the flag incidents as shocking. She asserted that Assam’s Congress Party Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had failed to respond to the provocation and should be removed immediately.
Following the BJP’s lead, All Assam Students’ Union and the All Bodo Students’ Union representatives also visited the affected localities and expressed their outrage that “the indigenous people of Assam were forced to leave their residences to take refuge in the relief camps.” AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya accused Gogoi of compromising India’s national security by protecting those involved in the incident.
Dilip Saikia, the Assam state president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuba Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP, raised the specter Islamist militant infiltration. “The recent violence in Udalguri and Darrang districts was nothing but a conspiracy of the Islamic fundamentalists to chase away the indigenous people and provide space for the settlement of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants,” he asserted.
After visiting the affected areas, Saikia also attacked local politicians—of both the Gogoi administration and the Bodoland Territorial Council. He stated, “The BTAD chief Hagrama Mohilary and state ministers Himanta Biswa Sarma and Rockybul Hussain have put the indigenous population of Assam on way to a bleak future for the sake of votes.”
The Assam Public Works (APW), a civil organization linked to the Assam separatist movement, held protests in the state capital, Guwahati, at which Pakistani flags were burned. the APW also termed the violence the “handiwork of HuJI and other fundamentalist forces.” APW leader Abhijit Sarma argued that it was a retaliation to the recent killing of seven Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami militants who had apparently infiltrated from Bangladesh by Indian soldiers in Dhubri, Assam. The army said the HuJI militants were on their way to Guwahati for terrorist activities.
Chief Minister Gogoi initially argued that the raised banners were not Pakistani flags, but was pennants related to Eid festival. But Gogoi took a week to visit the location where the flag was seen in the early hours of Oct. 4. By then the region had exploded into violence.
The violence erupted with a small incident of cattle stealing by apparent Bangladeshis from a Bodo village. The flame of communal violence rapidly engulfed the adjacent areas and finally it spread widely in Udalguri, Darrang, Baksa and Chirang sectors of the Bodoland Autonomous District.
The state government tried its best to bring the situation under control. Thousands of police, army and paramilitary troops were deployed in the strife-torn areas. Army choppers were also engaged for air surveillance. A curfew was clamped down for more than a week, though it was relaxed during the daytime as the situation started improving. The government transferred the Udalguri deputy commissioner George Basumatary and suspended the Superintendent of Police Anup Kumar Singh for their failure to prevent the violence.
The situation turned worse when a Pakistani portal called Pakistan Daily carried an article entitled “Pakistan’s flag is a symbol of freedom in India” by one Ahmed Quraishi. Highlighting the hoisting of the Pakistani flag in Assam, the article described, “Pakistan’s media and intelligence agencies should project these incidents and gather support inside these Indian states as retaliation for Indian terrorism inside Pakistan’s Balochistan, tribal belt and other cities.” India’s BJP and other opposition parties quickly alleged that Pakistan’s ISI spy agency was involved in the flag incident.
But as politicians in India and Pakistan alike exploit the situation, Assam’s indigenous population remain in fear for their land and culture. The violence in Udalguri and Darrang highlighted their apprehensions loud and clear.
Nava Thakuria is an independent journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. He writes widely for media outlets in Asia on socio-political issues in Northeast India, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
Bodoland Territorial Council
“Pakistan’s Flag Is A Symbol Of Freedom In India” by Ahmed Quraishi, Pakistan Daily, Oct. 8
From our Daily Report:
India: separatists or jihadis behind Assam terror?
WW4 Report, Oct. 30, 2008
Special to World War 4 Report, Nov. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution