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Behind the Recent Communal Violence in Assam

by Uddhab Barman, 30 October 2008

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People’s Democracy, October 19, 2008

Rampant violence and mayhem swept across many areas in the two districts of Udalguri and Darrang in Assam for three consecutive days starting on October 3, 2008. A total of 54 persons were killed in the clashes between Bodos and Muslims, including 25 in police firing. The toll in Udalguri district was 31 persons (including 11 killed in police firing) and in Darrang district 23 persons (including 14 killed in police firing). Those killed mostly belonged to the Bodo and the Muslim communities. Hundreds of houses belonging to people of both the communities were burnt rendering thousands of people homeless.

According to official spokespersons, around two lakh persons were forced to take shelter in 82 relief camps set-up after the clashes. Of these, 42 camps were set up in Udalguri district and 36 camps in Darrang district. While the majority of people living in the relief camps belong to the Bodo and the Muslim communities, there are also some who are Assamese, Nepalese, Adivasis and Bengalis. Many of those who were injured in these clashes are being treated in different hospitals, including in the Guwahati Medical College Hospital.

With the clamping of curfew and deployment of the army and paramilitary forces, the situation has been, by and large, brought under control now. But a sense of insecurity and tension continues among the people. Simmering fear and apprehension, distrust and disbelief still persists. The inmates of the relief camps belonging to both the communities alleged that groups of armed gangs looted and set their houses on fire. There existed no administration at all in these districts. The DC of Udalguri district was transferred and SP has been suspended.

DIFFERENT VERSIONS

There are different versions about what sparked off these horrible clashes. One version is that a group of Bodo youth working as night watchmen in their village was attacked by a group of Muslims and one of the Bodo youth, Rakesh Swargiary, was kidnapped and atrocities perpetrated on him. The attempts by Bodo youth to rescue him led to the clashes. The other version is that some Bodo youth went to the Muslim village to steal the hens, goats etc. and Rakesh Swargirary was caught red-handed and assaulted by the Muslims. The news of assault and attack on Rakesh Swargiary spread like wildfire. This led to the mobilisation and clashes between the two communities and subsequent violent activities of arson, attack and killings. It is to be noted here that the distrust and fear among these two communities was such that they arranged night guards to keep a vigil on their own respective villages.

These communal clashes between the Bodos and the Muslims is to be seen in the background of the present phase of anti-foreigner agitations rocking the entire state. The so-called initiative of ’detection’ of the suspected Bangladeshis by some organisations led to numerous harassments and atrocities on people belonging to the religious minority community in many places in the state. This led to protests from minority organisations against these harassments, humiliations and atrocities. As part of these protests, a minority outfit MUSA (Minority United Students’ Association) gave a call for ’Assam bandh’ on August 14, 2008 during which clashes occurred between the Muslim youth and Bodos at Rowta Town in Udalguri district. Seven persons were killed and many were forced to flee their homes and stay in the relief camps. Since then there was a simmering distrust and tension among the people resulting in formation of volunteer squads of both communities to maintain night-time vigil in their respective villages. All these arrangements were in fact used as means to keep up the fear and tension among the people. Strangely, in such a prevailing situation, the administration failed to take necessary measures to restore the confidence among the people as well as take other preventive measures against recurrence of the clashes between the two communities.

GENERATING PHOBIAS

Under the guise of an ’anti-foreigner’ agitation, a general sense of Islamophobia was sought to be generated among the people of the state by the BJP-RSS, which has built up a wide network in the districts of Udalguri and Darrang in recent years. These forces continue to communalise the foreigners’ issue and have been trying under different platforms to mobilise people, particularly those belonging to the socio-economically backward sections of the society, for their nefarious designs. They are using a section of the Bodos as a shield against the Muslims who actually settled in these districts long back and became a part of the broad Assamese society. A small section of Assamese, Bengalis and Nepalese are also being mobilised by these forces against the Muslims.

Hagrama Mahilary, the chief of the Bodoland Territorical Council (BTC) alleged that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) has been responsible for the present communal clashes in the BTC area. The general secretary of the NDFB — an outfit which has a ceasefire agreement with the central government in force — denied the allegation and said that such charges were being made in order to cover up the failure of the state government and the BTC authority to protect the life and property of the people. But two NDFB activists arrested in connection with the killing of a Muslim woman in Baksa district confessed to the police about their involvement in the violence. Strangely, R N Mathur, state DGP said that there is no concrete evidence of the NDFB involvement in the present killings of the Muslims in the districts of Udalguri and Darrang. Whatever may be the truth about the involvement of the NDFB in the killings of Muslims, one thing is clearly evident — there is a strong trend among a section of the Bodo community to ethnically rule the BTC areas as a coherent homeland.

BREEDING FUNDAMENTALISM

On the other side, with the growth of the BJP-RSS in this region and their consistent violent campaign against Muslims in the name of suspected Bangladeshi citizens, sufficient ground has been created for the growth of communal and fundamentalist forces among the Muslim community. And this growth of Muslim fundamentalists and their activities further aggravated the communal situation in these areas.

All these multiple factors contributed to the present communal flare up and violence in the areas, resulting in the shattering of the unity of the people who are mostly peasants suffering from the onslaughts of the economic policies of the government. It remains to be seen whether the promises of the chief minister to provide relief and rehabilitation to the affected people and to take stern measures against those creating the communal violences will build confidence among the people and help in normalising the situation. But one thing is clear that the rifts and conflicts engendered by the communal violence among the Bodo and Muslim communities will be sought to be utilised by the divisive, communal and fundamentalist forces to their advantage and thus further endangering the peace and unity among the people.

So restoration of peace and amity among the people is the present urgent task. All the peace loving, democratic people of the state must unitedly come forward and endeavour to build confidence and amity among the people traumatised by the recent deplorable communal flareups and clashes.

(The writer is CPI(M) Assam state secretary; October 10, 2008