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Why the Violence in Assam will not Stop Here?

How Many More Lives?

It’s the time of the year when our Facebook feed is inundated with pictures of Christmas trees; it’s the season of snowy streets and happy faces. Unfortunately this has also been the season when we as a world have reached a time and space when atrocities committed by people on one another have reached an all time high. The massacre perpetrated by the Taliban in Pakistan was considered the new low of human values, till it was superseded by the massacre in Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts of Assam. While the incident takes the human trajectory of violence to an all time high, it is not the first time it has happened in Assam and unfortunately will not be the first.

One of the first incidents of such violence is the, by now forgotten ‘Nellie Massacre’. In 1983, a village called Nellie along with 13 other villages in the district of Nogaon in Assam was ravaged by tribesmen in the early hours of the morning. Reminiscent of some medieval invasion, the villages were wiped out in a matter of hours. In the morning when the police arrived, not a single person from the village was witness since not a single person was spared. Pregnant women, children, babies, the elderly - everyone was hacked alive. Government estimates of the death count was tallied at 2000. However, the actual estimates run up to 5000.

The incident was taken as the culmination of feelings of alienation amongst the Assamese people for lack of action by the centre to stop illegal migration into the state from Bangladesh. Although the beginning of the ‘Assam Agitation’ was non-violent, by the end of it the government estimated the loss of around 900 lives. Since the incident was taken as a retaliation for the infiltration of Bangladeshi immigrants into the state and the lack of action on the part of the centre. The parliament passed the IMDT Act of 1984 applicable only to Assam but passed without a single representative from Assam.

The new provisions made detection and deportation of immigrants more difficult instead of easier. While under the ‘Foreigners Act of 1972’ which was in operation before the IMDT, the burden of proving whether one is an illegal immigrant or not lay on the accused, under the IMDT the onus fell on the complainant who would have to live within a 3 km radius of the accused, fill a form and pay a fees. While under the ‘Foreigners Act’ during the years between 1962 and 1984, according to Government estimates over three hundred thousand illegal immigrants were detected and deported. Under the IMDT, in the next two decades the number of illegal immigrants detected and deported fell to 500, while the influx of illegal migrants increased threefold. The sagacity of the parliament in successfully making the situation worse for their own benefit was commendable.

In 1985, the Assam Agitation led to the ‘Assam Accord’ signed between the Rajiv Gandhi government and the ruling party in the state, AASU (The All Assam Students Union), a total of 600 cases registered in the Nellie massacre were dropped as part of the accord. The state government was formed by the AASU which split into two: a political party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the armed wing United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA, which went underground and continued the agitation because they felt the government had not done enough to develop the state nor to stop illegal immigration into Assam). The interests of the people were lost in the politics of power.

The NDFB which was responsible for the recent massacre was formed in 1986 and had the same grievances and objectives as the ULFA. Formed and headed by Bodos, the NDFB has links with the ULFA and aims for sovereignty. They have been said to be responsible for attacks on other communities, including Adivasis as well as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants residing in the state. In 2003, as part of an agreement wherein another group the BLTF surrendered arms, the government established the Bodoland Autonomous Territorial Council to administer 4 districts known as the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts. These districts also happen to fall under the category of the least developed region in the country, not to mention that this region is carved out of those where the recent massacre happened. When the real issue is poverty, under-development, starvation and anger seething in the indigenous people, which gets directed at the non-natives, doling out autonomy was escapism on the part of the government.

The main provision of the Assam Accord was that anybody settled in Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 is not a citizen but an illegal immigrant. This provision of the act has not been implemented by the government.

The centre through its vote bank politics, its half-hearted attempts at appeasement of the masses; its draconian laws such as the AFSPA; its lack of implementation of provisions of the Assam Accord; its impractical Acts such as the IMDT; its lack of concern regarding the socio-political and economic development in the Northeast has created a conflict region which every year and every few months claims the lives of innocent people.

There is an anger seething in the people which is not seen by mainland India, because they will never face the fear of a ‘bandh’(curfew), of a bomb attack, of an insufficient police force, the fear of insurgents knocking on their door to make their sister kneel down to have her chest shattered with bullets. The fear of the army raping their sister, daughter or mother or shooting their brother or father without warrant or reason - the AFSPA allows such arbitrary atrocities. We protest in Delhi about the dismal condition of the safety of women, we protest against lack of action on the part of the state. In the Northeast one of the main perpetrators of violence against women is the state with its army under provisions of AFSPA. While in Delhi a protest by Anna Hazare fasting for three days in Jantar Mantar becomes national news, there waits a woman in the state of Manipur, fasting for the past 15 years and still waiting to be heard.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the region just because of an accident of birth and I would stand corrected until proven wrong, but half-hearted attempts by politicians can't tackle the problems plaguing a conflict area. Meaningless gestures such as reservations don't uplift people. Political gimmicks of talks with insurgent outfits don’t quell the anger seething in people who have been unheard. Speeches on policies such as the ‘Look East Policy’ remain paternalistic gestures which can’t usher in development unless there is a conscious attempt made by the centre to ensure implementation - for which an attempt has to be made to establish a stable political economy.

A nation can't claim to be taking huge strides towards development with a burgeoning economy while a part of it is ravaged with violence perpetrated by the state as much as by insurgent outfits. While a part of the nation remains under-developed, unheard and ignored, measures taken hurriedly by politicians under the gaze of the media are only cosmetic and I’ve underlined that above. They do nothing to ensure the growth of the states, they are not signs of good governance but rather, they make a mockery of it. In order to tackle the situation in conflict areas, a history has to be re-created where the voices of the people are heard, their concerns addressed and their insecurities felt. We would need to recreate the history as well as the perceptions surrounding the Northeast if we are ever to conceive of it as a peaceful region.

References:-
http://ne.aidindia.org/Newsletter/Mar05/wNewsletterMar2005_files/page000...

http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/MONITOR/ISSUE6-4/victor.html

Goswami, Namrata, ‘Bangladeshi Illegal Migration into Assam: Issues and Concerns From the Field.’ Institute of Defence Analysis and Studies.

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