Sunday, May 19, 2013
Last Updated: 18 May 21:00 PM IST
25 November 2012
ETHNIC violence in west Assam has abated but the roots of deep distrust, created over a decade long memory of recurring violence since the grant of autonomy to Bodoland areas in 1993, have not. This explains why refugee camps continue to exist. Some Adivasi Santhals are still living there since 1994 because they are unable to return to their old habitations for fear of violence.
As always, ethnic conflicts in Assam inevitably boil down to the issues of “identity” of the indigenous people, Bodos now, and Assamese in general and infux of Bangladeshis.
In the wake of violence during May-August, 2012, the national and regional media described the clashes as between Bodos and Bengali Muslims. This was strange and a departure from the earlier use of the generic term Muslims. Its political significance must not be missed. In Assam and the North-east, the term Bengali refers to Bengali Hindus, mainly because, as an ethnic group, they returned their mother-tongue as Bengali in census operations while only the Muslims of the Barak Valley districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi did return their mother-tongue as Bengali, but the Muslims of Bengali origin in all Brahmaputra Valley districts, especially in populous Goalpara, Dhubri, Barpeta and Bodoland areas, were steadfast in returning Assamese as their mother-tongue and opting for Assamese medium schools for education.
This has been a major contributing factor to swelling the number of Assamese speakers to 53.08 per cent of the population in the 2001 Census and the status of Assamese as the single largest linguistic group— well above 29.96 per cent of the Bengali speakers – the second largest such group. It is therefore unfair to describe the Muslims, affected by violence in Bodoland areas, as Bengali Muslims which the Muslims would resent as implicit in this is an insinuation that they might as well be immigrants – old or post-1971 legal or illegal.
And this decision to substitute, in effect, reject Bengali for Assamese by vast ethnic Bengali Muslim population was deliberate and “strategic” which was taken in the 1950s when the States Reorganistion Commission headed by Pandit H N Kunzuru was appointed by the Centre and West Bengal, claimed restoration of old Goalpara District to Bengal (now divided into several districts, including Bodoland and Dhubri), the Bengal Muslim leadership of Goalpara joined the Assamese in successfully resisting the claim of Bengal, as they felt, for good reasons, that together with the Muslims in the Barak Valley and the rest of Assam, they would stand to gain more mileage in Assam, and the price paid for winning Assamese gratitude was to return in “Assamese” as their mother- tongue in the census.
In the light of the clout the Muslims came to exercise in Assam politics, subsequently, it was rather small!. Interestingly, this decision was taken by Bengali Muslims in Assam when the historic movement for the recognition of Bengali as a national language took the form of an unprecedented mass upsurge in East Pakistan which laid the foundation of future Bangladesh.
Perhaps a hard look at some basic facts of history would help in understanding of these complex issues. After British annexation of Assam, following the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826, the territories of the Ahom Kingdom became a part of Bengal Presidency. The point to note is that all West Assam districts today — Dhubri, Goalpara. Kokrajhar, etc —were parts of Mughal “Subah Bangal” and later Bengal Presidency’s North west Rangpur district after it was separated from the Old Rangpur District of Bengal in 1822 and predominantly inhabited by the Bengali-speaking people.
The system of land revenue administration, land tenural arrangements were about the same as these obtained in other parts of Bengal, including the Permanent Settlement introduced by Lord Cornwalis in1793. The Rajas of large zamindari estates of Gauripur, Bijni and Sidli were the beneficiaries of Permanent Settlement.
After the Anglo Bhutanese war of 1865, Bhutan ceded 1,500 sq miles of territory which constituted Eastern Dooars and was added to this district. This area contained Mech tribals, now called Bodos and it was made a part of the zamindari estate of Raja of Sidli. The district, then known as Goalpara with Dhubri as headquarters, was transferred in 1874 to Assam along with other two Bengal districts -Sylhet and Cachar – (the latter included North Cachar Hills sub-division which is presently Dima Hasao autonomous area under the Sixth Schedule) when the chief commissioner’s Province of Assam was carved out of Bengal in 1874 , the first partition of Bengal Presidency,it must be stressed that no part of this district, which included in the present Bodoland Territorial Areas District, was ever declared a tribal area till 1947 under any law. It was neither an “excluded” nor a “Partially Excluded” area like the Naga Hills or Khasi Hills under the Government of India Act 1935.
After Independence and in response to demands of Bodo leaders for protection of land rights, the Assam government amended the Assam Land Revenue Regulation, 1886 in 1947-48 to incorporate a new Chapter X to lay down laws for constitution of tribal belts and blocks in plain areas to protect the land rights of plains tribals. (The Bodos were the most numerous among the plains tribes of Assam). Altoeghter 38 such blocks were created, mostly in present Bodoland and adjacent Kamrup districts.
However its implementation was highly problematic as these tribal blocks were super-imposed on settled lands which forced the government to recognise the land rights of other groups like Santhals, hill and other plain tribes, scheduled castes and Nepali graziers/cultivators. Significantly the Nepalis were excluded in 1971. The core issue of harmonising the legitimate interest of Bodos and other long settled groups was not addressed in the Accords that the Government of India signed with Bodo militants which gave the latter political dominance, nor the Bodo leaders seem to be in a mood to appreciate its importance for peace and progress of the area. To keep it under the carpet and harping on identity and other issues might turn Bodoland into a Lebanon.
A large segment of Assam’s territory in the pre and post 1947 was either transferred from Bengal or acquired or added to it as the outcome of the British policy of pushing the eastern frontier of Bengal Presidency to include the unadministered areas inhabited by tribes e.g the Khasi and Garo Hills, Naga and Mizo Hills districts and entire North East Frontier Tracts which constitute Arunachal Pradesh today. Assam was the bridge head of the British in the North-east and after 1947 the Assam government had severe problems in these areas and even after states reorganisation in 1971, with separation of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, the state was left with nine districts which still included these three “transferred” districts plus a portion of Cachar transferred to Nagaon district in the 1930s which become a part of Nagaon later.
Looking at these developments objectively, one might conclude that history was unkind to Assam as it had been grappling, not with much success, to retain its “inheritance of loss”, to borrow the title of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, of lands which have been affected since 1947 by insurgencies, ethno-religious conflicts as in Bodoland areas or unrest in Cachar over the perceived neglect of development needs. These must be addressed to avoid further fragmentation.
The writer is a former Assam-Meghalaya cadre IAS officer and presently associated with the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, New Delhi