Untangling Assamese Communal Violence

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Untangling Assamese Communal Violence

Posted on: 2nd July 2014
Priyankar Upadhyaya
Banaras Hindu University, UNESCO Professor for Peace and Intercultural Understanding

The recent general election in India saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win an unprecedented majority in the lower house of the parliament. Concerns have been raised in some quarters about the portents of this landslide victory for inter-communal peace in the country. Such premonitions gained salience after the eruption of communal violence in Assam at the beginning of 2014, staining the otherwise peaceful election. However, the conciliatory and inclusive tone of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's exhortations to take everyone along on the path of development has done much to assuage such anxieties within India and overseas. This is indeed a welcome development, especially as some media and political parties accused the BJP of inciting the communal violence in Assam through its aggressive election campaign.

Violence in many forms has been endemic in post-independence Assam. The most recent violence occurred in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) in the west of Assam, claiming over 40 lives and displacing thousands of people, mostly from Muslim communities. As in the past, both the Congress party and the BJP traded charges against each other for communalising election issues to harvest votes. Amid media headlines on electoral jostling, this violent episode once again underlines the faultlines and democratic deficits that have long exacerbated conflicts in northeast India. The issue is already ebbing from public attention as the new government embarks on the promised roadmap of good governance and development. However, it is important to highlight the generic causes of inter-communal violence in order to suggest a possible roadmap to sustainable peace.

The recent violence in the BTAD stems from the protracted struggle of local ethnic groups over land, identity and resources against the background of illegal migration from Bangladesh. Beginning in the 1990s, armed Bodo groups have sporadically resorted to ethnically targeted killings to sustain their hegemony over other non-Bodo groups, such as local and Bengali Muslims, Santhals, Adivasis, the Koch-Rajbanshis and the Rabhas. The Bodo Accord of 2003, a hastily made and ill-considered arrangement to appease the disgruntled Bodo tribe, served to formalise this pattern of violence. The affirmative laws stipulated by the accord have ensured the political dominance of Bodos in the BTAD but has consequently denied democratic representation to the non-tribal groups that comprise three quarters of the region's population. The hegemonic politics pursued by militarised Bodo groups has often led to large-scale ethnic violence. Lately Muslims, suspected of being East Bengali in origin, have been especially targeted. For example, the ethnic riots of 2012, which saw wide-spread attacks by armed Bodos and counter attacks by Muslims, claimed 108 lives and rendered over half a million people homeless.

During the 2014 election, the immediate provocation was the coming together of non-Bodo communities against a Bodo candidate who had won elections for over a decade. Increasingly marginalised non-Bodo groups of all religious and linguistic persuasions decided to consolidate their vote in support of Hira Sarania, a reformed militant who voiced their position against a separate state of Bodoland. In reprisal for their not voting for the Bodo Peoples Front (BPF) candidate, a faction of disgruntled Bodo militants belonging to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS) went on a killing spree in Muslim neighbourhoods. A fortnight later Sarania emerged victorious with the highest winning margin in the state, relegating the BPF candidate to third place. Concerns remain that, upset by this political unity challenging Bodo hegemony, this victory may inspire yet another bout of ethnically targeted violence in this conflict prone area.

Hyped as a pan-Indian communal issue, the recent violence in western Assam exemplifies how the chronic failure of governance in the region has exacerbated ethnic and communal divides. There is indeed wide-spread discontent over the politics of peace accords through which successive governments have appeased armed groups, denying democratic rights to non-Bodo groups that form the majority. Any enduring peace initiative must therefore make rights, justice and democracy for all the communities in the region imperative. To this end it is vital to bring together diverse political, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in political dialogue through civil society initiatives. The government should facilitate such endeavours, catering for the democratic aspirations of all segments of the population without raising insecurities for indigenous peoples. Most critical is to curb the culture of violence by stemming the proliferation of illegal weapons and taking stringent action against armed groups and criminals. The practice of allowing the perpetrators of massacres to evade punishment must end, or it will continue to encourage the militarisation of ethnic groups.

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