The fresh outbreak of communal violence in the riot-hit Kokrajhar district of Assam is cause for serious worry. Twelve persons, reportedly belonging to the minority community, have been killed since Thursday evening. In the Kokrajhar violence of July-August 2012, over 100 people were killed and nearly four lakh displaced after tensions escalated between indigenous Bodos and minority migrant Bengali Muslims.
Accounts by reporters covering the general elections have revealed that Muslims and Bodos continue to live in perpetual fear in areas they are in minority. The elections, that concluded on April 24 in the Bodoland Territorial Council Districts (BTCD), have not helped either. They were held amid recurring violence, firings, physical assault, destruction of property, and intimidation of political workers and lay voters.
Paramilitary forces were also involved in an anti-insurgency operation in the BTCD hill tracts against militants demanding Bodo statehood.
The exact reasons — communal, political or militant — for the latest violence continue to be speculated upon. But the state government has its task cut out. Paramilitary presence may have restored a semblance of peace since late-2012, but communal tensions and political and militant violence have continued unabated. The communal violence has its genesis in the Bodo sentiment of feeling demographically and economically marginalised in their homeland. While the initial targets were Assamese-speakers, soon Bengali-speaking Muslims were targeted. The indifferent attitude of successive Assam and Central governments towards verifying the Bodo claim that these were illegal migrants from Bangladesh aggravated tensions. It is the blind eye towards successive riots in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2008 that sparked the unprecedented rioting and the consequent humanitarian disaster of 2012.
Political parties, trapped in the competing compulsions of votebank politics, have neglected and derailed the peace and reconciliation process. The ruling Congress has ceded much of its political space in the BTC districts to its unreliable ally, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The BPF, despite dominating the BTC since 2003, has declined in influence, by soft-peddling Bodoland statehood and misgovernance.
Allegations of BPF involvement in the 2012 riots have alienated minorities. The polarisation between Bodos and Muslims, Bodos and non-Bodos, and Hindus and Muslims, was reflected in the general elections.
The BPF candidate Chandan Brahma, BPF rebel and sitting MP Sansuma Bwiswmuthiary, and independent candidate UG Brahma aggressively vied for the Bodo vote. A former ULFA commander, Hira Sarania, wooed the non-Bodos like the Assamese, Bengali Muslims and Hindus, and Adivasis. Allegations of violently coercing dissenting voters rest uneasily on all these candidates.
The BJP’s attempt to foreground the Hindu identity has exacerbated the cleavages. Its promise to re-examine the Bodo statehood issue in exchange for political support and the heightened rhetoric against illegal immigration will only fan tensions. Learning from the 2012 fiasco, Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde has quickly dispatched an additional ten paramilitary companies and placed the Army on standby. Back then, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi sprung a surprise slamming his own partymen at the Centre for delaying the troop dispatch. Caught by surprise by the spiralling violence, Gogoi’s attempt to pass the buck was shameful. Bodoland is not ready for statehood as the communal violence shows. It is in need of a healing touch. Assam would do its unity and integrity a favour by addressing the developmental, security and ethnic issues that foment Bodo unrest and endanger minorities.