ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Assam Killings

Devolution of powers seems to provide no solution to the basic conflicts over land and citizenship.

The violence which has flared up in the western districts of Assam and claimed over 40 lives at the time of writing is a grim reminder of the ethnic and communal tinderbox which the north-eastern states of the country have become. This is the fifth time in less than two decades that large-scale violence, looting and killing has taken place in these areas. While the government and state authorities have displayed a dismal inability to prevent the flare-up or even to put an end to the violence, the culpability for the tensions, acrimony and social divisions is much wider and every group shares some responsibility.

Ever since the emergence of the Bodo movement, which itself started in the wake of the Assam agitation of the 1980s, there has been a ratcheting up of social tensions and acrimony in Kokrajhar and the neighbouring districts which have been claimed for Bodoland. The Bodos, who are the predominant community here, were shifting agriculturalists and much of the land in the valleys was “unclaimed”, as per the rule of property introduced by the British colonial state. It was in this land that the first immigrants – primarily Santhals from Bengal-Bihar who came to work in the tea estates and agriculturalists from Bengal – were “settled” in the pre-independence period. Two developments in the 20th century turned this immigration into a problem. The first was the gradual but complete incorporation of the Bodos (as with many other “tribes” of the region) into the networks of state and market through a change to settled agriculture and citizenship of the newly independent nation state under conditions of severe underdevelopment. The second was the artificial and haphazard demarcation of the region into two nation states – India and (East) Pakistan – which reified the historical flow of human populations in this region into Hindu-Muslim, India-Bangladesh problems. Together, these created the conditions for the emergence of reactionary identity-based politics.

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