Analysing The Recent Incidents Of Killing Of Bangladeshis In Kokrajhar District Of Assam
There were recent incidents of killing of people of Bangladesh origin in Kokrajhar area of Assam. There were naturally outcries of attacks on Muslims by Hindus. This was particularly so in view of the just-concluded general elections in which Narendra Modi led the BJP
I was accosted by many well meaning persons who said that it was because Narendra Modi was leading the election for the Lok Sabha that Muslims had been killed in Assam. I had to explain that the killing of Muslims in Kokrajhar of Assam had nothing to do with the present election in the country. When I said that the incidents in Kokrajhar were not communal, I was again not believed. I kept stating that the issue was not religion but land, and for this both Bengali Hindus and Muslims would be killed if the tribal people found that they were encroaching on tribal land. The killing Bengalis was not correct, but there was a simple issue at hand that the Government of Assam was violating. There is a simple constitutional guarantee that tribal land cannot be transferred to a non tribal. If the Assam government does not ensure that tribal land is not alienated, why should the Boro allow their land to be alienated? The government should evict the Bangladeshi Muslims or Hindus and evict them from holding tribal land. If the government itself allow the non-tribal to occupy tribal land, the Bodos have take the law into their hands. All this has nothing to do with Narendra Modi or his strident statements during electioneering.
We must go back to the origin of the people of the Northeast to properly understand the situation here. The Northeast was inhabited by Mongoloid peoples from Northwest China who migrated in groups many thousands of years ago and settled in what is now the Northeast of India, Burma and the whole of South East Asia. There is no written record of this migration, except for stories narrated from father to son. There were many different tribes who migrated and each tribe had its own dialect and its own animist religion. The Mongoloid tribes who settled in Burma in the plains area were converted to Buddhism by emissaries of the great king Ashoka of India, who had embraced Buddhism. This religion was also adopted by several Mongoloid peoples who migrated and settled in South East Asian countries like Thailand, Laos, China, Korea and Japan. In India’s Northeast only the Chakma tribe settled in the Chittagong Hill Tracts adopted Buddhism. The remaining tribes of Arunachal, Naga Hills, Manipur, Mizoram and several tribes in the Assam Valley retained
different animist religions. In the Assam valley the tribes who settled were the Boros Cacharis, Morans, Chutiyas, Rajbongshis, Rabhas, Borahis, Dimasa Cacharis, Tiwas or Lalungs and Karbis. Each of them had their own animist religion and their own spoken language.
In the Assam valley, there was a migration of caste Hindus from the Gangetic valley to the Brahmaputra valley. There is no record of this migration, but this must have happened. The caste Hindus who migrated into the Brahmaputra valley must have over several thousand years intermarried with the plains tribals like the Rajbongshis, Boros, Morans, Borahis and we have the caste Hindu Assamese community from these intermarriages. The Assamese caste Hindus adopted the religion and the caste system of the Hindus who migrated from the Gangetic valley. Notwithstanding this genetic mixing up between the castes Hindus who migrated into the Brahmaputra valley, the original tribes like the Boro Cacharis, Morans, and Chutiyas continued to follow their tribal religions. The Rajbongshis were converted to Hinduism and is now accepted as a backward class in the Hindu hierarchy. A small group of Boros also converted to Hinduism and they are now called Sharaniya Boro Cacharis, meaning that they have taken sharan in Hinduism. The majority of Boro Cacharis retained their animistic religion. The Boro Cacharis, Tiwas or Lalungs, Chutiyas, Morans, Borahis are classified as tribes, each having their own animistic religion. The tribes who settled in the Karbi Along Hills and the North Cachar hills were the Karbis and the Dimasa Cacharis respectively.
The Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution of India
When India’s Constitution was framed in 1950, the tribals who were placed below the caste Hindus were given certain rights. Under the Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, land that is designated in tribal areas cannot be transferred to non tribals. For example, forest land in the Fifth Schedule areas and land in Sixth Schedule areas in the Northeast of India cannot be transferred to a non tribal. All the Hill States of the North East, Arunachal Pradesh, hill areas of Manipur, Naga Hills, Mizo Hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Garo Hills, Karbi Anglong, and North Cachar Hills are under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. No non tribal can own land in all these Sixth Schedule areas. A couple of years back the Boro Cacharis areas of Assam were given a Territorial Council thus extending the Sixth Schedule to these areas, consequently making them tribal lands under the Sixth Schedule, thereby denying the right of ownership of lands in this area to non tribals. This meant that non tribals could not settle on the land in the Boro Territorial Council.
First introduction of Bengali Hindus and Muslims from East Bengal
Long before this when the British captured Assam, they brought the Bengali Muslim peasant from East Bengal to migrate and settle in the Brahmaputra valley as he was very good at cultivating paddy. A large number of Bengali Muslims migrated and settled in the Brahmaputra valley as large tracts of vacant land was available. Very soon, the British administrators found that the Bengali Muslims had multiplied and were spreading all over the Brahmaputra valley. The British government then codified rules in the Land Revenue manual designating three kinds of agricultural land as the Caste Hindu belt, the Bengali immigrant belt and the Boro Cachari or Tribal belt. After some years, the British found that the immigrant Muslims had managed to encroach into the Caste Hindu belt and the Tribal belt. This was the situation when India became independent. It is only after many years that the government of India notified the Territorial Council for the Boro tribal areas making the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution applicable to the Tribal Territorial Council area.
Cut-off date for illegal immigrants from Bangladesh
The real transaction that triggered off the attacks against the Bengali Muslim and Hindu immigrants in Assam was done by India’s then Prime Minister, when after the liberation of Bangladesh by the Indian Army, Mujibur Rehman was released from Military arrest and detention from Pakistan and came back to Bangladesh. He then came to New Delhi to thank Mrs. Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister for her help in liberating Bangladesh. After the official meeting with India’s Prime Minister an Indira-Mujib pact was signed. One clause was not included in the written pact. Mujibur Rehman requested India’s Prime Minister that a large number of people from East Pakistan had illegally migrated to India between 15th August 1947 and 25 March 1971. The Bangladesh Prime Minister requested Mrs. Gandhi that he would not be able to take them back into Bangladesh as this was a new country. He would be responsible only for illegal migration from Bangladesh from its date of creation on 25 March 1971 the date of formation of the Government of Bangladesh in exile in India. This was the date when Pakistan clamped down on East Pakistan arresting the Awami League leaders. This was also the date when the Awami League leaders who managed to cross over into India established the Government of Bangladesh in exile in India. Mrs. Gandhi did not have the authority to accept this cutoff date because the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 had already been notified. This stated that the cutoff date for applying for citizenship of India for people who had to suddenly migrate from East and West Pakistan after declaration of independence for India and Pakistan on 15 August 1947 was 26 January 1950. The transformation of East Pakistan into Bangladesh did not warrant a change in the cut-off date for migration from Bangladesh to India. Those who had migrated illegally from East Pakistan to India have after all come from some mohalla or village from East Pakistan which has now become Bangladesh. Mrs. Gandhi must have realised that all the illegal migrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan would be a vote bank for the Congress if she sanctified their stay in India. She agreed to the new Bangladesh head Mujibur Rehman. The cut-off date for illegal migration from Bangladesh to India was changed to 25 March1971 arbitrarily by a government order.
The Foreigners Agitation
This was immediately challenged by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) who then started an agitation called the Foreigners Agitation. The AASU demanded that the cut-off date for detection of foreigners from Bangladesh should be restored to 26 January 1950 as per the Indian Citizenship Act 1955. The AASU organised all the government employees, all the students of schools and colleges to court arrest till the government gives in. The foreigners agitation commenced in 1979 and continued till 1983. The Government of Assam was paralysed as children of schools, colleges, housewives, elders all office personnel began to court arrest. The Central government tried their best to win over the AASU. They did not budge. The agitation continued till the term of the then Assembly expired and an election was to be held.
The AASU refused to allow the elections to be held till the Central government relented on the issue of the cut- off date. The agitation started without resort to violence, but as the Central government did not give in, violent incidents began happening. I was Deputy Inspector General of Police, Northern Range in Tezpur in 1982-84. I remember when I was moving from Shillong to Tezpur on this posting, I broke my journey at Guwahati to meet the Director General of Police. When I asked him that we should concentrate on detection of foreigners from Bangladesh in Assam, he refused to give me directions. He knew what I had asked was a genuine issue, but was not willing to give me directions. I got my answer, when I met the Inspector General Special Branch, who happened to be a Bengali. When I repeated my question to him, he replied that there were no illegal foreigners from Bangladesh in Assam!
I joined at Tezpur in June 1982. Slowly and steadily the Foreigners agitation began to turn violent. I found myself in a living laboratory. Slowly our intelligence sources began drying up. I remembered Robert Thompson’s classic work on Counter Insurgency in Malaya. For me, my range of three districts of Assam, Tezpur, Lakhimpur and Goalpara was a living laboratory. Our sources began drying up and I remembered Robert Thompsons book Defeating Communist Insurgency-“The first sign of an incipient insurgency is the drying up of information.” This was happening to us. I wrote a demi official letter to the Director General of Police explaining this and warning him that the Foreigners agitation was leading to an insurgency. I got no reply.
The Government of India decided to force an election on Assam. Since the state government officials were on strike, all the polling officers had to be brought from other States. More than forty battalions of Para Military forces, BSF, CRPF and several State Armed Police Battalions were inducted. The population of Assam was polarised with the Assamese caste Hindus and Assamese Muslims on one side against the elections and the Bengali Muslims on the other wanting the elections. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) spearheading the Foreigners agitation had some groups like the Assam Jatiydibadi Dal as their collaborators. The latter had created a voluntary force called the Swecha Sevak Bahini, or Youth volunteer corps. A month before the elections, small bridges in the interior of the North bank and the South bank began to be burnt. It was impossible to guard these small bridges and to protect them either. The object of setting fire to these bridges was to prevent movement of force vehicles to move to the interior. In the towns, volunteers of the Swecha Sevak Bahini set fire to buildings earmarked for polling. Ultimately, in all the polling booths in the north bank, we could man only ten to fifteen polling booths out of ninety to hundred polling booths designated for each constituency. This was no election. In a constituency of about one lakh voters actual polling was only in about ten polling booths. Out of an electorate of about one lakh voters, actual polling in the constituencies of Assamese Hindus and Muslims were never more than 500 ballots. Normal polling was there in the constituencies of the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims only. This was a farce of an election. Yet the Chief Election Commissioner declared the results. The Congress was declared elected.
During the actual period of the run up to the polls and the actual polling, it was like a limited war scenario. Para Military forces opened fire dozens of times as mobs of hundreds of people tried to set fire to bridges to disrupt communications. In most cases of firing the mobs carried away their dead and injured persons and it was not possible to count the number of civilians killed in firing. From the 2nd of February 1983 till the last day of polling on 21st February, there was no respite for the police. The results of a farce of an election were declared. In the affected districts total polling in constituencies where on an average the electorate was more than a lakh, in many constituencies the total votes polled was less than one thousand. The Congress party was declared elected and they formed the government. The AASU and the Ahom Gana Parishad (AGP) continued the Foreigners agitation. The Intelligence Bureau resumed their efforts to persuade the AGP to relent and accept the changed date of 25 March 1971 from the date in the Indian Citizenship Act of 26 January 1950 as the cut-off date for Bangladesh nationals who had illegally migrated to India. They refused to listen. Finally the Intelligence Bureau who were in touch with the AGP was asked to talk to the leaders of the Foreigners movement accept the new date of 25 March 1971. In return, the AGP could constitute a new political party and the Government of India would ask the congress party to step down and a new election could be held in which the new political party the Ahom Gana Parishad could win the election. Foolishly the leaders of the Foreigners movement accepted this offer, thereby selling their own people and forgetting the very strong agitation that they had fought for five years. A new regional party was formed and a new election was held and the Ahom Gana Parishad won the elections. The whole trauma of the Foreigners Agitation was forgotten and the AGP sold their souls for the lucre of power.
The Foreigners Agitation turns into an Insurgency
Meanwhile, the Swecha Sevak Bahini had contacted the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) in Dimapur and formed the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the first cadres crossed over to Burma and reached the Kachin Independent Organisation KIO, who had agreed to train them in guerilla warfare.
In the Udalguri Sub Division of Darrang district the Police Station areas of Dalgaon, Udalguri and Panery were dominated by Boro tribes. In this area, the Dalgaon circle had been notified as a Tribal Belt by the British. This demarcation of tribal belts had been resorted to by the British to prevent migrants from East Pakistan from occupying areas meant for local tribes. After independence, the immigrant Muslims managed to occupy large tracts of cultivable land in the Tribal blocks by bribing local revenue officials. The Boro tribes who dominated the area bordering the Bhutan hills had meanwhile been attracted to the Christian faith by the Christian priests who had opened Churches in the area and embraced Christianity. When the ULFA was formed, the Boro group formed another insurgent group called the Boro Security Force, later renamed as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), to fight against the state government who were allowing Bengali people from Bangladesh to settle in Assam as their vote bank.
Meanwhile in western Assam in the districts of Goalpara, and Bongaigaon dominated by Boros another development took place. When the AGP formed the government after accepting the illegal date of 25 March 1971, they did not take the Boros of western Assam with them when they won the election in Assam.
They had probably promised them that they would take them in a coalition, but later they went into the elections alone.
When the AGP formed the government, and left the Boros high and dry, the Boro group went to the leader of the Assam Congress party and told them that the AGP had cheated them. The leader of the Congress party had been made the Governor of Mizoram after he lost the elections to the AGP. He then promised the Boro leaders and contacted a senior officer of the Intelligence Bureau and the Boros were told to send volunteers for training in guerilla warfare to a training Centre of a Central Para-military force raised for training personnel in Guerilla warfare. The Boro Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) was formed and was actually trained by the Government of India, equipped with weapons and explosives and unleashed on the AGP government of Assam! The BLTF carried out several operations of ambushing Assam Police vehicles and finally they carried out their biggest sabotage operation by dynamiting the Manas Bridge on the national highway of Assam as part of their fight against the Assam state.
As Inspector General Operations in Assam I had to operate against the ULFA all over Assam, against the Boro Security Force in Udalguri Sub division of Tezpur district and against the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force in Kokrajhar and Goalpara district. During the course of operations I used to interrogate captured militants, be they of ULFA, Boro Security Force, or the BLTF, the one group recruited and trained by the Indian government and let loose on the AGP government in Assam. When interrogating arrested cadres of the Boro community in Kokrajhar district, I found that they had been trained in the Training Centre set up for the force raised to fight on India’s China border, but deployed in Assam to fight against the Assam Police! I used to remark to myself- “Look at the games politicians play”!
By this time the first ULFA cadres had come back after training and commenced operations against the state. They commenced operations by opening units in each of the main districts and extorting money mainly from the big Marwaris and also Assamese businessmen. They set up a base camp in a clearing in a reserved forest in Tinsukhia district called Lakhipathar. The AGP government did not give permission to the Assam Police to attack the base camp of the ULFA in Lakhipathar. Finding the AGP government was shielding the ULFA, the Centre dismissed the AGP government and proclaimed Presidents rule in Assam. By this time the ULFA managed to extort several crores of Rupees from the Marwari businessmen of the state.
The state government was dismissed and Presidents rule was implemented. I was posted as the Inspector General Operations. By the time I joined, the Army who had been called to aid civil power was just getting inducted. Within a week of commencement of operations the ULFA had scattered and disappeared in the rural villages and towns. The Bodo Security Force set up camps in Bhutan located north of Udalguri and took shelter there.
We had a nice situation lined up with the ULFA operating all over the Brahmaputra valley, the Boro Security Force operating in Udalguri sub division of Tezpur district and the government-sponsored BLTF operating in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts of lower Assam.
The BLTF had been well trained and carried out several ambushes on the Assam Police vehicles operating in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. The Assam district Police were quite innocent of how to fight a guerilla force and suffered several ambushes. When I joined as Inspector General Operations my first task was to neutralize the BLTF. I collected the district Police personnel of the districts concerned explained how to deploy road opening parties on either flank of a road before a force vehicle is sent, got anti sabotage mine checking detectors. After this briefing we were able to detect several mines laid for our vehicles. There were some stray incidents of firing but no casualties were inflicted. Unfortunately the Manas Bridge had been dynamited before I had joined.
The creation of the Boro Territorial Council
The Boro Cachari Plains Tribals of Assam had been agitating to create a Tribal area for them. This was finally granted and a Boro Territorial Council was created a few years ago. This meant that in the area specified all land could be owned only by Scheduled Tribes as per the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Since it was being created for an area where there were many non tribals owning land a clause was included to safeguard the rights of non tribals already owning land in the area being declared as a Territorial Council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. There could be no transfer of land from a tribal to a non tribal after the notification of the Boro Cachari Territorial Council.
With the change of date for getting citizenship for people from Bangladesh being changed to March 25, 1971 on the basis of the agreement signed between the Government of India and the All Assam Students Union a large number of Bangladesh illegal immigrants had been regularized. There was a continuing trickle of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This was based on the simple principle of lebensraum (living space). With the grant of the Boro Territorial Council for the districts of western lower Assam there was a lot of vacant land. Illegal migrants from Bangladesh were naturally attracted and came and settled on these vacant lands. The government was also not watchful and should have ensured that no non tribals were settling on any vacant lands in the area of the new Boro Territorial Council.
Vote Bank Politics
Ever since the British brought the peasant from East Bengal to Assam to settle them in the vacant lands so that rice cultivation could improve this silent migration has been continuing. It was the policy of the Congress party in Delhi right from the 1970s to encourage the silent migration of peasents from Bangladesh to settle in the Brahmaputra valley. The changing of the date for citizenship from 26 January 1950 after the creation of East Pakistan and changing it to 25 March 1971 by the Congress party was to consolidate their vote bank. Subsequently to assuage the Boro Cacharis the Territorial Council was given to them. This was against the interest of the illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. The hapless illegal immigrant from Bangladesh has become the victim of all the games being played by politicians. He sees vacant land and he heads for that. In all these years the illegal immigrant from Bangladesh has been enticed by the Congress party. The horrifying massacres that took place in Nellie and Mangaldoi during the elections forced on the people of Assam in 1983 were all because of this. The recent incidents of killing of innocent Bangladeshis men women and children are again because of the same issue.
Incidentally it is not religion that is the cause. It is land, a much more elemental issue. In the north bank in the 1983 elections there was an instance of Bangladeshi immigrant Muslims fighting on one side with Assamese Hindus and on the other with Assamese Muslims. The issue in both cases was land, Land of Assamese Hindus and Assamese Muslims, that was encroached by Bangladeshi Muslims. After the riots when I visited all the interior places, the people of Chawalkhoa Chapori who had attacked the Assamese Hindu village of Bor Thekrabari on one side and the Assamese Muslim village of Sanua told me that at night as they prepared to attack, they were shouting Allah-oo Akbar and they heard the Assamese Muslim villagers of Sanua village also shouting Allah-oo Akbar and they were surprised. An Assamese Muslim boy of Sanua village was killed in this riot. The All Assam Students had erected memorials for their martyrs in these riots. The memorial to this Assamese Muslim boy still stands on the outskirts of Sanua village till today. I say again, the issue was land, not religion.
On no account can we condone any violence against any one. It is the State who should guarantee law and order in the State. But when the State violates the law of the land by favouring one community against another there is a problem. It is the State in Assam, the ruling Congress party who looks the other way when illegal migration takes place and do not evict illegal immigrants. In February 1983, the Congress government of India enacted an act called the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal act, which stated that the Foreigners act is held in abeyance in Assam and the IMDT act will apply to Assam. This is unconstitutional as you cannot have two acts for the same offence in two parts of the country. In the same month of February 1983, an MP from Assam from the AGP Party filed a petition in the Supreme Court that having two acts for the same offence in two parts of the country is unconstitutional. Regr4ettably the Supreme Court sat on this petition for twenty two long years. Any reasonable person can guess why they sat on it for twenty two years. Finally in 2005, an upright judge who had taken over as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT act as unconstitutional. If the government itself becomes illegal where do citizens go for justice?
(The author is former Director General, BSF.)