The Bodo-Bangladeshi Muslim Riots in Western Assam Assam’s Agonies
There have been severe communal clashes and rioting between the indigenous Bodo tribals of Assam and the Bangladeshi Muslims settled in the region in July 2012. It is reported that more than seventy people have died in the rioting. It is certain that more Bengali Muslims than Bodos have died. The figure of the injured should reflect the same situation with more Bengali Muslims being injured. This should indicate that most probably the riots were instigated by the Bodos.
The reasons for the present rioting are explained below. As will be seen it was known that tension between the two communities had been building up ever since the territory of Kokrajhar and Chirang districts became part of the Bodo Territorial Council. The Territorial Council comes under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and this would mean that in this area land can be owned only by a tribal and there can be no transfer of land from a tribal to a non-tribal.
The root causes of this communal divide
The roots of this problem go back to the coming of the British into Assam in the 18th century. In the 13th century, Assam had a number of kingdoms ruling the Brahmaputra valley. There were remnants of the Koch Rajbongshis in Western Assam, the Dimasa Cachari kingdom with their capital in Dimapur and controlling some portions of central Assam. In the east the Morans and Chutiyas were controlling parts of what we now call Upper Assam. It was at this time that a Burmese prince Sukapha after having some differences with his brother ruling the kingdom of Ava or Burma left Burma westwards, and crossing the Patkai range that divided the Brahmaputra valley from the Irrawaddy valley of Burma entered into Upper Assam. There must have been some opposition from the local king, but the Burmese prevailed and set up their new kingdom in what is now Sibsagar district. The Burmese soon intermarried with the local Morans, Borahis and Chutiyas and a new community called the Ahoms was born. The Burmese were Buddhists while the Chutiyas, Morans and Borahis were animists with a veneer of Hinduism. Soon the new community became Buddhist. This transformation could not have been very difficult as all the people of Assam were Mongoloid and the Burmese who migrated into Upper Assam were also Mongoloid.
Upper Assam now saw the rise of a new dynasty from this amalgamation of Mongoloid people—the Ahom dynasty, which beginning in the 13th century lasted for 600 years ending in the 19th century. This was the situation when the British East India Company sent probing patrols into Upper Assam from their base in Cachar which they had already brought under their control.
At about this time, the Burmese decided to attack both the Ahom kingdom in Upper Assam and the kingdom of Manipur. The Burmese overran both the Ahom kingdom and the Manipur army. Both the kings appealed to the British East India Company for help. The British based then in Cachar sent armies to Upper Assam and Manipur. The Burmese armies were roundly defeated in Upper Assam and in Manipur. In Upper Assam, the British attached the territory to the East India Company.
The British exploring the beautiful countryside of Upper Assam found that tea grew well in the low hills bordering both the Himalayan range to the North and the Naga Hills to the South. The administration of the East India Company soon changed the necessary revenue regulations and opened Upper Assam to tea cultivation. Finding that there were very few local tribal people of Upper Assam to work as labour in the tea gardens, the East India Company brought Adivasi people from Central India to work as tea garden labour.
After a few years as the tea gardens were developing, the British found that paddy cultivation was poor in Assam. They had come to Assam through the rich rice paddies of East Bengal where the Bengali Muslim peasant was a demon of a cultivator. They also found that vast stretches of cultivable land were fallow in Assam. They decided to open immigration from East Bengal to Assam. The immigration from the crowded rice paddies of East Bengal to Assam started as a reluctant trickle that soon developed into a flood as the land hungry East Bengali Muslim peasants found thousands of acres of vacant paddy land in the Brahmaputra and Surma valleys of Assam. The East Bengali Muslim peasants settled mainly in Cachar district of Southern Assam and in Goalpara, Kamrup and Nowgong districts of British Assam. This migration began in the first years of the 20th century. Within thirty years the population of Bengali Muslim peasants from East Bengal had saturated the western border districts of Assam, Goalpara, Kamrup and Nowgong districts to the extent that the Assamese population began to protest at the extent of this immigration and in the census report of 1931, CS Mullen, the Census Commissioner, voiced the fears of the local Assamese people. “Probably the most important event in the last 25 years, an event moreover which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future and to destroy more surely than did the Burmese invasion of 1825 the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization, has been the invasion of a vast horde of Bengali immigrants mostly Muslims from the districts of East Bengal….Wither there is vacant land thither flock the Mymensinghias…Without fuss, without tumult without undue trouble to the district revenue staff, a population that amounts to about half a million has transplanted itself from Bengal into the Assam valley during the last 25 years. It is sad, but by no means improbable that in another thirty years Sibsagar district will be the only part of Assam in which an Assamese will find himself at home.”
At the time of this migration, the population of the western districts of Assam Goalpara, and Kamrup comprised mainly indigenous Mongoloid tribes like the Bodo, Rabha, and Koch-Rajbongshi, besides the Caste Hindu Assamese people who many centuries earlier had migrated from the Gangetic valley. Since then, the caste Hindus had intermarried with the local tribal people and acquired a distinct identity of their own. The Bodos, Rabhas and Rajbongshis worshipped animist Gods. Among these three tribes, the Rajbongshis gradually embraced Hinduism and have now been admitted in the caste hierarchy of Hinduism as Other Backward Classes. Among the Bodos a small section has also embraced Hinduism and are classified as Saraniya Bodos—having taken sharan in Hinduism. The Bodos continue to be animist, but have semblances of Hindu Gods like Shiva in their pantheon of Gods. A number of Bodos have also converted to Christianity. There is a concentration of Bodos who are Baptists in Udalguri Sub-division of Darrang district
Against the background of the Census Commissioners report of 1931, it can be understood that the brunt of the silent invasion of Bengali Muslim peasants from East Bengal in the first years of the 20th century was taken by the tribal population of Goalpara and Kamrup districts. In Nowgong district, the existent population was mainly Assamese caste Hindu, but for a small section of Tiwa or Lalung tribe in the southern part. Both caste Hindus and the Lalung were affected by the Bengali Muslim migration. This was manifested in the Nellie massacre of the brutal election of 1983 that was provoked mainly by encroachment of tribal lands of the Lalungs.
Alarmed by the size of the migration, the British government enacted some land revenue laws that designated certain areas of agricultural land as tribal blocks, specifying that agricultural land of tribal blocks could not be transferred to non-tribals. Regrettably this order was breached by mostly petty revenue officials and sometimes by senior revenue officers too by effecting land transfers after taking bribes. In Mangaldoi district there is an area designated as a tribal block called Dalgaon. Today most of the land in this block has gone into the hands of immigrant Muslims. There have already been violent clashes between the Bodo tribals and immigrant Bengali Muslims in this area.
It is against this background that one has to see the recent clashes in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts of Assam. These are districts carved out of Kamrup and Goalpara districts of Assam mainly for the Bodo tribal population.
Besides this, an illegal action by the Government of India in the form of an executive order issued in 1972 and later confirmed by amending section 6 of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1985 shifted the cutoff date for conferring citizenship on illegal immigrants from East Pakistan from January 26, 1950 to March 25, 1971. By changing this date several lakhs of Bengali immigrants who had illegally migrated from East Pakistan into districts of Assam, Tripura and West Bengal were conferred Indian citizenship. This has certainly exacerbated the situation in Assam.
When India and Pakistan was created in 1947, large scale migration of Hindus and Sikhs from West Pakistan and of Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan took place. Migration from East Pakistan was into West Bengal, Assam and Tripura, bordering states of East Pakistan. The Government of India legislated The Indian Citizenship Act in 1955 to regularise the lakhs of Hindus and Sikhs who had fled to India from West and East Pakistan in 1947 as refugees. The cutoff date for these refugees who fled to India in 1947 for applying for citizenship was fixed at January 26, 1950. Hindus and Sikhs who came after this date were also considered for citizenship on individual merits. In any case there was no case for any Muslim from East Pakistan to migrate to India. However, as can be evidenced by the narrative in earlier paragraphs, there was continual migration of Bengali Muslim peasents from East Bengal to the plains of Assam before independence. This continued after independence, unabated. Settlement of these illegal migrants was abetted by the petty bureaucracy of the State Government’s Revenue department. After the legislation of the Indian Citizenship Act the Government directed the preparation of The National Register of Citizens in the Northeastern States, district wise. This register was prepared on the basis of the cutoff date for migration from East and West Pakistan to India being January 26, 1950 as per section 6 of the Indian Citizenship Act 1955. This register was kept in the custody of the District Superintendent of Police. On every report of a suspected East Pakistani national, the police referred to this National Register of Citizens to see if the suspected person was a genuine resident of the village he claimed to be living in. If his name was not there he had obviously come into India from East Pakistan illegally.
This whole system was sabotaged by the party in power in Delhi in 1972 after the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. After the liberation when Mujibur Rehman came to India to thank the Prime Minister of India for the help rendered in liberating Bangladesh from Pakistan, he requested that the large number of East Pakistani Muslims and Hindus who had illegally gone to India after August 1947 and before December 1971 should not be deported to Bangladesh. This was clearly an illegal request and India’s Prime Minister should not have agreed to this. Unfortunately, she did and this created an enormous problem of illegal immigrants who illegally migrated into India between August 15, 1947 and December 1971. Pursuant to illegally agreeing to this request, an executive order was issued by India’s Home Ministry to the Northeastern states. The first casualty of this illegal order was the National Register of Indian Citizens, which had the names of the Hindu people who had fled from East Pakistan during August 1947 and sought shelter in India and had obtained citizenship. By changing the cutoff date of January 26, 1950 to March 25, 1971, the date of the creation of the State of Bangladesh in exile all the people of East Pakistan—Muslims or Hindus—who had illegally trespassed into the Northeastern states after January 26, 1950 as noted in the Indian Citizenship Act got legitimised. This was probably a figure of nearly several lakhs in Assam alone.
The National Register of Citizens had suddenly become irrelevant. Several lakh illegal immigrants mostly Muslims who had slipped in, between January 26, 1950 and March 25, 1971, a period of twenty-two years suddenly became Indian citizens. Besides, illegal immigration of Bengali Muslims and Hindus continued unabated into Assam, Tripura and West Bengal. This unholy and diabolical order was issued to create a vote bank for the party in power then.
Seven years after this illegal direction was issued, the sitting MP of the Congress party from Mangaldoi constituency died. After the illegal order changing the cutoff date for citizenship for immigrants from Bangladesh was changed from January 26, 1950 to March 25, 1971, a large number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had managed to enter their names in the electoral rolls. When the sitting MP of Mangaldoi died, the All Assam Students Union spearheading the movement against foreign nationals organised sending of hundreds of petitions from Mangaldoi requesting the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) not to hold the by election until the electoral rolls were checked and the names of foreigners deleted. The Chief Election Commissioner sent an official from his office to enquire into these allegations. After his officers visited Mangaldoi and verified the allegations, the CEC announced in a press conference, that the allegations sent from Assam were enquired into and found correct. He stated that he would not hold elections until the electoral rolls were revised and the names of Bangladeshi nationals deleted. The Muslim lobby must have reacted to this. All we know is that the Morarji Government was displaced and Charan Singh was made the Prime Minister. The Chief Election Commissioner was summoned and told to conduct the by-poll in Mangaldoi immediately. Regrettably, he humbly acquiesced and summoning a press conference announced the by poll in Mangaldoi constituency on the basis of the 1974 electoral rolls! The very next day, a combined body of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Purbanchal Lok Parishad (PLP) and the Jatiyatibadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (JYCP), a joint body that had written to the CEC to check for foreigners in the electoral roll, met in Assam and decided to launch the Foreigners agitation against the changing of the cutoff date for immigrants from Bangladesh from January 26, 1950 to March 25, 1971.
Negotiations with the AASU from 1979 through 1980, 1981 and 1982 did not persuade the AASU to accept the changed illegal date of March 25, 1971. Finally in 1982, after a round of talks in Delhi in early 1983 the Centre decided, finding the AASU quite stubborn in accepting the illegal date of March 25, 1971, to force an election on Assam. This election was the most brutal election in India, with more than 6000 people dying in violent clashes between the Assamese and the illegal Bengali Hindu and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and in police firing on violent mobs determined to stop the fake elections. After this blood drenched election, there was an uneasy calm for a few months while the foreigners agitation continued.
It was at this point that the Central Government and the party in power in Delhi played a dirty trick on the Assamese people. In 1983, soon after the blood drenched election, the Central Government passed a resolution in Parliament bifurcating the Foreigners Act of 1946. In the Foreigners Act of 1946, the onus of proving that one is a citizen is on the suspected foreigner. In the new two Acts that were legislated, the Foreigners Act was kept in abeyance in the State of Assam and applicable in the rest of India. In Assam a new act called the Illegal Migrants, Determination by Tribunal Act was passed. In the latter act, all foreigners cases were to be sent to Tribunals set up under this act. These tribunals were to be manned by retired judges, a nice sinecure for obedient judges who were retiring, to carry out the illegal directions of the Party in power in Delhi! This meant that no cases under the Foreigners Act were to be registered in Police Stations and sent to court!
Firstly, it is illegal and unconstitutional to have two acts for the same offence in different parts of the same country. How could the learned legislators pass this Act in Parliament, unless they were like sheep following the leader! These infamous anti national Acts were passed in 1983. In the same month an MP from Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal filed a petition in the Supreme Court praying for these illegal Acts to be struck down as you could not have two acts for the same offence. Regrettably, the Supreme Court sat on this petition for 22 long years before striking it down as illegal and unconstitutional. Is it necessary to state why the Supreme Court sat on this for 22 long years? Finally they struck it down in 2005.
As soon as it was struck down, the Home Ministry amended an order in the Foreigners Act that literally took our breath away in the National Security Council Advisory Board where I was a member in 2005. The Foreigners Act of 1946 had an order legislated in 1955, that stated that a state may establish a Foreigners Tribunal to expedite disposal of cases of illegal immigrants. This order was now removed and two orders legislated in its place. The new order stated that the State of Assam shall establish a Foreigners Tribunal to try all Foreigners Act cases, while all other states may establish a Foreigners Tribunal. This meant that in all states except Assam all Foreigners Act cases would be filed in the courts after charge sheeting while in Assam all Foreigners Act cases should go only to a Tribunal and no case would be charge sheeted in court! The same MP Sarbananda Sonowal immediately filed a petition in the Supreme Court to strike down this patently discriminatory legislation. This time the Supreme Court had woken up, for they promptly struck down this obviously devious legislation. The dirtiest part of this story is that despite this obviously discriminatory order being struck down, from 2005 till today all Foreigners Act cases in Assam are still being sent to the Foreigners Tribunal and no case is being sent to the criminal courts. If this is not a case of the Government trying to favour the illegal Bengali Muslim migrants, what is? The Foreigners Tribunals should have been closed in 2005 after the Supreme Court struck down this patently illegal legislation. All cases decided by the Tribunals from 2005 should be treated as invalid!
Then in 1984, Mrs. Gandhi was killed. Her son, who became the Prime Minister, was guided by his advisors to persuade the AASU leaders to come for talks again. This time they were persuaded to accept the illegal date of March 25, 1971 by holding the bait of getting a chance to rule the state by telling them they could form a political party, the Congress Government formed after the brutal election of 1983 would step down and a fresh election would be held. If they won they could form the Government. The foolish AASU tempted by the hope of winning the election agreed and accepted the illegal date of March 25, 1971 as the cutoff date for detection of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Congress Government then stepped down, the AASU leaders formed a party, the Assam Gana Parishad, fought the elections and won and formed the Government. They forgot one thing. Who were the AASU to sign an agreement with the Government of India to agree to the illegal date of March 25, 1971 as the cutoff date for detection of Nationals from Bangladesh? Again how could the Government of India sign this agreement with a student body of Assam to change the cutoff date for detection of foreign Nationals of Bangladesh? The AASU signed the agreement and then formed a political party the Ahom Gana Parishad and won the elections after mortgaging their state to Bangladeshi immigrants.
There was only one crucial factor that the Government of India forgot in this transaction—Who is the AASU to sign this agreement with the Government of India. Who is the AASU to accept the new cutoff year for immigration for Bangladeshi people to migrate to India? Can the AASU, a student body of the state sign an agreement that could change the demography of the country? This act of the Home Ministry signing an agreement with a student body of Assam was illegal and unconstitutional!
This then is the basic cause for the bitter feelings of the original inhabitants of Assam—the Bodo, Koch—Rajbongshi, the Rabha and other tribes and the caste Hindus against the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and against the Government of India that perpetrated this dastardly act.
The present conflagration of the Bodo Tribals and the immigrant Bengali Muslims.
Let us now see what led to the sudden explosion of violence on the immigrant Muslims followed by retaliation by them on the Bodos and related tribes in the districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang.
When the Foreigners agitation started, the Bodo people were not aligned with the Assamese caste Hindus. This was because, the Bodo people wanted to contest the elections. The Saraniya Bodos, who had been accepted in the caste hierarchy, were not for the elections. After the elections, the leader of the Bodos, Upen Bodo, though he was close to the Ahom Gana Parishad leaders, was not given a Minister’s post, though he was close to the Ahom Gana Parishad (AGP) leader during the Assam Foreigners agitation and later when the AGP fought the elections. However when the AGP won the elections, the AASU leaders ditched Upen Bodo. The wily Congress leader Hiteshwar Saikia immediately called him and told him that he had warned him not to go close to the AGP leaders and that they would ditch him. He took him to Delhi and there one of India’s premier Intelligence Agency advised him to start a guerilla war against the AGP. The All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) soon got their young volunteers trained in guerilla war by another premier Intelligence agency, equipped with weapons and explosives and let loose on the Assam Police. The new group was called the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). There were a series of improvised explosive devices set up for the hapless Assam Police vehicles moving in Bodo areas like Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, and Goalpara districts culminating in the demolition of one span of the three span concrete bridge across the Manas river. Much later when I was Inspector General Operations against the United Liberation Front insurgency of the Assamese people, I met Army engineers who told me that the insurgents who demolished the Manas and later the Gourang Bridge in 1999 were trained by a premier Counter Insurgency Force! It was a thorough professional job!
The insurgency of the BLTF continued for some years. Meanwhile in Darrang district another more hardened and determined insurgent group was formed by Ranjan Daimary, a Baptist Christian who had studied in Union Christian College Barapani in Meghalaya, also a Baptist institution, where Thenguilang Muivah and Isaac Swu, the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland had also studied. Incidentally the area where Bodos lived in Mangaldoi district of Assam had a tribal block in Dalgaon that had been so designated by the British, to stem the tide of illegal immigration from the then East Pakistan. A large number of Bodos here were also Baptist Christians. Unfortunately a major portion of the Tribal Block of Dalgaon block was overrun by Bengali Muslim illegal immigrants from East Pakistan. There was no love lost between the Bodo tribals and the illegal immigrant Muslims of Dalgaon since many years.
Many clashes had taken place in the last ten years across the fault lines between the Bengali Muslim villages and the tribal villages of the Bodos. Since 1993, this was the sixth major spell of rioting between the Bodos and the Immigrant Bengali Muslims in the Brahmaputra Valley since 1993. More than 150 Bengali Muslims and Bodos have been killed in these riots. In all such riots, the figures of Bengali Muslims killed were generally double that of Bodos killed, clearly indicating that the aggressors were the Bodos. One of the aggravating factors was a clause in the Bodo Accord forming the Bodo Territorial Council that stated that all villages with 50 per cent Bodo population would come under the Bodo Territorial Council. This clearly gave motivation to cleanse the villages having a combined population of Bodos and Bengali Muslims to try and chase out some immigrant Bengali Muslims so that a Bodo majority would be created and facilitate inclusion in the Bodo Territorial Council!
Four major riots between the Bodos and the Bengali Muslims took place between 1993 and 1998 in which about 400 hundred people were killed, with more Bengali Muslims than Bodos as the victims.
When the Bodo Territorial Council was formed in 2003, two new districts were created Chirang and Baska. The Chief of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, Hagrive Mahiliary became the head of the Bodo Territorial Council. He formed a political party, the Bodo Peoples Front. He has since won two Council polls.
The present riot was triggered off when three Bodos on motor cycles killed two Bengali Muslims settled at Mussalman para near Bowragiri in Kokrajhar district. A little later bodies of four Bodos were found in Joypur Namapara locality of Kokrajhar.
It is reported that when rioting between the communities broke out, the District Magistrate sent a requisition to a nearby Army unit requesting them to send a column to assist the civil Police in quelling the riot. Section 130 of the Criminal Procedure Code is clear on this issue. The facts on the ground are that the immigrant Muslims is seen as close to the party in power in Assam. It can be seen that it was the Congress who have subverted the laws of the land in getting illegal Bengali Muslim foreigners citizenship. There is therefore bad blood between the indigenous communities of Assam be it the tribal or caste Hindu and the immigrant Bengali Muslim community.
On August 6, there were again clashes and communal killings in Kokrajhar district, despite the deployment of forces. The Government of Assam should ensure the deployment of forces across the fault lines between the Bengali Muslim and Caste Hindu, populations. The least that the Government of Assam should do is to see that further infiltration does not take place. It is not likely that the Bengali Muslim community will not infiltrate from Bangladesh. My conclusion is that as long as some political parties use the Bengali Muslim for their vote bank, this problem will continue.
By EN Rammohan
(A former IPS officer of Assam cadre, the author was Director General of Border Security Force)