The July Riots in Assam: November Redux?

By Sadhana Guest

On the 14th of November, a fresh wave of killing in Assam raised fears of a repeat of this summer’s July/August riots. At the time, Sadhana posted a simple appeal for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but one that drew some angry questioning of our loyalties by a commentator. So this time, as new trouble brews, I’ll venture a more extended statement for what its worth.

The individual incidents of the summer riots in Assam – the machetes, guns, arson, fleeing mobs, displacements, the spread of violence to other major cities in India, and intimidation via the use of social media of specifically targeted religious and ethnic groups -- have been well enough documented, and the gruesome and shocking details are freely available online.

Also available online are any number of explanatory narratives, most of which do not seem to do justice to the complexity of the situation.

The Bodo are one of the Scheduled Tribes of India, one of the largest, and after decades of violent agitation for a separate state and/or homeland, were granted an autonomous area, (the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts or BTAD),  which they control. They are Hindus and most Bodos self-identify as such.  In the BTAD there are also non-Bodo and non-Hindu groups, including Christians and Muslims. However, of particular concern for the Bodo are the large numbers of Bengali speaking Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, who arrive (sometimes illegally) in increasing numbers and compete with the Bodo for land, resources, and political power. The third player in the area is the Indian government which attempts to play  peacemaker with varying degrees of success or failure, but always with what appears to be pitifully limited resources.

So, is the conflict an economic one, a political one, an ethnic one, or a religious one? It is likely all of these and more – but we seem even in the 21st century terribly ill-equipped to narrate such complexity. BJP spokesperson, Nirmala Sitharaman: “The violence in Assam is completely communal.” Badruddin Ajmal, founder of the All Bodo Muslims Student Union and an MP from Dhubri in Assam, sees it the same way, positioning himself as the defender of all Muslims in Assam against Hindus.  (It is interesting that indiginous (non-immigrant) Muslim communities in Assam (represented for example by Sahiruddin Ali Ahmed) pushed back hard against Ajmal and rejected a religious basis for the conflict. Indiginous Assam-born Muslims, Ahmed said, were just as threatened by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as Assam-born Hindus. No one, of course, seems to have listened to him). 

The government, on the other hand, downplayed the communal dimension, and according to the Assam police chief, "These clashes are more ethnic than communal.” They are, he said, “between the Bodo tribe and what we call non-minority groups." The New York Times split the difference, deciding that the conflict was “ethnic” for the Bodos but “communal” for the Muslims. The Times coverage seemed particularly selective, granting the Muslims a uniquely encompassing religious identity (not an ethnic one) and switching to the language of economics, power, and ethnicity when talking about the Bodos. In addition, those on the far left of the political spectrum similarly downplay the religious and communal dimension. For them the “root” cause is usually presented as an economic and material one, a struggle for limited resources. This is the narrative largely presented in mainstream Western media as well.

The competing narratives are made more confusing because of the fact that old 20th century narrative paradigms on which many of them rely, are increasingly outdated today. No one has made much of the fact that here we have a minority Scheduled Tribe in violent conflict with a religious minority group in India. Dalits, tribals, and religious minorities have for most of the last century seen themselves on the same side against Delhi; and have been wooed by the same groups for their votes. Old alliances are splintering everywhere. Even in Kerala, bastion of far left politics in India, the far Left CPM now battles a confederation of right-wing Muslim groups for political power in the state, and competes with them for Dalit votes.

And exacerbating the problem is the fact there is precious little in the way of actual facts. There seems to be a consensus that illegal immigration has been on the rise in Assam, but just how many of the Muslims in Kokrajhar district are illegal immigrants? No one seems to know.  There is no data. The Bodo’s concern with becoming a minority in their own hard-won district is understandable, given the fate of neighboring Tripura where immigrant Muslims now form a majority in that state. Eleven of Assam’s districts now have a Muslim majority as well. But what is the responsibility of the Bodo ruling council to take care of its non-Bodo inhabitants? And what of the central government’s responsibility in ensuring immigration is legal and legitimate? What of evangelizing elements within these Assamese Muslim communities themselves, communalizing voices like Ajmal’s, hell bent on expansion at any cost, and violently burying the voices of dissent and moderation within their own Muslim communities? Each of these is a point of failure in a complex disaster in an ever-changing political landscape.

What these narratives do is continue arguing for, and competing for, an exclusive loyalty, in a world where loyalties can no longer afford to be exclusive.

In light of this, what are we to do? What is a group like Sadhana to do, born in the diaspora by people who call multiple nations home, and who envision a Hinduism capable of reinforcing these multiple allegiances without conflict?

There are pragmatic solutions that have been suggested – better border control, a voice for minorities in the Assam government, better security for individuals and groups provided by the central government, aid for the displaced and homeless, all of which could have an immediate effect on tamping down the impulses that are building walls rather than bridges between communities. One could start with a focus on these. Karma yoga, after all, is the belief that the pragmatic is also spiritually and philosophically rewarding, and part of what we Sadhakas believe.

Old narratives and paradigms are falling by the wayside. The only way forward is focusing on the pragmatic and difficult work of building bridges -- even in our narratives.