People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 31

July 05, 2012


Political Opportunists Communalise the Assam Riots


Archana Prasad


THE media coverage of the riots in Kokrajhar district of Assam have focused on the immigration of Bengali Muslims into the Bodo Territorial Council areas as the root cause of the July 2012 riots. Political parties like the BJP have fed on this discourse and blamed the Congress government for playing vote bank politics thus ignoring tribal rights in the region. In their political resolution before the riots and the press release after a visit by a high level delegation in the wake of the riots, the party has consistently demanded that Muslim immigrants be identified and deported. This Hindutva support for tribal identity politics and rights is not new and is firmly grounded in the understanding that tribal people are Hindus and need to be supported in their fight for their traditional historical homeland. What is more dangerous is the fact that the targeting of Muslims as outsiders has got internalised into a feeling of mistrust which has fuelled a history of conflict and riots in the area. Thus, as the Kokrajhar riots spread amongst the areas with tribal and Muslim populations, many Bodo leaders publicly stated that they could not co-exist with the Bengali Muslims. The widely reported statement of Nithunjoy Basumatary, an All Bodoland Students Union leader, that posters have been put up in the villages asking the “Bangladeshi Muslims” to leave “Bodoland” reflects the deep rooted anti-minority sentiment that has pervaded conservative tribal identities.





The current riots have to be seen in the context of the long standing struggle of the Bodos for a separate state. This demand has existed from the late 1960s onwards where it has been argued that the Bodos have been outnumbered by non-Bodo tribals and the immigrant Bengali Muslims. The Bodo Liberation Tigers, at the forefront of the movement for Bodoland, have been contending that the Muslims have grown in numbers. In 2008 again the Bodos and the Muslim peasantry clashed, once again with the aim of evicting the Muslims from the area. This argument is remarkably similar to the reasons given by both the BJP and the VHP in support of the Bodo cause. It is alleged that the Muslim population in the region has grown by 77.6 per cent in the period between 1971-1991 where as the Hindu (which includes tribals) has increased by 41.89 per cent in the same period showing that the Muslim refugees have flooded the border regions of Assam. However, if we look at the demography of the district which has been home to repeated riots, the figures tell a different story. According to a study conducted by the Indian Council of Social Science Research in 2008, the Muslims formed only 20.36 per cent of the population of the district where as the Bodos constitute a majority of the 33.7 per cent of the tribal population. Further, a majority of the non-Bodos do not appear to be solely Muslims. As the study and the census records show, Rajabhonshis and Santhals are the other tribes with a significant presence in the region and which has also faced aggression by the Bodos. Thus the early 1990s have seen a spate of conflicts between the Bodos and the Santhal peasantry which was forced to flee the area.


The ICSSR also explodes the myth about the Muslim migration into the Kokrajhar district through its primary survey of some sample villages. It has also been found that a significant proportion (57.7 per cent) of the Muslims has been migrating out to urban areas outside the state for jobs. Long duration migration is common amongst almost all communities and social groups and is well above 55 per cent. This clearly shows that there is no question of Muslims or Christians snatching employment opportunities from the Bodos or others. This argument is further strengthened by the fact that most of the Muslims of the district are classed as people without work and in need of assistance for access to employment opportunities. Thus, it is quite clear that the bogey of the infiltration of Muslim refugees from Bangladesh is only being used to create, both an ethnic and communal divide.




Another important argument in support of the Bodo identity movement has been that the Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh have encroached on Bodo lands and become their illegal occupants. Thus the Bodoland movement is meant to ensure that the land rights of the Bodos are protected. The Memorandum of Agreement signed by the Bodoland Liberation Tigers and the government in 2003 also ensures that non-Bodo people living in the Bodo region before the signing of the agreement are entitled to land rights. The leaders of the movement fear that such provisions will only be misused in order to deprive them of their own lands. While this general argument may have some validity, its importance needs to be measured in the context of the nature of land relations within the Bodo dominated areas. Bodo leaders have been popularly quoted in the media that Bodos have lost control over 75 per cent of the land in area controlled by the territorial council. However the study done by ICSSR shows that a relatively smaller proportion of cultivators and larger proportion of agriculture labour among the rural Muslim community reflect that possession of cultivable land in the community is limited. It also points towards the fact that the Muslim immigrants have been working on the lands of the Bodo tribals. Traditionally the Bodo tribals (the owners of the land) have given lands on lease to Muslim immigrants who in turn get a share of the produce and are therefore sharecroppers on these lands. This means that they are actually tillers of the land and their rights have not been legally recognised. Thus since Muslim immigrants and other working class non-Bodos appear to be the actual tillers of the land, it is difficult to characterise them as ‘encroachers’. Instead it is pertinent to first settle the rights of all the tillers of the land and then determine the status of the ‘encroachments’.


From the discussion above, it is amply clear that the arguments made by the Bodo political elites are aimed at driving non-Bodos out of the territorial council areas. This ethnicity based politics has however failed to solve the basic problems of the district in general and the Bodos in particular. Rather it has got appropriated by dominant political trends which have tried to use their arguments to boost their own conservative political arguments. The BJP has been in the forefront of this trend and has tried to appropriate the Bodoland movement within its broader Hindutva ideology by terming all Bengali immigrants as ‘Bangladeshis’. This false propaganda is clearly aimed at creating communal unrest in the area and drawing the Bodos into their own fold to advance their Hindutva agenda. At the same time, the Congress government has tried to build upon the insecurities of the Muslims in order to meet their own political ambitions. It is therefore important that the democratic movement continues its fight for the just and legitimate rights of all working class people in the Bodo areas. In the past, the Left has argued and fought for the legitimate rights of the immigrants and has demanded an amendment in the Citizenship Act. But it also needs to intensify its efforts for forging a larger working class unity that counters all forms of conservative, ethnic and Hindutva politics.