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The gruesome year-end massacre of over 80 people in Assam has brought dark forebodings about what lies ahead for the state in the new year. Even by the violent standards of the state’s history, the latest killings touched a new low. Unlike the killings of 2012 in western Assam, women were not spared this time. No mercy was shown even to infants. But like the 2012 killings, thousands of people have been displaced once again, with the state government struggling to provide both security and relief to most of those affected.

There are three proximate reasons for the violence by Bodo militants: government failures to defang armed Bodo extremists, the flawed Bodo peace accord of 2003 (and its predecessor, the 1993 peace accord), and the emergence of powerful non-Bodo voices in the region Bodos claim as their homeland.

Bodos are the largest plain tribes of Assam, and like other tribal groups have seen alienation of traditional rights over forest produce and land over the past century. In the mid-1980s, Bodo discontent took a violent turn. Bodo militants demanded that a separate state of Bodoland be carved out of Assam. But Bodos were a numerical minority in the area demanded for this state. The government promised to set up an autonomous council comprising those villages where Bodos were in a majority, as part of a peace accord in 1993, which soon collapsed. The accord sowed the seeds of successive campaigns of ethnic cleansing by Bodo extremists since 1993—targeting indigenous communities such as the Koch-Rajbongshis as well as settler communities such as adivasis and Bengali-speaking Muslims—to create a majority where none existed.

The Bodo peace accord of 2003 finally gave Bodos administrative control over a large contiguous region in western Assam, and led to the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) led by former Bodo militants. In trying to appease one minority group, the central and state government ended up breeding resentment among other communities, who have increasingly felt marginalized in the new administrative setup. While a section of Bodo militants have continued to use violence as a tool to muffle the voices of non-Bodos, non-Bodo communities have used the ballot box to checkmate what they perceive as Bodo hegemony. The current bout of violence has to be seen in the backdrop of this conflict.

But beyond the proximate reasons, there is an underlying cause that has kept Assam on the boil for more than three decades and throttled the pace of development in the region: the dominant discourse of identity politics.

Over the past three decades, questions of identity have come to dominate public and political discourse in Assam, with devastating consequences on Assamese society and economy. The fragmentation of Assamese society is very difficult to quantify but the economic damage is easier to measure, and it illustrates vividly the scale of the modern Assamese tragedy. In 1980-81, Assam ranked 9th among states in terms of real per capita income, ahead of states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Since then, the rest of the Indian economy entered a phase of rapid economic growth while Assam stagnated. As a result, by 2012-13, Assam’s ranking in the per capita league table had dropped eight places to 17th, the sharpest fall any major state has seen over this period.

The roots of Assam’s lost decades can be traced to the six-year-long Assam agitation beginning in 1979. That movement brought national attention to Assam’s burden of immigration but it also proved divisive in an extraordinarily diverse state. The agitation had begun as an anti-outsider movement before the target narrowed down to foreigners, and the harassment of linguistic minorities became a constant feature of the movement, culminating in the horrific massacre of Muslim settlers at Nellie in 1983.

The movement gave wings to the politics of identity and competitive intolerance in the region, leading to the birth of several new militant organizations in the state, each claiming to represent a section of the Assamese population. Even after the great influx of immigrants in the 1970s, Assam was among the top 10 states in terms of per capita income. But the Assam agitation threw the state into a vortex of identity politics and violence, which led to capital flight, and devastated the state’s economy.

Assam’s history offers lessons of warning to any multi-cultural society. It shows how much a society and its economy can suffer when aspirations for a homogeneous or dominant cultural identity take centrestage in politics. It also shows how difficult it is to escape the quagmire of identity politics once a society is trapped in it.

The elusive quest for a homogeneous homeland by Bodo extremists today is not very different from the aspirations for a homogeneous Assamese identity which kindled the fires of the Assam agitation. Bodos, among others, perceived that movement to be exclusionary, and this partly fuelled their aspirations for a separate homeland. Ironically, the Bodo leadership faces the same charge of hegemony today which they had levelled against the Assamese establishment three decades ago.

Pramit Bhattacharya is Assistant Editor at Mint.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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