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Photo: The flare up in Assam is a metaphor for much of that region. Photo: PTI 
Photo: The flare up in Assam is a metaphor for much of that region. Photo: PTI 

The wake-up call from Assam

The massacre by Bodo militants showed Narendra Modi and his colleagues in NDA how urgently they need to move from easy optics to optimally securing peace in India

Trust Assam to provide a wake-up call in this season of structured good cheer by spilling new blood on account of old animosities.

An event showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government how urgently they need to move from easy optics to optimally securing peace in India in general and northeast India in particular.

The flare up in Assam is a metaphor for much of that region. On 25 December, the body count from ethnic violence that began two days earlier between the Bodo and adivasi communities in Assam inched towards a hundred. It may prove easy enough for investigators to blame initial aggression on a faction of Bodo militants, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Sonbijit), like many such groups quick to preach death-dealing as dialogue.

As recently as 2012 massive violence broke out with Muslim settlers in Bodo areas—that mostly border Bhutan—where indigenous Bodo communities have for long resented land and jobs being usurped by those seen as outsiders, perceived by Bodos as being helped by successive governments of Assam. First adivasis transplanted from eastern and central India as farm labour. And, more recently, Muslim immigrants from elsewhere in India and those who arrived illegally from Bangladesh.

The same as Bodo militants have proved to be the face—often brutal, and ultimately, corrupted—of Bodo aspiration, the Karbi and Dimasa people in south-eastern Assam have had their identity and development-led movements. The scars from the decades-long armed violence that erupted in the 1990s with United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which rode the anger of that state’s ethnic majority against socio-economic and political inroads by all manner of outsiders, haven’t healed despite ongoing peace talks with the group’s major faction.

It should not be difficult to apportion blame for state-level games of politics and maladministration, failures that have created ethnic maelstroms in Assam. Or to blame New Delhi’s legacy failures. These failures on the one hand bulldozed template policy without taking into account local development imperatives. And on the other ignored specific concerns of groups unless such groups signified a certain electoral advantage; immigrants have in recent elections often proved to be that electoral mother lode.

The danger of further misdirection lies if Modi and his colleagues pursue a strategy similar to that of their predecessors in New Delhi in an attempt to wrest political control of Assam from Congress when elections to the assembly come around in 2016.

Perceived failures of the Congress won for the BJP an unprecedented seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam in parliamentary elections this year. Deepening ethnic and religious cleavage to leverage this advantage into state elections less than two years from now is fraught with danger. Miscalculation could further injure Assam. Immigrant Muslims, for instance, have been a bugbear for Axomiya nationalists for a particular reason: they are numerous. Numerous enough now to fight back, as the Bodo community found to some disquiet during the fracas in 2012 that left scores dead—besides unsettling several hundred thousand—from both communities.

Engaging with priorities in the regional and national interest is the only remaining option.

The fires in Assam must be doused with an agenda of conciliation and development, efficiency and accountability. It is a tough but necessary task, and the central government can literally kick-start three such areas to pressure Assam’s government, alongside impelling effective policing and governance.

There are several autonomous councils in Assam that administer areas inhabited by particular indigenous ethnic tribes (there are four Bodoland territorial autonomous districts, for example). Some have proved to be feathered nests for former militants, now essentially legalized warlords. Many councils are hubs of corruption. And in all the government of Assam interferes for distributing funds and control, not efficiency. This loop clearly needs cleansing.

Peace talks with several rebel factions, most significantly the so-called pro-talks faction of ULFA, have crawled along without clearly stated goals and timelines. Keeping rebels out of active rebellion is seen by the government as permanent play than reaching integration that prevents such rebellion. In talks, clarity, speed and conclusion are urgently required.

The third is to soothe communal nerves without the sledgehammer of rightwing extremists who call for religious conversion and instant deportation of aliens without factoring in Assam’s complexities. At a time when Christmas is conflated with the day of good governance, surely the hand of god must work in tandem with the sobered head of man?

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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