Home / Politics / Policy /  ‘Illegal migration has no role in the current conflict’

New Delhi: Ethnic violence in Assam involving Bodo tribal groups and Muslim settlers has left more than 50 people dead and displaced 400,000. Sanjoy Hazarika, a former South Asia reporter for The New York Times, columnist and author of three books on the northeast and director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia university, offers his perspective on the violence, and the government and media response to it.

Many politicians and media analysts have blamed the recent violence in Assam on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, who they say are inundating the region. What is your view?

Everybody agrees that illegal migration is a problem. But when you toss the phrase illegal immigration into the current situation, it creates a very explosive set of conditions and discussion points.

In the current conflict, I don’t think there is really a specific role that illegal migration has had. I think that part of the problem is that people are using phrases like illegal migration and Bangladeshi influx very loosely. But, you know, a Bangladeshi is somebody who has come to India post-1971.

The conflict is really rooted in control over land and natural resources. In the Bodo areas every group is actually a minority. There is no group that has a physical majority—like 50% plus. The Bodos themselves represent about 35% of the population, the Muslims are about 20%, the other two major groups—tribals and non-tribal, are another 30%, and then you have the Assamese Hindus, the Bengali Hindus and the others.

So I think what is happening is that it’s politically much more difficult to deal with this issue than to talk about something that nobody disagrees on. And there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of bitterness, there’s a lot of suspicion, there’s a lot of mistrust. You put that into the cauldron and it becomes much more difficult to resolve, and the potential for violence grows.

If the conflict isn’t about immigrants versus sons of the soil, what is the root cause?

The basic issue in Assam has always been control over land. Political power and community power derived from possession or lack of land. And if you look at all the conflict in the region—almost every single conflict in the region, political, social, anything, goes back to this basic premise, and the assertion of identity based on that. It really doesn’t matter who is on that land, if they are of this religious group or that ethnic identity, it all comes back to control over natural resources.

Assam has had a very tragic history of conflicts and riots going back to the 1950s and 1960s, it’s not just the 1980s, it goes back in time. And I think that politicians have harvested this ill feeling between each other, and we are now in a situation where more and more ordinary people are suffering more and more often. Cycles of violence are becoming sharper and more extensive and affecting more and more people. Tolerance levels have reduced and if you add to that the fact that over the past decades there is an increase in organized violence and the use of weapons … these play a growing role in the atmosphere of fear.

What has shown up very clearly in the latest incidents is that people don’t really know how to live with each other. They don’t know how to trust each other. There is always this feeling that the other side is going to grab your land, or come and do something illegal and harm your people, etc.

The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party recently advocated sealing the border with Bangladesh in response to recent incidents of violence. What do you think about this?

Much of the land border is fenced and many of the people who talk about this have not even visited the border. But you can’t fence the rivers. There are over 40 rivers from India that flow into Bangladesh. People do come. But I don’t think that there any Islamic conspiracy to diminish population and overwhelm groups politically—it’s just a simple law of migration.

All of us are migrants. We’ve come from elsewhere, our forebears have come from elsewhere. We live somewhere else, and we will go somewhere else tomorrow. And that’s how it is. But the question is how much of this movement is illegal, that is, across international borders without documents and how much is internal migration, which is a right of every Indian under the Constitution.

Of course, we do need far better border management. There are statistics to show that there has been out-migration from Bangladesh into the northeast of India. That is indisputable. It’s a fact. But not every Muslim who is there is a Bangladeshi illegal migrant.

What role should the government play in this?

The government needs to stop making statements like this is an erupting volcano and things like that—it doesn’t really build public confidence in its capacity to deal with the situation. The second thing is that people must be enabled to move back but in an atmosphere of safety.

Now, there are some ways you can build that atmosphere of safety, if not trust. One is to disarm the groups that have weapons. Whether it’s automatic weapons, or so-called primitive weapons that can be used when mass groups attack villages or isolated communities and individuals. That’s a tough task—it’s something the police and security forces have to deal with.

The third is to start the process of building trust from within the camps. You can’t say let’s wait for conditions to improve and then we build trust, because it’s only when conditions are better that people talk to each other. You have to talk to them within the camps. Because they are not living in each other’s camps—they are living in their own camps. The Bodos are in the Bodo camps. The Muslim victims are in the Muslim camps etc.

And, governments can’t build trust; it is the civil society groups, scholars, youth groups, community leaders who can. So there’s this process of building trust and of counselling that is very critical for those who have gone through trauma. I mean we’ve had 60 years of conflict in the northeast and there’s not a single proper counselling centre.

Catch all the Politics News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.
More Less
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Recommended For You

Edit Profile
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout