Debating India

NORTH - EAST

Outrage in Assam

M.S. PRABHAKARA

Sunday 14 December 2003, by PRABHAKARA*M.S.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003.

Use of force to assert the claim of "locals" for preferential treatment in recruitment to the Northeast Frontier Railway in Guwahati leads to a backlash in Bihar, and then violence is let loose on Hindi-speaking people across Assam.

in Guwahati

IT all began as a relatively minor, and not in the least unique though entirely reprehensible, incident of confrontation between "locals" and "outsiders" over the issue of preferential appointment of local job-seekers in the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR).

On November 9, candidates from outside the State who had travelled to Guwahati for tests conducted by the Railway Recruitment Board, Guwahati, for appointment to Class III and Class IV jobs (now re-designated Category C and Category D jobs) were prevented from writing their tests. According to some reports, they could not write their tests because some local aspirants for these jobs seized and destroyed their entry cards. Among those affected were candidates from Bihar and Tripura.

Although the reaction in Tripura was muted, the reaction in Bihar was rather more outspoken and emphatic. Within days, passengers from Assam and other parts of the northeastern region travelling in trains passing through Bihar - all trains going westwards to destinations in the rest of the country have to pass through Bihar and West Bengal - were assaulted, one woman was reportedly molested. Exaggerated and highly coloured reports of such assaults and alleged molestation, like the one which said that travellers from Assam had been killed and their bodies put back in trains going back to Assam, or an editorial which spoke of the "traumatic gang-rape of a Naga girl who was later paraded naked", both incidentally in English language dailies, inflamed passions in a perpetually volatile environment, leading to assaults on the so-called Biharis. These soon developed into more generalised attacks, including arson, looting and killing.

The victims of these so-called Assamese-Bihari clashes are almost entirely the so-called Biharis, more correctly Hindi-speaking people from many parts of India, including, perhaps predominantly, Bihar, whose ancestors had settled down in the State or the region generations ago. The backlash began in Guwahati but spread soon to areas in Upper Assam, with the major toll being in Tinsukia district. Two weeks after the first outbreak, the officially admitted death roll was 56. The victims, who included women and children, were hacked to death, as in the case of a whole family in Tinsukia, or stabbed or shot. The violence was not confined to "remote" areas; hundreds of houses, homesteads and settlements in Guwahati, including in the capital complex Dispur and the Guwahati University campus, were burnt. Livestock too was destroyed.

Not to be left behind, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) issued a statement calling upon all "Hindi-speaking people" to leave Assam, an initiative that is widely believed to have contributed to the escalation of violence, with the ULFA itself playing a leading role in some of the killings. The ULFA, which has a history of viewing the Hindi language and the speakers of the language as "agents" of "Hindi/Indian imperialism", had already given a call for the boycott of Hindi language films, although this has not until now been strictly imposed. However, while not disowning the "quit Assam" call and still very firm in its call for the boycott of Hindi films, the ULFA has denied any hand in the killings.

In the later phases when the violence seemed to be under control, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the Bodo separatist outfit with complex linkages to the ULFA, entered the fray, with some killings in the Bodo-inhabited areas of Udalguri.

The toll is almost certain to go up. Many of the survivors have abandoned their homes and taken shelter in refugee camps. Given the spread of the Hindi-speaking people all over the State, including villages and small towns (the 1991 Census in Assam enumerated 10,35,474 persons as Hindi-speaking, although the figures do not tell how many of these are second or third generation settlers, bilingual in Hindi and Assamese, and in varying degrees of acculturation into Assamese society), no official figures of those internally displaced and those who have fled the State were given. Even the number of persons in the relief camps is constantly changing. Leaving aside the uncounted numbers of those internally displaced, about 20,000 persons, perhaps more, are believed to have fled the State.

Clearly, the scale and organisation of the violence suggests that the grievances run deep. A near-racist and deeply entrenched perception going back to decades that has informed and even rationalised this violence is that the so-called Biharis are rough and uncouth in their deportment and manners and almost deserve what they are getting. This perception is strengthened by urban legends as well as the unpleasant experience of many travellers from the region in reserved compartments of trains passing through Bihar, though the phenomenon of travellers without reservations, indeed without tickets, swarming into reserved compartments is not specific to any State, region or people.

The violence has been organised, not mindless or chaotic and ad hoc. Equally, these are being exploited to promote agendas that have little to do with the catchy slogan, jobs for the boys, the issue which on the surface seems to have stirred passions and led to violence.

One widely held view, openly expressed by the Minister for the Development of the Northeast Region, C. P. Thakur, is that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the usual suspects in such developments, are behind the disturbances, with a view to driving out the Biharis who do many lowly paid but essential jobs in the unorganised sector, thus creating a vacuum which will be filled by Bangladeshis, leading eventually to a Muslim-majority Assam. "Biharis out, Bangladeshis in," - the headline, which appeared in the Letters to the Editor columns in the newspapers, says it all.

In another exercise at passing the buck, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has blamed the Union government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Laloo Prasad Yadav, made much the same point during his two-day visit to Guwahati.

Interestingly, both Tarun Gogoi and Laloo Prasad Yadav had very nice things to say about the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), whose leaders lose no opportunity to stand the AGP, the party they created, and its leaders, in a corner. However, and even without the advantage of hindsight, one can see that the 24-hour Assam bandh on November 17 called by AASU marked the beginning of the escalation of violence. AASU leaders, as always, have maintained that they called for a peaceful bandh to register a peaceful demand and protest - jobs for the boys and protest against the violence done to the people of the State in Bihar.

Jobs for the boys, however, is not merely a catchy slogan. In many ways, it encapsulates a conviction and a mindset that see the essence of the slogan as a matter of life and death. With over two million "educated unemployed" (the number of unemployed in the live registers of employment exchanges in Assam, as on December 31, 2001, was a little under 15 lakhs), and with the State having little capacity for employment generation on its own, the youth of the State depend heavily on agencies from outside the State to provide employment. With little inflow of private sector investment, only the State and Central governments, and structures like the Indian Railways and other public sector undertakings, are seen as providers of jobs, howsoever huge the problem of unemployment and howsoever meagre their contribution in alleviating the problem is in the totality of things. For instance, in the current imbroglio (according to a published analysis) there were over six lakh applicants, more than half of them from outside the region, for 2,720 Grade IV posts, tests for which were disrupted, resulting in a spiral of violence and extreme counter-violence.

Given this reality, there is near-unanimity, cutting across all divisions, that local youth should be given preference for jobs in these establishments, especially for jobs in the lower categories that do not require the importation of personnel with any special skills. Apart from AASU, other "student and youth" organisations, such as the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), and their clones are quite vocal in their demand that there should be 100 per cent reservation for local youth (more frequently, "indigenous youth") in respect of Class III and Class IV jobs. The distinction local and indigenous is both important and ambiguous.

Although a major portion of the NFR falls within Assam with mostly a symbolic presence in or extensions into five of the other six States of the region (Tripura has nearly 45 route kilometres and the railway link is eventually expected to reach Agartala, while Meghalaya has no railway on its territory), a substantial portion of the NFR stretches westwards outside Assam, up to Malda in West Bengal and Katihar in Bihar. About 800 km of the approximately 3,800 km route of the NFR cover areas outside the region. The aspiration for people from Bihar and West Bengal for jobs in the NFR, even without the constitutional provisions (Article 16) and the Supreme Court’s ruling thereof, is entirely understandable and legitimate. The rub, however, is the widespread conviction that successive Railway Ministers have manipulated and misused their powers to provide jobs for `their boys’, depriving legitimate and qualified local aspirants. This perception and grievance is held not merely by agitating youth organisations; even government leaders in the States that have not had one of its Members of Parliament as Railway Minister share it.

Hence the growing consensus in Assam, the State through which the major part of the NFR runs, that local youth/ "indigenous" youth should get preference for jobs in the NFR , as indeed in other Central government undertakings situated, or having their offices in the State. The expression "local youth", given the still very inclusive political demography of the State, does not always cover only and exclusively the category known as "Assamese people", that is the people who, even though increasingly dwindling in their numbers in relation to other language and ethnic groups, continue to be a dominant force in the Brahmaputra Valley. Hence, the occasional choice of the expression "indigenous youth", an expression having a closer approximation to this category.

Like every outbreak of such violence against "outsiders", this too will subside. As the anonymous writer of Widsith puts it, this too will pass. There is a point, recognised on all sides, beyond which such confrontation cannot be pressed. For instance, the killing of five lorry drivers at a dhaba on the Assam-West Bengal border on November 18, as they were watching the India-Australia cricket match, has already disrupted the inflow of goods into the State and the region. Indeed, the dependence of the people of the region on the so-called Biharis and others of the same ilk for a whole slew of essential goods and services is crucial. There is concern that the riots and the dislocation and departure of so many people, many of them craftsmen and craftswomen in the building industry, will affect the major construction projects that have to be completed over the next year and a half for the city to be ready to stage the 2005 National Games.

Solutions will have to be found, for what is involved is big money, even outside of the big games. Only this explains the high-powered visits of Central leaders to the State, the concern expressed at the highest levels of both the Union and State governments, indeed by heads of other governments in the region as well, over these clashes and their long-term impact. Gogoi has already agreed to refer the matter to the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI).

Even the so-called civil society in Assam, while being supportive of the demand for preferential treatment to local/indigenous youth in appointments, is equally exercised over these events. Students and teachers, intellectuals and senior citizens, and political parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have held peace marches, and signed statements calling for peace and harmony. Such concern is natural because events in Assam - and Bihar - have an impact going beyond what happens to the people of these States and the region, with implications for the national economy and the agenda of the unimpeded integration, on unequal terms, of the national economy into the global economy.

THIS brings one to a most curious aspect of the present situation in Assam. In the midst of all this quite legitimate concern nationally and within the State and the region over violence and calls for harmony, what one misses is a similar concern in respect of corresponding incidents of violence that have taken place during more or less the same period - indeed are taking place even now - in the Autonomous district of Karbi-Anglong involving a faction of a separatist Karbi outfit called the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and the Kuki National Assembly (KNA), the political organisation of the Kuki people in the district, with claims to a trans-regional, indeed transnational, ethnic and political identity (the Kukis, like so many other tribal groups, are found all over the region and also across the international borders), although the individuals involved as perpetrators or victims may not be members of either of these organisations. Karbi-Anglong, along with the neighbouring North Cachar Hills District, enjoys autonomy under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, an arrangement that considerably precedes the creation of Meghalaya.

In these clashes that have taken place in and around the Kuki-inhabited Sinhasan Hills, at least 20 persons, perhaps more, Kuki and Karbi, have been killed. Children have been abducted and beheaded or burnt alive. Women have been abducted, raped and killed. Villages have been torched. These clashes have now spread to areas bordering Meghalaya that have for decades been a bone of contention between the two States, though the people inhabiting these areas, Khasis and Karbis (and, invariably, Kukis in certain pockets), have historically lived in harmony.

The roots of this conflict run deep, although a proximate political context seems to be the breakdown of the compact that had existed between the KNA, and the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), a district-level political party with indefinable links to one of the factions of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The ASDC was the ruling party in the District Council when the compact was entered into. The major political development in the last decade in this district, as well as in the neighbouring North Cachar Hills Autonomous District, is the split in the ASDC brought upon largely by ASDC leaders themselves, and the return of the Congress(I) to political office in these districts.

Muddying the situation further is the recent emergence of the UPDS with its predictable agenda for a Karbi State purged of all non-Karbis; and its equally predictable modus operandi of extortion (taxation) with equally predictable consequences to those who refuse to pay.

The split in the UPDS and the emergence of a pro-talks faction, which signed a ceasefire agreement with the Central government in May, 2002,had made it necessary for the anti-talks faction to assert, by demonstrated deeds, a more militant posture. The Kukis, seen by many separatist outfits of the region as not sufficiently driven by similar separatist urges, are a natural target.

There appears to be an immediate economic dimension to the conflict as well. Ginger of the most excellent quality is grown on the Sinhasan Hills - as indeed in many other Kuki-inhabited areas - although the Kukis of Karbi-Anglong have benefited little by the trade in ginger over which they do not have control. Early this year, at the height of the ginger harvest season, the UPDS imposed a seven-day blockade from January 12 to protest against "the destruction of the forest by ginger cultivators". Ecological concerns take curious forms, and not merely in this region. The real reason for the blockade call, apparently, was that the ginger farmers, overwhelmingly Kuki, had refused to pay "taxes" to the UPDS. The tension was building up. It only required one killing, or one act of abduction, to let loose violence and counter-violence.

The conflict has been more or less a continuation, similar in its gruesomeness but with different motivations, of the so-called Hmar-Dimasa clashes that raged for months earlier this year in the Autonomous District of North Cachar Hills. About 60 persons are known to have died in those conflicts.

And yet, what strikes an observer is that these incidents have attracted much less notice, and evoked hardly any concern nationally, than the incidents of violence against persons considered Hindi-speaking in the Brahmaputra Valley. The high-power dignitaries visiting Tinsukia and Guwahati are not travelling to Diphu.

The silence of the President and the Prime Minister over the recent violence is curious, but perhaps not really surprising. The so-called Assamese-Bihari clashes involve two major national groups, with considerable national clout and considered very much part of a larger pan-Indian network, indeed closely integrated into the network of transnational capital. What is happening in these two States has national and international implications. But Karbis and Kukis? Who are they? Where are the Sinhasan Hills? What is an "autonomous district"? Nationally such questions only provoke a yawn, for what happens to such obscure people from obscure corners of an obscure land really do not affect the rest of the country.

P.S.

Pic1: SHIB SHANKAR CHATTERJEE; Bodies of Bihari lorry drivers shot dead at a dhaba on the Assam-West Bengal border on November 18, when they were watching the India-Australia cricket match.

Pic2: RITU RAJ KONWAR; At a relief camp in Tinsukia district in Upper Assam. More than 5,000 Biharis are sheltered in relief camps in the district.

Pic3: RITU RAJ KONWAR; Members of the All Guwahati Students Union burn the applications from Bihar and other States for Category-D posts in the Northeast Frontier Railway in Guwahati in July.

Pic4: RITU RAJ KONWAR; Students and teachers of Cotton College, Guwahati, taking out a peace rally.

Pic5: SHIB SHANKAR CHATTERJEE/AP; The wife and children of Tarachand Shah who was killed by a mob, at their home in Bongaigaon, southwest of Guwahati.

Pic6: RITU RAJ KONWAR; Bihari women workers in a brick kiln on the outskirts of Guwahati.

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