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The failure of the State and ethnic conflict in Northeast India

The violent conflict between Muslim migrants and the indigenous Bodos in Northeast India in late July left over 70 people dead and 400,000 displaced. The killings were sparked by the murder of three Bodos, allegedly by Muslims, with Bodos attacking Muslim migrants and these retaliating in response. The conflict, however, threatens to engulf the whole Northeast regions as Muslim radicals across India vowed to stand by their Muslim brethren in seeking revenge.

In Mumbai, the police opened fire to quell protests against the attacks on Muslims in Assam that turned violent and lead to large-scale arson. Conversely, in some Northeastern states, like Nagaland, influential civil society organisations are calling for the deportation of illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. The conflict between indigenous peoples and migrants is not new and not confined to the Bodos, who are but one of the 200 ethnic groups living in the state of Assam. Several hundred more indigenous groups live in the other 6 states comprising India’s Northeast region, making it one of the ethnically most diverse areas in the world. It is also a region that has been marred with conflict and suffered from heavy militarization almost since right after India’s independence in 1947. Political analysts and human rights activists agree that both the state government of Assam and the central government in Delhi have to accept the blame for allowing the violence to escalate and, more important, for not having addressed its root causes. The state government was far too slow in mobilizing the security forces, like the Assam Rifles, which have camps in the area where the conflict erupted. The Bodo claim that the Muslim, most of whom are migrants from Bangladesh, are taking away their land. Competition over land and natural resources has been one of the main causes of ethnic conflicts in Assam. Protests against illegal migrants from Bangladesh started already in the 1970s, led by the All Assam Students Union. In 1983, more than 2,000 Muslim were killed in Nellie district, after which the Assam Accord was signed in 1985. As part of this agreement, the government pledged to fence the border with Bangladesh and to set up a national citizens database to determine who is an Indian citizen and who not. However, the government failed to implement the Accord and illegal migration from Bangladesh continued unabated. The identification of citizenship is critical in the context of competing claims over land, but it is also critical for two other reasons: first, to prevent unjust treatment of Muslims who have been brought to Assam by the British, and thus have lived in Assam since generations; second, to prevent election fraud in the form of illegal enlisting of voters. The latter, i.e. the use of migrants as a vote bank for ambitious politicians, among them also indigenous politicians, has been identified as one of the main reasons why the Assamese government has not taken any resolute actions to curb illegal migration. The failure of the central government to address the issue can largely be explained by disinterest and negligence. The states in Northeast India, where indigenous peoples form either majorities or large minorities, are small and do not have any political weight at the national level. The absence of any political will to find lasting political solutions to the conflicts in Northeast India is evident in case of the Bodo - migrants conflict. Over the past decades, the Bodos have experienced heavy immigration and extensive land alienation. In the mid-1980s, militant Bodos started an armed struggle for a separate state, and after a failed agreement in 1993, a new peace accord was signed with the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) in 2003, which provided for the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which provides some form of self-rule, which some analysts came to call a ‘state within a state’. However, the accord blatantly failed to address the most critical issue: land and resources. Unlike in other tribal areas in India, where the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals is illegal, the accord does not contain any such provisions. Obviously, the central government was unwilling to tackle this most critical but extremely sensitive and conflictive issue. Not only the Bodos, but many indigenous peoples elsewhere in Northeast India fear that they are to face the same fate as the indigenous peoples of Tripura state. In this small state bordering what is now Bangladesh, Muslim and Hindu Bengalis have been part of its population since centuries. In the wake of the communal conflicts at independence and the Bangladesh war in the early 1972, massive migration of mostly Hindu Bengalis permanently reversed the population ratio between indigenous peoples and Bengalis. The indigenous Tripuri have become a minority in their own land.

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