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An Ethnic Powderkeg In India Pits Indigenous vs. Muslim Migrants

Article illustrative image Partner logo Life in Assam

CHIRANG - "Around 50 of them came and opened fire on our village." Rebayal Ali still seems stunned, his eyes glazed over. His vest clings to his skinny torso because of the humidity, as the Muslim farmer tells Le Monde of his night of terror. It was July 23 in his village in Assam, a state in northeast India, a highly strategic enclave surrounded by Bangladesh, China and Myanmar.

On that morning, as he checked on his buffalo grazing in the long grass, a neighbor of Bodo ethnicity warned him, "Your village is going to be attacked, you should leave." And he was right.

As the Ramadan fast came to an end, a group of armed Bodos suddenly appeared. Screams. Gunfire. Rebayal Ali fled, running until he ran out of breath in the paddy fields on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra. Behind him, his village of Dongshia Para was already in flames.

At the end of July, the four districts that make up Bodoland, a sub-region of Assam, were ablaze amidst an orgy of violence. There were almost one hundred deaths, almost all Muslims, and 400,000 displaced persons. The conflict has once again demonstrated, in a tragic way, that the state of Assam is India’s Achilles' heel.

Ethnic tensions are recurrent here and can quickly turn into pogroms. The last eruption of violence saw migrants from Bangladesh pitted against the indigenous Bodo people, a tribe of around 2 million habitants (6% of the population of Assam). The Bodos, traditionally animists, were converted to Hinduism over time, with a small minority converted to Christianity; the migrants from Bangladesh are Muslim. It is natives against "foreigners;" non-Muslims against Muslims. It has been a head-on clash, caused primarily by a fight over land.

The village is still ashen with the fire of this hatred. In Bhalatol, a Muslim village in the district of Chirang, the corrugated iron sheets propping up the huts are charred. Wooden signposts have been reduced to cinders. The ground is a carpet of ashes, mixed with mud. A little farther, an Indian soldier rests his shotgun between the two sandbags that form his bunker. He watches over the Bodo village. Six weeks after the conflict broke out, the army was deployed en masse to restore the peace. In the school playground, Bodo families have set up camp. They are waiting for the situation to become more stable before returning to their homes.

Bangladeshi immigrants

Nathai Basumatary, a teacher, is sitting down on a wooden bench on the veranda. Her eyes are slightly almond-shaped. The indigenous groups of northeast India share a Tibetan-Burmese origin. She tells a story that barely differs from those told on the "other side." The only difference is that the roles are reversed. "The Muslims from the neighboring village attacked us and burned 95 houses," she says.

By her side, Dhiren Goyari, a landowner with a thin moustache, adds, "We haven't had any difficulties with the Muslims who have lived here for years. The new arrivals are the problem. These illegal immigrants, we don't want them on our land any longer."

The Bodoland crisis is emblematic because it again highlights the problem of migration from Bangladesh. The arrival of these migrants has cemented the feeling of alienation among local indigenous people, who have wasted no time in expressing their anger toward the central government in New Delhi.

Gathered on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, in western Assam, the Bodos’ struggle for self-determination dates back as early as the 1930s. In the 1990s, they took up arms to reclaim independence, or at least be granted federalized state status, which would have cut off half of the Assam state. They did not gain independence, nor did they get their own state. In 2003, however, they created the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), with semi-autonomy over Bodoland, which was restricted to just four districts.

Minority rule

The wave of violence at the end of July has its origins in the creation of this council. Although the Bodos are the main ethnic group of this micro-territory, they are not in fact the majority. They are only around 30% of the local population. The non-Bodos, who are mostly Muslims, are not happy about this. "It’s not very democratic," points out Monirul Hussein, a professor of political science at Guwahati University, in the capital of Assam. "Is it normal that 70% of Bodoland's population are ruled by a minority that represents only 30% of the population?"

"The Bodos have started a campaign of ethnic cleansing to try and regain the majority in Bodoland," adds Aminul Islam, a politician from the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the political party that represents the Muslims of Assam, whether they are people who have lived in Assam for numerous years or recent immigrants.

The deadlock with the opposite camp is total, and fraught with the prospect of future struggles. The Bodos are attempting the reclaim the rights, mostly land rights, conferred by their indigenous status. They believe these rights are being threatened by a new wave of immigration that has shifted the ethno-demographic equilibrium in Assam. "The indigenous population fears that it will lose everything because of this immigration. Our survival is at stake," explains Pramod Boro, Secretary-General for All Bodo Students Union, the main Bodo student union.

"We are the traditional owners of this land and no percentage can take this fact away from us," adds Angeli Daimary, President of Bodo Women Justice Forum.

Each side has completely shut down negotiation, insisting on the implementation of their own rights. The situation is much more volatile now that the Bodos fears for their existence is shared by the rest of the Assam population, except for the Muslims. "Assam is the victim of a silent invasion," says Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharya, a retired Hindu police officer from Assam who has become an essayist. "We are facing new troubles. The next time will be a lot bloodier."

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