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31 July, 2012

Challenge of diversity

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The ethnic clashes that left more than 50 dead and displaced about 170,000 people in the eastern state of Assam last week are yet another reminder of the explosive nature of the growing discontent among various sections of the people, resulting from disparities in development.

No other nation has as much ethnic, religious and cultural diversity as India has. The backlog of social disparities and the limited economic opportunities and their skewed distribution pose grave challenges to the golden rule of Unity in Diversity. Attempts by short-sighted politicians to create vote banks using divisive strategies keep the pot boiling.

With only 31 million inhabitants, Assam is small in terms of population but holds within its borders much more diversity than more populous states. The groups involved in last week’s clashes were Bodos and Muslims. Neither group is homogenous. The Bodos have several sub-groups with different traditions, dialects, cultures and historical identities. The Muslims include Assamese and Bengalis.

The Muslims who constitute more than 30 per cent of the population include economic refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh, who have entered the state illegally. While some illegal immigrants have settled down there others have moved and found work in places as far apart as Delhi and Kerala. The refugee influx has increased pressure on land and aroused in the local people the fear that they may be reduced to a minority in course of time.

Following a militant movement demanding separate statehood, the Indian government set up in 2003 a Bodo Territorial Autonomous District under Schedule VI of the Constitution, which provides for creation of separate administrative units for tribal areas, and brought into being an elected Territorial Council with limited powers.

The small political favour came with a heavy price. Simultaneously with the creation of the autonomous district the government scrapped the pre-Independence law which vested ownership of tribal lands exclusively in tribal hands. This opened up the way for large-scale alienation of land to non-Bodos.

Observers attribute the current conflict to struggle for control of land. While most immigrants are farm workers and daily wage earners, some have bought Bodo land and acquired economic clout. Bodo leaders say the issue is one of deprivation, not of land ownership alone. Deprivation is a grievance of Muslims too. There is also a need to distinguish between indigenous Muslims and illegal immigrants.

The central and state governments cannot be absolved of blame for the present situation. Under the Constitution the Centre has special responsibility in respect of the tribal population. The state government, which is responsible for law and order, was slow in responding to the deteriorating situation. Anti-social elements had a free run for a few days before the army was called in to restore order.

The history of the neighbouring tribal states which have witnessed prolonged insurgencies holds a lesson which the central and state governments will do well to remember. It is that injudicious and excessive use of the army can be counterproductive.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is a Rajya Sabha member from Assam, took a week to reach the state and declare publicly that ethnic conflict was unacceptable and must stop. He made up for the late arrival by announcing a special package of Rs3 billion for rehabilitation of the displaced people accommodated in about 170 relief camps.    

Beyond the law and order situation, which is now under control, lies a political problem which has to be tackled with care. Clearly the Autonomous District experiment has not been a conspicuous success. The Bodo leaders, who feel that the Territorial Council is toothless, have revived the demand for statehood. The Muslim leaders want the Territorial Council to be scrapped. The Bodo leaders view this as a sign of their unwillingness to accept a set-up under tribal leadership.

The Assamese mainstream, displaying considerable maturity, refrained from stoking the fire when the Bodo areas were torn by violence. However, there were stray attempts by communal elements elsewhere in the country to work up frenzy. Luckily they did not cause much damage.

Absence of emotional bonding among the many ethnic groups makes the Bodo region highly volatile. This situation calls for immediate remedial action, especially since the rail and road routes that link northeastern states with the rest of the country pass through this region. Intervention by sectarian elements from outside can render the task difficult.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 31, 2012.

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