By Aarefa Johari,
The periodic massacre of hundreds of Assamese Muslims and the ongoing displacement of thousands more at the hands of Bodo militants is a crime that qualifies as ethnic cleansing, says a new report published by the non-profit Indian American Muslim Council.
The report, titled Rationalising Ethnic Cleansing in Assam, was released on the Council’s website on the weekend. Analysing the Bodo-Muslim violence of 2012 and 2014 in the context of a long history of ethnic conflicts in the northeastern state, the report states that Muslims in Bodo-administered territories are being systematically persecuted through repeated acts of violence that have displaced half a million people and left lakhs of Muslims impoverished and insecure, while their perpetrators largely enjoy immunity from punishment.
“Ethnic cleansing has been defined as a process of systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory with the intent of making it ethnically or religiously homogeneous,” the report says. It involves using methods like forced migration, mass murder, intimidation and destruction of homes, farms, monuments and places of worship. All of these, according to the report, are characteristic of the persecution of Muslims in Assam.
Clashes between Bodos and non-Bodos have been routine in parts of Assam since the 1980s, with Bodos demanding a separate state of Bodoland for themselves. The report, however, focuses on findings from the past two years.
2012 and 2014
In July 2012, sectarian violence between Bodos and Muslims in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts killed more than 100 people and left at least 3.5 lakh Muslims displaced. The violence, says the report, was systematic and well-organised, and even though there was “retaliatory violence against Bodos too”, official data reveals that Muslims formed 87% of all the displaced people at relief camps.
This year, between May 1 and May 3, nearly 50 unarmed Muslims were shot dead in three separate incidents in the Bodo Territorial Administered Districts. These killings, according to the report, were a retaliation by Bodo militants because a host of non-Bodo communities, including Muslims, had collectively put up an election candidate from the United Liberation Front of Assam to contest for the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha election seat against Bodo candidates. Since Bodos form just 33% of the population in the four Bodo-administered districts, it was clear that the ULFA candidate was likely to win in the national election.
It is based on this recent background that the Indian American Muslim Council report raises some key issues characterising the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in Assam:
The myth of Muslims as ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh: Large-scale migration of Muslims into Assam, from the region that is now Bangladesh, had started well before 1947, because of certain British policies that dispossessed Muslims of their homes. Over the years, many of these Muslims continued to stay in Assam and even adopt the local language, says the report.
The myth of the “illegal Muslim immigrant” emerged in the 1970s, when the Assamese political elite began to claim that Bangladeshi infiltrators were marginalising indigenous communities. This propaganda eventually snowballed into an anti-Bangladeshi Assam Movement. “Even though the Assam Movement was outwardly against the so called ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’,” says the report, “it actually insinuated that Assam’s Muslims, whose forefathers had migrated from East Bengal prior to the Partition, were actually illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.”
After the 2012 Kokrajhar riots, the then Election Commissioner of India – Hari Shankar Brahma, a Bodo – insinuated that the violence was perpetrated by the Muslims, who were illegal Bangladeshis. Even though official investigations proved otherwise, these insinuations have been propagated widely, particularly by right wing parties.
A similar scene recurred in the aftermath of the 2014 massacres. On June 1, the state BJP unit of Assam issued an ultimatum for all illegal Bangladeshis to leave the state within 15 days. This has added more strain on impoverished Assamese Muslims, who are frequently labelled as Bangladeshis.
Inadequate relief, inhuman relief camps: Since the 1990s, every time communal clashes cause large-scale displacement of people in Assam, the state government is supposed to set up temporary relief camps and provide rehabilitation programmes to help survivors return to their homes and get back their livelihoods.
In the Bodo-administered areas, however, many Adivasi and Muslim families displaced in the 1990s or early 2000s continue to live in relief camps, with rehabilitation programmes remaining on paper, according to the report. Unsurprisingly, the report points out that there are serious threats of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and children in relief camps.
After the July 2012 riots, most displaced Muslims were able to return to their villages by October, but they found their homes destroyed. They were put up in makeshift plastic and bamboo tents with appalling living conditions and very poor healthcare, says the report.
A year after the riots, in September 2013, the government of Assam sanctioned Rs 50,000 each for 2,574 displaced families, but on the condition that those families would not resettle themselves in their original place of residence. This, according to the report, legitimises the dispossession of Muslims in Bodo areas and, in many ways, gives “official sanction to ethnic cleansing in the guise of bureaucratic procedures”.
Perpetrators roaming free: The report repeatedly emphasises that the state has been unable to ensure constitutional rights for Muslims in Assam, with perpetrators rarely punished. Militants, it says, enjoy political patronage and even those who have surrendered continue to bear arms with impunity.
Besides, says the report, survivors and eye-witnesses have frequently reported the “inefficient and biased role of the security forces” deployed in those areas, who did not intervene on time when acts of violence were taking place. Based on this, the report recommends appropriate judicial intervention – ideally through a Special Investigation Team – to bring justice to the survivors and to end the culture of impunity.
“The fact that armed groups surrounded villages, entered houses and fired upon people indiscriminately shows the vulnerability of the Muslim population in Assam,” the report says. “The fact that these events were followed by an inadequate response from the police and state law enforcement machinery is indicative of the impunity that perpetrators of ethnic cleansing enjoy in Assam.”
The article was first published in Scroll.in