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Assam: friction in a crucial corridor July 30, 2012

Posted by sandygordon in : Bangladesh, Bhutan, Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

A week ago some 48 people were killed in Assam in clashes between the Bodo ethnic group (a Tibetan-Burmese people who are now predominantly Christian and Hindu) and Muslim Bengali immigrants, mainly from Bangladesh and its previous incarnations. Approximately 400,000 have also been displaced from their villages. These are by no means the first such ethnic clashes in Assam, the most recent being between Bengalis and Bodos four years ago, which left 70 dead. The worst attacks occurred in 1983, when an estimated 2000 Bengali Muslims were killed.

Since well before the British left in 1947, Bengali Muslims have been crossing into Assam. Pushed by desperation, they often occupied the shifting char lands – dangerous but fertile flood plains of the rivers that criss-cross the region. Since independence in 1947, East Pakistanis, and later Bangladeshis, have continued to cross the poorly policed, poorly defined border. There are now an estimated 10-20 million Bangladeshis in India. But of course not all Bengali Muslims are in Assam illegally and many have been there for generations. As pointed out by the New York Times, it is well nigh impossible to distinguish between those legitimately in Assam and those who have come illegally.

Besides the devastating displacement and loss of life, ethnic unrest in Assam is important for a number of reasons.

India's North East - this version includes Sikkim

Assam and the other states that constitute India’s North East are important strategically to India, but are also highly vulnerable. As can be seen from the map, above, the states of the north-east are separated from the body of India by a narrow neck of land – the so-called ‘Chicken’s Neck’, which is squeezed between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Bodo heartland is near the eastern end of this neck of land.

All states of the North East are ethnically distinct from the so-called Hindi heartland of India. Since just after independence, a number of states and ethnic movements in the North East have been pursuing independence from India, often by violent means. The Naga ethnic group straddles the border between Burma and India and prior to an agreement with Burma sought refuge there. Other groups like the United Liberation Front of Assom (ULFA) have also in the past established safe havens in Bangladesh and Bhutan. The ULFA has also shipped arms through Bangadesh.

It is precisely in the Chicken’s Neck that the first Maoist revolt occurred in 1967, in Naxalbari district – hence the name ‘Naxalite’. It is no accident that Maoist China supported the Naxalites and a number of other dissident groups until about 1983. Should the Chicken’s Neck ever be blocked, India’s North East would be land-locked and isolated from the rest of the country.

The seven states of the North East also include Arunachal Pradesh, with 1.1 million people, and subject to claim by China. Were Arunachal ever ceded to China, Chinese power would be brought to the foot of the strategically vital Himalayas and much of the water of the North East could be jeopardised.

The North East is also a very important potential point of linkage for new highway and rail systems between India and South East Asia via Burma. Rather than running over the more logical route through Bangladesh, these systems will pass through the Chicken’s Neck, partly because India’s existing communications into the North East pass this way and partly due to security concerns in New Delhi.

Secondly, the North East is important to India because it is rich in oil, tea, paddy, timber, water and minerals. Assam supplies about 25 per cent of India’s scarce indigenous oil. The massive Brahmaputra river flows though it and has carved out a large, fertile river valley. This is a classic case of a resource-rich sub-region dominated by a political heartland that is ethnically and in many cases religiously different. This perceived resource exploitation has contributed to some of the separatist movements and also enabled the Maoists to regain a small foothold in the region in recent years.

The third major reason the North East has become politically sensitive is that the growing relative weight of Bengali Muslims in the population has triggered a political backlash involving India’s two major political configurations – dominated on the one hand by the secularist Congress Party and on the other by the Hindu-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). According to this dynamic, the BJP has been accusing Congress of cultivating a ‘vote bank’ of Bengali Muslims by being soft on border controls. The BJP demands illegal Bangladeshis be repatriated. Since many Bangladeshis eventually end up in far-off cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, this demand has national resonance. Meanwhile, the Congress Chief Minister of Assam maintains he doesn’t need the Muslim vote bank and accuses the BJP of having fomented the recent Bodo-Bengali Muslim clashes.

So this is a highly strategic, resource-rich, vulnerable region that lies at the very heart of India’s long-term ‘look east’ strategy. Given increasing pressures on land, water and other resources, and the possible effects of climate change, it is hard to see current pressures diminishing. New Delhi sees development as a panacea – but development can bring with it a whole new set of pressures between the ‘sons of the soil’ and more recent arrivals. In short, this is an area that will remain extremely sensitive for many years to come.


1. Greener Pastures - July 30, 2012

I live in Assam, and when I read about how northeastern India is a volatile region, not only does it frustrates me, but it makes me crave for justice for the people of this region.

I am fed up with reading about how media perceives north east as a troubled region. The current clashes are happening only in Western Assam, and everywhere else in northeast is as safe as any other place. The situation in northeast has much improved than what it was two decades back. Today, the people here are free and are living quite contently. The masses are pro sustainable development and are quite supportive of India.

The issue is, ethnic clashes and other crimes happen every year, somewhere or the other in India. But whenever a issue pops up in northeastern India, whole of India and the world instantly brands the whole region as unsafe. I’d say, it is a tag that has become synonymous with the northeast. The issue is, there has to be a change in the way the world looks at northeast, the outlook itself has to change.

You can currently fly down to any other airport not located in western Assam, and I am sure you will land at a place which is safe, welcoming and delightful.

2. sandygordon - July 31, 2012

Dear Greener Pastures

Thanks for your comment. For people such as myself who live far distant from the Indian North East, it is always good to get the perspective of people on the spot. However, I would like to make a couple of points in response. You are presumably in the travel business and nobody in that business likes to see their destination portrayed as trouble, but many Indian scholars would take a similar view to the one I have put forward. Also, much of my article dealt with the strategic and economic significance of the area rather than the actual troubles. I have now been observing India off and on for 40 years and during that time I have seen many movements in the North East rise and fall, many areas becoming more settled and others continuing to experience problems. Unfortunately I don’t think the issues in the North East will be easily or quickly settled, but I do appreciate your point that these issues need to be viewed in perspective.

Sandy Gordon

3. Colum Graham - July 31, 2012

Thanks Sandy for the excellent summary.

When I was in the region, I found Tripura to be much as Greener Pasteurs idealises, however, for the few days I was in Guwahati there was definitely an air of tension despite some young guys trying to assure me it was all okay nowadays. If it’s all okay, why do people need to be reassured it’s okay? Not sure a Gora’s impressions can be all that informative though. Also, Hindu-“leaning” BJP is an understatement!

4. sandygordon - July 31, 2012


Thanks for your thoughtful comment. On the ‘Hindu-leaning BJP’, one does at least try to be polite.


5. Mr debbarma - July 31, 2012

Hi Sandy,
Your perspectives about the North east India is absolutely right. But it is not only the illegal immigration from Bangladesh affecting the people of the North east India. There are multiple reasons not one or ten…there are so many problems we the North east people face in front of Main land India.
Some of them are really very distinct as you mentioned.
We are Indo-mongoloid look with typical asian way of living and eating habits.The Indian (NE indian also Indian) basically in Delhi and other part of the country always consider us outsider. I myself having gone to IIT and worked as scietific staff in govt of India and being Indigenous person from North eastern state(Tripura), have faced two questions almost everyday during my stay in India from 1993 to 2009. First question people ask us “Are you from Nepal?”
If we say “No” and we are from Tripura/Mizoram/AP/Nagaland etc, then they ask the second questions ,”Is the Tripura/Mizoram/AP/Nagaland in Nepal?”.
This type of questions I faced from the most educated people of India almost everyday at least 28 days out of 30 in a month.
And 7 out of 10 NE people face the same as me. So one factor of Racism and alienation have been hurting the sentiments of the North east people for years till now. Not only that, administrative discrimination is visibly too huge to quantify.
But the people who crossed border from Bangladesh to NE India illegally (all of them have their Indian citizenship already in hand illegally either before crossing or immediately after crossing Indian border) do not face such discrimination because they look more Indian than the Indo mongoloid NE Indian people.

Secondly you mentioned about the ethnic movements by Violence method. Certainly true, but no one wants to know the root cause about it and blamed the violent protesters and stamped them as Terrorists or extremists.Then Govt of India has put AFSPA(Arm force special power act) implemented in all the NE states even if its peaceful. As you compared the NE ethnic movement with the Naxalites or any other Indian violence, but why then the govt of India never implemented AFSPA in those naxalites areas? One time Mr.P. chidmabaram commented saying the naxalites are our people only so therefore no AFSPA.
Well, Lets come to the point before kokrajhar(Assam) incident. There is state called “Tripura”, an independent state, governed by the Manikya dynasty for years. There was no Bengali (Hindu) population at all before Tripura merged to India, even if there were Bengalis, it was in negligible amount not even 5 to 10%. But Tripura joined India in 1949 as union territory. As soon as the state Tripura joined India there was influx of Hindu Bengalis started from 1949 to now and majorly 1971 onwards. Even now the the immigration is not stopped in Tripura. Due to their better education the Bengalis captured most of the govt jobs and facilities. The locals are forgotten and thrown in the bin now being called “Tribals”.
At present 90% of tripura’s population is Bangladeshi but they are hindus. So govt of India, opposition of Indian govt, mass media have no concern of it. There was Riots in 1980, even my family lost 3 members but no justice. But to the fact my grand father even helped the Bangladeshi refugees to build huts to live in our locality when 1970 bangla war took place. But who cares. They came, they settled, they want land and captured without any penny and now they ruled us.
Bodoland in Assam is another destination of Bangladeshis. Bodos are in fact from the same linguistic race as Tripuris. It is very natural and obvious that if some one alien comes and captured your house and try to suppress you in your own house, the pressure cooker will burst one day. Same thing happens with the Bodo today. If you refer to any Indian media or newspaper, you should carefully investigate them before digesting. The media in India are quite racially biased and politically sponsored. I will say that Indeed there was Bangladeshi immigration in bodolands in reality illegally and they are destabilizing the peace and harmony there. These Riots are nothing to do with Hindu-Muslim enmity. It is the failures of the govt to check the illegal immigrants.Today 400,000 people are in refugee camps in Kokrajhar, you can imagine what might be the condition of them afterall that too in India where common poor people can’t even access to safe drinking water.
I wonder even in Australia people call the boat people “refugees” though this country is built by the immigrants. But in modern world we all have to follow certain rules to become citizen/resident. But in my North east india, we are first of all discriminated in our land. We are also being encroached by the illegal species from Bangladesh who are illegally legalised. But the central govt of India always politicize it without identifying the root-cause. If you don’t eliminate the root cause of any problem, the problem is bound to repeat again and again no matter what you do to cover it.

6. Manoj Pandey - July 31, 2012

Though BJP is treated as Hindu leaning party and it was the case before but I don’t think BJP is now only ‘Hindu-leaning party’..If this is true they would not be outside the power for such a long period despite about 85 percent of Hindus in the country…They may not have full support of Muslims but we should not forget that they have support of Sikhs, Christians and Parsis who also are non-hindu segment of the socity…Also, illegal migration is certainly an issue but it can not be execuse for riots..

7. Mr debbarma - July 31, 2012

Dear Colum Graham ,
Our tripura was not as you see.
the problem in tripura still exists but in different way.Violence is almost history there but ….discrimination racism still exists….we became minority just in 30 to 40 years from 80 % to 25%.It is because of the illegally legalised Bangladeshi immigrants not due to the local population booms.

8. Assam: India encounters friction in a crucial corridor | East Asia Forum - August 2, 2012

[…] Pacific, the Australian National University.An earlier version of this article was first published here on South Asia Masala.  _ga.trackFacebook(); Tweet View more posts by Sandy Gordon Print […]

9. Bob - August 24, 2012

The feelings of the people of India’s northeast and people of the Hindu heartland are mutual. While the northeast people identified themselves with East Asian or Southeast Asian people in general, the people of the Hindu heartland referred to them as ‘Chinki’.