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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.