Photography by Nikhil Roshan
Assam is a scarred land. “Tinderbox” is a word that journalists from the Indian mainland use regularly to refer to the often violently competing identities of this north-eastern state. And indeed, the tension is palpable on the streets this election season. The final phase of polling over in some of its most conflict ridden districts, with mere days to go for the results to be declared, Assam is half-heartedly ushering in its new year with Rongali Bihu. The neon lit tents in neighbourhood grounds are not as packed as they usually are, festival organisers will tell you, thanks to the election fever in the air.
Recent violence in the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) has set off a wave of fresh resentment among warring communities in western Assam, while conflict continues unabated in the lower autonomous district of Karbi Anglong. The state is crawling with Border Security Forces and paramilitary everywhere you look and the early downing of shutters in the evening lends small towns a curfewed hue.
This general election is already being marked as a watershed, with the predicted demise of certain national and regional parties. The impending change of government at the centre will set the tone for local politics in many states – Assam being a prime candidate. The hardening of identities, a tactic the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has traditionally employed with its brand of right wing politics, is a fait accompli in Assam. And for that, the BJP has the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and its near three decade legacy to thank.
The AGP’s beginnings lie in Assam’s anti-immigrant movement of the early 1980s. Rallying around fears of illegal migrants pouring into the state from neighbouring Bangladesh, changing the demographic and stealing jobs, the student leaders of the All Assam Student Union (AASU) swept into power under their new political banner. That same party today stands with less support than ever before, bankrupt of a mandate and supporters which have both been high jacked by Narendra Modi’s clamorous band.
The “illegal” migrant is, of course, not really a foreigner. He is from within the borders, but speaks a different tongue, holds papers to lands that no longer exist and voter’s cards that ensure his safety as a citizen. Keeping with a practise put in place by British colonizers to populate the waste lands of the Brahmaputra plains, and to grow more food, farmers of undivided Bengal had for generations moved across and cultivated the riverine islands, or Chars as they are known locally. A fascinating, fluid landscape, the islands rise up from the river after its regular flood, bearing rich, fertile soil. But the annual floods also bring devastation to communities that periodically lose their land and have to either move on to another island, or to firmer ground inward.
This movement has, over the years, caused anxiety among communities such as the Bodo tribes who are still engaged in a struggle, both parliamentary and insurgent, to fortify the land that they inhabit, but share with communities that, when counted together, outnumber them. Land, above identity, is the prime ailment of Assam. Indeed, the greatest proof of that is the sprawling island of Majuli. Seat of Assamese neo-vaishnavite culture, the island is slowly getting eaten away by the Brahmaputra. Evening prayers at many of its ancient monasteries comprise hymns sung to the river asking it to spare them the sorrow and loss of floods.
But narrative fictions dished out regularly by political parties have over the years coagulated into facts in the minds of most people. Questionable figures and statistics are periodically quoted by divisive leaders to show that migration from Bangladesh continues in large numbers. Which is where, the steadily growing and increasingly vocal peasant movement of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) poses a counter narrative. With Akhil Gogoi a fiery, radical leader at its centre, the movement has managed to bring together men and women of diverse identities under the rally cry of land rights.
Gorchuk village, perched on top of one of the many low-lying hills that surround Guwahati city is testimony to Gogoi’s organisation skills and the city as the great leveller of identities. Here, Bodo, Mising, Karbi and Rabha tribals and Bengali Muslims live harmoniously, sharing meagre land and water resources. The conflicts in other parts of the state do not affect them. They share an impulse of migrating to the big city in search of better lives and are intent on holding on to what they have got. What they have is a small piece of land on a hillside on which they build their huts, which the state tried to snatch away two years ago. Bulldozers and elephants were brought in to oust these urban landless migrants, but they put up a united front and pushed back.
Gogoi is often asked by journalists why he doesn’t float a political party. An award winning Right to Information activist who was once associated with Anna Hazare’s national anti-corruption movement, he would indeed be successful in the political arena, what with the immense respect and support he enjoys among Assam’s working class and peasantry. But the residents of Gorchuk are unanimous in their suspicion of politicians and convinced about the purity of Gogoi’s intentions as long as he stays out of active politics.
On the day I went to Gorchuk, Gogoi was in a park in Guwahati city, protesting against the poaching of the endangered Rhinoceroses, Assam’s official state animal, in Kaziranga National Park. This was his first protest since his release from jail. He had been charged with abetting the self-immolation of KMSS activist Pranab Boro, a resident of Gorchuk. The issue of the poaching of rhinos has been taken up by numerous others, including Prime Ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi. But his endorsement of the issue had a characteristically xenophobic twist. The Assam government, he alleged, was killing rhinos to make space for illegal Bangladeshi settlers.
The so called Bangladeshis are relegated to a wretched existence on the sun baked sandbanks of the lower Brahmaputra. Government servants rarely venture out to these no man’s lands. Health services and family planning are practically unheard of while the racist rhetoric against them is that they breed like rabbits. In Dhubri, Assam’s southwestern-most district, I had the privilege of riding with a team of doctors of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Delhi who run boat clinics on these islands. While pharmacists hand out medicine bottles against prescriptions prepared by two doctors, nurses inoculate newborns with vaccines for polio, smallpox and hepatitis, and a young volunteer lectures villagers on family planning and contraception.
“These are the people who god has forgotten,” Mehboob Hazarika told me as he stared out of our boat window, the S B Rustom, on a stormy night as faraway Dhubri town lay in curfewed darkness. Hazarika, a middle-aged manager of the boat clinic was in a particularly pensive mood as the violence in the BTAD had spread panic here as well. Dhubri stands out from the rest of Assam as majority Bengali speaking population, a huge number of them Muslim. The political leader that wins hearts here is Badruddin Ajmal, a perfume barron who takes on the aura of a godman and protector among Dhubri’s poor and uneducated migrant Muslim populations. His call for the dissolution of the Bodo Territorial Council two years ago in the midst of an ethnic conflict between Bodos and Muslims caused a stir and raised fears of further violence.
While macho political postures such as that of Ajmal’s win votes in election season, the fear they provoke hark back to the heady days of the 80s, when at the peak of Assam’s anti-foreigner agitations, India saw one of the worst episodes of violence since India’s partition in 1947. The year was 1983, and Congress party leader and ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared by-elections against the wishes of the influential AASU. The student leaders demanded that illegal migrants be expelled first because they allegedly skewed the demographic and would thereby influence poll results. Gandhi did not heed their warnings. On February 18, 1983 about 14 villages were attacked by members of the Lalung tribe and 2,191 Muslims slaughtered within six hours. Images from that day, of bodies draped in cloth, laid out on paddy fields in a village called Nellie, still haunt public memory in Assam and the rest of the country.
In the days following the gruesome pogrom that came to be known as the Nellie massacre, one investigative report, commissioned by the Indian government, was produced. It listed the names of merely half of those guilty of the crime. But that report, and the list of names were soon buried with a clause in the Assam Accord that brought an end to the agitations and paved the way to the victory of the AGP in 1985. The victims of Nellie still await justice. As I visited Nellie, Mehboob Hazarika’s words came back to me. These are the people that god forgot.