By Arup Chanda
KOLKATA, India, Aug. 18 (Xinhua) --- The recent bloody clashes between Bodo tribesmen and Muslim settlers in India's northeast state of Assam left 77 people dead and half a million homeless. The clashes were culmination of a series of events, which could have been avoided if the Assam and central governments have done something earlier about them, observers here noted.
The basic reason behind the clashes is believed to be economic. Some, such as India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani, have tried to put the entire blame on Bangladeshi infiltrators.
Pramila Rani Brahma, former Assam minister, present legislator and a prominent Bodo woman leader had this to say, "Because of the porous border with Bangladesh millions of Muslims infiltrated and settled into our land illegally...They are trying to drive out our indigenous people who have been living in this land for thousands of years."
In response to such views, Sheikh Badruddin Ajmal, MP from Assam's Dhubri Lok Sabha constituency and President of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) said, "Raising the bogey of Bangladeshi infiltrators is very easy! We have been staying in Assam before independence since the British brought us from the districts of Mymensingh to till the land.
"Infiltration is an international phenomenon. It goes on even from Mexico to the U.S. there is more infiltration from Bangladesh to West Bengal than in Assam," he said.
Assam's state capital Guwahati-based veteran journalist and editor of the magazine "Nandanik" Ajit Bhuyan said, "Over the last few decades the demographic composition has changed. It is the politicians who are to be blamed. Because of vote bank politics they turned a blind eye not only to infiltration from Bangladesh but to the insecurity of the small indigenous tribal communities."
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is elected from the state to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Indian parliament) toured the riot-torn areas and assured the victims of a "proper inquiry."
While heated debates continued, the Assam government transferred the investigation on the communal riot to the Central Bureau of Investigation after it failed to make much progress in the probe.
Many members of the ruling Congress party demanded the resignation of Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi for failing to control the riots and call in the Indian Army on time.
In defense Gogoi shifted the blame on the Union Home Ministry, blaming it for delaying his request for army intervention and causing violence to escalate.
Analysts here noted, however, that the real reason behind the clashes is the fight for land.
Clashes between Bodo tribesmen and Muslim settlers have not been something new, with the first recorded one in 1952, followed in 1993 and 1994 and the most recent clash in 2008. There have been also inter-tribal clashes between the Bodos and Santhals. 1998 saw widespread clashes, with the Santhals at the receiving end. Thousands of Santhals had to flee their homes and took refuge in relief camps.
The land-hungry Bengali Muslims tried to grab land by encroaching on reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries. When the Bodos tried to stop and dislodge them, clashes seemed inevitable. In fact, although the Bodos do not want non-Bodos to live in their territory, they have come to accept the reality.
There is a widespread misconception outside Assam that the Bengali Muslims are all Bangladeshis and therefore illegal migrants. The forefathers of these Muslims migrated from East Bengal, East Pakistan and later from Bangladesh and settled in Assam. They are all Indian citizens.
Under the Indo-Bangladesh Agreement, all people who entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 when Bangladesh declared independence will be treated as illegal immigrants and deported.
The migration of Muslim farmers from the then East Bengal started in the late 19th century when British rulers encouraged them to come and settle in Assam, a sparsely- populated province with vast stretches of fertile farmland. The hard-working Muslim farmers grew plenty of paddy and other crops and they met with no hostility from the local people in the early years.
Things started to change from the 1930s. The indigenous population growth has led to greater demand for land, and the indigenous Assamese feared that if the Muslim inflow from East Bengal continues unchecked, the new settlers would some day outnumber the indigenous population. Besides, the Bodo tribesmen also resented the presence of the former migrants.
Given the complicated nature of the clashes, which involves a host of demographic, ethnic, and religious factors, security forces alone can never be an option to ensure permanent peace. Unless the different communities that have lived in the area for ages come to realize that they can never "cleanse" the area of others, but have to live side by side in peacet. People with vision from all communities have to sit together, sort out all outstanding problems and start a peace process.