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Fears over Assam vigilante violence

"will appoint a senior US military  officer to review the investigation into the combined Afghan  National Army (ANA) and US Forces operation," said the statement  forwarded by the US military here.
Some of the people made homeless by the vigilantes Photos: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee

The BBC's Subir Bhaumik reports from the north-east Indian state of Assam on how thousands of young vigilantes from indigenous communities have been hounding out people they denounce as "illegal migrants" from Bangladesh.


At least 10 Muslims were found dead in various districts of Assam in the last two weeks of August and many more are missing after being kidnapped.

Some Assamese and tribal people have also died in clashes during strikes by minority groups.

Hundreds of Muslims of Bengali origin have been handed over to the police by the vigilantes. The veteran Assamese Communist leader Promode Gogoi has even demanded the setting up of camps to accommodate them.

The Assam government enforced a curfew and imposed shoot-on-sight orders in the violence-hit districts of Udalguri, Sonitpur and Darrang, with the army put on alert.

"The situation is very tense in these areas," admitted Assam police chief RN Mathur.

'Law into own hands'

Organisations representing minority groups in Assam, most of whose members are Muslims, held strikes to demand protection, claiming that most of those hounded out are "bonafide Indian nationals".

map

"We are against anyone from Bangladesh settling down in Assam, but why should these youth groups take law into their own hands?" asked Badruddin Ajmal, chairman of the United Democratic Front which represents minorities in Assam.

"They are nabbing poor Muslim labourers from various districts and taking them to the police, but most of these are Indian nationals who are being harassed and deprived of their livelihood."

But youth groups like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) say the government has done nothing so far to check the "illegal infiltration from Bangladesh" and young Assamese are now getting restive.

"Assam's demography has changed drastically over the decades and most of our border districts have a Bangladeshi majority now," the AASU's chief adviser, Samujjal Bhattacharya, argues. "Unless we stop the flow, the Assamese will become foreigners in their own land. We will be reduced to a minority all over Assam.

"Our boys have taken to the streets because the government does nothing, except chase votes," Mr Bhattacharya alleged.

Motorcycle attacks

Students organisations from tribal groups like the Karbi and the Dimasa have joined six Assamese student-youth groups to hound out the so-called illegal migrants.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is facing elections next year

From Dibrugarh and Tinsukia in the north to Kokrajhar in the west, supporters of the regional youth groups go round on motorcycles, looking for "Bangladeshis".

"They enter Muslim settlements and ask for documents. If we cannot produce them, we are beaten up and dragged to police stations, but if we do, the papers are torn to shreds," said Akhtar Ali, a rickshaw-puller evicted from the northern district of Sibsagar in August.

Tribes like the Bodos and Adivasis (descendants of central Indian tribes brought to Assam by the British to work in the tea gardens) have also joined the anti-migrant drive.

In places like Rowta, former Bodo and Adivasi guerrillas, once sworn enemies, have joined hands to kidnap and kill Muslims.

Some Muslim imams have been kidnapped by the motorcycle gangs.

"Loss of land to Muslim migrants has always been a major issue with the indigenous tribes in these districts and it could spark large-scale violence again," warns Assamese scholar Uddipana Goswami. "The government has to be very, very careful."

Hard-hitting judgement

In 1951, Muslims made up a quarter of Assam's population. Now the figure is close to one-third.

Justice BK Sarmah
Justice BK Sarmah said illegal Bangladeshis were all over Assam

Nine of Assam's 27 districts now have Muslim majorities and most of these are migrants of East Bengali origin.

This time, the spark for the Assamese vigilante action came from a hard-hitting judgement by Justice BK Sarmah of the Guwahati High Court in July.

Justice Sarmah ordered the deportation of more than 50 Bangladesh nationals who had "fraudulently acquired" Indian citizenship and had even become voters in Assam.

"It is no longer a secret that illegal Bangladeshis have intruded every nook and corner of Assam, including forest land. They have become kingmakers in Assam," the judge observed in his verdict, in which he criticised police and civil authorities for inaction.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is critical of the verdict because it has sparked an anti-migrant drive that could disturb the state's fragile law and order.

Mr Gogoi needs the support of both indigenous Assamese and migrants to win most of the state's 13 seats in next year's parliamentary elections.

"We will detect and deport all illegal Bangladeshis but nobody should take the law into their own hands. We will not tolerate that either," Mr Gogoi told the BBC.

But unless Mr Gogoi and his administration act decisively and speedily, some fear that Assam could again slide into chaos and conflict - as it did in the early 1980s, when more than 3,000 people died during an anti-migrant campaign that lasted some six years.




SEE ALSO
Ethnic showdown looms in Assam
06 Dec 07 |  South Asia

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